Coronavirus in the Workplace

Looser COVID-19 Rules for Vaccinated Individuals? What This Means for Employers

By Fiona W. Ong - Shawe Rosenthal LLP

March 10, 2021

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new, more relaxed COVID-19 protocols for fully-vaccinated individuals. Notably, among the guidance, the CDC stated that such individuals should continue to “[f]ollow guidance from individual employers.” But should employers modify their existing guidance to account for these new protocols?
The CDC now says that fully vaccinated individuals (meaning at least two weeks after the second/only required shot for the vaccine in question)  may:

•    Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
•    Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing (note that the household should not have other members who are high-risk)
•    Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic

However, in addition to following specific employer guidance, the CDC says that fully vaccinated individuals should continue to:

•    Take precautions in public like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing
•    Wear masks, practice physical distancing, and adhere to other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease or who have an unvaccinated household member who is at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease
•    Wear masks, maintain physical distance, and practice other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households
•    Avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings
•    Get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
•    Follow CDC and health department travel requirements and recommendations

Now as to that employer guidance, it could be adjusted, based on the CDC’s relaxed rules, as follows:

•    Workspace generally: Realistically at this point, most workplaces will have a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, and it is therefore important to continue to maintain all COVID-19 protocols generally, including masking and distancing. However, if all employees in a particular enclosed workspace are vaccinated, and there are no outside visitors (such as clients, customers or vendors) coming into the workspace, it appears that those employees need not wear masks or stay at least six feet apart – unless there is a state or local masking mandate that still applies. Since jurisdictions are beginning to retreat from these, employers should check to see whether such mandates are in effect for the work location in question.
•    Small group meetings: If all participants in a meeting have been vaccinated, they need not wear masks or stay at least 6 feet apart during the meeting.
•    Lunchrooms: If fully vaccinated employees wish to eat together, they can be permitted to do so.
•    Business travel: Given that the CDC is still advising that all individuals – including those who have been fully vaccinated – refrain from travel, employers should try to minimize any required travel and be thoughtful in responding to employee concerns about required travel.
•    Exposure to COVID-19: The CDC states that if it’s been more than two weeks since the employee was fully vaccinated, they need not quarantine (for unvaccinated individuals, the quarantine period is at least 7 and up to 14 days). Note that, as we previously discussed in another blog post, the CDC initially stated that this only applied for three months following the vaccination; in this new guidance, the three-month limitation has disappeared. Exposed, vaccinated employees should still monitor for symptoms. And those in high-density or non-healthcare congregate settings (e.g. meat and poultry processing or manufacturing plants, correctional and detention facilities, or group homes) should still undergo appropriate testing through workplace screening programs.
•    Symptomatic Employees: Of course, if a vaccinated employee develops symptoms of COVID-19 following exposure, they should isolate in accordance with the CDC’s guidelines. Because, remember, the vaccine is not 100% – meaning some vaccinated employees will still get COVID-19. Employees with symptoms may be able to work remotely, or may need leave. If sick leave is available or mandated by state or local law – or FFCRA leave is available and allowed by the employer (through March 31) – they will be entitled to take such leave during the isolation period.
•    Reasonable accommodations: Vaccinations do not eliminate the need to provide reasonable accommodations, if the employee has a disability. Thus, for example, employers should not be quick to assume that an employee with a condition that put them at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 no longer needs to telework following vaccination. Reasonable accommodations should always be considered on a case by case basis, and a disabled employee may still need to telework following vaccination, if the medical provider supports that requirement.

Of course, as discussed in our last blog post, What to Do About Workplace Masking in the “Open” States, employers are still free to adopt stricter protocols than may be required under law or recommended by agencies – recognizing that there may be push back from some employees, managers, and visitors, and preparing for the same. And an employer can usually discipline employees for failing to comply with stricter protocols.

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