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Virginia workplace safety regulators agree to let businesses follow CDC pandemic guidelines

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Mask sign

A sign outside the Richmond registrar’s office encourages people to wear masks and practice social distancing. 

RICHMOND — The state board that oversees workplace pandemic safety rules recently agreed to a slate of revisions, approving new language that will allow businesses to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in lieu of state regulations.

The change was recommended by Gov. Ralph Northam at the urging of the business community and opposed by many worker advocates.

“The science has outpaced Virginia’s permanent standard throughout the pandemic,” said Nicole Riley, director of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation for Independent Business. She said she was speaking on behalf of the Virginia Business Coalition, which represents 34 business associations throughout the state. “We do continue to believe that a static, one-size-fits-all recommendation doesn’t fit.”

Virginia was the first state in the country to institute workplace safety rules last summer. The rules give state inspectors the authority to investigate and discipline businesses that fail to take steps to protect their employees from COVID-19. The move came after national labor groups unsuccessfully pushed the Trump administration to adopt a federal standard.

Business groups in Virginia have opposed the measure from the beginning and they continued to urge its complete repeal Thursday. But failing that, they said the state should at least allow businesses to follow CDC guidance for their industries, which have been updated throughout the pandemic to reflect the changing situation.

They pointed to the fact that the current standard is silent on rules for vaccinated employees, in contrast to CDC guidance earlier this summer that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most places.

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The CDC walked those guidelines back in late July as the delta variant spread, urging the vaccinated to start wearing masks again indoors in areas where community spread is high.

Throughout, Virginia’s rules requiring employees to wear masks when not spaced six feet apart stayed the same.

While business groups saw that as evidence of the rule’s failings, worker groups framed it as an example of why the state’s stricter standard remained important, blaming the CDC’s initial relaxation of mask guidance for the delta variant’s surge.

“CDC standards have been shown to not be keeping people safe,” said Rachel McFarland, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which helped initiate the state standard with a petition for rules protecting farm workers.

The state’s rules have always allowed businesses to follow CDC guidelines instead of state guidelines, but only if they provided “equal or greater protection” than Virginia’s rules. The revisions strike that language.

Northam’s communications director, Grant Neely, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the administration’s proposal, but a lawyer with the Department of Labor and Industry, Jay Withrow, said that as things stand, many CDC guidelines go beyond the mandates in Virginia’s standard.

If a business opts to follow CDC guidance, it must treat all recommendations as mandates. “I’d say there’s a lot of provisions that are actually going to be more stringent,” he said.

The language now goes to Northam for final approval.

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