CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Legislature have passed legislation which would authorize a COVID-19 rent assistance program and relief and protections for Wyoming employers if Governor Mark Gordon signs the legislation into law.
Up to $15 million from the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding or future federal funding received by Wyoming would go toward the rent assistance program.
Debate in the House of Representatives about a provision amended into the legislation by a Joint Conference Community to give businesses protections from civil lawsuits stemming from people catching the virus threatened to delay the legislation toward the final hour of the May 15-16 special legislative session.
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The amendment clarifies that businesses have “good faith” protections from civil liabilities by adding the term “business entities” into Wyoming Statute 35-4-114.
Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow told members of the House who were concerned about creating legal immunity for business by protecting them from people’s right to pursue civil action that he shared their concerns.
“Members, this is probably the most robust debate I’ve had over a computer screen in a long time, so well done,” Barlow said on Saturday evening before the House voted on whether to accept the Joint Conference Committee’s report on the legislation. “
But Barlow argued that other provisions in the legislation which provide assistance for lost rent income stemming from people being out of work and to help backfill employers’ worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance benefits were important enough that the House should pass the legislation.
He said getting such support into place would be important not only in response to the recent outbreak, but if a second wave of COVID-19 impacts the economy.
“We don’t have much disease in the state thankfully right now,” Barlow said. “I don’t know what the fall might bring or next year. This isn’t all response, some of this is preparation.”
Others who initially said they planned to support the legislation said the House’s debate about the immunity provisions had swayed their vote. Minority Whip Charles Pelkey said he thought it was rare for debate to convince members to change their votes, but said it had done so in his case.
“This debate did me a lot of good,” he said. “I was going to hold my nose and vote aye because of the good things in this bill. I think our discussion is such that we need to vote no. There are some major problems.”
“The immunity clause is so unnerving.”
He said that with the Joint Judiciary Committee set to explore further legislation to give businesses added immunity in coming weeks, including the protections in the legislation could create problems for the legal system.
“There is a possibility we will have an immunity statute that would apply for six weeks, which would cause enormous confusion in the legal system,” he said.
Pelkey added that while Wyoming is friendly to businesses, that shouldn’t come at the expense of individuals.
“Wyoming is the business friendliest state in the country, but we don’t do that at the fundamental rights of our citizens,” he said. “Throw it back out there, let’s get this thing done right.”
House District 48 Representative Clark Stith said that he didn’t think the clarification to explicitly include business entities under “good faith” protection statutes was as big of a deal as some legislators argued it was.
“I don’t see what it particularly controversial about that,” Stith said, adding, “I think it is worth thinking through exactly how this kind of litigation is going to play out.”
He said that lawsuits could target multiple businesses like restaurants and hotels if someone contracts COVID-19. Stith said lawyers would ask people to indicate all businesses a person had visited in the three weeks prior to contracting the virus, and that all the businesses could potentially be held liable.
“Nobody ha a Constitutional right to file a frivolous lawsuit,” he said.
Speaker of the House Steve Harshman voted against accepting the Joint Conference Committee report.
“This has really been great debate,” he said. “Immunity is a tough thing. Whenever you talk about taking people’s rights…it should be tough.”
However, a majority of the House accepted the Joint Conference Committee report, sending the legislation to the Senate for a final vote. The Senate approved the legislation. Senate Enrolled Act No. 2 will move to Governor Mark Gordon’s desk for consideration.
The legislation would create a rent assistance program aimed to also avoid evictions. That program would be administered by the Wyoming Community Development Authority. The act also provides for mortgage payments and hazard insurance “for residents of this state
who are under the direct threat of being dispossessed of their homes.”
Full details can be found in the full text of Senate Enrolled Act No.
The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:
What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.
If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.
Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.
For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: email@example.com
- Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.