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California Gov. Newsom pledges consistent workplace mask rules

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that he's confident his workplace regulators will soon fall in line with California's plan to drop virtually all masking and social distancing requirements next week for people vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is set to consider revising its conflicting rules Thursday, two days after the state more broadly eases its pandemic restrictions.

“I expect and am determined to see a favorable outcome when they convene,” Newsom said of the worksite board he appoints. “We’ll get where we need to go, and I have all the confidence in the world we’ll get there next week.”

Newsom said he expects to take executive steps to have the worksite regulations take effect more quickly than the 10-day administrative law review that would normally push back the effective date for the new rules until at least June 28.

He left unclear whether he also intends to bridge the remaining potential gap of a few days between when the state lifts its orders on Tuesday and the board meets on Thursday. Unless he acts, the current more restrictive worksite rules will remain in effect during that window.

Those current rules require all workers — vaccinated or not — to remain masked and physically distanced on the job. The regulations apply in almost every workplace in the state, including workers in offices, factories and retail.

The confusing, conflicting rules have prompted business groups to push the governor to use his executive powers to override the board. Some have asked him to end the board's emergency pandemic rules entirely and allow California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, to rely on its underlying authority to require employers to provide safe workplaces.

Newsom responded that revised proposed regulations being released by Cal/OSHA Friday will conform California's workplace rules with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines being broadly adopted by the state starting Tuesday. The board will take up the proposal Thursday.

“I anticipate their action will be consistent with the CDC, but they have to make that decision. And I want to respect that process. If I didn’t, that would appropriately open us up to criticism, and I want to be fair to that deliberative process,” he said.

Newsom added that he will act if needed after the board's decision “to clarify any ambiguities.”

At a hastily scheduled special meeting earlier this week, the board rescinded conflicting rules that it passed just a week ago.

But the rapid-fire back-and-forth left businesses baffled by the shifting rules over who needs to wear masks and where as the nation's largest state fully reopens from the pandemic on Tuesday.

That left some business leaders clamoring for Newsom to step in and order just one set of mask rules for California's 40 million people.

“We asked the governor to issue an executive order to align the rules,” said Lucy Dunn, president and chief executive of the Orange County Business Council. “Otherwise it’s just terribly confusing.”

With vaccinations rising and coronavirus cases low, California will end most mask rules on June 15 for people who are vaccinated while continuing to require face coverings for unvaccinated people in indoor public settings and businesses. Everyone will need to remain masked in some places such as public transit and indoor school classes.

Under the system, business can rely on an honor system where customers are expected to use a mask if they aren't inoculated but aren't required to show proof.

“The posting of this guidance clearly requiring people, putting the requirement on the individual to self-attest to their vaccine status by wearing or not wearing a mask, will be the way — one approved way — to comply with this set of updates," Dr. Mark Ghaly, California's secretary of health and human services, said this week. Ghaly said businesses can also require vaccine verification or face coverings if they choose.

Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce, said the board's decision to rework the rules is welcome but more changes are needed. The chamber, for example, also opposes a proposal to require employers to provide the most effective N95 masks for voluntary use by unvaccinated employees who work indoors or at large outdoor events, saying it would be costly and compete with health care workers' needs.

"California needs consistency as it moves towards opening on June 15th," Moutrie said in a statement.

Derrick Seaver, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Organization, said businesses have struggled throughout the pandemic with a patchwork of approaches and lack of consistency in guidelines. But he believes the state is moving in the right direction by seeking to get in sync with CDC guidance on face coverings, and he said businesses are pleased they won't be on the hook to verify or enforce mask wearing.

“By allowing those individuals to self attest, we're allowing them to obviously to some extent take personal responsibility about that attestation,” Seaver said. “From a business standpoint, that gets them out of the thorny issues of reporting and privacy” related to vaccine administration.

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Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed to this story from Orange County.

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