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Pennsylvania Businesses and the Pandemic

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Senator Kim Ward, R-39th District, currently serves as the Senate majority leader in Pennsylvania. She is the first woman in the history of the Pennsylvania Legislature to serve as majority leader in either the Pennsylvania House or Senate. For more information or to contact her
office, visit www.senatorward.com.

This past year, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating businesses of all sizes and industries throughout the Commonwealth. Most have been forced to close their doors for months against their will, and many closed their doors permanently. They continue to struggle to keep their workers paid, resulting in applying for loans or executing layoffs.

The ongoing emergency disaster declaration has severely weakened Pennsylvania’s economy. Currently, a governor can call a state of emergency where s/he has the unilateral power to override regulations, spend money and put mandates in place without any legislative approval. Legislators need to be able to represent Pennsylvania citizens by having real input during extended state of emergencies.

The citizens of Pennsylvania also should have a say in reining in this extended, unilateral power on display during this emergency. Businesses and employers suffer the consequences when checks and balances don’t exist, and especially the countless unemployed workers who continue to struggle to obtain unemployment benefits. Thus, I presented Senate Bill 2 to limit the length of future emergency disaster declarations unless an extension is approved by the General Assembly. Senate Bill 2 also provides for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the denial of equal rights based on race or ethnicity, bringing the Pennsylvania Constitution in line with the U.S. Constitution. This constitutional amendment will be on the May 18 ballot.

Now that Pennsylvania businesses can begin to reopen with limitations, they are encountering coronavirus- related liability exposure from employees and customers. The economic burden to an employer to defend or settle claims involving coronavirus-related cases can be detrimental to their finances. These businesses are already struggling under prolonged shutdowns and limitations; the fear of lawsuits once they do open under good faith is yet another major stressor.

In November, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed House Bill 1737, a proposed civil liability immunity for businesses during the pandemic. In his veto, Governor Wolf said, “Shielding entities from liability in such a broad fashion as provided under this bill invites the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety.”

Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming have already passed laws for business immunity for the coronavirus. It is vital that Pennsylvania is added to this list. Pennsylvanians have been facing their biggest challenges during this past year. Business owners have been told when and how to reopen and operate with rules changing daily. Employers want to get back to operating without the threat of legal battles. It’s incumbent upon the General Assembly to ensure there are coronavirus policies and procedures in place to protect both business owners and employees.