By Aila Boyd
The Botetourt County Chamber of Commerce held a Lunch and Learn session last Tuesday titled “Navigating Business in the Face of COVID-19 Enforcement Actions.” The featured speaker was Erin Harrigan, a partner in Gentry Locke’s Criminal and Government Investigations practice group.
“The best defense is a good offense,” she said in regard to how businesses can protect themselves during this uncertain time.
She explained that many companies that received stimulus payments under the CARES Act are having to realize that they now classified as government contractors, which means that they have to abide by far more restrictive guidelines.
“If you’re selling any essential goods, including personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, or COVID-19-related services, you’re suddenly operating in a completely different realm of regulation,” she said. She added that businesses that employ people in high-risk settings and businesses that are open to the public also have to abide by the new, more restrictive regulations.
“You have a bunch of businesses that are operating under a declaration of emergency and that declaration of emergency triggers a special set of laws that are in place both in Virginia and then also nationwide,” she said. “Because this is such a unique disaster, just about every business in every industry is touched by it in some way. There are now a whole host of laws that are applicable.”
She noted that since the pandemic started, federal and state agencies have increased their enforcement abilities in order to safeguard against price gouging, fraud, hoarding of supplies, and bribery.
“You don’t have to have broken the law, but if you get close or someone complains about you, you’re going to be under investigation. An investigation is just as disruptive to your business as an actual prosecution,” she said. “Even if at the end of the day the investigation clears your business of any bad action, you have still had to respond to an inquiry. That means stop everything, review your documents, make your employees available for interviews, make yourself available for interviews. It’s essentially like going through a very intensive audit, but with the specter of criminal prosecution at the end of it.”
Harrigan went on to detail the ways that businesses can avoid investigations.
“You need to make sure things are being documented,” she stressed. “You need to be thinking about what you’re going to do.”
She said that the key things that businesses should keep in mind include: developing a policy that addresses COVID-19 issues specific to individual companies, paying close attention to public statements, website claims, social media posts, and advertising in order to ensure accuracy, and advertising policies in the workplace and to clients/customers. She also encouraged businesses to review health developments and business regulations regularly because they’re constantly changing.
As for businesses that are selling personal protective equipment, she noted that they need to consider what a fair price for products is.
Additionally, the executive order signed by Gov. Ralph Northam regarding the wearing of face masks in public places was discussed. “If you are not enforcing a mask order or making a valid attempt to, your employees in risk,” she said.
Harrigan previously served as Assistant United States Attorney in the Western District of Virginia, where she was the lead prosecuting attorney for the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force.