There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted everyone in Alaska. However, small business owners are bearing the brunt of the crisis that forces hard-working Alaskans to shut their doors, lay off long time employees and make the gut-wrenching decision to shut down their business over fears of getting sued.
I am an education instructor in the field of real estate. Usually, I travel all over Alaska teaching classes. After the coronavirus hit, I shifted all my courses online. However, many clients prefer face-to-face learning and are waiting until I can once again provide that service. While I would like to take that step back toward “normal,” I am scared to death that returning to the classroom could mean getting slapped with a frivolous lawsuit that could mean losing thousands of dollars of revenue, if not shuttering my small business for good.
How do I make sure all my students are safe? Should I require them to get a COVID-19 test before accepting them? Can they understand me if I wear a mask during the class? Following social distancing requirements means I can’t fit as many students in the classroom, which means I’ll have to increase my seminars’ cost. Will people still want to enroll? When a liability lawsuit comes my way, how can I prove that the defendant didn’t get COVID when they were in my classroom? While I would like to start in-person teaching again, I am scared to death of getting sued.
I’m not alone. In a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business, of which I am a member, nearly 70% of small business owners said they were concerned or deeply concerned about liability as they reopen. Even if we comply with every state, local, and industry-specific provision by social distancing, wearing face masks, putting up Plexiglass barriers, and using hand sanitizer, we can still be hit with unjustified coronavirus lawsuits. Small businesses should be protected from liability unless customers can prove the business knowingly failed to develop a plan to reduce COVID-19 exposure, causing their injury.
Alaska business owners are doing everything they can to bring back family-supporting jobs while keeping their customers and employees safe. During these uncertain times, we shouldn’t also worry about the risk of potential bankrupting litigation. I’m a small firm. I don’t have a team of lawyers working for me who can navigate the complexities of a lawsuit and go to court to fight for me. Plaintiff lawyers know how easy it is to force a settlement even with a questionable claim.
Alaska lawmakers need to address this problem and act now. Small-business owners, like me, need peace of mind as we get back to work. It’s an effort to make sure businesses have the confidence to start serving customers again. It’s a simple thing the state legislature can do to help small business owners recover during this uncertain time. Let’s give small business owners something to recharge our batteries and enact legislation that can help us get back to creating jobs and boosting the economy for all Alaskans.
• Peggy Ann McConnochie started her small business, ACH Consulting LLC, in 1996. She lives in Juneau and is the owner and broker.