As the state fully reopens, shedding most of its COVID-19 regulations, businesses in the Santa Clarita Valley are left to navigate their own return to “normal.”
“The unfortunate circumstance is we have different agencies giving different directions to different businesses and, right now, we lack consistency in the application of what should have been a smooth transition,” said attorney Brian Koegle of Poole Shaffery & Koegle LLP.
Of those agencies is Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace-safety agency, who released reopening guidelines from a health and safety standpoint about a month ago, before withdrawing those guidelines due to push back from the state in regards to its masking guidelines.
Cal/OSHA’s original guidelines would have continued to require masks for workers if any non-vaccinated people are present, but the agency has since aligned with the state, allowing fully vaccinated workers to unmask.
While these workers will be required to show proof of vaccination to not wear masks, per Cal/OSHA’s regulations, some businesses are choosing to go as far as to mandate workers to get vaccinated, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and California Department of Fair Employment Housing have indicated that employers may mandate vaccinations if they view it as a public health benefit.
“The obvious concern with this is privacy,” Koegle added. “Whether or not you’re vaccinated is a health condition. It is something that is protected under HIPAA and other privacy laws.”
Which is why when it comes to customers, businesses can ask if patrons have been vaccinated, but cannot ask for verification, according to L.A. County Department of Public Health regulations.
There are also exceptions to these masking rules when there are public health outbreaks, according to Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“When there are three or more COVID cases amongst employees, employers will need to re-evaluate the need for physical distancing and/or partitions … to disrupt transmission at the worksite,” Ferrer said, adding that employers are still required to report any workplace cluster of three or more COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period immediately to Public Health.
Navigating the gray area
Regardless of sector, businesses in every industry have been left in a sort of gray area, unsure of how to proceed as they work to protect both their employees and patrons with no clear answers on how to implement these changes.
“Businesses are assuming a liability by even allowing people into their place of business,” Koegle said. “Unfortunately, without better guidance from the legislature, the governor’s office or Cal/OSHA, this is a burden that business owners are being forced to assume.”
While some businesses have lifted all of their COVID-19 regulations, others are choosing to continue their mandates.
“It is an employer’s right, that if they want to insist on masks, they can insist on that,” Koegle added. “The problem with that of course would be the power of the dollar. Are they willing to lose a customer or a client because they don’t want to patronize a business where they still have to wear masks?”
What makes the decision for employers even harder is the workers compensation law revisions that Gov. Gavin Newsom implemented last June, which added a presumption that if an employee becomes ill with COVID 19 and they were required to work on premises, that the illness is “presumptively compensable under workers compensation,” per the law, which was codified in Senate Bill 1159 to remain in place until January 2023.
Outside of masking, most of the regulations or state-required obligations were lifted, including distancing, temperature checks and capacity limits.
However, Koegle said that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s still not a best practice for employers to take steps to protect their clients, customers and employees.
“Those best practices will vary by industry, and they absolutely may include temperature checks, negative test results, quarantine or isolation for those individuals who exhibit illness symptoms, and cleaning protocols,” Koegle added.
Each industry not only has different risks of exposure and liability, but each of them is reading and understanding what the obligations in the law are, and they’re choosing to take different risks, according to Koegle.
That’s why Koegle suggests that businesses speaking with competent attorneys, knowledgeable in the latest updates and changes to the law, has never been more important.
Returning to ‘normal’ economy wise
Despite California having one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the nation, a Top Agency pandemic recovery index survey found that the state’s economy is lagging behind in COVID-19 recovery.
While ranked first in COVID-19 safety, the state ranked No. 35 overall, No. 37 on consumer confidence and No. 47 on job market strength, per the survey.
Data also showed that visits to restaurants are still 8.14% below pre-pandemic figures, the second worst in the nation, while foot traffic to California’s retail industry is 7% above its pre-pandemic figures.
SCV big businesses’ response
Santa Clarita-based Princess Cruises announced plans in April to return to service in the U.S. later this year.
With that announcement came one of an internal restructuring of the company and the hiring of more than 200 new positions.
Since then, Princess employees have still remained at home, working remotely, according to Briana Latter, a public relations representative.
“Our offices will begin to reopen starting Tuesday, July 6,” Latter said. “This is a limited-capacity phase of our return to our buildings, and the main objective is to allow team members an opportunity to hold team or project collaboration meetings in available conference rooms on designated floors.”
The limited return to the office is due, in part, to allow Princess to ensure the policies and procedures it has instituted are working properly, according to Becki Robb, senior director of office strategy and administrative operations.
“Given the focus on safety, during phase 1 we are prioritizing team members who are fully vaccinated and have a business critical need to be in the office,” Latter added. “Working in the office will remain voluntary at least through the summer.”
Over at Six Flags, operating guidelines for both Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor were revised and took effect to coincide with the state’s full reopening on June 15.
“Our No. 1 priority is always safety, so following the most recent guidelines from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), state and county is our priority,” said Jerry Certonio, manager of marketing and public relations for Six Flags.
The changes made at the parks include no longer requiring masks for fully vaccinated guests, though it is still “highly recommended that all unvaccinated guests continue to wear masks, especially while indoors,” as well as allowing out-of-state visitors, no longer requiring reservations, and lifting capacity restrictions for both the park and the rides, according to Certonio.
Since then, fully vaccinated workers were also given the green light to remove their masks after Cal/OSHA’s ruling went into effect, with Six Flags requiring verification of that vaccination, per the guidance.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion out there and people wondering, ‘Where do I wear my mask,’” Certonio added. “I think people who want to wear masks are wearing their masks and the people who don’t want to wear masks aren’t. We’re just happy that were heading to ‘normal,’ pre-pandemic days.”