The coronavirus challenge: What hospitality should consider

As the novel coronavirus spreads, the landscape is constantly changing. To date, the hospitality industry has borne the brunt of this upheaval. In these trying circumstances, it is important for hospitality companies to focus on implementing sensible policies to limit not only the spread of the virus, but also mitigate the risk of any potential legal liability.

Immediate action

Regardless of business structure and clientele, there are steps companies can take to isolate themselves from infection and legal liability without alienating customers or employees.

Promote and emphasize general health and safety techniques. Though the coronavirus is novel, there are tried and true steps individuals can take to limit its spread. Proper hand washing, maintaining appropriate social distance, appropriate coughing/sneezing technique and voluntary quarantine of those with symptoms are all effective ways to prevent transmission. These techniques can be effectively communicated via signage posted on the premises and reminders provided by employees. Consider the first languages spoken by employees and whether translations will foster compliance.

While all businesses can and, if feasible, should promote proper health and safety, these efforts are crucial in businesses that have routine customer-employee interaction. Noticeable signage can bolster customer confidence and even provide evidence of company efforts, should legal issues arise.

Protect against the spread of misinformation. New information is constantly being released about the novel coronavirus, and not all of it is accurate or truthful. Companies should take special care to only post and encourage verified information, so as not to inadvertently contribute to spreading misinformation to customers and employees. If businesses fail to properly vet the health and safety information they share, they may even risk legal liability. Post only verified information from trusted sources, such as the CDC and other qualified agencies or trusted healthcare providers.

Protect against cybersecurity threats. Scammers have already started taking advantage of fears and anxiety, posing as government agencies seeking financial and other sensitive data from unwitting companies. It is important to rely on trusted cybersecurity experts and approach any request for such information with due caution.

Revisit your company’s health and safety policies and procedures. Now, more than ever, it is crucial that businesses have an appropriate health and safety policy in place, and that their employees adhere to that policy. Given the contagious nature of the virus, all businesses that rely on in-person interactions must have set protocols in place to ensure that their employees are not contributing to the spread of infection.

Health policies should include, at a minimum: Routine disinfecting of commonly used surfaces and other areas likely to harbor and/or transmit the virus; specific action to prevent the spread of the illness through employee-customer contact; and clear and definitive protocols for identifying and quarantining coronavirus-positive employees from the workplace.

If a company’s health and safety policies are deficient, they should be amended and implemented as soon as possible. If the policies are adequate, companies should ensure that they are being precisely followed by every employee. Failure to do so could expose the company to legal liability related to contraction of the coronavirus.

Consider adopting additional coronavirus-specific policies and procedures. Even policies that are “adequate” to deal with the spread of the coronavirus may nevertheless fail to instill confidence in a business’ clients. The adoption of additional safety measures can help bolster customers’ impression of the business and encourage continued or even increased patronage. Moreover, additional safeguards can help further limit potential liability fallout should a customer attempt to tie coronavirus contraction to that business. Such measures can include, but are not limited to: Adopt self-service pay systems, combined with regular and thorough sanitization of the terminals; provide complimentary hand-sanitizer and encourage its use; temporarily suspend nonessential services and events deemed likely to increase spread of the virus; prepare for potential employee issues—even with the most stringent health and safety efforts, there is no guarantee employees will not contract the virus. Companies should have a plan in place to deal with staffing reductions; have a detailed and prepared course of action in the event operating costs (including employee wages and salaries) exceed revenues; and have ready the most up-to-date information on worker’s compensation and business interruption insurance coverages.

Additionally, companies should closely monitor employees and their health conditions. If any employee is expressing symptoms, or there is a reasonable basis to believe that he or she has contracted the virus, businesses should take reasonable and appropriate precautions to ensure that the illness does not spread to others. This may include sending the employee home for a significant period. These efforts may be necessary not only to limit spread of the virus within the company, but also to shield the company from customer lawsuits in the future.

Be aware of other available assistance. In addition to insurance coverage, businesses should stay up to date on other forms of relief. Most notably, President Trump recently directed the United States Small Business Administration (SBA) to make low-interest working capital loans available to small businesses affected by the pandemic.

Next steps

Certain events are likely to transpire across a number of businesses—staffing reductions, decreases in revenue and even legal liability. The most crucial step in anticipating and preparing for these issues is to follow the immediate action guidelines set forth above. These efforts will help reduce the risk of spread and legal liability, potentially obviating any further action. However, there are no guarantees, and the following steps could help lessen the impact of the coronavirus on hospitality businesses in the future:

Remain vigilant against potential sources of liability. Amid the focus on the coronavirus, it is somewhat natural to overlook other everyday concerns that can also engender risk to a business. It is important to remember traditional sources of liability in the hospitality industry—slip and falls, tainted food products, and employee negligence—remain just as significant now as they did before the outbreak.

If issues do arise, know where to turn for guidance. The coronavirus is already impacting the legal world, from infection litigation to breach of contract actions. If disputes do arise, it will be important for businesses to coordinate with experienced counsel who specialize in these matters. 

Sara M. Turner is a shareholder in the Birmingham, AL, office and serves as co-chair of Baker Donelson’s Hospitality Industry Service Team. Chris Saville is a litigation associate in Baker Donelson’s Birmingham office and is a member of the Hospitality, Franchising and Distribution Team.

Let us know what you think… To comment on this opinion piece, or to voice your own opinion about pertinent industry topics, please email Editor-in-Chief Christina Trauthwein at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you and share your point of view.