Legislative committee passes COVID-19 immunity bill

CHEYENNE — A bill concerning immunity and liability during a pandemic was approved to be sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee in the upcoming legislative session.

The bill was brought up in light of the COVID-19 pandemic because insurance doesn’t always cover situations that emerge due to pandemics. The bill addressed immunity during pandemics for business owners and passed through the committee.

The bill would create immunity for “any person or entity who follows in good faith the instruction of the health officers, whether state or local,” Brian Fuller of the Legislative Service Office said.

This immunity would only apply to issues where people claim a business or person exposed someone, or caused disease contraction, during a public health emergency declared over that disease, Fuller said.

Immunity existed before for health care providers acting in good faith that were responding to a public health emergency, and this bill would extend it to other businesses and people.

The committee heard a bill that also is being sponsored by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Interim Committee that had similar language to the bill being considered by the judiciary committee.

Several people from business entities provided input during public comment, including Cindy DeLancey from the Wyoming Business Alliance and Bradley Cave on behalf of the alliance, that stated they were concerned about the “good faith,” “gross negligence,” and “willful or wanton misconduct.”

A representative from the Wyoming Hospital Association also spoke at the meeting and said since there aren’t wide-sweeping public health orders in Wyoming, it still leaves hospitals and health care facilities vulnerable to liability.

“I don’t know, I’m concerned with this one. It looks like we’re paddling upstream ... we already have immunity in place and I don’t think I’m gonna be able to support this.” said Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan.

Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, and Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, also said they don’t support the judiciary’s version of the bill.

However, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said, “I agree with a lot of the previous speakers that I favor the TRW committee bill, as well, but I’m going to support this bill because it’s a rapidly evolving situation.”

“There’s not a whole lot of harm in moving the bill forward. I just like to keep our options open and reflect the good work of this committee.”

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he is also going to be voting for the judiciary version of the bill, but wanted to make clear that his “yes” vote isn’t in opposition to the other committee’s bill.

Rep. Sara Burlingame, D- Cheyenne, Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, and Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette, also said they would be voting in favor of the bill.

The other bill that didn’t pass committee would have addressed utility bill issues between landlords and tenants.

“It provides a city or county that operates trash recycling water, sewer, gas or electric services that they shall not collect or attempt to collect payment from a property owner when the owner has not contracted with the city to provide services,” David Hopkinson of the Legislative Service Office said.

Another part of the bill would have prohibited a city or town from requiring a property owner, as a condition of services, to have a contract with the city or town when a tenant resides at the property and not the owner, Hopkinson said.

Washut said the purpose of the bill is to address situations in which the landlord couldn’t evict tenants during COVID-19, and the tenants weren’t paying their rent or utilities. The bill would protect the property owner from facing the utility bills that piled up over those months when they couldn’t evict the tenant.

Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, said he’s concerned with this bill because he doesn’t see the bill having anything to do with COVID-19, and this bill is a local control issue. He said he thinks this is something landlords should work out with the cities.