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SC businesses, health care organizations raise liability concerns upon reopening

State leaders in AccelerateSC expressed the need for a liability protection bill as lawsuits begin popping up, they say.

Columbia, SC (WLTX) -- South Carolina businesses are hungry to reopen.

But there are liability concerns, as lawsuits continue to pop up.

RELATED: SC AG joins 21 states, calls for liability protections for businesses amid COVID-19

"Our businesses, it's their livelihood. They are taking this seriously, they are hungry for these guidelines," said Jennifer Fletcher of the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

Recommended guidelines were revealed Wednesday before AccelerateSC, the COVID-19 advisory team responsible for plans to reopen South Carolina.

"No one is going to travel until they know they can come here and be safe," said Helen Hill, Executive Director of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CACVB).

Parks and Recreation leaders believe "individual experience" attractions, like mini golf, for example, are ready to reopen under Phase 1. Strict social distancing guidelines will be in place and monitored by business owners.

"If they don't self-monitor, managers and owners have to step in to make sure that happens. If it doesn't, particularly with today's social media, that word gets out very quickly and people won't come back," said Duane Parrish, Director of SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

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Parrish says Phase 2 businesses would include aquariums, zoos and amusement parks like Carowinds, where large crowds are in place. He anticipates capacity restrictions once Phase 2 is in place, but said those specifics are still in the works.

The hotel plan, prepared by tourism industry leaders across the state, also prepared specific guidelines to open businesses or keep businesses running.

Safety precautions include (but are not limited to):

  • Plexiglass between front desk employees and patrons
  • Customers disclosing travel history with hotel before booking
  • Leaving a hotel room vacant for 24 hours for deep cleaning after a guest checks out 
  • Monitoring health of employees

Some businesses fear reopening, raising concerns about liability.

"We are looking at temporary and limited immunity from liability for companies who are trying to do the right thing by following public health guidance to provide a safe workplace," said Sara Hazzard, President & CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance. "The root cause of all of this is a pandemic that is out of our control. We can take steps to mitigate the impact by following recommended safety guidelines, but we don't want the COVID-19 situation to put companies at risk who are trying to do the right thing by operating safely, employing South Carolina workers and rebuilding our economy."

Now, members of AccelerateSC are in talks with state lawmakers to create a bill that will protect businesses following health guidelines during the pandemic.

"The small operators that are out there trying to do all they can to employ three or four people and do the job, this ultimately is something they need more than anybody, but the entire business community needs it," said Ted Pitts, President and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. "We do not think it can wait 'til the fall. You heard a senator here a couple of weeks ago say, 'We're not coming back until the fall'. I will tell you that's too late. Businesses need this now, they need protection now."

"There have been a number of other business organizations in this state and health care organizations that have expressed interest in this liability protection. I think it's gonna be a very big conversation for our state," added Hazzard. "We hope the conversation will happen sooner rather than later because we are starting to see these lawsuits pop up."

Also up for discussion Wednesday was child care. Mike Leach, the State Director for the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), said at the height of the pandemic 1,288 child care centers were closed. That makes up 53% of child care facilities in the state.

Since the onset of the pandemic, there hasn't been an executive order to close child care centers. 

Now, Leach says some facilities have reopened. He says two weeks ago, DSS received $63 million in child care funding through the CARES Act. The department is now working to make sure funds focus on essential workers, helping pay for their child care while they work.

Cleaning and sanitizing grants will also help child care facilities reopen safely. Additionally, the department partnered with agencies to set up four access points for providers across the state to get needed food resources at a wholesale price.

Currently, Leach says the department's website is working on creating an up-to-date list of child care centers open or closed each day.

For more information on guidelines for the hospitality industry, and to see Wednesday's AccelerateSC meeting in its entirety, visit accelerate.sc.gov.