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There’s Never Been a More Confusing Time for Mask Mandates

When the rules change, there are bound to be hangups. But this could get ugly.

On February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to note that most people, 72 percent of the U.S. population, live in areas where those who are healthy do not need to wear masks indoors. That figure is based on the number of current hospitalizations, hospital capacity, and new Covid cases. The CDC has a list of counties on its website that are considered areas of high transmission. For all others, there is no recommendation for indoor masking unless you are at potential “increased risk” for Covid. 

Cities and states are also lifting their mask mandates. New York peeled back its mask mandate for most indoor settings last week, while California, this week, largely dropped its requirements. Oregon and Washington State will shift from mask requirements to mask recommendations in schools starting March 11. On Monday, Illinois will lift its mask mandate for restaurants, bars, gyms, and stores, and Chicago will end its proof-of-vaccination requirement. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York City are poised to ditch mask mandates in schools. Washington, D.C., is also expected to lift indoor mask requirements on March 12.

If you’re dizzy from the changes, you’re not alone. Consumers and workers are also puzzled by what’s happening. While you can expect some grace while policies shift, at some point, you’re going to have to try to make sense of it all. Here’s a plan for responding to consumers and workers grappling with how they should internalize the changing guidance:

You can still mandate masks, but it’s a risk

Even though your state may no longer require masks, you still can mandate them for employees and customers. And you may want to do so. If a large portion of your staff is unvaccinated, of if you have immunocompromised employees in the workplace, it may be a good idea to ask staff to wear more protective face coverings. Keep in mind that if your employee falls sick and can track it back to the workplace, they can sue the company for gross negligence, a charge that may come with hefty fines.

You should be prepared for pushback–from employees and customers who no longer want to wear masks. Customers may be turned away at the door if they see a mask requirement for entry, especially in places where masks aren’t common. In New York City, for example, most people have them on hand because they’re still necessary for public transit. However, that’s not the case for most of the country. If you do continue to require masks, make sure you have proper signage so employees and customers don’t feel the need to ask.

Note that OSHA is still issuing citations

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew its vaccination and testing emergency temporary standard at the end of January, it’s still issuing citations to businesses where employees continue to get sick. According to a representative of the agency, employers still remain responsible for protecting workers from health and safety issues on the job. Employers can always be cited under the OSHA Act General Duty Clause, which requires that, in addition to compliance with hazard-specific standards, all employers provide a work environment free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Citations for failing to follow the clause can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so be cautious.

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