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What the New CDC Mask Guidelines Mean for Employers

We'll break down the new CDC mask recommendations and what they mean for your business.

Two New CDC Recommendations

The CDC’s updated guidelines are long, but there are two key recommendations that are important for employers: 

  • Everyone - including fully vaccinated people - should wear masks indoors in public in areas with “high or substantial COVID transmission.” 
  • Fully vaccinated people who have a known exposure to someone with COVID should be tested 3-5 days after exposure, and should wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they get a negative test result. 

Why These Changes Now?

There are a few reasons the CDC made these changes, and they didn’t make them lightly.  First, Delta is much more transmissible than the virus we were dealing with last year. It can spread in a matter of seconds, and case counts are scarily high in the US, especially considering it’s summer, when viruses usually circulate a little less and people spend more time outdoors. 

Most importantly, there’s new evidence that fully vaccinated people who get sick with COVID (so-called breakthrough cases) have and transmit the virus at the same levels someone who is unvaccinated. This is new info for the CDC and was a big reason they decided to move back to fully vaccinated people wearing masks. 

Let’s be clear, though - vaccines DO work, and they work REALLY well. They significantly reduce your chances of getting COVID at all. If you do get it, you’ll be much less sick and you almost certainly won’t need to go to the hospital or die. 97% of people in the hospital for COVID are unvaccinated. This new info doesn’t change any of that, but it does mean that if you do get sick - even if your symptoms are mild - it looks like you can still spread COVID easily, just the same as those who aren’t vaccinated. 

Are You in an Area with “Substantial or High Transmission”?

The definition of “substantial or high transmission” is based on case rates at the county level. If there are more than 50 cases per 100,000 people, or if the percentage of total tests that are positive is 8% or higher, your county will be labelled as “substantial or high” transmission.  You’re not expected to keep track of all this yourself, luckily. They’ve released a map to help you determine if your county falls into either of these categories, which will change week by week with new data:  

Map of the US counties, color coded by transmission rates. 63% of the map is red or orange, meaning high or substantial transmission.

Should You Require Masks?

We expect there will be a scramble over the next few days and weeks as states and counties determine whether to implement mask mandates at their levels. As always with CDC guidelines, there’s a legal question around OSHA and whether your business needs to follow CDC’s recommendations in the absence of specific federal OSHA guidance around COVID precautions. Of course, we recommend that you discuss with your legal team when making your policy. 

We’ve seen a number of workplace outbreaks where fully vaccinated people tested positive in the past few weeks, and if everyone had been wearing masks, it would likely have prevented a significant number of those cases and, in some instances, kept those businesses open. 

Given these guidelines and the fact that about 63% of the U.S. falls into the “substantial and high” category, you’ll need to determine if it makes sense for you to do this on a county-by-county, week-by-week basis, or if a more universal mask policy is best for your business. 

Will Exposure Work Exclusions Change?

The new guidelines recommend that anyone who is fully vaccinated and exposed to someone COVID+ should be tested 3-5 days after their exposure, and wear a mask for 14 days or until they get a negative test result. This has big implications for implementing a case-by-case mask policy because vaccination status is no longer the only way to determine whether someone needs to be masked while working. Some companies are returning to mandatory masks for all employees, and those that choose not to will need to carefully track who is unvaccinated and who is vaccinated and exposed - not to mention their specific county’s transmission status. It’s a logistical headache, to say the least. 

What’s Next?

We’ll likely hear more from big cities and certain states over the next few days. L.A. already reinstated mask mandates for indoor public places before this guidance, and we expect others will follow suit. In some states there’s likely to be strong pushback, like in Florida where Governor DeSantis has suspended all local county mask mandates, citing “individual liberty.” For multistate operators, keeping track of all of this, including county by county transmission rates, is going to be a real challenge. 

We’ll continue to update you as we learn more. Stay safe out there!

Want more info? On the run? 

Listen to our Flash Briefing Podcast: Decoding the New CDC Mask Guidance for all the info you need in less than 15 mins.

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Disclaimer: This post is meant for general information and educational purposes only and does not constitute, and is not intended as, any form of medical, legal or regulatory advice or a recommendation or suggestion regarding the same.  No recipient of this information should act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without first seeking legal advice from counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.