Loophole-Filled CDC Guidelines Allow Companies to Comply by Doing Nothing

Public Citizen Report Documents Pervasive Loopholes, Caveats, Qualifiers, Conditional Language in Nonbinding CDC Guidelines

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Coronavirus guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are riddled with caveats and qualifiers that allow businesses to say that they are complying, while they actually do little or nothing at all, according to a report Public Citizen released today.

“The CDC guidelines are a Swiss cheese of loopholes, caveats and conditional language,” warned Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “If businesses were granted immunity from lawsuits on the ground that they were ‘complying’ with the CDC guidelines, then it would be virtually impossible for affected workers, consumers or patients to hold them accountable for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent spreading the coronavirus. Even businesses that take no action to protect employees and consumers may be able to ‘comply’ by claiming that they ‘considered’ the guidelines.”

The report notes that, “As guidelines, the CDC’s standards are, by definition, not binding or enforceable. But enforceability aside, the CDC guidelines on their own terms give businesses, organizations, schools and others almost complete discretion as to whether they should follow the substantive recommendations that CDC provides. The guidelines urge businesses and others to ‘consider’ certain actions, and to implement protective standards if ‘feasible’ or when ‘possible.’ This sort of loophole language surrounds the bulk of the CDC’s most consequential recommendations.” The guidelines also fail to direct businesses when they should close or what conditions they should meet as a condition of opening.

The large number of loopholes in the CDC’s recommendations take on extra importance in the context of proposals to grant businesses immunity from lawsuits when their negligence causes workers, consumers or patients to contract COVID-19, the report explains. These legislative proposals would grant companies immunity from liability to workers and consumers if the companies attempted to comply with CDC or any other guidelines. The dangerous proposal unveiled last week by U.S. Senate Republicans even requires plaintiffs to make an affirmative showing that a business is violating such guidelines.

This report is part of Public Citizen’s ongoing work to hold corporations and the government accountable during the coronavirus pandemic.