The Iowa Legislature reconvenes, will consider protecting businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

The Iowa State Capitol. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

On Wednesday, the Iowa Legislature reconvened for the first time since March 16, when it went into emergency recess in response to the spread of COVID-19 in the state. And issues related to the virus will loom large in the coming weeks.

The Legislature will have to revise the budget they were working on at the time of recess in light of estimates that the state could lose $360 million in tax revenue due to the pandemic. And according to Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, another priority will be giving businesses some form of liability protection against lawsuits from people infected with COVID-19 by their actions or on their property.

“Many people are hesitant to open whether it’s their school, their church, their college, their salon and so that’s one of the priorities coming back,” Whitver told Radio Iowa on Tuesday.

Four states have already passed laws providing businesses with liability protection against COVID-19-related lawsuits.

“The bills signed into law by the governors of North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming go far beyond the immunity that several states granted to health care providers at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic,” the Claims Journal, a publication that covers the insurance industry, reported on Monday. “North Carolina provides immunity to a broader swath of “essential businesses,” such as grocery stores and restaurants, from liability for any harm caused by COVID-19. Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming provide immunity to everyone, as long as safety rules are followed and no laws are broken.”

Legislatures in Arizona, Kansas and Louisiana are currently considering similar bills.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, has already said she is opposed to providing any “blanket” business liability protection.

“We need to make sure that we have safety thresholds in place,” she told reporters on Monday.

In a tweet posted on Wednesday morning, Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, noted a difference in how Democrats and Republicans are approaching COVID-19 protection on a personal level.

The most extreme example of a Republican rejecting the idea of wearing protection to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 was provided by Rep. Jeff Shipley of Fairfield.

Shipley, an opponent of mandatory vaccinations, ridiculed lawmakers wearing face shields while speaking to an anti-vaccination group at the State Capitol.

“If you go in there, you’ll see a lot of lawmakers, the men and women we’ve elected to lead our state into health and prosperity and freedom, they’re covering their faces with a plastic face shield. I don’t understand this,” he said.

Shipley claimed that everyone had been assured that warm weather would kill off respiratory viruses by Memorial Day.

“But some people are so terrified that they want a thin plastic shield separating their face from the rest of the world,” he said. “And looking ridiculous aside, I just don’t understand the scientific validation of some of these things.”

Actually, researchers a the University of Iowa have published a study documenting the effectiveness of face shields as a means of prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Shipley continued, “Seems to me like a lot of in-group virtue-signaling than really anything that has to do with promoting the public health.”

The lawmaker, who won his seat by 37 votes in the 2018 election, went on to claim “this virus isn’t even killing anybody,” and said quarantining patients is ineffective, and “the ventilators are killing people.”

Shipley made all these remarks after telling the crowd of anti-vaxxers, “I’m not going to be governed by unsubstantiated health theories.”

As of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health was reporting that 566 Iowans have died from COVID-19 so far

Shipley later claimed he had misspoke, and when he said, “this virus isn’t even killing anybody,” what he meant to say was “the threat of illness is never enough to justify a mandatory vaccine.” He blamed confusing those two phrases on a failure “to prepare my remarks.”

Of the 564 COVID-19 fatalities IDPH was confirming on Wednesday morning, six had been reported in the previous 24 hours. The department also reported that only 60 new cases of the virus had been confirmed since Tuesday at 10 a.m. That was the lowest number of new cases reported for several weeks.

But the good news of the low number of cases reported by IDPH was tempered by an announcement from Tyson Foods. The company told Bloomberg News it is reinstating its attendance policy that penalizes workers for missing shifts due to illness.

In mid-March, Tyson announced it “relaxing attendance policies in our plants by eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness.” That was done after meat processing plants emerged a hotspots of virus activity, and led to COVID-19 being spread throughout communities like Waterloo and Storm Lake, where Tyson plants are located.

“We’re reinstating our standard attendance policy,” a Tyson spokesperson told Bloomberg in an email. “But our position on Covid-19 has not changed: Workers who have symptoms of the virus or have tested positive will continue to be asked to stay home and will not be penalized. They will also continue to qualify for short-term disability pay so they can continue to be paid while they’re sick.”

On Tuesday, Tyson finally confirmed the number of workers infected with COVID-19 at its plants in Storm Lake and Council Bluffs. Out of the workers tested in Storm Lake, 591 tested positive for the virus, while 224 of the workers tested in Council Bluff were confirmed as having COVID-19.

Tyson already has significant protection against legal liability in matters related to spread of COVID-19 at its processing plants. On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to order all beef, pork, poultry and egg processing plants in the country to remain open and continue working.

The DPA is a Korean War-era law intended to ensure the U.S. will have access to goods and materials necessary for national security. By declaring the continued operation of those plant to be a matter of national security, the executive order shields companies from legal liability and overrides any safety regulations other than those issued for the plants by the U.S. Labor Department and OSHA.

Providing protection against potential lawsuits was the reason for issuing the order, as Trump revealed while speaking to reporters several hours before signing it.

“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe,” Trump said. “It was a very unique circumstance because of liability.” The president did not explain what he meant by that.

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