No social distancing, capacity limits with June 15 reopening
California will reopen on June 15 without any capacity limits or physical distancing requirements for businesses or events, the state's Health and Human Services secretary said May 21.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last month announced the expected June 15 reopening date, which state officials confirmed last week as COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations continue to drop and the number of people vaccinated continues to increase.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly on a call with reporters May 21 said COVID-19-related hospitalizations are down to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic, while vaccines are available with no wait throughout the state for everyone ages 12 and up.
As a result, California will end its tiered system of restrictions for counties as it lifts the capacity and distancing limits on June 15.
"Those requirements of the past are no longer needed for the foreseeable future," Ghaly said.
He said the state will be laying out recommendations and guidelines for vaccine verifications for businesses, but will not be creating any sort of vaccine passport system.
Dee Dee Myers, a senior adviser to Newsom, said confirming the June 15 reopening date is "a really important milestone as we move forward" and "will allow people to really plan in detail" for their businesses or events in the coming weeks and months.
"We're still in the middle of that transition, and not sure what the next normal is going to look like," Myers said.
Ghaly said a priority will be working with local school districts to make sure K-12 schools are fully reopening for the new school year, and said while vaccines were recently made available for people as young as 12 years old, vaccine eligibility for children ages 2-11 might not happen until the late summer or early fall.
As California reopens fully, public health officials anticipate that COVID-19 cases will rise, but Ghaly said he doesn't think it will have a significant impact on the state's hospital systems given current levels of vaccination, and there won't be any new metrics counties will need to reach to stay out of further capacity or social distancing restrictions.
Employers must record worker vaccination status in Santa Clara County
With Santa Clara County loosening COVID-19 health restrictions on May 18 under the yellow tier, businesses may be welcoming what seems to be another push toward normalcy as they no longer need to post social distancing protocols on storefronts and can expand indoor capacity.
But one requirement has left many business owners concerned about privacy, enforcement and compliance: By June 1, employers in the county will have to obtain a record of their workforce's COVID-19 vaccination status or face a $5,000 fine per day.
On Monday, The Silicon Valley Organization (formerly The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce) hosted a 30-minute Q&A session on Zoom with county Counsel James Williams to field questions about the new mandate. Nearly 300 participants, including college deans, members of various chambers of commerce, city officials and businesses small and large — from day care facilities to tech giants like Amazon — were among the digital audience, seeking clarification.
One point was emphasized early on by Williams: The mandate is not a requirement for anyone to go and get vaccinated.
"There's nothing in the order that says all personnel must get vaccinated," Williams said.
The order also is not a requirement that businesses need to disclose the information to the broader workforce within the company, the public or the public health department, he added. It only requires employers to keep track of the vaccination status of personnel. Complying with the order would include asking employees for their vaccination status. An employee who is fully vaccinated in this case means that they have reached the two-week mark since they received the second shot of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the single shot of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Employers need to record the responses, whether that may be "I'm fully vaccinated" or "I decline to answer." The county has offered a sample vaccination status form for businesses or they can use their own system.
It is not enough to send a mass email to all workers, Williams emphasized. Employers must get a response.
In addition, "personnel" covers all workers who regularly come to a work site in the county. This can include volunteers or unpaid interns. For contract workers, Williams said that the responsibility falls upon the vendor of the contractor to record the employee's vaccination status. However, employers will still have to check that the vendor has done so.
The order does not apply to tenants, visitors of a work site or customers.
If an employee declines to answer, then employers should assume that he or she did not get vaccinated, according to Williams. Employers have to follow up with those workers 14 days later, including those who were only partially vaccinated.
If businesses are not required to report the data to the county or to their own larger workforce, some participants at the Zoom session questioned the point of the order.
Williams said one of the main reasons is because the rules are different for those who are fully vaccinated and for those who are not. Knowing who is vaccinated will help employers to be able to apply those rules accordingly.
"For example, right now, if you're fully vaccinated, and you're in contact with a COVID-19 case, you do not need to quarantine. You can continue to come to work, you can continue to work, but that doesn't apply if you're not fully vaccinated," he said.
Mask requirements, which were recently updated following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will also be based on vaccination status.
In the draft of new regulations put in place by the state's workplace safety agency Cal/OSHA, if everybody in a room is vaccinated, then no one will have to wear a mask indoors and physical distancing rules and other requirements can be more relaxed, Williams said.
More broadly, Williams suggested that the new order is an effort to encourage more workers to get vaccinated.
"It's because vaccination is the name of the game right now," he said. "It is the best tool that we have available to us to prevent us (from) having a resurgence of cases like we've seen in other countries. It's the best tool for us being able to keep businesses open and avoiding another surge that's going to lead to shutdowns, which I know nobody on this call ... wants to have happen again."
Still, concern lingered among participants of Monday's Q&A session.
Some business owners were troubled that asking about one's vaccination status is a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In this case, Williams said HIPAA is not applicable since the law only concerns "health plans or health care providers with respect to their patients or clients."
Others were worried that asking the question every two weeks may make some employees feel they're being harassed and that having certain rules in place based on one's vaccination status is a form of discrimination.
"It's a very, very simple question that should take folks no more than 15, 20 seconds to be able to answer," Williams said in response. "Provided that you're just asking folks to answer that question and move on, that should be a complete non-issue."
Williams said the 14-day follow-up requirement is aimed at people who change their minds or have gone from partially to fully vaccinated.
Robert Lindo, the vice president of Casino M8trix in San Jose and board member of The Silicon Valley Organization, which moderated Monday's session, raised a concern that many business owners have maintained since a mountain of regulations was placed on them throughout the pandemic: How can employers make sure they're complying and not get fined?
While violating a health order is a misdemeanor, Williams also added that no one's been prosecuted for violating a COVID-19 health order.
"We're just looking for people to be acting in good faith," he said. "If we receive a complaint, you have to be able to, if asked, show that you demonstrated good faith in implementing things. ... Most of the provisions of the health orders have always been reliant on that."
Comprehensive COVID-19 coverage
View interactive charts tracking the spread of the coronavirus in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties online at paloaltoonline.atavist.com/tracking-the-coronavirus. Find a comprehensive collection of coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by The Almanac and its sister publications, Palo Alto Online, and the Mountain View Voice, at tinyurl.com/c19-Almanac.
CalMatters and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.