Risk Control Considerations for Public Entities During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic (USA)
Liability | Public Entity Liability
Public entities face unique challenges as they serve their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some departments operate with additional protocols in place, some operations or facilities may have been suspended or closed. As public entities resume operations or services, they should follow the guidance provided by state officials and government agencies, as the reopening process and timeline may be different for each community.
Cleaning and Disinfecting of Public Facilities
If buildings have been unoccupied for seven days or more due to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends completing normal routine cleaning and disinfecting procedures. If operations have continued under a limited basis, consider additional cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Review and update policies for cleaning, maintenance and operations with building and maintenance staff and/or third-party contractors who may be hired for this type of work.
Parks and Recreation
Public entities are contemplating recreational sports programs, reopening parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, skateparks, pools and beaches, and hosting community events such as festivals and parades. State guidance should be followed when determining how and when to proceed with these activities. In addition, entities are encouraged to follow CDC guidance for Parks and recreational Facilities, Large Community Events and Mass Gatherings, and Cleaning and Disinfection for Community Facilities. Advance planning and communication are critically important when managing special events exposures, even in the absence of unusual circumstances. Inspect structures and streets, consider life safety issues, and plan traffic, parking and security to address hazards and help ensure public safety.
In addition to cleaning and disinfecting considerations, remember that routine park and playground maintenance activities should be completed to prepare for reopening following several months of limited (or no) maintenance.
If recreation departments proceed with summer camps, be sure to comply with all state public health guidance. Ensure that youth protection policies are in place and that best practices are being followed to protect minors. Also, with potential changes or additions to recreational programming or fees, review and consider the impact on your liability exposure and recreational immunity. Consult with legal counsel regarding laws in your state. To help limit the spread of COVID-19, golf courses should review and adjust their practices and maintenance efforts as they reopen. This may include increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting tasks for staff equipment and spaces, suspending caddie- or bag-handling activities and temporarily discontinuing or developing alternative methods for food and beverage service. Consider on-course changes, such as removing commonly touched items, like ball washers, rakes and scorecards. Also, advise players not to touch flagsticks or stakes that mark penalty areas and consider raising holes to help prevent players from touching the cups. Spacing out tee times can help maintain distance between players. Golf cart policies should be reviewed, carts should be cleaned and disinfected between rentals, and allowing only one golfer per cart should be considered. Further guidance and requirements may be issued by the state and should be reviewed to confirm compliance.
Special considerations are needed for public works employees where social- distancing measures could prove challenging. Develop policies and procedures to address protocols including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when entering residential or commercial properties in response to emergencies, or during maintenance or construction activities in the community. In addition, review and update procedures for cleaning and disinfecting public works facilities according to recommendations provided by the CDC and state health authorities.
COVID-19 may have an indirect impact on sewer systems, due to disinfecting wipes and paper towels being flushed down toilets. Municipalities may find they need or want to increase monitoring of lines for potential clogging or blockage. It is essential to follow monitoring and maintenance procedures during and following the pandemic to help prevent backups.
Law Enforcement and Emergency Services
Agencies have had to adapt to operational changes as they continue to serve on the front lines in their communities. Officers and first responders may be encountering or transporting individuals who have contracted COVID-19. Protocols may have been put in place to address potential risk for correctional facilities, and some roles may have been expanded to include enforcement of state-issued public health orders.
Law enforcement agencies are encouraged to follow CDC guidance for Law Enforcement Personnel and Correctional and Detention Facilities. The CDC has specific guidance for Emergency Medical Services, which includes modifications to patient assessment practices, PPE use and aerosol-generating procedures, as well as guidance on cleaning transport vehicles.
In addition to COVID-19 protocols, law enforcement policies and procedures should be reviewed, communicated and enforced to promote consistency in line-of-duty activities and to mitigate risk.
Communities that have brought in or are considering additional resources, such as part-time officers or reserves, should consider how these individuals will serve during and/or following the response to COVID-19.
School closures and the implementation of distance learning have impacted many communities. School districts should follow state guidelines and coordinate with local health officials to determine the right time to return students and staff to school following extended closure. The CDC continues to update Guidance for Schools on its website, which includes, but is not limited to, cleaning and disinfecting recommendations and a school closure decision tree. The CDC has also published considerations for Returning to School After an Emergency or Disaster. Consider CDC guidance as schools return items to students and parents at the end of the year, as well as when families return materials to the school.
