Reeves backs lawsuit protection for businesses during virus

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that he will ask state lawmakers to provide legal protection for businesses that might be sued if they reopen and customers or employees become ill with COVID-19.

“I am supportive of Mississippi providing liability protection for those businesses that are getting back open,” Republican Reeves said in response to questions during a news conference. ”I think that would be a very good step for the state of Mississippi, and I will encourage our leaders in the Mississippi Legislature to pass legislation to do that.”

Reeves said he does not think he could provide liability protection through an executive order. The Legislature is scheduled to return to the Capitol on May 18 to restart its session that was put on hold in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reeves was also asked Wednesday whether Mississippi will cut off unemployment payments for people who choose not to return to work because they are concerned about contracting the highly contagious virus. The governor said he strongly encourages people to return to their jobs when possible. He noted that a federal boost to unemployment payments because of the virus expires at the end of July.

“I am confident that Mississippi’s small businesses and business owners are going to work with their employees,” Reeves said. “I have had the opportunity to talk to business owners every single day, and they tend to love their employees.”

Reeves said his current “safer at home” order, in effect until the morning of May 11, requires people who are medically vulnerable to remain home. He said that category of people, and people 65 or older, “need to work with their employer and try to do the right thing” about deciding when to return to work.

The state Health Department said Wednesday that Mississippi had at least 6,569 confirmed cases and 250 deaths from the coronavirus as of Tuesday evening. That was an increase of 227 cases and 11 deaths from the previous day. The state’s population is about 3 million.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

For the first time on Wednesday, the Health Department listed an estimate of how many Mississippi residents are presumed to be recovered from the virus. As of Tuesday evening, the number was 3,413. The estimate is based on the length of time since people tested positive for the virus and survived — 21 days for those who were hospitalized and 14 days for those who were not. The estimate of presumed recoveries will be updated once a week.

The Health Department said Wednesday at least 752 coronavirus cases had been confirmed at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

Reeves’s “safer at home” order took effect Monday, replacing a stricter stay-at-home order that was in place more than three weeks. The new order allows some businesses to reopen with limits on how many customers may be present, and it allows physicians to start offering some services that had been limited in recent weeks. Restaurants are still restricted to carry-out or delivery. Barber shops, salons, tattoo parlors and entertainment venues such as movie theaters remain closed. Gatherings of 10 or more people are still banned.