May 23, 2020

Barry DuVal column: Advancing the commonwealth during COVID-19

This Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who answered the call and made the ultimate sacrifice to defend the individual rights and freedoms we hold so dear as citizens of the greatest nation on Earth. We honor the men and women in the armed services for their contributions to preserving our nation’s freedoms.

At this time in our history, we are fighting a new enemy, a pandemic that threatens the very lives of our citizens and our economy. In response, government leaders in Washington and Richmond must work together to protect our citizens and businesses.

Our government leaders have moved swiftly to enact emergency legislation saving thousands of companies, their employees and families. Business leaders operating in essential industries have adjusted to protect workers and customers. Additionally, when increased testing capacity was needed, bioscience companies responded.

When government leaders asked for more personal protective equipment, manufacturing companies responded. When essential industries needed to quickly develop solutions to maintain operations, while protecting workers and consumers, businesses responded. Business leaders have worked together with government leaders to assist the economy and save lives.

Our country and our commonwealth face two crises: a health crisis due to the pandemic and an economic crisis due to the shutdown of business in response. The ideal approach is to end the economic crisis by ending the health crisis; however, we know that developing, approving and distributing a vaccine will take time. It is unfeasible to keep the economy shut down as we wait on the vaccination process.

So, how do we move forward to face this challenge? Government and business leaders must work together and put forward a plan that reduces obstacles to reopen, while protecting workers, customers and businesses. A key to being successful is providing citizens with confidence in their safety at work, and in public places through specific and consistent guidance.

To that end, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce launched its “Blueprint for Getting Virginians Back to Work” initiative, which will provide recommendations on operating in the current economic climate and how to return stronger than before. Over the past three weeks, we surveyed thousands of Virginia businesses to identify their needs.

The final plan will be released in early June; however, the preliminary findings show that Virginia businesses are ready and able to answer the call. Business owners are prepared to open, and keep the health and safety of Virginians as their top priority.

They are prepared to use innovative strategies to keep the stream of commerce flowing, such as expanding telework options for workers, providing flexibility and expanding benefits, and enhancing procedures such as social distancing and sanitation regimens in the workplace.

Business leaders need additional assistance from our elected leaders, however. We all want workers to be safe and confident in their work environment. Businesses that meet the standards to protect workers and customers should not have to fear litigation.

There already have been hundreds of lawsuits filed against businesses claiming infection because of business operations. Government leaders need to adopt policies to provide indemnification to protect responsible businesses from these suits.

There have been discussions surrounding a choice between allowing businesses to reopen and prioritizing the safety of employees.

These goals are not mutually exclusive. We must work collaboratively to support innovative solutions to accomplish both outcomes. We all are fighting a common enemy, and in order to return as a stronger commonwealth, we must allow the economy to fully reopen in a way that will prioritize safety and preserve the financial well-being of our workers.

With 1 in 5 businesses that participated in our survey confirming they have completely suspended operations due to COVID-19, I call on our government leaders to protect businesses and their employees in the reopening process through clear and consistent guidance.

Together we will defeat this pandemic, and the threat to the health of our citizens and economy.

By working together, we will be successful in opening for business, protecting our citizens and leveraging the free enterprise system to create a brighter future for Virginia.