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Greenville Business Magazine

Businesses Need Confidence to Recover

By Jason Zacher

Covid-19 upended every small business' plans for 2020.

As we move from closures to recovery, businesses have told us they are looking for the Four C's: Cash, Customers, Communication, and Confidence.

Greenville County - and other states - are working to help small and minority businesses with the cash issue through CARES Act grants and micro-loans. Customers are slowly returning. Local business communities across the state have tried to communicate with customers that it is safe to return by signing the Greater Grenville Pledge, the Greater Grand Strand Promise, the Palmetto Priority Seal, and other similar pledges.

And when it comes to confidence, the General Assembly should quickly follow a growing majority of states (32 and counting) and take action to provide limited liability protections for our state's businesses. These crucial protections should safeguard businesses, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions, as well as healthcare providers. They should not protect bad actors or those who are negligent in protecting employees and customers.

North Carolina has passed two business liability protection bills. Alabama passed a liability bill. Another one has already passed in the Georgia Senate.

Businesses across the state are working around the clock to both get our economy back up and running and to protect our citizens from Covid-19. Manufacturers transformed operations overnight to produce protective equipment or hand sanitizer. Transportation companies, farmers, and retailers fought to keep our food supply stable. And, of course we are all indebted to the front-line healthcare workers and what they continue to do to protect our state as we watch Covid-19 cases spike. 

In countless conversations with small businesses over the past eight weeks, fear of lawsuits is reliably one of the top concerns for business owners and managers. "What happens if a customer comes in and infects my staff or other customers?" "What if an asymptomatic employee returns to work?" "Someone might sue, but how could they establish cause?" "What would legal fees do to my already shaky bottom line?"

Despite doing their best to follow local, state, and federal guidelines, businesses may still be forced to defend frivolous lawsuits. Even the prospect of such litigation and the associated legal costs of defending a frivolous lawsuit is an impediment to reopening. Yet, winning such litigation could still force a small business to close its doors as the costs associated with the defense can be crippling. With the tenuous footing many small businesses are on after the Covid shutdown, many are one lawsuit away from closing for good. 

Small businesses are trying to make payroll, bring back furloughed employees, and keep the lights on. An entrepreneur doesn't have the time or the resources to monitor the onslaught of (sometimes conflicting) health and safety advice.

We need the General Assembly - and Congress - to provide simple, limited liability protections to help businesses that are complying with our local pledges, following DHEC guidelines, or listening to the Centers for Disease Control. We need those protections to extend for three years and one day after the declared end of the pandemic. 

We need local and state governments to clearly broadcast what is expected from businesses, so business owners and managers can easily keep abreast of how to keep employees and customers safe. 

Trial attorneys across the state have predictably played down the risk of lawsuits (as they always do), but absent a targeted safe harbor for those who follow safety guidelines, the fear and uncertainty from ever-present liability issues is a massive cloud hanging over our state's economic recovery.  Television lawyers are already running commercials asking if you have been impacted by Covid-19.

The business community asks the General Assembly to move quickly to enact temporary liability protections for:
  1. businesses, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions that work to follow applicable public health guidelines against Covid-19 exposure claims; 
  2. healthcare workers and facilities providing critical Covid-19-related care and services; and
  3. manufacturers, donors, distributors, and users of vaccines, therapeutics, medical devices, as well as PPE and other supplies (such as hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies) that are critical to the Covid-19 response. 

These liability protections should be limited in scope and preserve recourse for those harmed by any bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.

The need for liability protections is clear, and if the General Assembly is as reliably pro-job (and bi-partisan) creation as it claims, these protections should require very little debate.