Michigan employers don't have to require masks for vaccinated workers under new policies

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration announced updates Monday to emergency rules guiding Michigan's workplaces as the state continues its rollback of measures meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration's changes, employers may allow fully vaccinated workers to go without face coverings and social distancing as long as they have policies to ensure non-vaccinated people continue to follow requirements.

Individual employers have some freedom regarding implementation of the state's new rules, but must comply with them. At a Monday press conference in Grand Rapids at Steelcase Inc., Whitmer described the new standards as "slimmed down" compared with the previous restrictions as she was joined by another administration official and business community leaders.

Steelcase CEO Jim Keane looks Monday on as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces "slimmed down" workplace rules from her administration to fight COVID-19 on May 24, 2021 at Steelcase in Grand Rapids.

The governor credited the less strict rules to those individuals who protected themselves against the virus. 

The new emergency rules, which took effect Monday, also soften cleaning requirements and do away with industry-specific measures. The Democratic governor said it means restaurants can reopen common areas, such as pool tables and dance floors.

Whitmer said the state had delayed some new rules so it could align its requirements with new federal workplace guidelines, expected to be issued in the coming weeks.

"Of course, that process is taking longer," Whitmer said at one of two public appearances she made Monday in Grand Rapids. "We didn’t want to wait for the feds to promulgate their new OSHA rules.”

The development came as Michigan on Monday rescinded the May 15 order by the state Department of Health and Human Services that says no more than six people can be seated together and groups of patrons must be six feet apart. Whitmer said the decision to eliminate the requirement "was made well before the weekend," when a photo surfaced of her eating and drinking with up to 12 other people at pushed together tables at an East Lansing restaurant.

The revisions come as the number of vaccinated residents in Michigan continues to rise and the rate of COVID-19 infections declines. Last week, the state reported 8,578 new cases, the lowest total in 11 weeks.

Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, described Monday as a "big day for business" in Michigan.

"It feels like we’re moving out of this pandemic and returning to a sense of normalcy," Johnston said.

A provision that generally prevented office workers from working in person expired Monday thanks to the state's hitting a 55% vaccination benchmark two weeks ago under Whitmer's since-discarded "Vacc to Normal" plan that based loosened restrictions on vaccination rates.

More than 57% of Michigan's adults 16 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine through last Thursday, according to the state health department's website.

What new order says

Whitmer was joined at the Monday press conference at Steelcase by Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Susan Corbin and Steelcase CEO Jim Keane. Corbin described the revised emergency rules for workplaces as clear, consistent and based on federal recommendations. They are minimum standards, she added.

"Some employers may want to keep mask rules in place a little bit longer to protect their employees or their customers. And that’s OK," Corbin said.

She also encouraged employers to understand what's happening in their own communities. Not every region of the state is as far as long with vaccinations as the administration would like, Corbin said.

The new emergency rules, which Whitmer signed Sunday, tell employers to maintain written COVID-19 preparedness and response plans. They also must require employees, except fully vaccinated individuals, to wear face coverings when they cannot consistently maintain 6 feet of social distance from others indoors.

To comply with the policies, employers can keep records of vaccination, post signs reminding workers who are not vaccinated to wear face coverings, allow remote work or require face coverings and social distancing for all workers regardless of vaccination status, according to the MIOSHA order. 

The rules define "fully vaccinated" as a person for whom at least two weeks have passed since receiving their final COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Whitmer already has lifted indoor mask mandates for vaccinated people. She plans to lift outdoor gathering restrictions on June 1 and, on July 1, will lift the state's broad gathering and mask mandates for all residents. 

On Monday, Michigan reported adding 1,378 coronavirus cases and 14 deaths. The state's total is now 884,580 cases and 18,953 deaths since the virus was first detected in March 2020. 

Cases and positive tests have all declined for the last five weeks, state data show.

Navigating new rules

Some business groups in the past few months had been pushing Whitmer to lift more restrictions on businesses, specifically a broad restriction on in-office work when feasible. They also protested MIOSHA's COVID-related fines and violations, calling some unconstitutional and others unfounded.

Opposition grew when the agency began the process of trying to impose  permanent COVID-19 rules that would take effect in October in the event that the pandemic was still occurring in the state. 

Whitmer came to an agreement with the Republican-led Legislature last week that requires the withdrawal of the proposed permanent rules. 

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley said the series of changes marked a "good day" for Michigan businesses. He credited Michigan chambers' opposition to some of MIOSHA's actions as a reason for Monday's  lifting of restrictions. 

"Today’s actions by MIOSHA were a step in the right direction, but we're going to continue to monitor not only what the rules say but how they are interpreted and enforced by the department," Studley said. 

Employers should ensure they're up to date on the newest rules as well, a process that might be easier than before, said Patrice Arend, a Southfield-based lawyer who has practiced employment and labor law for more than two decades. 

For months, businesses have tried to navigate COVID-related rules issued by MIOSHA, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new Michigan workplace rules, in some sections, defer to CDC guidance, making them easier to understand for businesses and providing more flexibility to the state, Arend said. 

But some rules will remain specific to MIOSHA, such as requirements for a preparedness and response plan, training and record keeping, she said.  

"I think employees should understand those rules and I think they should ask questions," Arend said of businesses' preparedness plans. The more employees understand and are comfortable with the plan, the greater the buy-in, she said.

"The employer’s biggest challenge is once they draft and implement the preparedness and response plan that’s compliant with existing rules, that they enforce it," Arend said.

The guidance allowing workers to remove their masks if vaccinated has been questioned by some labor leaders, including the national AFL-CIO, which tweeted Monday that the CDC's masking guidance "puts employees at risk."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a bipartisan bill package Monday that helps Michigan distillers expand their businesses at an event at Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids. It was one of two public appearances she made on May 24, 2021.

The comment was in reference to a Time column by a former OSHA leader and a professor at the George Washington School of Public Health that criticized the CDC order removing mask mandates for vaccinated people in the workplace. Without federal OSHA guidance, workplace experts' opinions and union input to round out the CDC guidance, workplaces are left with confusion and unsafe working conditions, the commentary's authors argued.  

Josh Pugh, a spokesman for the Michigan AFL-CIO, declined comment on the new state guidelines.