Protect Essential Businesses That Have Supported Our Communities

Essential businesses across the country have remained open since the pandemic began, providing the necessary services that have helped American families survive. Most companies have done their best to put in place safety precautions that protect the health and wellness of their employees and those that use their services, while abiding by federal, state, and local orders. Unfortunately, many essential businesses may soon face another challenge — litigation. 

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a personal injury attorney advertising: “If you or a family member has become seriously ill or someone has died from coronavirus due to someone else’s negligence or fault, you should seek legal advice to see if you have a coronavirus malpractice lawsuit.” 

And we can expect to see more of this in the coming months. 

Most companies understand the risk of potentially frivolous lawsuits as a part of doing business, but the coronavirus has created an unprecedented situation where essential businesses were encouraged to continue operating during this crisis. By being designated as a part of the critical infrastructure workforce by the Department of Homeland Security, these businesses were told they “have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule,” but are now exposed to a greater risk of being sued for fulfilling that responsibility.  

Places such as grocery and convenience stores were there for Americans during this crisis, supplying food and other essential items including fuel, while increasing their efforts to clean and sanitize their stores regularly. Stores have also implemented social distancing measures, some marking the floors with X’s indicating the safe distances to stand in line, and others limiting store capacity.  

In addition to the cost of implementing these new measures, a flood of lawsuits would devastate small businesses, and given that most across the country are already suffering a significant decrease in sales, this could mean an increase in closures and job losses at a time when the real U.S. unemployment rate is estimated at over 20%.  

While those wronged or put at risk by a company deserve the recourse to seek compensation, there should be a high bar set for those looking to sue because of risks associated with the coronavirus. It is nearly impossible to prove where someone contracted the virus, and to place the blame of a pandemic unduly on businesses, particularly those on the front lines helping us survive this crisis, is unacceptable.  

This is a crucial distinction. Any company acting negligently deserves to be held accountable. But businesses, especially those that are designated as essential, have provided critical services during this unprecedented time, and have made every effort to protect the safety of their employees and customers, should not be punished with frivolous lawsuits for staying open — especially when the government strongly encouraged them to do so.  

Congress needs to act now to protect essential businesses that have risen to the occasion to fulfill their responsibilities to our communities by passing legislation that provides them liability protection related to this pandemic. No one could have predicted last year the challenges we would face as a nation today, but without the essential businesses staying open, we would be in much more dire straits. They deserve our thanks, not to be run out of business due to something completely out of their control. 

Wayne Sasser is a pharmacist and a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly.

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