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Senate advances last-minute bill exempting business owners from COVID liability
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Senate advances last-minute bill exempting business owners from COVID liability

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Special Session

A limited number of state representatives attend the special session in person at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne on Friday. The session was held over a video conference call with many representatives calling in from their respective homes or offices.

CHEYENNE — State lawmakers on Friday advanced controversial, first-of-its-kind legislation to exempt private businesses from legal liability for incidentally exposing patrons to COVID-19, in a move several said lays a bad precedent for the Legislature as it works to rapidly respond to the economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

Introduced in the Legislature by Sheridan Republicans Richard Tass and Dave Kinskey late Thursday night, the bill preemptively absolves any business from litigation should some eventually contract COVID-19 at their business — something Kinskey said would help to “increase business confidence” as Wyoming begins loosening social distancing restrictions across the state.

The legislation would offer similar protections to those implemented for some medical facilities around the country. It would address an increasingly common concern for small business owners looking to allow the public back inside of their stores after nearly two months of closures. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the United States Senate, has backed including provisions in federal relief bills that require states to implement liability waivers for businesses to qualify for the aid.

Experts have cautioned against broad legislation absolving businesses from liability, and the bill would still allow lawsuits from anyone who contracted COVID-19 from “an intentional action of exposing an individual to coronavirus.” Still, some lawmakers argued that the bill overstepped its constitutional bounds and took away people’s constitutional right to sue for damages against them.

The legislation was taken up by lawmakers with just hours for the public to review the text of the bill, a breakdown in communication some lawmakers said establishes a bad precedent for future sessions. Throughout the weekend’s special session, only four other bills were approved for discussion, and all were approved and vetted by legislative leadership for several weeks before lawmakers convened Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, criticized the speed and lack of transparency involved in the process.

“This is too significant for us to even consider and amend without public participation,” he said. “This is deserving of a full committee process. There’s a reason we don’t have other policy bills this weekend... We didn’t design a session appropriate for separate policy issues.”

The Senate version bill — which passed introduction by a 21-9 vote — was considered critical for businesses as Gov. Mark Gordon has begun removing limits on large social gatherings around the state. However, several lawmakers urged caution, recommending distributing copies of the bill to the public before taking action on it in a later special session this spring.

Kinskey, however, rejected the motion, saying that the legislation was needed “immediately” to help encourage more businesses to open.

“That won’t do any business owners any good,” he said of a delay.

There is no guarantee the bill will pass, however: While the Senate will work the bill alongside the other four pieces of emergency legislation, the House of Representatives voted against a motion to suspend the rules and debate it as part of the larger relief package, leaving its future in doubt.

Final votes are expected to take place late Friday night and continue into Saturday morning.

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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