The COVID-19 pandemic has forced West Virginians and others across the country to adapt to an entirely new normal.
During our statewide stay-at-home order earlier this year, people had to stay indoors, work remotely and avoid large gatherings, to name just a few major changes. Through all of this, though, essential businesses have remained open to provide Americans with the products and services they need to keep themselves and their families afloat during this crisis.
In fact, these businesses have provided a model for adapting to the new normal the pandemic has forced upon us. Essential businesses placed markers throughout their stores to serve as social distancing guidelines, upped their efforts to regularly and thoroughly sanitize their premises, to keep customers and employees safe, and ensured that everyone who walked through their doors did their part to flatten the curve by wearing masks.
In addition to the costs of instituting these new policies, many businesses like mine are offering “hazard pay” to our store employees.
All these measures, and others, allowed essential businesses to stay open and continue serving their communities at a time when they were needed most.
Despite all they’ve done to keep people safe, though, essential businesses still face a significant risk beyond COVID-19, with the looming threat of liability lawsuits on the horizon. These lawsuits look to place culpability for community spread of the virus on essential businesses, even those that have followed every possible guideline offered by local and federal health officials.
Allowing these types of liability lawsuits to fill West Virginia’s courts would be problematic for several reasons. First, it places essential businesses in an impossible and untenable position. Communities are dependent on them for vital supplies and services, but keeping their doors open represents a serious risk if they are not properly protected from frivolous accusations of liability.
Beyond this, settling or litigating liability cases can have prohibitive costs for small, local businesses even during a strong economy. Now, as the economy has slowed to a near halt across the nation, businesses simply cannot afford to deal with unwarranted liability lawsuits on top of the broad array of problems they already are handling. For many, even a single lawsuit can put them out of businesses, making things all the more difficult — for their employees and for the customers they serve.
However, this is not to say that businesses who willfully or knowingly disregard public health guidance and put their communities at risk should be wrongly free of blame. Instead, liability protection needs to clearly delineate protection for those businesses that are acting in good faith and doing everything necessary to protect each person who walks through their doors.
This is precisely why it is so important for Congress to finally address this issue and pass the SAFE TO WORK Act, which offers liability protection for the very same essential businesses that are allowing us all to safely see out this pandemic.
As Congress works on this issue in the weeks ahead, I am hoping that West Virginia small-business owners can count on our state’s elected officials, like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to serve as vocal advocates for essential businesses.