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DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — The Walton Area Chamber of Commerce has succeeded in having language added to the county government’s local state of emergency declaration that could help county businesses filing insurance claims in connection with ongoing disruption from COVID-19.

County commissioners instituted the local state of emergency last month as a tool for the local government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The state of emergency must be revisited and reapproved every seven days, with either the commission chairman, the full commission or the county administrator making decisions on its continuance.

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The added language was approved April 7 by Walton County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Bill Chapman, according to a copy of the updated emergency declaration.

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As part of what had become routine seven-day extensions of the emergency declaration, the added language notes that, in addition to previously stated rationale, extension of the local state of emergency was needed “because the novel coronavirus physically is causing property damage due to its proclivity to (become) attached to surfaces for prolonged periods of time.”

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In a Wednesday interview, Walton Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Megan Harrison said the Chamber sought the amendment after hearing from several businesses regarding their concerns about COVID-19-related property damage. Inclusion of the new language in the county emergency declaration is based on similar actions taken in Panama City and in New Orleans, Harrison said.

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“We wanted to give our business community everything in their toolbox” to deal with the fallout of COVID-19, Harrison explained.

According to a Chamber news release, the updated verbiage was proposed “in an effort to assist local businesses with filing claims related to business interruption.”

“Without some property damage,” the release continues, “most policies will not allow recovery for these local businesses under their terms.” And, Harrison said in the Wednesday interview, “some argue it doesn’t have to be physical property damage.”

According to Harrison, at least some local businesses have begun the process of filing COVID-19-related insurance claims.

Even as the new language was added to the Walton County emergency declaration, the stage was being set in various other locations across the country for potential battles over insurance claims related to business interference. Legislative action under way in a handful of states would force insurers to honor business interference claims related to COVID-19.

In South Carolina, for instance, legislation now in the state Senate would mandate that any insurance policy “that includes a loss of use and occupancy, or business interruption, shall be construed to include ... coverage for loss of use and occupancy, or business interruption, directly or indirectly resulting from the global pandemic known as COVID-19, including all mutated forms of the COVID-19 virus.”

At least some insurers are resisting, to varying degrees, suggestions that business interference coverage should cover coronavirus-related claims.

In a letter to its New York policyholders, Travelers Insurance said its business interruption coverage “does not cover loss of income due to market conditions, a slowdown of economic activity or a general fear of contamination. Nor does the policy provide coverage for cancellations, suspensions and shutdowns that are implemented to limit the spread of the coronavirus.”

The Hartford insurance company takes a somewhat softer line, noting on its website that business interruption “is generally designed to cover losses that result from direct physical loss or damage to property caused by hurricanes, fires, wind damage or theft and is not designed to apply in the case of a virus.”

But, The Hartford website goes on to note that business interruption claims “will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and reviewed based on the underlying facts, policy language and applicable law.”

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