Buildings may sit idle for several months, and it is important to consider the inspection and maintenance activities that should take place prior to reoccupying a building, which include electrical system inspection and testing of building alarms and sprinkler systems.
Public libraries may have closed or adjusted services during the pandemic. Federal and state guidance should be followed as local entities contemplate reopening or phasing in additional library services. CDC guidance on cleaning and disinfecting, and for PPE for staff, should be followed.
Services such as online ordering, curbside pickup, “book by mail” and exterior book drops may help limit staff interaction with the public. Paper materials and books may be difficult to clean without compromising or damaging the material; therefore, libraries should also determine if recently checked-out materials should be quarantined for a period of time prior to loaning to another individual. Consider offering digital materials, such as e-books, and other services like story time and book club online, if possible.
Prior to reopening the building to patrons, libraries should determine how social distancing can be maintained. This could include limiting the number of individuals and staff in the building, asking the public to come in by appointment and/or rearranging furniture. Also consider how seating areas and computer workstations will be cleaned and disinfected between use.
COVID-19 has resulted in reduced ridership and has impacted staffing for public entities and transit authorities. Public transportation providers continue to implement a variety of procedures to help protect operators and passengers amid service reductions. This may include limiting seating to maintain social distancing, providing hand sanitizer on buses, installing physical barriers or blocking seats behind operators, removing paper schedules, increasing cleaning and disinfecting efforts, offering single-rider trips for paratransit, and/or implementing rear-door boarding policies. The CDC has published interim guidance for Bus Transit Operators and Transit Maintenance Employees, which is offered to help agencies reduce risk as they continue operating in their communities. Transit operators should continue to follow any state orders and CDC guidelines as they adjust services and resume normal operations.
COVID-19 has impacted staffing for many public entities. As employers move to bring employees back to work or hire new employees, it is important to consider and adhere to employment practices that help maintain a professional work environment for employees and minimize exposure to claims.
Current hiring, sick-leave and work-from-home policies should be reviewed and updated to provide information specific to your response to COVID-19 and any future pandemic conditions. It will be important to establish ADA/HIPPA-compliant procedures for prospective and existing employees who have tested positive or who are known to have been recently exposed, employees displaying signs of illness — especially symptoms common to COVID-19 infection—and for managing employee medical surveillance, such as measuring temperatures and medical exams, if deemed necessary.
There have been numerous challenges for public entities due to COVID-19; however, it is important to ensure that employee training on department and safety policies/procedures does not lag during the pandemic. Training should include all department-specific protocols that have been put in place to protect staff and the public.
Contractual Risk Transfer (CRT)
Vendors and contractors that municipalities typically use to perform work or provide services in their community may have lowered their limits or changed coverages in the wake of COVID-19. Public entities should obtain certificates of insurance (COIs) and ensure that CRT best practices are followed prior to contracting with a third party.
Public entities may find that they have an increased need for volunteers during and immediately following the pandemic. Municipalities should consider how they enlist volunteers to serve, and how best to manage this group of people. Special consideration should be given to volunteer roles that potentially place individuals in close contact with the public.
Crisis Management Planning
Public entities should implement a Crisis Management Plan to define roles and responsibilities during and immediately following a crisis. If a plan is already in place, it should be reviewed and revised using “lessons learned” to provide continued safety for employees and the public, reduce potential for loss of public services, and facilitate the restoration of operations following the current pandemic or an unforeseen future crisis.
- Public Works Risk Management Guide
- Risk Management in Law Enforcement
- Guidelines for Reducing Jail and Lock Up Procedures
- Fire Department Risk Management Guide
- Golf Facility Risk Management Guide
- Swimming Pool Risk Management Guide
The information provided in this document is intended for use as a guideline and is not intended as, nor does it constitute, legal or professional advice. Travelers does not warrant that adherence to, or compliance with, any recommendations, best practices, checklists, or guidelines will result in a particular outcome. In no event will Travelers, or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates, be liable in tort or in contract to anyone who has access to or uses this information for any purpose. Travelers does not warrant that the information in this document constitutes a complete and finite list of each and every item or procedure related to the topics or issues referenced herein. Furthermore, federal, state, provincial, municipal or local laws, regulations, standards or codes, as is applicable, may change from time to time and the user should always refer to the most current requirements. This material does not amend, or otherwise affect, the provisions or coverages of any insurance policy or bond issued by Travelers, nor is it a representation that coverage does or does not exist for any particular claim or loss under any such policy or bond. Coverage depends on the facts and circumstances involved in the claim or loss, all applicable policy or bond provisions, and any applicable law.
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