Santa Clara County, moving into yellow tier, overhauls COVID rules

Dr. Sara Cody, the lead public health official in Santa Clara County, announces an overhaul of the local COVID restrictions for businesses on May 18, 2021.

Santa Clara County health officials announced that COVID restrictions would loosen Wednesday as the county moves into the state’s yellow tier in the reopening plan.

The county is introducing a unique model that has not been seen in the Bay Area or possibly California. 

Under the county’s new rules for limiting the pandemic, businesses are no longer required to maximize the number of employees working from home, Dr. Sara Cody and other Santa Clara officials said. The social distancing requirements at businesses will also be lifted.

SEE ALSO: Bay Area guide to COVID-19 rules: What each county allows

Instead of those rules, employers have two weeks to determine the COVID vaccination status of each employee. Additional safety measures will be put in place around workers who are not vaccinated or refuse to reveal their vaccination status, county officials said. When a COVID case arises, public officials must be notified.

"For employees, if they wish to decline to provide their status that's a box they can check," said county counsel James Williams. "However if they do so, they will be treated for the purpose of workplace safety rules as unvaccinated."

"This is going to be very complicated for a lot of employers, particularly I think small businesses," said Santa Clara University law professor Donald Polden.

Polden said much still needs to be worked out in this uncharted territory between an employers' duty to create a safe workplace and those employees who can't or don't want to be vaccinated.

"With concerns that some people have about taking vaccines for whatever reason, this creates a potential source of tension between them and their employers," said Polden.

The changes are an indication that the COVID pandemic poses less of a threat, Cody said.

"For the first time in a long time, I feel optimistic," Cody said. 

The move into the yellow tier means that Santa Clara County has reached the least restrictive tier in the California system.

The county case rate is 1/3 what it was a month ago, and is marking its lowest-ever recorded positivity rate at 0.5%.

72% of Santa Clara County residents age 12 and older have received one COVID shot, while 56% of eligible residents in that age range are fully vaccinated.

The county will follow the state’s guidelines that require wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until June 15. Already, vaccinated people may roam outdoors without covering their face in the state.

The color-coded system, which spells out what businesses may be open and at what capacity in each county, will be lifted on June 15.