Restrictions are being lifted, new guidelines have come out, and North Carolina is open for business. With all the safety concerns out there, you know your business will need a new normal. But, how can you protect your business from liability when re-opening on the heels of a global pandemic?
Here, we discuss the legal issues to watch for, how to make your business safe, and how to limit your business’ risk of liability.
Legal Issues Business Owners Should Know About Before Re-Opening
Negligence-based claims are possible with the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Infected persons coming into contact with other employees, vendors, or patrons within a business can open the door to liability if the business owner has not taken reasonable steps to limit on-site exposure. As such, business owners need to make the appropriate adjustments to business practices to keep everyone safe.
Business owners must be aware of the duty owed to employees, vendors, and customers, and take careful measures to properly warn, provide protection, and make the premises safe to avoid premises liability actions. In the very worst cases, there could be the potential for personal injury and even wrongful death cases, so it is important to take safety concerns seriously when planning to re-open.
Business owners should also be careful in making claims about keeping the business safe for patrons. Any advertisements about the steps a business is taking to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure on-site opens the door to false advertising claims. This does not mean business owners should not publicize their efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. It just means that business owners should be careful to ensure all claims are factually accurate, complete, and not misleading as any inaccurate claims, especially making guarantees about the lack of exposure, will almost definitely result in liability in the event someone does contract COVID-19 which can be traced back to the business.
Additional legal issues business owners should keep in mind when re-opening after COVID-19 include employment and worker’s compensation matters. With many businesses temporarily closing during the pandemic, employees were furloughed, laid off, or lost benefits or pay. While many of these employees qualified for unemployment benefits, returning to work will pose new challenges with schedule adjustments, new safety measures, exposure risks, and other changes.
How Businesses Can Keep Their Customers and Employees Safe
For many businesses, returning to routine business practices may not comply with health guidelines for re-opening. Before re-opening, businesses must have a plan in place to navigate the changes needed to allow the business to thrive while keeping customers and employees safe.
Be prepared to adjust operating hours, work shifts, and/or employee schedules to accommodate social distancing and allow adequate time for new cleaning and sanitization procedures.
In addition to changing employee schedules to comply with social distancing guidelines, it may also be necessary to limit the number of patrons present in your business. This may require hiring new staff or reassigning staff to help manage the flow of people in and out of your business.
Consider which safety measures are appropriate for your business. Whether you require employees only to wear masks or if you require everyone who enters the business to wear one, you will likely need to implement new cleaning practices. You may also need to be more diligent in cleaning at the end of a shift or the end of the business day, since certain surfaces more susceptible to spreading COVID-19 should be cleaned frequently.
In addition to heightened cleaning practices, business owners may want to consider implementing a screening process with temperature checks or a questionnaire to keep those individuals who have been recently exposed or may spread COVID-19 from entering the premises. For businesses like childcare facilities or health and beauty services where there is a higher exposure risk, this is especially important.
Lastly, consider which items can be removed or areas that can be closed off to limit the spread of germs.
Ways in Which You Can Protect Your Business from Liability During COVID-19
First and foremost, stay informed. Be familiar with the applicable guidelines from federal, state, and local agencies. Because the environment is constantly changing, do not think a quick once-over viewing of the latest update will be sufficient. You must immerse yourself in the guidelines from your local health department and government and federal agencies – and review frequently.
You must also have a plan. Be methodical in re-opening, making sure safety measures are in place. This includes social distancing, cleaning and sanitization practices, and screening procedures, at minimum. If something is not working, do not be afraid to make adjustments. While it is important to have a plan, it is equally as important to be flexible to accommodate changes needed to keep everyone safe.
Make sure employees are well-versed in any safety practices or COVID-19 policies and procedures. In addition to understanding and complying with the changes, employees must know how to educate patrons on the new policies, enforce the new rules, and how to manage any escalated matters. People are not always welcoming of change, even if it is intended to keep them safe. Prepare your employees to respond appropriately to patron inquiries and complaints to limit the risk of liability.
Also be sure to check your insurance policy. Review the liability policies and make sure you know the scope of your coverage. There may be limitations that exclude your business from coverage, such as a virus exclusion. Consult your insurance provider or business law attorney if you need assistance with understanding how your policy works in the wake of COVID-19.
How can a Wilmington Business Law Attorney Help Your Business During COVID-19?
These are unprecedented times. Even the most experienced business owners likely have not had to endure a pandemic. With so much information and constantly changing guidelines, it can be overwhelming. A Wilmington Business Law Attorney can help you navigate the business world after COVID-19. Our attorneys can guide your business in complying with applicable guidelines, limiting the risk of liability, and keeping your employees, patrons, and your business safe.