Tri-Cities lawmakers hope COVID-19 legal protection bill will help schools reopen in-person

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Tennessee’s special legislative session ended with the passage of a major COVID-19 liability shield bill. The measure, known as the Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act, passed with bipartisan support. It will provide new legal protections for businesses, healthcare organizations, schools, religious organizations, and nonprofits.

The legislation protects against legal claims made from August 3rd onward. Governor Lee is expected to sign it into law in the coming days.

On Thursday, supporting lawmakers called the legislation a win for business owners trying to get back on their feet amid the pandemic. Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said the Act protects businesses following safety guidelines when reopening.

“Because businesses across the state were basically saying, ‘Hey help us. We want to come back and we’re taking precautions, but we need a safeguard that we’re not going to get sued in a frivolous lawsuit,'” said Lundberg.

Those lawsuits might involve someone suing an organization for loss, damage, injury, or death related to COVID-19. Anyone suing would need clear and convincing evidence that this was caused by gross negligence or willful misconduct.

“If an employee contracts COVID, and [the employer] is being malicious about it, forcing them to come back to work, those folks are still going to have a lawsuit filed against them,” said Lundberg. “And they’re probably going to lose that because they’re not doing basic safety measures.”

Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) said organizations with policies in place meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be protected under the legislation.

“This is going to be a way to limit liability on the businesses who have done it the right way, and have called for masks and called for social distancing,” said Hawk.

Hawk and Lundberg said the Recovery and Safe Harbor Act will be helpful in safeguarding schools as they attempt to bring students back amid the pandemic.

“That’s going to help us get these school buildings open more quickly,” said Hawk.

“Most of us all agree that the best thing is for kids to be back in school in the most safe way possible. And I think they can do that, but they don’t need this cloud of fear hanging over their head,” said Lundberg.

Washington County Director of Schools Dr. Bill Flanary said he hadn’t yet read the legislation passed on Wednesday. But he said it shouldn’t have too much impact as the school system decides to bring kids back to classrooms or not. Instead, the school system will make decisions based on how safe conditions are for teachers and students.

“I’ll say that I’m glad for whatever protection that we are afforded by the legislation and we’re going to have school regardless. We want to do it safely, and this legislation will not sway that decision,” said Dr. Flanary.

Flanary emphasized that if the community really wants children back in schools, they should follow safely protocols.

“We need social distancing and masks a lot worse than we need new legislation,” he said.

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