By. Dr. Ed Ackerley
While the presidential transition is taking up most news headlines, everyday Arizonans are struggling to make ends meet and keep their businesses afloat. While the positions being filled by the next administration are important, elected officials have a duty to their constituents to continue working to address the problems we are currently experiencing.
One of the biggest issues we are facing in the state is the economic devastation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Arizona’s current unemployment rate is hovering at around 8%, above the national average. And as temporary business closures are declining, we are seeing a tragic rise in permanent closures. According to the latest Yelp survey data, Arizona ranks 4th in the nation for permanent business closures.
While these statistics are obviously alarming, statistics cannot truly encompass the tragedy of small business owners who have spent years, or decades, building a successful business only to have it ripped out from underneath them in six months because of something totally outside of their control.
This is why it is critical for our elected officials to do everything in their power to protect and support small businesses. One way Congress can help small businesses is by passing reasonable liability protections from unfounded COVID-related lawsuits in the upcoming coronavirus relief package. This policy is of particular importance for essential businesses that have remained open throughout the pandemic to continue providing critical goods and services to our communities.
Right now, businesses, particularly those that have stayed open, are at increased risk of being sued by patrons claiming they contracted the virus at a particular establishment. While the virus is so widespread that it would be difficult for a defendant to prove their case in court, the legal fees required to fight back against unwarranted lawsuits could put a small business out of business for good. Lawyers have already increased their advertising encouraging people to file coronavirus-related lawsuits, so we can expect to see even more than the 6,500 claims already filed.
And it’s not just small businesses that are in need of reasonable protections from unfair lawsuits. Without COVID Liability Protection, Arizona schools could also face possible COVID Lawsuits.
This important discussion happened on the state level earlier this year. A COVID-19 business-liability protection bill passed the Arizona House in April, but unfortunately did not pass the Senate before the legislative session ended. While it would be helpful to pass this bill on the state level, it would be much more effective to pass liability protections on the federal level, since many businesses operate in multiple states, and a patchwork of regulations increases the financial burden on already struggling businesses.
Thankfully, there is still time for Congress to provide businesses with commonsense, liability protection from unfounded coronavirus-related lawsuits, while ensuring we can still hold bad actors accountable. Hopefully, our home state Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly will stand behind Arizona businesses by supporting reasonable liability protections in any coronavirus relief package that comes before the Senate.
Dr. Ed Ackerley is the President of the Tucson Business Owners group.