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Virus impact: State delays tax liabilities, lawmaker looks to protect business from COVID-19 lawsuits

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily 

As more businesses are ordered shut and workers laid off, state leaders say they’re looking to help establishments that lost customers because of the new coronavirus and protection for those still operating.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said when lawmakers return to Montgomery, he’ll file a bill offering civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Orr said national and Alabama economies are being crushed by COVID-19 and businesses are closing to the public out of fear, concern or government mandate.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday ordered day cares across the state to close and restaurants to end dine-in service. She also ordered the state’s Gulf Coast beaches closed. Anyone who can work from home is being asked to as social distancing is stressed.

“If a business chooses to remain open to the public in these desperate days, it is fearful of potential lawsuits based on COVID-19,” Orr told Alabama Daily News on Thursday. “This bill, providing immunity in most scenarios, seeks to address that fear. We should not let lawyers seek to profit on tenuous claims of infections that allegedly occur at Alabama businesses when patrons choose to be there on their own free will.”

According to a draft of the bill, “a business entity that is properly licensed to conduct business in this state is not liable for any injury or damages, including death, suffered by any individual, resulting from the individual’s actual or alleged contraction of the coronavirus from another patron, an employee or any other individual while on the premises of the business entity.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Montgomery March 30, but that could change as the state continues to fight the spread of the deadly virus. Orr’s bill is retroactive to March 1, 2020.

“While I think any such lawsuits founded on COVID-19 infection claims would be defeated in a court of law, the cost of litigation is enough to force businesses to make settlements to dispose of any such dubious claims,” Orr said.

Orr’s bill does not apply to businesses ordered closed by Ivey or other state or local officials.

Some businesses get a delay in tax liabilities

The Alabama Department of Revenue this week said small retail businesses, including restaurants and bars, have more time to pay their February, March and April 2020 state sales tax liabilities. Small retailers whose monthly retail sales during the previous calendar year averaged $62,500 or less may file their monthly sales tax returns for those three months without paying the state sales tax reported as due. Late payment penalties will be waived for these taxpayers through June 1, 2020.

“After the expiration of this temporary waiver, the department will work with taxpayers electing to utilize the waiver program to development workable payment plans that will allow taxpayers to pay outstanding liabilities for February, March, and April 2020 while navigating any other impacts of the coronavirus on their businesses,” a statement on the ADOR’s website said.

Similar sales tax relief may be available on a case-by-case basis to other businesses significantly impacted by the coronavirus and the preventative measures being taken to limit its spread in Alabama. Business owners with questions can call ADOR’s Sales and Use Division at (334) 242-1490.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, told Alabama Daily News on Thursday some Alabamians still aren’t taking the threat of coronavirus seriously.

“That worries me,” he said.

While Garlan wants people to self isolate during this public health emergency, he said businesses need economic relief now. Gudger, a business owner, said he’s hearing from many others about their losses of revenue.

Everyone, from business owners to waitresses and dish washers, needs immediate help, Garlan said.

“The cash infusion needs to happen now rather than later,” Garlan said.

2019 tax payments delayed

Separately, ADOR will follow Washington’s lead in delaying 2019 income tax payments from most individuals and businesses.

The Trump administration this week said it will allow individuals and businesses to delay paying their tax bills for 90 days past the April 15 deadline in an effort to inject as much as $300 billion into the economy, the Associated Press reported. 

Taxpayers will still have to file their tax returns by April 15,  but won’t have to pay their tax bill for 90 additional days. 

The ADOR earlier this week told Alabama Daily News it would have the same deadlines for Alabama tax filers.

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