Devastated by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last thing Maryland business owners need to deal with are costly lawsuits from customers who contract the virus in their place of business.
But while Maryland’s business community is pushing for liability immunity for businesses — as well as governmental bodies, nonprofits, hospitals and schools that follow COVID-19 safety guidelines — the bill’s critics say it has flaws that could make it less than effective.
Sen. Christopher West, R-Baltimore County, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would prevent any business that follows safety guidelines from being liable for customers that contract the virus while visiting that business. It would cover claims that arise between March 5, 2020, and 180 days after Gov. Larry Hogan lifts the state of emergency caused by the pandemic.
The bill’s supporters say that it is not meant to protect “bad actors” who ignore federal, state or local COVID-19-related guidelines, such as mandating the usage of masks inside an establishment. However, it does include a clause specifying that “an isolated, minor deviation from strict compliance,” such as miscalculating a restaurant’s indoor dining capacity by one or two people, does not deny a business immunity.
“If there is blatant disregard for laws, executive orders, regulations that have come out, you are not going to be protected under this bill. That business has to have demonstrated (that they are) responsibly following all of the regulations that have come out from the state or county,” says Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, one of many state and local industry groups backing the bill.