COVID-19 liability protections for businesses will be a topic state legislatures nationwide will tangle with in 2021 if they had not done so in 2020.
Florida lawmakers adjourned their 2020 session in March just as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Despite repeated appeals for a special session to address an array of issues, including COVID-19 liability concerns, none was called.
After months of silence on COVID-19 liability waivers for businesses – and after resisting a request for a special session by a task force of Florida business leaders – Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested in October that legislative leaders call for a special session during their Nov. 17 post-election organizational meeting and adopt legislation to resolve liability concerns.
Doing so in a brief special session, however, is easier said than done, state lawmakers said Friday during the conclusion of the two-day Florida Chamber of Commerce Insurance Summit.
While COVID-19 liability protections will be a priority when the state Legislature convenes in March, it will take a 60-day session’s worth of vetting and discussion to pass a law that will withstand legal scrutiny.
In fact, lawmakers said, the Legislature has created a committee – the Pandemic & Public Emergencies Committee (PPEC) – to deal exclusively with the issue.
House PPEC Chairperson Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said he was “a fan” of COVID-19 protections for businesses and employers.
“I am a fan of it. I think that you’ve got to be, you’ve got to make it comfortable for people to go back to work,” Leek said. “The best and fastest track to recovery is an economy that’s moving. To the extent that liability immunity can play a role in that, we’re certainly going to look at it. And it’s my sincere hope that we pass it.”
Senate PPEC Chairperson Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said legislation is ready to be filed, such as a bill being sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, but lawmakers will need to scrutinize it in committee hearings.
“We’ve never had a scenario like this,” Passidomo said. “We’re used to hurricanes, where it’s, you know, five days, 10 days, we know how to handle it. We know what our responsibilities are, we know who the players are, they know their roles and other responsibilities. But this pandemic is something we’ve never encountered before.”
Through the open hearing committee process, “All the people in the trenches that have had to handle one or more aspect of this – whether it be education, or the insurance industry, or the health care industry – need to weigh in,” she said.
Sen.-Elect Dan Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said he understands the need for liability protection because of the challenges he faced at veterans nursing homes while leading the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
“No matter what we do, no matter what we did, there was never a guarantee you could keep COVID-19 out of your facility,” he said.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St Petersburg, said as a small business owner, he knows COVID-19 protections are needed but cautioned there must be a balance between businesses and residents with the core issue always safety.
“We have to think about how we best protect businesses during this timeframe of such uncertainty, while also making sure we’re not going too far. So, it’s like every other hard legal issue we struggle with – the devil’s in the details here,” Diamond said. “Underlying this question of COVID liability for small businesses is just how do we keep more Floridians safe?”
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