Idaho groups seek liability shield during virus pandemic.

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Organizations that advocate for schools, counties, county sheriffs and businesses said Tuesday they want lawmakers called back into session to create a liability shield for protection against COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The Judiciary and Rules Working Group took no action but plans to meet again this week to consider possible legislation to be sent to Republican Gov. Brad Little.

Little is the only one with the authority to call a special session. The 2021 Legislature isn’t scheduled to convene for its regular session until early January.

“There’s an open dialogue between the Governor’s Office and House and Senate leadership on many issues including any possible call for a special session,” said Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, in an email to The Associated Press.

Several lawmakers noted their concerns that state-approved liability protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits could mean government entities and businesses would lose the incentive to take precautions against the spread of the illness.

There was also inconclusive discussion about whether Idaho’s personal injury laws involving private parties and tort claim laws involving government entities were adequate in the face of a pandemic.

Seth Grigg of the Idaho Association of Counties said they were not, with counties having to run elections and jury trials.

“Coronavirus as you all know is a different animal,” he said. “When we talk about government liability, we’re talking about the liability of the taxpayer.”

Speakers on Tuesday told the working group that compelling children to go to school during the coronavirus pandemic could leave districts open to lawsuits should children become ill.

“We are constitutionally required to educate students,” said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association. “So the question for us is: how do we educate those students and still comply with the requirements that have been set out by the local health districts?”

She noted that the 6-foot (2-meter) social distancing rule would mean an 82-passenger school bus could only carry 13 students. She also said young schoolchildren attending classes in areas with mandatory face-covering requirements were likely to use the face coverings as play toys.

The working group heard the concerns as coronavirus cases increased sharply this month. Idaho had 18,692 confirmed cases and 152 deaths due to the coronavirus through Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

And the 14-day trend for the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 through Monday was at 16.4%, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The positivity rate is a measure of how widespread the disease is in the community, and Idaho guidelines say that number needs to be under 5% to lift restrictions.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue of the Idaho Sheriffs Association asked for a special session, saying deputies in the course of their public safety duties, including responding to such things as traffic accidents, could be sued.

“We do want protection,” he said. “For the sheriff and sheriff’s deputies and of course patrol officers, they are essential critical function personnel, and the risk is absolutely inherent.”

He also said county jails are also seeing an increase in prisoners as the pandemic has stopped jury trials as well as moving inmates to state prisons.

Caroline Merritt of the Idaho Chamber Alliance, which represents business chambers and 10,000 businesses, said liability protection would protect against lawsuits.

“It wouldn’t be easy for an individual to win this type of a lawsuit,” she said. “But we’re more concerned about the time and the money that a business owner would have to spend defending themselves against a lawsuit of this nature.”

Other people who spoke before the committee, which met online, said any liability protection legislation should carry an expiration date for when the pandemic passes.

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