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Congress will be debating the latest relief bill this week.

Liability protection in flux with new relief bill, analyst says

Although Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, insist that liability protections are a top priority in the next pandemic relief bill, Home Furnishings Association members can expect some wiggle room in that hardline stance over the coming weeks, a senior economic analyst told retailers recently.

In last week’s HFA live Covid-19 Webinar, Sarah Bianchi told retailers that divided House and Senate Republicans will likely make concessions on the issue to unified Democrats. Bianchi is head of U.S. Public Policy and Political Strategy Research at Evercore ISI, a banking advisory firm.

Bianchi said McConnell and other top Senate Republicans want to give federal courts jurisdiction over personal injury and medical liability claims that will inevitably be made by some people returning to work during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the Republicans’ proposal, business owners would only be held liable if they failed to make reasonable efforts to comply with public-health guidelines and instead demonstrated gross negligence or intentional misconduct. McConnell last week said he would not bring a bill to the floor without liability protections for companies, but House Democrats have decried such a forthcoming provision.

Employee advocates and many Democratic lawmakers argue the threat of lawsuits will ensure employers take precautions to keep their staff and consumers safe. Business groups and many Republican lawmakers say the threat of legal action will curtail an economic recovery that’s already slowing down.

Bianchi said that the proposal currently being discussed by Republicans is not expected to make it into the final version of the bill, though she added what form does end up in the bill is “anyone’s guess.” The uncertainty can be attributed to the timing of the bill, which will be debated in the middle of election campaigns. “When you look at some of the close Republican races, Mitch McConnell being one of them, we’re already seeing him being a little more conciliatory in certain aspects, and I think we’ll see more of that in the coming days — particularly with this issue,” said Bianchi.

Help shape the bill

And while the uncertainty can cause anxiety among retailers, that’s actually good. “There’s still time to be heard, to make an impact on this relief bill,” she said. “Call your congressman and your senator. Make sure your message is clear but consistent. If you’re a big employee in your state or town, you’ll be heard.”

[HFA asks for liability protection as stores reopen]

Bianchi said it’s important for retailers to be as specific as possible in their concerns to legislators. “Don’t just tell them you want more money for (coronavirus) testing. Tell them, ‘You need to give us more testing money because people are not coming into my store. They’re afraid.’ The more granular you are in your message, the more effective you’re going to be.”

To hear more about the upcoming relief bill, along with other public policy topics, such as the trade war with China, check out the webinar here.

[HFA seeks more help for furniture retailers]

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