As different counties in California slowly begin to reopen their doors, a group of Central Valley legislators is calling on the state to protect businesses from lawsuits should their customers catch COVID-19.
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday, Sen. Andreas Borgeas and 12 other bipartisan, bicameral state lawmakers asked that executive action be taken to expand Article 17 of the Emergency Services Act to establish protections for business owners and their employees from coronavirus transmission lawsuits, as long as they are following state or state-approved county guidelines.
The letter comes as restaurants, retail establishments and other businesses, like dog groomers, begin a phased reopening throughout the state. In Turlock, stores and eateries have begun to welcome customers as Stanislaus County officials have said they will not enforce stay-at-home orders while waiting on the state’s permission to open and the City of Turlock will only do so on a complaint-driven basis.
Borgeas said he was inspired to seek protections for businesses that abide by health guidelines because doing so is imperative to the economy’s recovery.
“We all know that there are health guidelines, restrictions and phased reopenings, but once those occur what are some foreseeable delays and difficulties in a phased reopening? Naturally, I think lawsuits kind of present themselves as a potentially destabilizing event,” Borgeas said, warning of class action lawsuits. “What would happen if a customer at a restaurant, a customer at a retail outlet or a buyer of ag produce believes they contracted the virus through that business or through an agent of that business? ...if they were to file suit, you can just imagine that terrible, chilling effect across the entire economy as its struggling to get back on its feet and what that would do to us.”
Borgeas has heard from Valley business owners who are “desperate” to reopen, he said, as they run out of money to sustain their operations despite federal and state aid. Already, Borgeas has written to Newsom asking for restaurants to be included in phase two of reopening and it worked. He hopes the most recent letter will bring similar results once businesses are back to serving the community, however different it may look.
“Businesses want to reopen safely,” Borgeas said. “They want to be respectful community players; they want clarity on what they need to do and they want a timeline on when they can do it.”
Borgeas was joined by members of the Central Valley Delegation in the letter, including another one of Turlock’s representatives, Assemblymember Heath Flora. He said he signed on to protect small businesses from any further damage due to the pandemic.
“Ensuring our businesses are protected from predatory lawsuits over COVID-19 is just common sense,” Flora said. “Our economy, Main Street especially, has already made tremendous sacrifices during this crisis. We should remove the threat of frivolous lawsuits as they try to rebuild lost revenues and restore jobs.”
California legislators from the center of the state formed the Central Valley Delegation to ensure their communities — which differ vastly from coastal communities in the state — receive the recognition they deserve in Sacramento. From issues like water and transportation to now pandemic response, the large group work together frequently, Borgeas said. He added that this week’s letter to Newsom could have gotten more signatures from the delegation had there been more time.
“When we pull together is when people pay attention,” Borgeas said. “The strength of our unity is what gets attention in Sacramento.”