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‘Back to Square Zero’ Is No Time to Shield Businesses From Accountability


Welcome to the latest edition of “Corporate Accountability, Not Immunity,” a daily tipsheet highlighting key news and important facts on why Congress should not give corporations legal immunity from coronavirus-related harms to workers, consumers, patients and the public. Also refer to our tipsheet on misleading claims from industry groups and conservative lawmakers. Please send tips, feedback and questions to David Rosen at drosen@citizen.org.

“BACK TO SQUARE ZERO,” WITH 200,000 DEATHS EXPECTED BY ELECTION DAY: Many parts of the United States are “back to square zero” in their efforts to control the pandemic, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on Wednesday. “The bottom line is that we’re going to have to really clamp back down again,” Osterholm said. As the nation surpassed 3 million infections, many experts are predicting 200,000 deaths by Election Day. This is exactly the wrong moment to shield businesses from accountability, as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is proposing. We need every tool to fight the pandemic. Accountability through the courts is one important tool incentivizing business to prioritize safety over profits and minimizing the spread of the coronavirus as a precondition of reopening our economy.

OPPOSING BUSINESS IMMUNITY IS A RACIAL JUSTICE ISSUE: As the epicenters of new infections shift to states in the south and the west, Black, Latino and Native American populations continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. People of color have been long underserved by the health care system and overburdened by chronic diseases due to generations of racial inequities that heighten risk for the coronavirus. People of color also make up a disproportionate share of essential workers – first responders, factory workers, grocery store workers, nurses and others – which puts them at greater risk as a group. Latino workers at meat and chicken processing plants have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, accounting for 56% of cases reported in plants in 21 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Opposing business immunity is a racial justice issue because so many Black and Brown workers are disproportionately impacted by it.

FEDERAL GUIDELINES ARE STILL VOLUNTARY: While President Donald Trump recently – and outrageously – suggested that the CDC’s guidelines for the reopening of schools are too stringent, it’s important to remember that none of its existing guidelines related to the pandemic, or from any federal agency, are compulsory. The guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are voluntary, politicized and do not impose requirements on anyone. Without actual standards in place, which the Trump administration seems unwilling to provide, it is crucially important that businesses take all reasonable precautions to keep people safe. The potential for liability helps to ensure that they will do so.

STATES WHERE BUSINESSES WROTE THE RULES PAY THE PRICE: Even as business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were demanding immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits, business organizations were helping to write the rules of the pandemic response in some of the states that were the last to impose restrictions and the first to ease them. Now those states have seen a spike in infections. In South Carolina, the guidelines for reopening the hospitality industry were crafted by the Restaurant and Lodging Association. In Georgia, top aides to Gov. Brian Kemp were inundated with appeals from corporations and conservative nonprofit organizations. And in Texas, corporate executives and business leaders outnumbered physicians and infectious-disease specialists about eight-to-one on the “strike force” advising Gov. Greg Abbott. Now as businesses interests in those states continue to push for immunity from accountability if their negligence causes harm, residents are paying the price for the loose guidance they crafted.