Chamber urges lawmakers to protect businesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits

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COLUMBIA- The Missouri Chamber of Commerce is urging Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session to take up legislation that would protect businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The chamber is worried about liability in the scenario where someone believes they contracted the COVID-19 virus while on the premise of a business.

"As we're starting to see the state reopen, as of May 4 businesses are reopening, some are not reopening though because of the fear of these COVID lawsuits," Vice President of Governmental Affairs Matt Panik said. "We want to make sure they have some protection so that they can open up, so they can bring workers back on the payroll and contribute to to the economy and the recovery"

In a letter to the governor on Wednesday, the Chamber of Commerce urged the governor to bring state lawmakers back to deal with the "emerging problem in Missouri."

Panik said it is about protecting the companies that are taking the necessary precautions to keep staff and customers safe. The efforts are not intended to help businesses that don't follow healthy and safety recommendations.

But even for businesses that do follow the guidelines, Panik said the lawsuits still pose a significant risk. After the last few months, many small and medium size businesses may not be in a position to withstand an expensive lawsuit.

"There are literally businesses that are not reopening because they are looking at the revenue hit they've taken already," he said. "With the decrease in revenue they are expecting for the rest of the year, the costs to conform with some of these guidelines and the prospect of expensive lawsuits, the math just doesn't add up."

At Smockingbird's Unique Gifts and Accessories in Fulton, Virginia McCoskrie is preparing to reopen her store on June 2nd. 

"The store is my baby and I missed it a lot," she said. "It was hard just closing the doors one day and leaving."

For the past few weeks, McCoskrie has been doing online and curbside pickup orders but is waiting to reopen until next month out of an abundance of caution.

"We don't have testing in Fulton or Callaway County so we really don't know how many people actually have had the virus or are asymptomatic," she said. "I want to make sure my customers, my employees and I are safe."

McCoskrie is encouraging customers to wear masks and use hand sanitizer to keep them safe. She has also installed a sneeze guard at the cash register and is adding in signs and markings on the floor to promote social distancing.

McCoskie is not particularly worried about the risk of lawsuits, but said she is aware of the risk. She attended a Zoom class about legal issues stemming from COVID-19 put on by the Chamber of Commerce.

"It is something to be aware of but I feel like I'm taking the proper precautions," she said. "I don't want anyone to get sick after coming to my store, so that's why I'm providing hand sanitizer and masks and encouraging social distance." 

During his daily media briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Governor Parson was asked about the letter from the Chamber. He said any special session would have to include multiple issues, but did not rule anything out.

"It's quite apparent we're going to have to deal with the legal challenges going on with COVID-19," the governor said. "We're not going to let attorneys go out here and sue everybody because they were doing their jobs."

The regular state legislative session ended on Friday, May 15. State lawmakers have said they would not be surprised if they returned to the Capitol at some point this summer to deal with budget or COVID-19 related issues.

On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers have said they believe similar protections need to be included in any future stimulus packages passed by Congress. If it is, Panik said he would still like to see similar protections enacted under Missouri law.