In a surprise announcement on May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said U.S. residents who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a masks or practice social distancing. Combined with the CDC’s April 27 instructions that vaccinated individuals could forgo masks in outdoor settings, it appears the previous “new normal” may be moving towards the “old normal.”

While this is great news for U.S. residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine – a growing number now approaching 40% – the CDC’s announcement will create some business challenges for employers.

A person is not considered fully vaccinated just because they received both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. At least two weeks must pass since the final dose before a person is considered fully vaccinated. Individuals who have not completed this process should continue to wear masks and practice safe social distancing.

How do you know?
In order to safely lift workplace restrictions, employers will feel pressure to determine which employees are fully vaccinated. Many employees will readily volunteer the information and be able to show a medical card provided at vaccination sites. Employers should coordinate these efforts through Human Resources and safety personnel experienced in the collection of health information in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Now for the hard part! There are numerous bills being introduced in several state legislatures prohibiting employers from requiring proof of vaccination. Be aware that “vaccine passports” are prohibited or will soon be prohibited in several states.

The CDC cautions that its recent announcements do not override “federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” While COVID-19 safety protocols will certainly be eased, the new routines will take time. Businesses should continue to monitor regulations in states where they are located. California, for example, continues to require masks indoors in the workplace.

Workplace Safety
While authorized COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, most employees are far from being vaccinated. Employers will need to consider maintaining separate protocols for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated workers. Employers will need to develop a functional way to distinguish the two groups without stigmatizing individuals who are unable to obtain the vaccine for legal reasons. Employers should also welcome members of their workforce who choose to wear masks even after becoming fully vaccinated.

While signs of the “old normal” appear to be on the horizon, it will still be quite some time before the “new normal” recedes. In fact, masks in the workplace may be with us for several years to come.

The information and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.