Following the May 13, 2021, and May 16, 2021, guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxing mask requirements for fully vaccinated individuals outside of healthcare and select other settings, most state and local government mask mandates have been lifted or will soon be allowed to expire. As a result, many employers across the U.S. are exploring their options regarding their masking policy.
Recap of the CDC’s guidance
The CDC’s guidance states that fully vaccinated individuals “can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
Essentially, this means that fully vaccinated individuals can leave their masks at home unless a state or local mask mandate or a business’ policy says otherwise. The CDC also suggests fully vaccinated individuals with compromised immune systems ask their healthcare provider about continuing to wear a mask and/or social distance.
As for unvaccinated individuals, the CDC recommends continuing precautions, including wearing a mask and social distancing.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FULLY VACCINATED?
According to the CDC, individuals are considered fully vaccinated:
- Two weeks after their second dose in a 2-dose vaccine series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines
- Two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine
Also at the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees workplace safety, directed employers to the new CDC guidance. However, employers should be aware that OSHA continues to consider an Emergency Temporary Standard which may include mask guidance and requirements.
Expiring local orders
State and local laws mandating masks continue to decrease in number and Wisconsin is following this trend. On March 31, 2021, the Wisconsin Supreme Court invalidated the statewide mask mandate. On June 1, 2021, the City of Milwaukee’s mask ordinance will expire, and the City of Madison’s and Dane County’s joint mask requirement ends June 2, 2021.
Three common approaches to changing workplace mask policies
Considering recent changes in state and local mask mandates as well as mounting pressure from employees to make policy adjustments, many non-healthcare employers are changing their mask policies. Although there has been a spectrum of approaches, the following are three common ones:
1. WAIVING MASK REQUIREMENTS FOR FULLY VACCINATED EMPLOYEES
Many employers are sticking closely to the recent CDC guidance by retaining a mask requirement for employees who are not fully vaccinated and allowing fully vaccinated employees to forgo masks. A key decision point for employers when choosing this approach is whether to require proof of vaccination. Many employers are relying on the honor system as there are important legal considerations before asking employees about their vaccination status.
2. RETAINING MASK REQUIREMENTS REGARDLESS OF VACCINATION STATUS
Some employers are retaining mask requirements for all employees. Reasons for this may include: an inability to socially distance in the workplace, uncertainty regarding the potential OSHA standard or a local order requiring that masks remain in place.
3. ELIMINATING THE MASK REQUIREMENT ALTOGETHER
Some employers are eliminating mask requirements for all employees. Reasons for this approach may include: a fully vaccinated workforce, an outdoor work environment or the ability to socially distance during the entire workday with limited crossover. It is important to note that this approach carries the most risk for employers because the CDC still recommends masking in public spaces in certain instances, like being unvaccinated, and OSHA continues to consider an Emergency Temporary Standard.
Communicate any changes and be clear that unmasking is optional
Any changes to an employer’s mask policy should be formally communicated to employees via the same methods used to convey general workplace guidance. Such policy changes should emphasize that unmasking, as allowed by the policy, is optional, thereby allowing individuals who wish to continue masking, for whatever reason, to do so.
Each approach comes with varying legal risks and benefits, depending upon the specific facts related to the workforce, industry and other variables. Employers considering changes to their mask policies should contact legal counsel to discuss these issues and update their COVID-19 safety plans to reflect any changes to their practices.