Restaurant owners across the state are pushing for legal protection against COVID-19 lawsuits from customers and workers who allege to have gotten the virus at their establishments.
The liability protection is a key component backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, a Kentucky Republican, as part of the ongoing negotiations for a federal COVID-relief bill ahead of the Friday federal appropriations deadline.
Advocates contend that the measure would protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits by people who have no way to prove they got COVID-19 at a particular establishment.
But opponents like unions and labor rights groups contend it would give business owners the green light to act recklessly, or simply neglect to take adequate measures to safeguard against COVID-19, with no recourse for anyone who might as a result contract the virus.
“If a restaurant… or a hotel, is complying with all applicable federal, state and local health codes, if a restaurant is doing everything right, they at least need a basic safe harbor from litigation, where someone is suing them saying they contracted coronavirus as a result of being there,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association.
“If it’s a bad actor, if it’s somebody who hasn’t completed, they should not get a safe harbor” and “still be available to be brought into court,” he added, during a virtually-held press conference on Tuesday with the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association and the state’s Congressional delegation.
Over the summer, Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director at the worker advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, cautioned that such measures would offer blanket immunity, allowing “recklessness on the part of business owners” and letting employers who fail to operate healthy and safe workplaces, off the hook from any accountability,”
McConnell has pushed for tabling the liability protections, as well as federal assistance for state and local governments, in the ongoing negotiations for the new bill, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
But even Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from Newark and former presidential candidate, contended on Tuesday that restaurants and hotels need some kind of basic legal protection.
“Nobody here wants to see frivolous lawsuits,” Booker said. “There should be clear standards and businesses that hold to those standards should not have to worry about frivolous lawsuits.”
The package would include small business relief and extend federal unemployment benefits like for freelancers and part-time workers, and add additional unemployment relief on top of what’s currently provided by individual states.
Jobless aid for freelancers and part-time workers is slated to expire at the end of the month, as is the additional 13 weeks of federal unemployment, unless Congress and the White House agree to renew it as part of the new CARES Act package.
Marilou Halverson, president and chief executive officer of the NJHRA, contended that many restaurant owners who contracted COVID-19 got it from outside the workplace.
That was a similar explanation offered by many of the state’s hospitals, which have seen outbreaks affecting dozens of health care workers in recent weeks.
“Employers are telling their employees that ‘you can’t prove that the virus you have is work-related, you may have gotten it at the mall, you may have gone to the movies, your kids may have it’,” Rich Marcolus, an attorney who chairs the New Jersey Council on Safety and Health, responded at the Monday press conference. “That is against the law.”
Sit-down dining was off-limits in its entirety beginning in mid-March, as the first wave of COVID-19 outbreaks spread across the Northeast.
Outdoor dining was allowed in mid-June, and over the summer was a popular alternative, with towns and cities closing down main streets to make room for restaurants, and Gov. Phil Murphy saying the virus is less likely to spread in outdoor settings.
But restaurant owners are concerned as to what will happen once colder weather renders those options useless, and limited capacity keeps them at 25%.