SC biz leaders call for protections from virus liability

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, right, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing as state epidemiologist Linda Bell, left, looks on. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Wary of possible vulnerability to coronavirus-related lawsuits, hundreds of members of South Carolina’s business community are calling on the state’s federal lawmakers to support liability protections they see as vital for the state’s economic recovery.

In a letter sent Tuesday to all nine members of the state’s federal delegation and organized by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, employers from major manufacturers and institutions of higher learning to health care providers and mom-and-pop businesses ask members of the House and Senate to support the SAFE TO WORK Act.

They argued the act “provides targeted and temporary liability relief that would protect businesses, healthcare providers, and educational institutions against unfair and costly COVID-19 related lawsuits that threaten to derail our state’s economic recovery.”

Introduced in by Texas Republican John Cornyn, the measure has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Chamber President and CEO Ted Pitts told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the federal legislation would benefit both customers and employees, including those at educational institutions grappling with safe ways to reconvene classes in just a few weeks as the outbreak continues.

“We just want our federal delegation to understand how important this is,” Pitts said. “If they’re really looking out for South Carolina businesses and schools, then they’ll make it a priority.”

In the months since the pandemic began, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has consistently stressed the parallel needs to quash the virus while not unnecessarily hampering the state’s economy, which has experienced a steep decline. Earlier this year, he convened a re-opening task force, which made recommendations on staggered steps toward bringing back the thousands of jobs lost.

In the weeks since, McMaster has gradually allowed businesses to reopen, issuing an order taking effect Monday that allowed the last of those — entertainment venues, among them — to do so.

On Tuesday, state health officials announced that confirmed positive tests had risen to about 93,600 in the state, amounting to more than 1,770 deaths since the pandemic began.

Also noted in the businesses’ letter is the fact that South Carolina has not passed such liability protections on the state level, a step already taken in dozens of other states. South Carolina lawmakers didn’t get to the issue when they briefly convened in Columbia this summer, focusing on the allocation of federal aid.

On Tuesday, Pitts said he was hopeful state-level progress on the issue could be made when lawmakers return for several weeks in September.

“There’s been a good strong bill introduced in South Carolina that we hope the leaders will take up and pass,” Pitts said. “It is one of those things that the business community needs.”