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Essential businesses, essential protections

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Earlier this year, New York was among the first states to shut down to help rein in the spread of COVID-19. Even as countless businesses closed and employees began working from home, essential businesses stayed open to offer critical services in their communities.

These essential businesses went to extraordinary lengths to keep customers and employees safe. They embraced strict cleaning and sanitization protocols, enforced social distancing measures, limited the number of people in stores at a given time, followed mask-wearing recommendations and more, so New Yorkers could have access to the food, medicine, and other products necessary during the statewide lockdown. At a moment of great need, these businesses and their employees stepped up to support their communities.

Now, however, these businesses are facing a new threat: lawsuits. As essential businesses continue operations, they risk being subject to liability lawsuits that hold them responsible for the spread of COVID-19, even if they responsibly followed guidance by state health officials. Needless to say, this is a difficult position for them to be in given their important role in our communities.

If we allow the threat of meritless COVID-19 lawsuits to loom over New York’s essential business owners, then we risk them being driven out of business. Few businesses can afford lengthy, drawn-out courtroom fights and the costs associated with them could force the businesses to shut down permanently.

This would hardly be fair to the businesses that we asked to stay open so that the rest of us could safely navigate this crisis. Instead, they deserve to be properly protected from these lawsuits so that they can continue to operate without worrying about finding themselves on the receiving end of an unfounded action.

That’s why it is critical for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and New York’s other members of Congress to work with other leaders in Washington to offer liability protections for businesses that work hard to provide essential services. They have played an imperative role in helping both our state and the rest of the country in the past several months, and they should not be punished for their efforts.

With Schumer’s help, these protections can finally pass and lawmakers can demonstrate their dedication to protecting essential businesses. Otherwise, they will continue to open their doors each morning in an even more uncertain position than the one before it, hoping that they aren’t sued for doing everything they can to run their business safely.

With these protections in place, businesses can continue to provide their essential services knowing that their contributions are recognized and appreciated both by the customers who have leaned on them during a difficult time and by the lawmakers who continue to profess that the role they play is vital during the pandemic.

Of course, this is not to say that liability protections should extend to businesses who flaunt health guidelines. These protections should be reserved for the essential businesses that are doing everything necessary to ensure their premises remain sanitary and that everyone in their stores follows the appropriate rules.

This has been a difficult year for New Yorkers, and the weeks and months ahead are still uncertain. By passing smart, focused liability protections, our elected officials can restore a bit of that certainty and show the owners of essential businesses that their livelihoods will also be properly protected.

Mike Durant is the president and chief executive of the New York State Food Industry Alliance, a trade association.

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