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As NY reopens, extend COVID-19 liability waiver

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As of last week, New York State began to expand its reopening. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said, the current closure is not sustainable to New York’s economy. Businesses are eager to return to normalcy in light of the COVID-19 crisis; however, without proper liability protections, businesses will be left vulnerable to lawsuits.

In one of his first executive orders during this deadly pandemic, Cuomo extended liability protections to medical professionals and medical volunteers. This action brought comfort and security to New York’s front-line health care workers dealing with some of the most difficult conditions of their careers. The governor’s order also provided peace of mind to the tens of thousands of retired medical professionals who volunteered to join the fight against the virus. In early April, the State Legislature extended the protections in Cuomo’s executive order to cover hospitals and medical facilities.

These essential protections allowed New York’s medical workers to deal with the prevailing crisis rather than focus on the fear of potential liability lawsuits. New York is perhaps the most litigious state in America, and New Yorkers should not fear unjust lawsuits in times of crisis. Now that the state is reopening, it is not just medical workers who need protection from lawsuits. New York’s businesses, schools, and nonprofits are open to an onslaught of litigation following the reopening of the state.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent New York’s economy into a free fall after the statewide business closure. As the state moves forward, it also must think ahead to its financial recovery. With businesses preparing to reopen, some questions remain about how to meet the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on testimony in a May 13 hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic response, small businesses are struggling to find and access proper personal protective equipment and other necessities the CDC specified. This leaves those businesses open to liability lawsuits.

A coalition of businesses recently wrote to state government urging the extension of liability protections to businesses. Businesses that act in good faith should not face COVID-19 liability suits during the remainder of the pandemic. These protections would not be extended to malfeasance, injuries, or wrongful acts. The protections are extended only to the COVID-19 infection either to customers or employees.

According to a survey by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 84% of Americans believe (and 66% strongly believe) that businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies should have liability protections. The same poll finds that 82% of Americans support (58% strongly support) the same protections for restaurants, stores, and other businesses.

Americans want, and businesses need, liability protections during the COVID-19 crisis. State government needs to take further steps to protect businesses during this pandemic to ensure the recovery of our economy. The livelihood of millions of New Yorkers should not be put at risk due to lack of proper liability protections during the epidemic.

Fiona Dutcher is public and government affairs coordinator at the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, a non-profit group.

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