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California workers caught between CDC and state guidance on masks: 'Extremely draining'

California workers caught between CDC and state guidance on masks: 'Extremely draining'

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John Gomez, a Safeway worker in Napa, is anxious about what's to come when California lifts its pandemic restrictions on masks and social distancing this month.

He's already seeing more people come into his store unmasked since federal health officials said fully vaccinated Americans don't need to wear masks. That conflicts with California rules that still people to wear face coverings in public until at least June 15.

"A lot of us are kind of worried because (the fact that the) government is lifting and opening everything up doesn't mean it's gone," Gomez, 37, said. "What's going to happen next?"

Conflicting state and federal guidelines over the last month left some California workers and businesses struggling to figure out how to move forward. The state's workplace safety board is updating its regulations, in which workers may still have to wear masks if they are with those who are not fully vaccinated.

California is ready to pay big money if it means more people get their COVID vaccine. More than $116 million are up for grabs.Gov. Gavin Newsom announced ten people will be eligible to win $1.5 million each on June 15.That's the largest prize being offered in the country.And 30-people could win $50,000 starting next week. The next  2 million people who get vaccinated will get a $50 gift card."Children 12 and up will also be eligible for those prizes. We're doing that in order to encourage you, not only with that $50 gift card, but with this significant prize and incentive program. So it's multi-faceted, $116.5 million we're setting aside for these efforts," said Newsom.Gov. Newson says the state is not stopping there: More prizes will be up for grabs after June 15 which is the state's planned reopening date.

"Employees hear all those stuff from all those different organizations," said Jim Relles, who owns Relles Florist in midtown Sacramento. "It's challenging because they're coming in saying this and that, so I'm trying to keep everyone abreast of what's going on."

Meanwhile, workers are split over whether California's mask and social distancing mandate should be lifted.

Of about 150 essential workers who responded to an online survey from The Sacramento Bee's survey in the last week, 52% support the lifting of the mandate while 44% oppose the lifting of the mandate and 4% are undecided.

People who oppose lifting the mandate said they were aware that coronavirus is still circulating in the state. California reported 461 new cases and 23 deaths on Wednesday, for instance. They're also worried about their kids, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Those who support lifting the mandate said they take heart in rising vaccination rates. California at least partially vaccinated 70% of California adults and 57% of all residents. To them, a lifting of a mask mandate symbolizes a return to normalcy.

Confusion over mask requirements

For Safeway worker Gomez, the federal guidance means he and his co-workers have to assume their unmasked customers are fully vaccinated, despite California's rules. That doesn't sit well with him.

"Lifting the mask mandate means those who aren't vaccinated can walk into the store without being masked," Gomez said. "That's concerning because that's how things got started."

Blake Evans, an assistant grocery store manager in Santa Cruz, said his store has had "increasingly violent customers" coming in following the federal guidance.

"It is extremely draining," Evans said in his response. "We shouldn't have to come into work wondering if someone is going to yell at us or assault us."

The conflicting guidance on masks from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state's workplace safety agency, and the CDC has also left businesses scrambling.

Relles, the florist, relies on the directive from Sacramento County's public health division, which follows California's guidance and says people must remain masked indoors at least until June 15 regardless of their vaccination status.

Rebecca Kenyon, who owns CycleLife Studio in Land Park and Rocklin, said she and her workers are still wearing masks. She said she has been letting her customers come in even if they forgot their masks.

"The guidance has been muddled," Kenyon said. "CDC says that; Texas is doing this; Washington is doing that... It has just been really hard to follow."

She expects to drop the mask requirement and go back to full capacity on June 15, she said. "Hopefully, we'll never look back."

End of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Julia Butz, a 51-year-old teacher in Elk Grove, can't wait to stop wearing masks when she teaches in an elementary school.

Masks hinder her and her students' ability to understand each other, she said. "When Gov. Newsom speaks in front of the TV, he doesn't put on a mask."

Butz also pointed to early studies showing that vaccines can slow the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC said it's still studying the matter. "There is no reason people should wear masks unless those that are vaccinated don't believe in the science behind the vaccines."

Other workers who responded to The Bee's survey said they believe people have had the time and opportunity to get vaccinated. They also see the lifting of the requirement as a symbol for the end of the pandemic.

"Pandemics don't just end by numbers, but they end psychologically and socially," said James Polk, a gas station attendant in Escondido, in his response to the Bee's survey. "I don't think there is another way of going back to normal other than crossing back over the social distancing and mask-wearing line."

Some workers want to see herd immunity

But dozens of workers told The Bee that they want the mandate to be in place, at least until everyone is eligible for the vaccine or California fully vaccinates at least 80% of its residents, marking herd immunity.

Jan Bramlett, who works for a nonprofit homeless assistance agency in Arcata, said masks prevent her from understanding others because she is hard of hearing and reliant on reading people's lips. But she feels like she has no choice, saying she can't quite trust others to know whether they are fully vaccinated.

She's also worried that the lifting of the mandate means people will target store owners who impose mask requirements on their own. "It becomes a way to marginalize individual shop owners."

Santa Ana teacher Emmanuelle De La Cruz is worried that once the mandate ends, people will forget about the pandemic even if case numbers go up in the communities like his. His school had built a network of support to help those affected by the pandemic. That could go away, he said.

"If you're wearing a mask, you're doing it out of social benefit," he said. "You're doing this for a greater good, and that's one idea that resonates with me."

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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