LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday signed executive orders protecting businesses from liability if a customer or employee is exposed to the coronavirus.
Hutchinson signed the three orders instead of calling a special session of the state legislature to address the matter. The orders give businesses immunity to civil liability as a result of virus exposure, provides worker's compensation and give healthcare workers the authority to use crisis standards in treating the virus.
Highlights of Governor Hutchinson’s executive orders on #COVID19 liability:
- Assures workers comp coverage for employees
- Classifies COVID-19 as an “occupational disease”
- Requires “causal connection” between employment/disease
Arkansas moved into phase two of reopening on Monday. Restaurants are now allowed to operate at two-thirds capacity. Hutchinson, with members of the general assembly, said at a news conference Monday that the new executive orders will give some businesses the confidence to reopen without fear of damaging litigation.
"If they are making the right effort, and following the guidelines that are out there, the fear of litigation should be minimized," Arkansas Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said.
A group of legislators sent a letter to the governor expressing their concern for local businesses who could face lawsuits linked to reopening during the pandemic. Hutchinson said that it wasn't a good time to call a special session because of the pandemic. He instead worked with legislators to issue the executive orders.
"So many [businesses] have been so battered ... now the thought that they are going to open up, try to get back on their feet, and get hit by lawsuits -- that was something that was a concern to so many," Sen. Jim Hendren said.
Hendren said that the new orders will help protect business owners who are "doing their best to try to survive" during the pandemic. Immunity will only be granted to businesses who are making efforts to follow public health guidelines.
“It’s important to keep in mind, this is not absolute immunity,” Shepherd said. “We’re providing some protections from frivolous litigation.”
Immunity is effective until the state's emergency declaration is terminated.
Arkansas reported an additional 416 cases of COVID-19 and three additional deaths on Monday. Of the new cases, 126 came from Washington County and 53 came from Benton County. A large number of Benton County cases were from seven households, officials said.
On Monday, 206 people were hospitalized for the virus and 45 patients were on ventilators.
As cases steadily increase in northwest Arkansas, the governor said the state is keeping an eye on hospitalizations in the region. Hospitals have not reached capacity and Hutchinson said the state will ensure they have the resources they need.
“We’re asking for individual, social responsibility. That’s what Arkansas is about,” Hutchinson said. “I continue to drive how serious this is, and we need to take the steps that we can individually."
There were 12,917 total cases of COVID-19 in the state Monday, of which 4,383 were considered to be active. There were 8,352 people who had recovered from the virus and 182 who had died.
In the past 24 hours, Hutchinson said, there were 7,063 tests conducted, surpassing the state's testing record. Arkansas’ positivity rate has decreased over the past few days to 4.7 percent.
“We have a temptation to let down our guard because we’ve been dealing with it for a long time," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said on Monday that he expects the number of cases to continue rising.
"I don't believe that we've reached this second peak, which very well may be our first peak," Hutchinson said. "Protect yourself and protect others while you’re out in public. That is very very important for us.”