Mask Rules, Sick Pay: It’s A New Day for COVID in California

The state’s newest policies relax mask mandates and approve paid sick leave for those affected by COVID

As the COVID Omicron wave has begun to fall, California announced Monday that its mask mandate for indoor public places will be lifted and new sick pay for workers who contract COVID.

The statewide mask policy will apply to counties without local mask orders, such as San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino, as well as the San Joaquin Valley. Los Angeles County and a large segment of the San Francisco Bay Area will retain their local mask mandates.

The lifting of the mandate will only apply in select situations, as those who are unvaccinated, reside in or visit nursing homes or are on public transit, must still wear face coverings. This decision relaxes an order that lasted two months and hopes to display strides that the California government has made in reducing the impact of Omicron.

The statewide existing mask mandate will remain in effect until Feb. 15, as previously scheduled. This decision coincides with the state’s plan to gradually increase the thresholds of indoor and outdoor events from 500 attendees to 5,000 attendees.

Qualified “mega events” with more than 1,000 attendees will still be subject to additional requirements involving COVID testing and vaccination verification. Outdoor events with more than 10,000 people will no longer be required vaccination but recommend masks or a negative test.

California lawmakers added that the state’s six million school children will still be required to wear masks inside classrooms and other educational buildings for the time being.

“Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving,” said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, the state’s public health officer. “With things moving in the right direction, we are making responsible modifications to COVID-19 prevention measures, while also continuing to develop a longer-term action plan for the state.”

State officials have consistently advised that the COVID response must evolve as conditions change.

“We believe now is the right time to loosen a requirement that made a lot of sense last summer, when a different variant of COVID-19 was dominant and there was less community immunity,” Dr. Ori Tzvieli, Contra Costa County’s acting health officer, said in a statement.

Tzvieli continued by saying that the state is “by no means back to normal” and despite the reported decrease in infections, “There are still many more cases of COVID-19 in our community now than there were in mid-December, so we need to continue to take precautions when we go out.”

The state also passed legislation that workers infected with COVID will receive up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave, an action they believe will slow the spread of infection.

Continual lobbying from labor unions urged legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom to renew the state’s policy regarding sick leave that expired in September. The new policy reflects many of the same provisions of the 2021 law but adds new rules to prevent abuse of the new system in place.

The law was passed in addition to numerous other bills that provided California companies with relief from tax limits placed upon them at the beginning of the pandemic and gave Newsom an additional state budget of $1.9 billion to address vaccinations, testing, hospitalizations, and other COVID-19 emergencies.

“As the Omicron surge intensified, workers screamed from the rooftops about the desperate need to reinstate COVID paid sick leave,” California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski said in a statement. “The governor and Legislature heard frontline workers loud and clear, and we appreciate them acting with urgency to get this done. Once again, California shows it’s a national leader on worker protections and COVID mitigation.”

The policy allows workers at businesses with 26 or more employees to receive supplementary benefits for two weeks in the case of infection, caring for a sick family member, attending an appointment for vaccination, recovering from immunization, or taking care of a child who cannot attend their educational institution due to possible exposure.

Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) voted against paid sick leave, citing that it would harm small businesses. Fong also questioned why California would not address a new tax credit or exemption for employers, in light of the Federal tax credits that expired with the last sick leave.

“This policy that is being rushed through the Legislature needs a tremendous amount more debate and discussion,” Fong said. “This proposal is going to layer additional costs and burdens on top of an already difficult business environment.”

With Newsom’s pending signature expected this week, the sick leave policy will be retroactive to Jan. 1 and expire on Sept. 30.

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