Businesses tread carefully to avoid legal trouble

News Photo by Julie Riddle One of the many small businesses allowed to open for the first time in months, Mr. Mustache and Company in Rogers City unlocked its doors Friday as employers across northern Michigan considered their legal liability while keeping customers and employees safe.

ALPENA — Locking a business’s doors is challenge enough.

Unlocking them, with a runaway virus still not fully contained and a river of regulations through which to wade, is a process daunting to small business owners and restaurateurs, some of whom opened this weekend for the first time in more than two months.

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said stores, restaurants, and offices in many northern Michigan counties can allow customers and employees back inside after they were closed in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The permission came with 21 pages of regulations, and four days in which to digest and implement them.

As area residents weigh their comfort level with being back in enclosed public spaces after nearly ten weeks away, the owners of those businesses, eager for the return of customers, have to tread carefully to avoid legal trouble for themselves while also keeping customers and employees safe.

Employers are in new legal territory, and everyone is learning at the same time, said Alpena attorney Karen Bennett.

As the owner of downtown Alpena’s Center Building, which houses 13 small businesses in addition to her law firm, Bennett has worked with her tenants extensively this week, crafting strategies for reopening in a way that complies with state regulations.

Customers going into newly-opened stores can expect to find a lot of signs, Bennett said. Businesses are required to provide information in writing to their customers, explaining new policies.

Masks can be expected, on employees and customers alike. According to the governor, if customers aren’t wearing a mask, store and restaurant owners aren’t allowed to let them enter.

In offices, masks aren’t required in private work spaces but should be worn at the break room, in hallways, on elevators, and anywhere other people might be.

Employees must be trained in safety protocols and be screened daily, logging information about possible COVID-19 symptoms or potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Scores of other protocols that must be followed are listed in detail in the governor’s orders, from turning off drinking fountains to disinfecting pens.

Businesses have to keep detailed records of how they are complying with orders and must be ready to produce them for inspection. Failing to do so, or to not adhere to the pages and pages of regulations allowing them to reopen, can get them into legal trouble and make them vulnerable to civil lawsuits.

As customers reacquaint themselves with the pleasure of non-essential shopping and find their seat in a restaurant dining room with half the tables gone, they’re going to experience varying levels of comfort, Bennett said.

Some will be ready to be out and about with no limitations.

Others may be more hesitant, more worried about their safety.

As shoppers, diners, and newly-returned office employees respect the feelings of those shopping, dining, and working around them, Bennett hopes they’ll also keep in mind the employers who are working diligently to keep them safe and, at the same time, follow the law.

“They have sacrificed a lot to get to this day,” Bennett said, noting the extra expenses owners are incurring for signage, personal protection equipment, ramped-up cleaning supplies, and more just to be able to open. “We don’t want any customer to put any employer or any business in legal jeopardy.”

Her firm represents small employers, most of which don’t have a department dedicated to figuring out the complicated legal aspects of running a business at a normal time, much less during a pandemic that is flinging new-to-everyone restrictions and guidelines fast and furious.

For the past two months, the phone has been ringing off the hook as clients try to apply the many new business-related laws to their specific situations.

They want to know to respond legally when an employee can’t medically tolerate a mask, or when an employee needs extended time off to care for a family member, or when numerous other coronavirus-related legal issues arise.

With an additional specialty in elder law, Bennett’s firm doesn’t just see employers’ current legal responsibilities as an academic issue.

Clients have gotten sick from the virus, and some have died, Bennett said. Their families have been devastated by the illness.

Small shops, mom-and-pop diners, desks of secretarial staff readjusting from work-at-home life, all will be following pages and pages of rules so that they can protect people who might not be strong enough to withstand the virus, if it’s allowed to come their way.

As northern Michigan leads the way in reopening the state, carefully opening doors on a busy holiday weekend as the rest of the state watches, we have a chance to set an example of how to do so with safety and respect, Bennett said.

“We love that people are coming out, “ Bennett said. “We love to see the vibrancy downtown, and we’re excited about all that the summer holds. We also just want to make sure that we stay safe, both health-wise and legally.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.


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