Businesses are concerned they could be liable for staff and visitors that test positive as the spread of COVID-19 remains high.
As the omicron variant hampers the hospitality industry once again, infecting more employees given its contagious nature, business owners are treading cautiously.
"Businesses across the U.S. are implementing even stricter COVID-19 policies and being careful to keep both staff and visitors safe and to avoid any potential lawsuits," Madison Alworth told Fox Business Tonight’s Jackie DeAngelis.
One eatery in New York City’s West Village, BABS, was forced to close down on Christmas Eve after 50% of their employees tested positive for COVID-19. Evan Bennett, co-founder of BABS, told FOX Business that he kept his eatery closed for 12 days, amid one of the busiest weeks of the year, to prevent "forcing" employees to pick up shifts and face exposure.
Although finally reopened, Bennett, who also owns MIMI, remains concerned over a lack of liability and financial protection, making it extremely difficult for him to keep his restaurant open. And with COVID-19 fears high, restaurant reservations are down 80-90%, threatening to keep business operable for a couple more months should the current rate continue.
"It’s been so dead. I have barely seen more than one or two tables at any restaurant," Bennett told FOX Business. "I don't know what will happen, and it is really scary because it doesn't look like there is any government support in sight."
As the fifth wave of coronavirus rapidly spreads across the U.S. and shutters small businesses over staff shortages, it’s raising the issue of liability protections that failed to pass through Congress’ relief bills in 2020.
Some Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted on protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits. The proposed legislation, called the HEALS Act, offered to limit lawsuits brought against health-care workers and schools for exposure to coronavirus. It would require plaintiffs to prove a company acted with gross negligence or willful misconduct. The rules differed from the current standard of liability, which requires plaintiffs to prove a company did not take reasonable care to prevent sickness or death on its premises.
Meanwhile, a new report from Seyfarth Shaw, an employment and labor law firm, reveals that class action settlements reached a record $3.62 billion in 2021, compared to $1.58 billion in 2020 and $1.34 billion the year before that.
As the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a storm of class action lawsuits involving workplace issues, one of the key trends the firm found included COVID-19 related cases.
"With the roll-out of return-to-work programs and vaccine mandates in the fourth quarter of 2021, class actions by states, employee advocates, unions and employer-groups were filed in record numbers," the report states.
Even though Bennett has not experienced any issues with his staff, the lack of protection or support from federal legislation has created a gray area this time round. While the government-mandated closures from last year prompted many restaurants to anticipate support, restaurants are bearing the burden of choosing to close on their own now.
"It’s tricky navigating this without any sort of support standpoint," Bennett said. "We're going to stay open, but it's up to you to decide whether or not you can or cannot stay open. It just is a little worrisome because I don't know how much support will be out there because of it."
However, another year of COVID-19 relief checks are in sight, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers exploring another round of funding to small businesses, providing a sliver of hope for those facing setbacks in their recoveries.