With the state entering a second phase of easing business restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, Arkansas’s governor has enacted new protections shielding businesses and healthcare providers from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
During his daily briefing Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state saw 416 new cases, bringing the total to 12,917, with three additional deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 182. Monday’s uptick follows an increase of 954 new cases since last Friday.
He also signed three executive orders Monday, the same day businesses in the state were allowed to expand to two-thirds capacity under Phase Two of the Trump Administration’s reopening plan.
Two of the orders, drafted by Hutchinson and state lawmakers, grant businesses, employees and healthcare providers in Arkansas with immunity from civil suits from people claiming they contracted COVID-19 from their establishments. That immunity cannot be applied retroactively to entities sued before the orders went into effect.
Hutchinson said, though he’s not aware of any unjust or frivolous litigation in the state resulting from the pandemic, shielding businesses from liability was a necessary step.
“Whenever there's a fear of reopening, whenever there's a a worry about the lawsuits and bringing customers back or bringing the patrons back because of the potential of lawsuits as we've seen in so many other states, this is a chilling effect and it can become a reality,” Hutchinson said.
Another executive order expands workers’ compensation coverage to COVID-19 patients forced to miss work, provided there is a causal connection between their employment and the disease. The orders will remain in effect for the duration of the public health emergency declared by the governor.
Senate President Pro Tem Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said businesses must still comply with public health guidelines in order to be immune from lawsuits.
“The purpose of this legislation is to allow the outliers to still be dealt with but also to give some certainty to the people who are doing their best to try to survive in these challenging times," Hendren said. "We're talking about barber shops and gyms and hairdressers and nail salons, people who have one or two or three employees who, one frivolous lawsuit when they were doing their best to comply, could be the final nail in their coffin.”
Hutchinson’s actions come after most Republicans in the state Senate signed a letter calling for a special legislative session to discuss similar proposals. In anticipation of the governor calling a special session, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chair Michael John Gray spoke against efforts to limit liability for businesses and healthcare providers related to the pandemic.
"If a business, like a nursing home, has immunity it means they aren’t really required to do what’s right to protect their staff and patients. It means nursing homes won’t be held responsible if they fail to do what’s right and someone gets sick as a result,” Gray said, in a statement. "It’s basically forcing people to go into unsafe working conditions, without having the right to do anything about it -- even if they fall ill.”
Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, defended the liability protections as a preventative measure.
“Causation with regard to a virus or or any type of disease can be very difficult in the first place, but just because it's difficult doesn't mean that there [isn't] the possibility and the threat of litigation," Shepherd said. "This is not an absolute bar to litigation. If [an] employer or otherwise is not acting in good faith then there's still certainly that possibility for them to be found liable.”
The governor also said Monday he expects more Arkansans to test positive for the virus as the state’s total number of cases nears 13,000.
“I expect over the next week that the cases will continue to go up," Hutchinson said. "I don't believe that we've reached this second peak which very well could be our first peak, and so we need to take this continued seriously and make sure we do everything we can to live, but at the same time to control the spread of this virus.”
Arkansas continues to see the greatest number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at 206, as well as a record amount of active cases of the disease at 4,383. Washington County had the largest increase in new cases Monday at 126, with half of those among people of Latino origin.
Monday’s increase of 416 new coronavirus cases included 26 prison inmates, while the total number of cases associated with the state’s poultry industry rose to 1,458. A record 7,063 coronavirus tests were completed from Sunday to Monday, with 330 positive results.