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Analysis: If reopening the economy is risky, who’s getting protection?

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Social distancing signs mark tables as the Cleburne Cafeteria prepares to reopen for business. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

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According to Republican leaders of the Senates in Washington and in Austin, the next round of federal coronavirus legislation ought to include blanket liability protection for companies that reopen in the face of the pandemic.

The goal is to protect them from whatever might go wrong as the economy comes out of its deep freeze.

U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wants to include those protections in the latest pandemic response package being negotiated in Washington. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has touted the idea of “blanket immunity” in virtual appearances before civic and political groups.

The logic around this is twisted.

If opening a business is irresponsibly dangerous, shouldn’t employees and customers be allowed to go after the boneheads who opened the doors?

And if it’s not dangerous, what’s the need for blanket immunity?

The proposal gives business owners a get-out-of-jail free card while forcing their employees back into potentially dangerous workplaces, luring customers through potentially hazardous storefronts, and taking away the recourse those workers and customers would otherwise have against the people trying to profit off their labor and purchases.

Most businesses seem deeply interested and concerned about the health and welfare of their employees and customers. But blanket immunity would protect the ones who don’t take care and would remove incentives to protect people.

This is an accountability thing, a question of who is responsible for what happens, of who is in control of what happens, of who has agency.

Government officials like Gov. Greg Abbott say businesses can open but don’t have to. That’s permission, not an order, so those officials have some room to argue they have no complicity in what happens next.

Before businesses do open, they would have to think about the safety of their employees and customers. Those thoughts might keep a good number of them from opening, out of concern and compassion or — if that’s lacking — out of fear they will be held liable for whatever damages are caused by their actions.

Responsibility and accountability have been known to make people do the right thing.

But the government that doesn’t want to tell businesses to open also wants to remove as many obstacles as possible, to overcome reasons why a store might remain shuttered.

Workers on furlough collect unemployment pay, but if a business reopens and offers them work, they might lose the option to collect benefits, even if going back to work is a threat to their well-being. That gives control to the employer.

Removing risk is one of the key goals of any business. Getting rid of liability gets rid of one of the biggest risks of reopening. Without accountability, if someone is harmed, the business that put them in harm’s way is off the hook. The government isn’t on the hook, either.

Reopening the economy in a pandemic is a tricky endeavor. The institutions trying to put things back together are betting, in the final analysis, on how people behave — on how much they want or need to get out and about, and on how fearful they are about what might befall them if they do.

Some have a choice, whether or not businesses are immune from the consequences of their actions.

Employees might not have the means or the power to refuse returning to work in a pandemic. The dilemma for many of them is between two stressful and dangerous choices: protect your life or protect your livelihood.

Customers, as always, get to choose whether to go shopping, dining or whatever — but the folks in charge are actually introducing a new risk for them. If businesses and governments aren’t watching out for customers, that leaves the risks on the customers. That’s a helluva sales pitch.

It’s a question of who gets a safety net as Texas and the country take a risk and reopen the economy even as COVID-19 cases and deaths crest. If it’s for the businesses that might not open if they’re going to be held responsible if and when doing so hurts someone, this puts a whole new spin on “caveat emptor.” That goes for the workers, too.

Be careful out there. You’re on your own.