We all want to re-boot our economy even as we realize that the pandemic is still rampant. More than 130,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Every death leaves a hole in someone’s family or someone’s heart.
We realize many businesses are just trying to survive 2020, focused only on the essentials. They need to be profitable… but also sustainable. They need to attract customers … but not risk their health. They need to keep employees … and keep them safe. They need to minimize or avoid additional expenses … that includes the costs of paying lawyers to defend a lawsuit, damages for a personal injury claim, costs for an OSHA investigation or increased workers compensation premium rates.
Being sued if a COVID-19 outbreak is traced to your business is a real risk, as cruise lines and nursing homes are now finding out. Why cruise lines and nursing homes? Because COVID-19 could be tracked to them. And science can track an outbreak to other sites, maybe including your business. The smart business will take steps today to protect itself from lawsuits in the future.
Before we get to those steps, let’s note that personal injury lawyers are not the only legal risk in this environment. Employers could also face workers compensation claims (and the resulting higher premiums), as well as OSHA investigations and sanctions. If your business requires a license from the state to operate, that requires your adherence to state and local laws including public health orders. In fact, if you violate public health orders, you could be required to reimburse the cost of correction incurred by the public health agency. If an outbreak is traced to your business and it was caused by your violation of public health orders, you might be picking up the tab for testing the entire community.
You can meet these challenges with a few simple steps that will put your business in a good position with regard to any of these things.
First, COMPLIANCE. Learn the rules and the state and local public orders that govern your business. See if there are best practices for your business. Comply with the orders and work to adhere to the best practices for your particular business. Talk to Mesa County Public Health (the health department) if you have any questions. They are willing to work with businesses to help them comply with public health orders.
Second, COMMUNICATION. Talk to your employees to get everyone on the same page. Tell your customers what steps you are taking for their safety. And do these things in writing.
Third, use COMMON SENSE to minimize the risk of you being the site of a potential outbreak. This will vary with the circumstances of your business, but consider social distancing, masks, sanitizing, and temperature checks for employees, having employees stay home and quarantine after traveling to hot spots to name a few. Send employees home if they are sick; it may leave you short-handed today, but it will also leave you open tomorrow.
We understand that these things are easy to say, and hard to implement it in the real world. It is not easy to confront a customer who — because of a personal or political or cultural perspective — refuses to cooperate. That is a tough spot, but the path of least resistance in the short term could lead to closure, and the loss of your employees’ jobs, in the long term. You as business owner get to make that call. Just understand that deferring to an obstinate customer is risking your employees’ livelihoods. On the other hand, taking reasonable steps can give you the upper hand down the road, even if the lawyers do show up. You are not responsible for being unlucky; you’re responsible for being unmindful.
As a public service, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, the Mesa County Public Health Department, and The Daily Sentinel are sponsoring a series of six webinars to facilitate the safe opening of our local economy and protecting the variance we’ve received. Each webinar will be held on Wednesdays at 10 a.m., posted on the Chamber website, and summarized in this newspaper on the following Sunday. The foregoing is a synopsis of the first presentation concerning the legal issues businesses face with regard to COVID-19. It was presented by David Scanga and Steve ErkenBrack of Hoskin Farina & Kampf, P.C. The next webinar will roll out a rating system you can use to market your safety measures. Go to gjchamber/webinars to register.