As the country slowly repeals the COVID-19 lockdowns, consumers and businesses are left to grapple with how they interact under the “new normal.” Consumers want to shop—but don’t want to catch the virus. Meanwhile, businesses want to sell—but fear being sued for spreading the virus among their customers. While discussions about limiting liability remain in flux, businesses should proactively publicize their COVID-19 mitigation policies. Consumers know their own risk appetite and vulnerability, and more information will allow them to vote with their wallets and act with their safety in mind.
With daily COVID-19 cases falling across the country and summer weather on the march, consumers and businesses are eager to revive the retail and hospitality trades. But the remnants of the pandemic continue to pose a potentially fatal risk to consumers and employees who return to stores, particularly for those with health conditions that compromise their immune system.
Moreover, if a vaccine is not available before the end of the year, it is an unrealistic expectation that immunocompromised individuals will avoid public commercial spaces for almost a full calendar year. Emergencies, forgotten ingredients, or schedule changes can all realistically lure the most prepared consumers into making a last-minute visit to a store.
Businesses also face a similar, albeit less grave, uncertainty concerning their legal liability if a consumer contracts the virus in their store. With the fear of bankruptcy and financial ruin stemming from lawsuits, the business community has sought federal “safe harbor” liability protection during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, discussions around limiting liability also draw the ire of workers’ rights advocates, who are pushing for even greater legal protection if they contract the virus at work. Striking a balance between workers’ and business rights through federal legislation is further complicated by the fact that personal injury and workers’ compensation laws are traditionally a state by state issue. Coupled with the fact that the predicted spread of the virus has changed dramatically over the past few weeks, there is no shortage of reasons why liability legislation may be held up.
Political quagmires are not a new phenomenon, and a pragmatic solution is needed in the interim. To help consumers make an informed decision based on their knowledge of their own health and risk appetite, businesses should proactively advertise their COVID-19 mitigation policies. By increasing the information in the market, consumers are empowered to make an informed decision about if, how, and where they want to shop.
While the CDC provides a variety of guidelines and recommendations for sanitizing public spaces, reopening bars and restaurants, and keeping employees safe, businesses can go above and beyond these rules to meet consumer preferences. This logic largely mirrors the reasoning behind displaying health inspection letter ratings. In the best of times, public information about health and safety practices informs consumer decisions. As we endure a global pandemic with no definitive end in sight, consumers need more information about the mitigation steps businesses are taking.
While the uncertainty about federal liability legislation for both businesses and workers endures, consumers need peace of mind now to return to public commercial spaces. By proactively publicizing their mitigation strategies, businesses can allow consumers to make an informed decision about where to shop and dine.