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Florida CFO Patronis Launches Tour Pushing COVID Lawsuit Protections For Businesses

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis speaks in Gainesville during the first stop on what he's calling the "Restaurant Business Liability Tour" on December 1, 2020
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis speaks in Gainesville during the first stop on what he's calling the "Restaurant Business Liability Tour" on Dec. 1, 2020

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is traveling the state visiting restaurants and their owners to push for COVID-19 liability protections for small businesses. It’s a part of growing calls to shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits ahead of the state’s 2021 legislative session.

Sen. Keith Perry joined Patronis on the first stop of what the the CFO has dubbed the “Restaurant Business Liability Tour.”

“When I grew up in Gainesville 40, 50 years ago, you’d drive down a road in Gainesville and every single business was owned by a ‘mom and pop,’ ” the hometown Republican senator reminisced about how business has changed.

Perry spoke alongside the CFO earlier this week at Gainesville restaurant Blue Gill Quality Food.

“We had a JCPenney and we had a Sears, outside of that everything was owned by individuals. Now, almost everything is owned by large corporations,” Perry said. “And while they need protection too, we’re not out to protect the Publixes and the Walmarts, we’re out to protect the small businesses.”

Patronis is a former restaurant owner himself. And the tour is his push to get lawmakers to sign off on COVID-19 liability protections for small businesses, who have struggled since the start of the pandemic:

“In October, the Florida Chamber of Commerce did a survey of their businesses, and the single largest concern at businesses in Florida had is whether or not they were going to be able to reopen after COVID-19,” Patronis said Monday.

Blue Gill owner Bert Gill says customers still coming through his doors are buoying the restaurant for the time being. Yet, times remain tough.

“The idea for us is that we need some help. We need some help from our local government, our state government, our federal government. Some has been given, and we’re enormously grateful for it. We’re enormously grateful for the guests who still support us, my coworkers who show up every day, the people who had to be laid off and we brought back, and the sacrifices they made,” Gill said.

Senate President Wilton Simpson is going into his first legislative session leading the chamber, and he’s made protections for businesses a priority. Still, he’s warning those protections shouldn’t be overly broad.

“I don’t think you ever in any condition, put a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID, but I think if you’ve made the right attempt to follow the CDC guidelines, then I think that’s something we should take a look at,” Simpson told press following the legislature’s November organization session.

Threading the needle on the issue will likely generate debate over how far lawmakers should go.

During a stop in Orlando on Tuesday, Patronis noted some large corporations are seeing lawsuits come their way, with what he described as “sue-and-settle tactics.”

“These suits will ultimately cause insurance rates to go up, and the flood of attorneys that will then pursue litigation, closing small businesses. We can’t let that happen, not in Florida – so we must get tourism back up and running, we must improve overall consumer confidence,” Patronis insisted. “And that means Tallahassee must lead. We must provide small business owners the confidence to be able to reopen without the fear of litigation.”

And Blue Gill owner Bert Gill says if he were to get hit with a lawsuit, it could tank his already struggling small business.

“Litigation is just another threat that hangs over my head,” Gill said. “The piggy bank’s empty. You know, we’ve drained everything to keep going, to make payroll. It goes on a credit card sometimes. It’s really, really tough.”

Patronis says even if they get added protections, businesses should still do everything they can to protect their customers and employees from COVID-19.

Florida this week surpassed one million recorded cases of coronavirus. Governor Ron DeSantis has said no further business restrictions or lockdowns will be put in place.
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