The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing response have impacted Idahoans in very personal ways: businesses, jobs, and opportunities for higher education have been lost; churches have been closed; K-12 schools have been disrupted; proms, ball games, recreational activities and entertainment have been cancelled; special events, graduations, weddings, and funerals have been difficult, or even impossible, to hold; elderly residents in nursing homes and extended care facilities have been isolated from families; and Idahoans have been denied the opportunity to be with close family members during times of serious illness and even death in hospital settings.
Add to all this, ever-changing recommendations and guidelines on how to prevent viral spread, fear of legal action if a customer or a student should come down with COVID-19, volatile markets and a sense that “normal’”may never return, and you have a perfect recipe for frustration and even despair. People are tired of uncertainty and, more than ever before, mistrustful of government intentions, management and mandates.
These feelings were running particularly high in regard to the recent special session of the Idaho legislature, in part because of a proposed liability immunity bill on the agenda that was written in such a way that it gave those who have made decisions about the COVID shutdown and the ensuing regulations immunity from liability for their actions. This bill had been re-drafted twice and amended repeatedly but still lacked support in the legislature, and many Idaho citizens were not willing to sit back while the state government gave itself a free pass on accountability. In spite of a rough start, I was grateful to see the special session finish, feeling that the Idaho legislature had taken some strong positive steps to address a very real crisis that I believe is even more significant than the public health crisis — a crisis of confidence.
The critical turning point in the special session was the opportunity to introduce a new and different liability immunity bill that addressed the primary concern of businesses and schools by doing a very simple, common-sense thing: declaring that people are not liable for something they do not know about, cannot see, don’t really have any control over and certainly can’t provide any guarantees about: coronavirus infections.
Never before have schools, businesses, churches or athletic coaches had to worry about getting sued because someone involved with their activities or business got a flu, a cold, or any other viral infection. But somehow people are supposed to guarantee safety from COVID, and the threat of lawsuits, particularly in regard to schools and businesses (which are being told by insurance companies that such suits would not be covered by liability insurance) was enough to make many hesitant to resume normal activities.
Fortunately I was able to sponsor a new bill (House Bill 6) to address this significant concern. House Bill 6 included a couple of important changes from the prior liability immunity bill. It did NOT give immunity for ALL actions somehow related to COVID, only immunity from liability for damages for exposure to coronavirus. It did not include a “good faith” (in following regulations) requirement to receive immunity. This requirement, included in some previous drafts, raised concerns that businesses would be required to become the enforcement arm of government agencies or health districts to retain their liability immunity. House Bill 6 also clearly excluded state and federal governments and health districts from immunity. These entities are already covered under other laws, and excluding them from the bill sent a clear message to concerned Idahoans that this bill was, in no way, a nefarious attempt by the executive branch, or anyone else, to avoid public accountability.
Lastly, House Bill 6 addressed concerns about “bad actors” by not giving immunity to willful or reckless misconduct, meaning that if a person knows they have an infection and consciously chooses to expose others, they are liable for damages. The standard now established for Idahoans with the adoption of this bill is a standard that businesses, schools and others can reasonably navigate. No longer should the threat of a frivolous lawsuit outweigh the real needs of the people our businesses and institutions were created to serve.
I was grateful to see House Bill 6 receive the support of an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate, and appreciate the work and efforts of my colleagues whose collaboration made its passage possible. It was rewarding to see those often on opposing sides of issues come together in support of a principled, common sense solution for the benefit of the people of Idaho.
Most rewarding of all was the opportunity to see Idaho citizens who came outraged and suspicious soften as their concerns were heard and effectively addressed with House Bill 6. It was a great experience to see our constitutional, republican form of government in action. It is my sincere hope that these actions were a significant step toward addressing and resolving the very real crisis of confidence.
Whatever else we have lost, we must not lose our faith in the constitutional government that protects our freedom, our hope for a better tomorrow, and our willingness to serve and work together peaceably in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
Julianne Young is an Idaho House representative.