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Business Protection is Critical for COVID Relief

By Erinn Broadus

COVID has shocked the global economy and forced thousands of business owners to close their doors. A pivotal element of any bill aimed to provide relief must include the needs of businesses as well as the individual. The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act was presented earlier this week by Republicans and includes a safety net for businesses against lawsuits resulting from COVID. The Safe to Work Act protects businesses from being sued if an employee or customer gets COVID at their place of business unless they were grossly negligent or willful in their misconduct. In addition to protecting businesses from frivolous lawsuits, it also applies to schools, charities, colleges, churches, associations, and government agencies.

A recent Harvard study found that more than 100,000 small businesses have closed because they were unable to make ends meet during these difficult months. This year has created more than enough hurdles for small business owners, and an attempt to stop an influx of frivolous lawsuits should be a welcome addition to any relief package.

Opponents to liability insurance claim that this provision makes it nearly impossible for those who contracted COVID by way of employer negligence to seek restitution. They also claim that it creates a culture wherein businesses do not feel pressure to acquiesce to safety precautions for guests and employees. There is no evidence that providing a safety net for businesses would lead to fewer precautions. Every state in the nation is bound to specific safety regulations as outlined by leadership in their state. These requirements will not dissipate under the passing of a federal relief package, regardless of what it entails.

There are multiple ways in which citizens can voice their concerns if they feel unsafe in the workplace. In addition to filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), several states including Kentucky have set up hotlines that residents can call if they see a business not following COVID guidelines. It is also intuitively advantageous for businesses to remain vigilant in their sanitation efforts if they want customers to feel safe enough to enter.

The safety net outlined in the Safe to Work Act extends beyond businesses to include charities, schools, and government agencies. Doing so ensures that when COVID finally subsides, individuals can seek comfort and relief from the same institutions that they did before. There have been more than 5 million cases of COVID and nearly 162,000 deaths so far in the US. This presents an overwhelming cohort of people who could potentially sue for COVID related damages or deaths. Business leaders fear that a wave of lawsuits is going to further cripple the economy as newly unemployed patrons search for a way to make ends meet. To date, nearly 4,000 COVID-related lawsuits have been filed and experts fear that many more are on the horizon unless Congress acts. Recent research on the economic impact of these potential lawsuits found that the total cost to the economy would be $250 billion over two years. This figure was calculated assuming 100,000 lawsuits with an average cost of $2.5 million. The researchers concluded that COVID-related lawsuits could cost the economy one million jobs and a $25 to $50 billion reduction in wages by the end of 2021.

Providing a safety net for businesses against frivolous lawsuits is not an example of prioritizing the economy over individual health, as opponents argue. Much like safety guidelines and sanitation help to keep individuals healthy, the Safe to Work Act helps to keep businesses and organizations safe from bankruptcy. The bill ensures that when the cloud of Coronavirus fades, the economic stability of our communities and livelihoods does not go with it.

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