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By Rachel H. Khedouri, Esq., Stacy L. Fode, Esq., and Carol Shieh, Esq.

Update: On January 5, 2022, the California Department of Public Health issued an updated guidance extending the universal indoor masking requirement through February 15, 2022.

In response to increasing COVID-19 numbers since Thanksgiving and concern that the Omicron variant and year-end holiday gatherings could lead to another wave of infections, the California Public Health Department (the “Department”) has announced the return of a statewide universal mask mandate in its “Guidance for the Use of Face Coverings” (the “Guidance”) published on December 13, 2021. [CLICK HERE for the full text of the Guidance].

Here’s what California employers need to know:

  • The Guidance is effective as of Wednesday, December 15, 2021, and will last through February 15, 2022, at which time the Department expects to “make further recommendations as needed.”
  • The Guidance requires masks to be worn in all indoor public settings.
  • Although the state lifted its prior mask rules as applied to vaccinated individuals six months ago, the current requirement applies without regard to vaccination status.
  • Of particular interest to employers, the Guidance does not apply to persons for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to the person related to their work (as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines). Other exemptions to the mask requirement include: (i) individuals under two years old; (ii) people with medical or mental health conditions that prevent wearing a mask, including those for whom wearing a mask could obstruct breathing; and (iii) people who are hearing impaired or communicating with someone hearing impaired where the ability to see the mouth is needed to communicate. The Department’s updated FAQs [available HERE] provide for additional exceptions, including where individuals are actively eating or drinking or where they are working alone in a closed office or room.
  • In addition to the mask mandate, on December 13, 2021, the Department also issued a Travel Advisory recommending that all travelers who visit or return to California get tested within three to five days of arrival in the state.

For some parts of the state, the Guidance should not represent a significant change. For example, Los Angeles, Ventura, and Sacramento counties have had indoor mask requirements in place for several months. Other areas have not had an indoor mask order since the last statewide mask order ended June 15, 2021. The Department has said that its intent in returning to a mask mandate statewide now is to ward off the need for further restrictions like those put in place this time last year, such as a curfew, stay-at-home orders, and business capacity limits.

On a related note, Cal/OSHA has proposed amendments to its Emergency Temporary Standards, which will be reviewed for adoption later this week (by December 16, 2021). We will keep California employers posted on these updates.  

*These new requirements are mandatory, despite being labeled “Guidance”.

If you have any questions relating to the new Guidance or Travel Advisory or would like assistance reviewing your indoor mask and other policies in light of the new statewide requirements, please feel free to reach out to Stacy Fode or Carol Shieh at 619.292.0515. NFC’s COVID-19 Response Team continues to monitor the constantly shifting guidance in this area and will alert our clients to new developments.


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