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Consumers face uphill battle over COVID-19 business immunity

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida consumer groups are protesting legislative efforts to give businesses immunity from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

The legislation is on a fast track, but it faces partisan opposition.

Just a handful of COVID-related lawsuits against businesses have been filed so far, but hundreds are being cued up.

“There is an overwhelming concern by consumers,” Susan McGrath, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said.

Legislation to protect businesses is on the fast track in the Capitol. Unions and others have so far been unable to stop it.

“There will be no accountability for them if their employees or if their consumers get sick,” said Dr. Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

Attorney Michael Levine, who represents the family of a Publix deli worker who died last April, said the grocery chain wasn’t thinking about its workers.

“Publix made that decision to prohibit masks because they were worried that the masks would scare off customers,” he said.

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But State Sen. Jeff Brandes said as long as businesses followed changing guidelines, they shouldn’t face lawsuits.

“We’ve seen the standards evolve. I think that’s the key,” said Brandes, the Senate sponsor. “Were businesses actively participating in keeping up with the standards? Were they looking at the CDC guidance when it came out?

So far, just one Republican has voted against the immunity provisions, while zero Democrats support the measure.

“There are 22 million Floridians that are suffering,” State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said.

Jenne believes GOP lawmakers are looking out for the wrong Floridians by supporting this legislation.

“I think we need to pass policy that is going to be best for those 22 million,” Jenne said.

And If the immunity legislation passes as is, workers could have little recourse. COVID-19 is not covered under workers’ compensation.

The House and Senate are expected to take up the immunity legislation on the chamber floor during the first week of this spring’s session, which starts on March 2.