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Companies Push for Virus Legal Protection, Prompting Worker Concern

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WASHINGTON — When Jonathan Corpina, a senior managing partner at Meridian Equity Partners, returned to work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in late May, he was met with temperature screenings, hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass barriers — and a liability waiver.

The stock exchange required Mr. Corpina and others who work there to acknowledge that returning to work could expose them to the coronavirus, and to promise not to sue if they were infected. Mr. Corpina said that he felt comfortable with that risk, and that he believed other companies would most likely follow suit.

“This is not something that is going to be unique to this building, in my opinion,” he said of the waiver.

Whether companies are liable if their workers and customers catch the coronavirus has become a key question as businesses seek to reopen around the country. Companies and universities — and the groups that represent them — say they are vulnerable to a wave of lawsuits if they reopen while the coronavirus continues to circulate widely, and they are pushing Congress for temporary legal protections they say will help get the economy running again.

But that idea has engendered stiff opposition, particularly among congressional Democrats and labor unions, who say some businesses are doing too little to protect vulnerable workers, and that such a liability shield would only encourage reckless behavior.

For the moment, states and companies are taking matters into their own hands. States like Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah have issued executive orders or passed legislation to give businesses more protection if their workers or customers get the coronavirus.

Amusement parks, salons, real estate businesses and gyms have begun requiring attendees, customers and workers to sign liability waivers pledging not to sue. Even attendees registering for President Trump’s upcoming rallies must acknowledge the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and promise not to sue.

“By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to Covid-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc,” and any of their employees or affiliates liable for illness or injury, a disclaimer on the registration site for rally tickets reads.

The debate is coming to a head in Washington, as Congress considers its next round of coronavirus legislation. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has singled out liability protection as his conference’s top priority, with White House officials echoing that sentiment. Lawmakers expect some version of coronavirus relief could pass through both chambers before the end of the summer.

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Credit…Susan Walsh/Associated Press

“No bill will pass without it,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, said in May of liability protections.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other powerful lobbying groups have thrown their weight behind such protections, claiming that lawsuits could devastate companies that are already struggling financially, and that the threat of litigation could mean some businesses choose to remain shut, crippling efforts to restart the economy.

Conservative groups including the Koch Network and FreedomWorks have warned of a wave of “predatory, self-serving lawsuits” from trial lawyers who have “plotted to line their pockets with Covid-19 related lawsuits.” Last month, dozens of industry trade associations, including those representing grocers, retailers and restaurateurs, told Congress that without protections, the threat of litigation could put many small businesses permanently out of business.

“You’ve got to give the businesses some confidence here that if something happens, and it may not be their fault — the disease is an infectious disease — if something happens, you can’t take them out of business,” the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said in April on CNBC. “You can’t throw big lawsuits at them.”

Smaller businesses are especially concerned about their legal liability.

Maxine Turner, 72, who owns Cuisine Unlimited, a catering company in Salt Lake City, said she was worried about legal action from employees who are called back to work or from clients who want their deposits back.

“In the back of our mind,” Ms. Turner said, “we were thinking, does this leave us as a company liable if we force these issues?” Federal liability protections, she said, “would set us at ease.”

Paul Hymas, a founder and the president of the Las Vegas restaurant chain Nacho Daddy, found himself embroiled in controversy last month after he asked employees to sign a liability waiver upon returning to work. Mr. Hymas reversed course after employees publicly complained, but he still worries about legal action.

“The general concern is for frivolous lawsuits,” said Mr. Hymas, who employs about 380 workers. “We really do just want to serve nachos.”

But trial lawyers — as well as some legal experts — say the risk of lawsuits from workers or customers may be overstated.

“The idea that there is going to be this cavalcade of lawsuits is a total myth,” said Linda Lipsen, the chief executive of the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers. “Outside of meatpacking plants, cruises, nursing homes, veterans homes and other hot spots, there is not going to be that race to the courthouse because there are already all of these barriers to getting to court.”

Ms. Lipsen said that current laws already protect companies from lawsuits if they take “reasonable” precautions to safeguard their workers. And with the virus widely circulating, it is difficult for lawyers to prove in court that employees were infected at work, rather than while commuting or shopping for groceries.

David C. Vladeck, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, told lawmakers the same thing last month at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. And when it comes to stimulating the economy, further liability protections could actually backfire, he said, by eroding the public’s trust.

“Immunity signals to workers and consumers that they go back to work or they go to the grocery store at their peril,” Mr. Vladeck said.

Tracking suggests that, at least for the moment, such lawsuits are rare in the United States.

According to data collected by the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, 2,645 coronavirus-related lawsuits have been filed in the United States this year as of June 11. But the majority of those disputes relate to insurance coverage, prisoner and detainee petitions, and civil right cases, including challenges to stay-at-home orders. Only 49 of the cases related to conditions of employment, including exposure to the coronavirus at work or a lack of protective gear, while 77 relate to unlawful termination, according to the law firm.

The database also records only seven personal injury cases from consumers who were exposed to the coronavirus in a public place, and two wrongful death cases from public exposure.

Ms. Lipsen said the current push for liability protections reflects a longstanding effort by corporations to secure more legal protections in times of crisis, including after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and swine flu epidemic.

“They have been doing this for decades,” she said. “Every time there is a crisis, that’s what they do.”

Unions including the United Steelworkers, the United Farm Workers, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers have also protested expanded liability protections, fearing that they would lead to laxer safety standards for workers. Many essential workers are already being forced to choose between their safety and a paycheck, unions leaders say, and those risks are falling disproportionately on workers of color.

Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing on May 12 that offering employers immunity “would exacerbate some of the more outlaw employers that we may have in this country.”

“Immunity laws could send dangerous messages that the safety of these workers is not the company’s responsibility,” Mr. Perrone said.

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Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times

Instead, unions and worker advocates are calling for the federal government to issue clearer safety standards for businesses that are reopening, saying that those guidelines could help determine whether businesses have broken those rules and can be taken to court.

The White House has so far fought against issuing detailed standards for businesses, arguing they would infringe on religious rights and risk damaging the economy by making it too onerous for businesses to reopen.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.