Coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A mix of relief, fear and uncertainty has cropped up for business leaders and worker advocates in Georgia eyeing new protections for companies and hospitals against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Liability legislation passed the General Assembly last week to shield Georgia businesses and health-care facilities from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus in all but the worst negligence or recklessness cases.

Gov. Brian Kemp has not yet decided whether to sign the liability protections into law. His office said Thursday the legislation is still under legal review.

If he signs the bill, business groups say the protection measures should lend confidence to a range of Georgia enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums that they will not face crippling litigation due to coronavirus.

But union representatives worry workers will be left in the lurch as thousands of front-line and low-wage employees in the state struggle to keep themselves safe from the virus either in the workplace or the courts.

“We rely on those people for our well-being and for our survival,” said Charlie Flemming, president of the AFL-CIO’s Georgia chapter. “If we’re not going to treat those front-line people with every safety precaution, I think that’s just a misplaced judgment.”

Senate Bill 359 would let Georgia businesses and hospitals waive liability for coronavirus-related claims so long as they post certain warning signs and do not willfully or grossly neglect their patrons or workers.

Those protections would take effect as soon as Kemp signs the bill and would cover anyone who contracts coronavirus until July 14, 2021.

The intent is to give local businesses and health-care workers assurances their actions likely won’t lead to lawsuits as they continue struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, said state lawmakers supporting the bill.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce backs the bill, noting the liability measures aim to reduce legal risks for businesses still rebounding from the economic slowdown spurred by the virus.

“The Georgia Chamber prioritizes the health and well-being of all Georgians as we support state leadership to safely reopen our economy,” said David Raynor, a spokesman. “COVID-19 threatens not only the health of Georgians but also their livelihood.”

A host of sanitizing and social distancing measures for restaurants, offices and other gathering spots also remain in place under orders by the governor.

Kemp has sought to spur the state’s economic recovery by relaxing closure mandates and certain social distancing requirements put in place since April, even as positive cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations have climbed in recent weeks.

As of Thursday afternoon, about 87,700 people in Georgia had contracted COVID-19. It had killed 2,849 Georgians.

Meanwhile, the liability protections face stern pushback from worker advocates like Flemming and the AFL-CIO, which has 220,000 members in Georgia from a spectrum of industries like food service, airports, building trades, nursing homes and poultry plants.

Arguing safety issues will likely hit low-income workers hardest, Flemming called the bill an example that “once again the state has put profits and corporations ahead of workers.”

Flemming also argued state workers’ compensation laws – which would not be disrupted under the bill – are already too weak for employees to address coronavirus-related problems.

Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly also condemned the bill in debates over its passage in the final hours of the 2020 legislative session late last month, arguing more safety considerations should be made for workers.

They especially homed in on a decision by the bill writers to make “gross negligence” the minimum threshold for having a COVID-19 damage claim, which attorneys on both sides of the issue acknowledge is a high hurdle to meet – but not impossible.

Republican lawmakers in the state Senate also took issue with that standard, contending it would be too lax to fully protect businesses and hospitals from lawsuits.

Setting the bar at gross negligence marked a compromise between health-care professionals, business leaders and trial attorneys. Critically, it persuaded the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association to support the bill following last-minute negotiations in the session.

Brett Turnbull, a trial attorney with offices in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., agreed keeping gross negligence in the bill was key for giving workers some legal options despite his concerns generally with immunity-style COVID-19 liability measures.

“The gross negligence standard is definitely the sweet spot,” Turnbull said. “It can create issues, but I think how it’s written is probably the best way it can be written. Otherwise, every business that opened would be in a predicament.”

Even so, Turnbull said liability protections that include gross negligence could still dissuade workers with legitimate cases from filing claims. Near-immunity from lawsuits might also encourage some businesses to avoid taking all possible steps to keep their premises clean and safe, he said.

“The longer that this pandemic continues to rage in our country, and the more people who are getting sick and dying, balancing that with businesses that recognize they would suffer economic ruin creates a very, very flammable situation,” Turnbull said. “It’s hard to say what people are going to do.”