Food retailers hoping for liability protection for their businesses amid the challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic were disappointed in the COVID relief package passed by Congress on Dec. 21.
“While we appreciate the bipartisan effort to provide much-needed economic relief to the American people, the bill unfortunately falls short of the needed liability protections critical to independent grocers,” noted Greg Ferrara, president and CEO of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Grocers Association (NGA), which represents the independent grocery sector. “Independent supermarkets have led the way in keeping workers and customers safe and have remained open when their communities need them most. It is unacceptable for Congress to leave open the floodgates for frivolous litigation to be levied against independent community businesses simply for staying open during the crisis.”
NGA had urged Congress to shield grocers from what the trade group called “unnecessary liability exposure, provided these businesses have taken reasonable steps to comply with guidance from the CDC or other health authorities.”
Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer at Arlington-based FMI – The Food Industry Association, likewise expressed that organization’s displeasure “that Congress failed to pass limited liability protection for those essential businesses, hospitals and universities who have remained open and followed government guidance throughout this pandemic. We know that the economic recovery of our nation cannot be successful without it.” However, Hatcher did praise Congress’ “agreement to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2021 and not force a government shutdown,” and voiced approval that federal legislators are “preparing to secure additional funding for the vaccine and relief for families particularly hard hit by the pandemic.”
Despite the lack of liability protections in the final relief package, the legislation did provide new opportunities for independents to take part in nutrition incentive projects and the SNAP Online program.
“NGA is pleased that Congress included funding to help independent grocers enroll in the SNAP Online purchasing program, as well as an additional $75 million to bolster the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program,” said Chris Jones, NGA’s SVP of government relations and counsel. “To date, independents have faced an uphill climb to participate in the SNAP online program, and nonfederal funding shortfalls have stalled promising SNAP fruit and vegetable retailer incentive projects. This bill moves us in the right direction.”
As well as that win, the legislation includes various provisions that will help independent grocers and their customers, including the following:
- A 15% increase in SNAP benefit allotments
- Further funding for nutritional assistance to Puerto Rico
- An unemployment compensation extension that aids jobless workers while removing disincentives for returning to the workforce
- A termination of the FFCRA paid-leave mandate on small business while extending tax credits to give small businesses the flexibility to offer paid leave
- Deductibility of PPP expenses and simplified forgiveness options
- Extensions of the New Market Tax Credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit
- Funding for vaccine development and distribution to front-line workers
Along with the liability protections, NGA continues to back tax relief for front-line essential grocery workers.