Last week, the CDC updated its guidance regarding masks for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the latest CDC recommendations, persons who are fully vaccinated can resume their indoor and outdoor activities without the need to wear a mask or engage in social distancing, unless there is a federal, state or local law that requires those measures. This includes being able to engage in domestic travel without the need to test for COVID-19 before or after travel or the need to quarantine after returning.

In addition, the CDC guidance states vaccinated individuals:

  • Do not need to test for COVID-19 before international travel, unless it is required by the destination country;
  • Do not need to self-quarantine after returning to the U.S. from international travel;
  • Do not need to test after a known exposure to COVID-19 if the vaccinated individual is asymptomatic;
  • Do not need to quarantine following a known exposure to COVID-19 if the vaccinated individual is asymptomatic; and
  • Do not need to participate in routine screening testing.

Fully vaccinated individuals who experience COVID-19 symptoms should continue to isolate from other persons and be tested for COVID-19. Vaccinated persons who have exposure to COVID-19 should, however, monitor for any symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days following exposure. Finally, fully vaccinated residents and employees of correctional and detention facilities and homeless shelters are still recommended to test for COVID-19 after exposure.

This revised CDC guidance is an important development. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), not the CDC, is the agency with direct authority over workplace safety. On May 17, 2021, OSHA issued a statement on its website directing  employers to follow CDC guidance until OSHA can publish its own updated materials. This recent announcement helps to clarify what was initial confusion regarding whether employers were obligated to continue to follow OSHA’s January 2021 guidance, which required physical distancing and face coverings as “key measures” for a safe workplace.

Where does this leave employers? Until OSHA issues updated and perhaps more detailed guidance, employers can choose to follow the CDC’s recommendations so long as they are not contrary to any federal, state or local law. Remember, employers can ask employees about the vaccination status and can require employees to provide evidence they are vaccinated. Employers are also able to mandate employees are vaccinated, so long as employers provide accommodation for anyone unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to a disability or a sincerely-held religious belief. As we previously reported, keep in mind that a number of states, including Ohio, are considering legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring employees be vaccinated.

Potential employee relations challenges might exist for employers choosing to allow fully vaccinated employees to go without a mask. Unvaccinated employees may feel they are being treated unfairly, which could cause discord in the workplace. In addition, it may be difficult to enforce a mask policy or social distancing policy based on vaccination status. Some employees may have an incentive to lie about their vaccine status in order to get around the requirement to social distance or wear a mask. Ultimately, employers will need to consider their workplace and work culture, and make a decision regarding masks and social distancing based on their needs and goals.