Issues & Insights

Will I Get Sick, Will I Get Sued? The Costly Dilemma Of Re-Opening The Economy

U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White

For more than two months, most Americans abided by stay-home orders, quarantines, and social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. With a lost spring, many folks are now preparing for the Great Emergence as Memorial Day ushers in the unofficial start of summer and cities and states begin easing restrictions on movement. Americans are eager to hit the road and be anywhere but the homes in which they’ve been cooped up in for weeks.

However, two questions weigh heavily on the minds of customers and businesses – and business owners carry the burden of worrying about them both. Will I get sick? Will I get sued?

After two months of slow sales (or perhaps no sales in the event the government did not deem one’s business “essential”), small businesses, including hotels, are eager to open their doors and welcome back customers.

Many questions remain about what that will look like for both businesses and their patrons. Hotel owners and other businesses across the country are asking what they can do to protect employees and customers, and this, perhaps, is the million-dollar question – in more ways than one.

Most small business owners are not medical professionals. To prepare for the easing of restrictions, hotels and other consumer-facing businesses are relying on the guidance of health experts as they undertake extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of employees and guests. They want to do everything they can to keep their doors open safely and responsibly – it’s just good business. 

There is much we do not know about this virus. New information is revealed daily, and health officials are deploying an evolving defense against COVID-19. The different responses and directives from federal, state, and local governments only compound the confusion about how best to reduce transmission. For business owners, this creates an uncomfortable amount of legal uncertainty. 

What if, despite a business following public health recommendations, an employee or a customer gets sick from COVID-19? A proprietor could be mired in costly lawsuits based on the transmission of a virus that is likely beyond their control.

Lawsuits of this nature do nothing to slow the spread of COVID-19. They do, however, throw sand in the gears of businesses attempting to provide much-needed goods, services, and jobs to the American people. If a business properly implements government guidelines to stem the transmission of COVID-19, should they not have some limited liability if the government’s protocols prove insufficient?

Entire industries are trusting public health guidelines as they play their part to get America on the road to recovery. They should be able to do so without the threat of liability for implementing these recommendations in the name of slowing COVID-19 transmission.

That is why it is critical for Congress to do as previous lawmakers did in times of crisis and provide limited safe harbors from liability as we emerge from this pandemic.

Instead of worrying about whether public health guidelines open them up to costly lawsuits, our nation’s businesses should be allowed to focus on revitalizing their operations and creating jobs as we all do our part to bring our economy and our society back to life.

Cecil Staton is president and CEO of AAHOA, America’s largest hotel owners association representing 20,000 owners and millions of employees

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