July 20, 2020

Managing Liability & Risk for Visitor Attractions in the New Tomorrow

Now that some zoos, aquariums, cultural organizations, and attractions are beginning to emerge from months of closed doors and remote workforces, the critical issues of risk and liability loom large. We’re a diverse group of scientists, arts and community organization leaders, attractions professionals, and businesspeople. We are all skilled at running our organizations, but many of us have little or no legal or risk management expertise. To shed some light on these complex issues, we teamed with Cuseum, colleagues in the museums, attractions, and nonprofit field, and invited experts from Graham Company and Bureau Veritas, along with two leaders in safety and operations from AZA zoos.

Our panel offered tips on basic safety, managing guests, training and caring for staff, communications, and business losses during the pandemic, and participants provided their “boots on the ground” experience. Who knew, just a few months ago, that this topic would draw a sell-out crowd? Here are highlights from this discussion.

  • Implement and enforce basic safety and sanitation measures. Masks, social distancing, hand sanitizers, and increased cleaning and sanitizing procedures are an essential starting point, along with knowledge of CDC, state, and local guidelines. Make your cleaning regimen conspicuous to make guests feel confident about your practices. Strive for contactless transactions, touchless restroom facilities, and minimize “pinch points” in traffic flow. Are you or will you implement temperature checks or medical forms for guests? Most of us are not doing this now but may need to in the future.

  • Take care of your team. Make sure your staff and volunteers have and use appropriate PPE. Provide ongoing training in safety practices and guest service—front line and guest-facing staff especially since they’ll be reminding guests and enforcing (often unpopular) rules. While individual practices vary, be sure you have a policy on how, when, and to whom you communicate in the event of a positive test result or infected employee or volunteer. Have procedures in place to document close contact instances to aid in contact tracing.

  • Appoint a crisis team and plan, plan, plan. Your crisis team should develop a written plan covering all aspects of operations during the crisis. They’ll need to be responsive to changing guidelines, communicate plan modifications quickly, and be diligent in tracking and documenting any changes in practice—this attention to detail can be useful in any legal challenges. Keep a real-time log of events and responses.

To assist you in developing a health and safety guide for your organization, Zoo Advisors has developed a resource guide in partnership with Bureau Veritas to help set you in the right direction.

  • Engage all stakeholders, including vendors, and communicate consistently. Tell the truth. Craft clear messages and provide updates for all your audiences—your vendors are key partners and when on site, they should observe your required safety protocols. Speak with one voice. Be up front with your guests and members.

  • Be prepared for change; be nimble and responsive. Your crisis plan provides guidance in most situations, but be prepared with a contingency plan for the unexpected—extreme weather, fire, animal escape—how will you “shelter in place” in buildings and maintain social distance protocols?

  • Understand your liability and exposure; talk with legal counsel. Without in-house counsel, be sure to seek legal advice. Regarding an organization’s potential liability for guest exposure, our panel’s answer was (not unexpectedly) “it depends.” The coronavirus pandemic is uncharted territory; the ability for an organization to absolve themselves hasn’t yet been tested. However, there is no protection against gross negligence on the part of an organization.

    As for staff claims against the employer, the employee generally bears the burden of proof as to the circumstances of contracting COVID-19. And unfortunately, business losses due to the pandemic are not covered by most insurance, which requires physical damage to the property to trigger an insurable event, and there is currently robust debate about whether or not today’s challenges can be interpreted as “physical damage.” But things change, so the current recommendation is to file a claim to document the loss in case of a future claim opportunity.

    Even though “no blame” signs advising guests of potential risks won’t prevent a claim, it is good practice. In the same vein, the effectiveness of waivers (either printed or digital) varies widely from state to state, so make sure you have a thorough understanding of the laws in your locale.

    Lastly, consider the case of the All England Lawn Tennis Club—the group that administers the Wimbledon Tennis Championship. They have been in the news as an organization that actually had insurance covering a pandemic, and it looks like that’s going to pay out for them. Pandemic insurance is available, and while the cost today is certainly higher than it was twelve months ago, it’s worth looking into for the future.

Thanks to our panel:

  • Dave Ruhl
    Vice President of Operations & Campus Planning, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo / AZA Safety Committee Chair

  • Steve Bauer
    Safety Manager, Denver Zoo

  • Thomas Morrin
    Senior Vice President, Graham Company

  • Christa Solfinelli
    Associate General Counsel, Graham Company
    Mark Troxell
    Vice President of Safety Services, Graham Company

  • Eliza Stern
    Executive Vice President, Bureau Veritas

And thanks to all of you who joined our webinar—click here to reach out to Zoo Advisors for planning assistance and click here to contact Cuseum for their digital membership card program. We’re here to assist in any additional way.  

Click here to watch the recording of the full session. 

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