Dear Chamber Members,
This week’s business update compiled by your Greater Sumter Chamber Team includes: Need for Liability Protections Gaining Steam Around the Nation, Governor McMaster Announces New K-12 Education Grant for Private Schools, SC House COVID-19 Public Education Committee Discusses Broadband, School Reopening Plans
1. Need for Liability Protection Gaining Steam Around the Nation
Chambers of Commerce across South Carolina continue to prioritize passage of liability protections for businesses, healthcare providers and educational institutions with both federal and state policymakers. See below the latest actions and stay tuned for more updates in the coming days and weeks ahead.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Makes Liability Protections A Priority for Next Federal COVID-19 Bill: Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addressed the issue on the Senate floor as he spoke about upcoming COVID-19 legislation, saying:
“As I have said for months, the next recovery package will include strong legal protections for the healthcare workers who saved strangers’ lives and the schools, colleges, churches and businesses that want to reopen. The American people will not see their historic recovery gobbled up by trial lawyers who are itching to follow this pandemic with a second epidemic of frivolous lawsuits. Gross negligence will still be actionable, but we’re creating a safe harbor for institutions that make good-faith efforts to follow the guidelines available to them. Doctors and nurses clearly deserve this protection and school districts, universities, non-profits, and small business will need it as well if we want any genuine reopening at all.”
We expect the proposal to be released this week.
Governor McMaster Signs Onto Letter Calling For Liability Protections To Be Included in Next Federal COVID-19 Bill: The Governor joined 20 other Governors in a letter to congressional leadership calling for Congress to include temporary, limited liability protection for businesses in order to quickly and safely accelerate the reopening of states’ economies. The letter states:
“When Americans take sensible steps to implement public health best practices, they should have confidence that they will be secure from unreasonable claims. Liability protections must be predictable, timely, targeted, and shield employers from legal risk when following the appropriate standard of care to protect employees, customers, and students. To be clear, liability protections are not a license for gross negligence, misconduct, or recklessness.”
Another Southeastern State Passes Liability Protection Legislation: Last week, Mississippi passed a strong COVID-19 liability protection bill, joining four other Southeastern states who have done so. As of right now, South Carolina, Florida, and West Virginia are the only Southeastern states which have taken no action to protect businesses that were asked to remain open to deliver essential services throughout the pandemic. Currently, of 12 Southeastern states, five have passed legislation and four governors have taken executive action
- Georgia: SB 359; COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act, passed June 26, 2020
- Kentucky: Senate Bill 150; signed by governor March 30, 2020
- Mississippi: S.B. 3049 Back-to-Business Liability Assurance Act and Healthcare Emergency Response Liability Protection Act; Enacted July 8, 2020
- North Carolina:
- Executive Actions:
- Alabama; Eighth Supplemental State of Emergency: Coronavirus (COVID-19); issued May 8, 2020
- Tennessee: Executive Order Number 54; issued July 1, 2020
- Virginia: Executive Order Number 60; Issued April 28, 2020
Recent Media Coverage:
- Lawmakers consider protection for SC businesses, schools from COVID-19 related lawsuits
- “We need to make sure that bad actors are not given a break, but that the people who are trying to do it right can reopen their businesses in their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.” – U.S. Senator for South Carolina Lindsey Graham
- What we’re looking for is the opportunity to know what guidance’s we should be using, and if we use them we’ll have temporary protection from liability for the duration of this crisis. And this really creates an incentive for business including colleges to follow those guidances…The sooner we can get legislation like this, the better.” – Dr. Jeff Perez, South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities President and CEO
- “Protection for businesses that are good actors, that followed protocols that worked to keep employees and customers safe. It’s a no-brainer from the business community perspective, but you shouldn’t be surprised there are trial attorneys out there that don’t want this passed.” – Ted Pitts, SC Chamber President and CEO
On Monday this week, Governor McMaster announced that he is allocating $32 of $48 million in the Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds designated for South Carolina to what he is dubbing “Safe Access to Flexible Education” (SAFE) Grants. These grants will be for one-time, needs-based grants of up to $6,500 that will help subsidize the 2020-21 tuition for eligible students at participating private, parochial or independent schools in South Carolina. Approximately 5,000 grants will be funded. To be eligible for SAFE Grants, a student must be from a household with an adjusted gross income of 300% or less of the federal poverty level.
While these grants are for students at private schools, public schools have also received CARES Act funding via different sources. The public K-12 education COVID-19 funds allocated to date include:
- Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Funds – allocated directly to the State Department of Education (SDE) for school districts – $216.3 Million
- Coronavirus Relief Funds allocated by the General Assembly:
- Summer academic recovery camps and five-days of instruction prior to opening schools – $210.7 million
- Meal costs – $12.0 million
- Total $439 Million
It was just reported yesterday that a judge has temporarily blocked the Governor’s decision to use the $32 million for SAFE Grants due to a court filing that states that the plan violates a section of the SC Constitution that disallows government funding of private or religious education. Arguments are expected in court next week.
In a hearing yesterday, the House COVID-19 Public Education Committee, Chaired by Representative Raye Felder, heard extensive testimony from SC State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman about the state’s plans for reopening schools in the fall. One of the major items she announced was as a result of the $50 million in CARES Act Funds for broadband, the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) will work with the State Department of Education (SDE), the Commission on Higher Education (CHE), and internet providers throughout the state to provide mobile hotspots or internet service to a minimum of 100,000 households over the next several months. Priority is being given to households in counties that contain a school district that has been defined by the South Carolina Department of Education as having a poverty rate greater than or equal to 86%.
In terms of reopening, Superintendent Spearman noted that although the deadline for submitting reopening plans was Friday last week, none have been approved at this time and 35 districts have asked for an extension. She expects those who have been granted an extension will be able to get the plans in by the end of this week. Regardless of each district’s final plan, the SDE said there must be initial in-person contact and then intermittent in-person contact with students to make sure they remain accounted for. Most of the plans submitted thus far contain either an all-virtual learning or hybrid (mix of virtual and in-person) model for fall instruction. The Superintendent noted that she plans to make an announcement about the first approved plans in the very near future.
Chris Hardy, CCE, IOM
President & CEO
Have a great day,
Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce