As Georgia reopens nail and hair salons, lawyers say companies may be putting themselves at risk

Abby Haglage
·6 mins read
A stylist wearing a protective mask dries a customer's hair at a salon in Atlanta, Georgia, in March. The state's hair salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys and other nonessential businesses were permitted to reopen on Friday. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)
A stylist wearing a protective mask dries a customer's hair at a salon in Atlanta in March. Georgia's hair salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys and other nonessential businesses were permitted to reopen on Friday. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp began the official reopening of the state on Friday, rolling out a plan that allows hair and nail salons to open today and restaurants on Monday. The move comes in spite of warnings from both health experts and President Donald Trump that it’s too soon to allow stores to open their doors. In a tweet, Kemp defended his decision, saying that he’s confident “hardworking Georgians will prioritize the safety of their employees and customers.”

As a part of this effort, Kemp released a 26-page executive order outlining specific precautions that individual businesses need to take, including wearing masks, enforcing social distancing, training employees on hand-washing and avoiding salad bars or other buffets. The requirements get even more specific with certain places. Gyms, for example, are required to “limit use of cardio machines to every other machine”; movie theaters, meanwhile, must sit parties six feet apart.

While the guidelines are extensive, with 800,000 cases of coronavirus in the U.S., some lawyers are concerned that reopening may still put businesses at risk of lawsuits. Mitzi Hill, a corporate attorney and partner at Georgia-based law firm Taylor English, says even if companies take these precautions, it may not necessarily be enough to protect them in the event that COVID-19 spreads through their establishment.

Related: Georgia Reopens Some Businesses Amid Heavy Criticism

Following the guidelines would be a “start of a great defense,” she says, but given how many questions remain about the virus’ spread, it’s not necessarily foolproof. “If [companies] say they complied with what the government said... that’s going to be sympathetic, most likely,” Hill says. “But on the other hand, I don't know what jurors are going to feel like after this. This is a completely unprecedented situation. They may be inclined to say, ‘yeah, you were doing what you should’ or ‘no, that guy got sick and it's your fault.’”

Hill says that despite the governor’s order, she’s already seen anecdotal evidence that companies are waiting. “I have gotten dozens of emails from local businesses ... saying ‘we are not going to reopen,’” Hill says. “My hair salon is not reopening, lots of Atlanta restaurants are not reopening; a gym that I belong to that's part of a national chain initially said they could reopen, but sent another letter saying ‘we're not going to.’”

Georgia is not the only place where companies are grappling with this question. Kemp’s move follows a similar one in South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster reopened non-essential establishments such as department stores, flower shops and sports stores on Monday. Other states poised to reopen in the next few weeks include Tennessee, Ohio, Nevada and Texas.

Richard Dreitzer, an employment attorney at Fennemore Craig in Las Vegas, tells Yahoo Life that concern is warranted. “You have to liken it to a slip and fall. If you own a restaurant and someone slips on your premises, are you liable for their injury?” he says. “I think the analysis is the same that it would be for COVID-19, which would be what they call a negligence analysis.”

Dreitzer says a “negligence analysis” means that a company has a “duty to keep their premise safe” in order for people to come on their property and not be injured. “To uphold your duty, you have to take reasonable steps to keep people safe. If you do not take those steps and someone gets hurt, that is the breach of that duty,” says Dreitzer. “And then if you can prove that that breach caused injury for someone, that will then mean that that business is negligent and then, to the extent of the economic damage, the company would be liable for that.”

COVID-19 proves even more difficult, he says, because we still can’t be sure exactly how easily It spreads. “How do we determine what is sufficient for an employer in order to say, ‘I have done everything in my power to prevent people from getting sick on my premises’? I mean, we have the social distancing, we have hand-washing, we have masks... But the problem is that the employers have to come up with protocols that are going to be sufficient for their business,” says Dreitzer. “Because if you own a clothing store, keeping people six feet apart might be a little easier than if you own a restaurant where food has to be served to people sitting down.”

Hill recommends that businesses consult their insurance agents before deciding to reopen in order to see what risk they may be taking on. Dreitzer says “science and common sense need to dictate,” meaning that companies should consider how much risk their business model poses. “If the nature of your sales means person-to-person contact, like a tattoo parlor, that's unthinkable,” says Dreitzer. “I would absolutely recommend against opening back up until you get the all-clear. But let’s say you own a car lot and you sell used cars. I can think of some clever ways to keep people distance and keep that open.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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