Protocol | Workplace

Masks are back in California. Will Big Tech require them at work?

Bay Area officials released a new recommendation to wear masks in public, indoor places — even for those who are vaccinated. But it's not a mandate, so it's now up to tech companies to decide whether to require their vaccinated employees to mask up at the office.

Masked and unmasked people cross a street

There's a new recommendation — though not a requirement — to wear masks indoors in the Bay Area. Tech companies now have to decide whether to keep letting vaccinated workers come in without a mask.

Photo: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty

An updated recommendation to wear masks indoors hit the Bay Area on Friday, posing new questions for tech companies around mask mandates at the office.

Most tech giants have been allowing vaccinated workers to go mask-free at the office for weeks and can legally continue to do so. Since the new recommendation came out Friday, both Google and Intel have told Protocol they had begun to encourage vaccinated employees to wear masks at the office. Still, neither they nor any other company said they would go so far as to require vaccinated workers to wear masks.

"I think the employers have fought too hard to get to a point where their vaccinated employees don't have to wear a mask," said Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a partner in the employment practices and litigation groups at the Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West. "I just don't see them reversing course there."

The recommendation came out Friday from officials in San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Sonoma counties as well as the city of Berkeley, citing a local increase in cases of COVID-19 and the extra-infectious Delta variant. It coincided with a new mask mandate that went into effect in Los Angeles County on Saturday night. By Monday, four other counties in and around the Bay Area — Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito and Napa — had also started recommending vaccinated people wear masks indoors.

But the Bay Area's new recommendation is not a mandate, and there's no sign at this point that it will have much impact on large tech companies' mask policies.

Amazon, Twitter, HPE say they haven't imposed new mask mandates

CEO Antonio Neri was not wearing a mask Monday as he mingled with other executives, employees and interns at Hewlett Packard Enterprise's San Jose campus, which was decked out in green, black and white balloons to celebrate the campus' reopening to half of its normal capacity of 1,200.

At least one large digital display inside reminded employees to wear masks if they were unvaccinated. At HPE, that's a small population: Of the 3,000 California-based workers who responded to an HPE survey about their vaccination status, only 6% said they hadn't received the vaccine.

Some of those who returned Monday sported face masks, and HPE spokesperson Adam Bauer said the company "feels comfortable staying the course for the time being" when it comes to its mask policy.

"Our offices are not a truly public space," Bauer said. "We control who comes in, who comes out."

In that sense, offices are different from the grocery stores, theaters and other public places that the new recommendation addresses.

In those settings, it's harder to know who's vaccinated and who isn't, so having everyone wear a mask protects those who aren't.

Masks also provide an "extra precautionary measure for all," the new Bay Area recommendation states. At the workplace, the new recommendation encourages even vaccinated employees to wear masks indoors "if their employer has not confirmed the vaccination status of those around them."

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health announced rules last month that require employers to survey workers about their vaccination status, though it doesn't require workers to show proof of their vaccination status. Under those rules, companies can still allow vaccinated employees to go to work without a mask.

Bauer noted that HPE's mask policy is consistent with the current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which still says vaccinated people don't need to wear masks indoors. That contradicts guidance from the World Health Organization, which still recommends vaccinated people wear masks.

Several other tech companies, including Amazon, Twitter and SAP, said they would continue to allow vaccinated employees to go without masks at the office.

Google and Intel encouraging masks, Facebook still 'evaluating,' Apple stays mum

Intel "highly recommends" that all vaccinated and unvaccinated employees wear masks inside, spokesperson Stephanie Matthew said, but it wasn't clear to Matthew whether the chipmaker will now require vaccinated employees to mask up.

A Google spokesperson said that as a result of the new Bay Area recommendation, the tech giant was now urging its employees to wear masks inside its facilities for the time being, regardless of whether they're vaccinated. The exceptions to this, Google said, are when employees are eating or drinking, though they should continue to keep 6 feet of distance while doing so, or when their work or a health condition would make it dangerous to wear one.

Apple declined to comment on its mask policies and Facebook left it ambiguous whether its mask policies would change. The social media giant noted that vaccines are effective at protecting against the Delta variant and other COVID-19 variants. The vast majority of people who catch COVID-19 are unvaccinated, the company pointed out.

(Out of the more than 159 million people in the U.S. who had been vaccinated by July 12, the CDC only received 5,189 reports of hospitalized patients with breakthrough COVID cases. Of those 5,189 vaccinated people who caught COVID, 28% had no symptoms or were hospitalized for a reason unrelated to COVID.)

Facebook plans to increase the capacity of its Bay Area offices to 50% in September and, like most of the industry, has been allowing vaccinated employees to go to work without masks. But spokesperson Chloe Meyere didn't commit as to whether Facebook would keep its current policy.

"We're evaluating the latest guidance to ensure our policies align, as it continues to quickly evolve, and will communicate directly with employees impacted," Meyere told Protocol in an email.

Employment lawyer doesn't expect much change

For her part, Ghassemi-Vanni said she expects a "deluge" of client calls about the recommendation.

But because she's seen a "very strong appetite" among clients to allow employees to go to work without a mask, Ghassemi-Vanni doubted that the new Bay Area recommendation would lead to a "sea change" in the industry.

Companies have a range of options when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, including whether or not to require employees to get vaccinated and whether to demand proof of vaccination — rather than taking employees at their word — before letting them go to the office without a mask.

"If you've taken a very conservative approach to employee exposure to COVID, meaning you've required that everyone be vaccinated and sought proof... you're going to already be in a much safer place," Ghassemi-Vanni said.

Update: This article has been updated to include a response from Google.

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