California Localities Take Different Approaches as State Reopens

By June Bell June 24, 2020
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Business Owner with Open Sign Wearing Mask

California's leaders and health officials are starting to ease coronavirus-related safety mandates, but the rules aren't relaxing at the same pace for everyone. Some cities and counties are reopening businesses and social activities more quickly than others, depending on how effective their social distancing measures have been at halting the virus's spread.

HR professionals tasked with monitoring these developments have their hands full. That's especially true if their employer operates in multiple counties and cities. Tracking various guidelines and ensuring compliance is a challenge even in the best of times. Now, with employees' health and safety at stake, it's even more important.

To stay current, bookmark the California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health's (Cal/OSHA's) coronavirus webpage, which has links to general guidelines for protecting workers, county specifics, as well as specific industry guidelines, such as daily checklists for grocery workers. The state's covid19.ca.gov website has a dashboard of coronavirus deaths and cases for the state and each county as well as county-by-county charts showing new cases, total deaths and new deaths.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

The site includes California's four-stage "Resilience Roadmap" reopening plan for easing the statewide stay-at-home order imposed March 19 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The state moved into Stage 2 on May 8, allowing so-called lower-risk workplaces to reopen and some additional recreational activities to resume. Counties have the option to proceed at a faster pace, provided they meet certain guidelines. But on June 18—as reported COVID-19 cases rose around the state—Newsom ordered all Californians to wear masks in public, and the California Department of Health updated its guidance for face coverings.

In addition, some major metro areas have specific rules:

  • Los Angeles County's COVID-19 website has published its guidelines for offices, retail, hotels and short-term rentals, and more.
  • San Francisco's guidelines for offices, businesses, manufacturing, construction and more are available here. Businesses must complete and post this social- distancing protocol form.
  • San Diego County maintains a list of the types of businesses permitted to reopen. It includes detailed guidelines for various industries, such as retail.
  • Sacramento County has moved further along the state's reopening plan than other areas. News, updates, a dashboard and advisories are available on the county's website.

Feeling overwhelmed? "It is a lot for one HR professional to keep track of with all these cities," said Ellen Cohen, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles. She recommends that businesses operating in multiple locations designate an employee with HR training or administration expertise in each jurisdiction to track updates and ensure compliance and employee education.

Daily Checks

Bryan Hawkins, an attorney with Stoel Rives in Sacramento, suggested that HR professionals bookmark state and county websites for locations where their employer has offices or stores and check daily for updates. Businesses can be fined for violations, but government agencies are emphasizing cooperation rather than penalties. "They all understand these are fast-moving ordinances and you're trying to stay in compliance," Hawkins said. "You'll probably get a warning, not a fine." Nonetheless, compliance is critical, he said, because if workers become infected and the business had failed to take precautions, it faces potential liability and negative publicity.

Sandy Rappaport, an attorney with Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco, offered another option: "The simplest answer a lawyer can give is to go with the most restrictive rules and apply them everywhere." HR professionals who advise that approach may, however, face pushback if their employers are eager to resume operations as quickly as possible in areas where restrictions have been eased.

Workplace Education

Businesses that cannot function without onsite workers—manufacturing and foodservice operations, for example—should educate their employees about the state guidelines for workplace safety and the steps their business has taken to protect them, such as mandating face coverings.

Employers can insist that workers and visitors to their premises wear masks and can bar anyone who refuses. "You have the right to exclude them if they do not comply with your standards," Hawkins said, provided businesses accommodate those who claim they cannot wear masks due to a disability. "The goal is to alleviate anxiety among employees and patrons."

Although restrictions governing businesses, recreation and gatherings have been relaxed in many California counties, Newsom and county officials may abruptly reverse course and impose tighter restrictions should state or regional coronavirus cases begin to climb. HR professionals should be prepared for that prospect. "Orders will change, and there is a possibility they can loosen up, but there may be additional shutdowns, too," Cohen said. "There's a lot of uncertainty, and nothing is guaranteed."

June D. Bell, who is based in the Bay Area, covers California labor and employment law for SHRM.

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