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Restaurant advocates say they need DC Council's help to collect insurance

Insurers say "business interruption" policies are meant to cover physical losses in fire and natural disasters only.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — A group of local restaurant professionals wants the DC Council to step in to make insurance companies payout on claims.

Zach Hoffman, a bartender at the popular DC Café Fili, knows all too well how D.C.’s order to shut down or limit capacity in restaurants through the pandemic has interrupted business. He argues the interruption is just as devastating as any fire or hurricane and said restaurants should be compensated the same way.  

But, Hoffman said, many local restaurants are getting their insurance claims denied because there is no physical property loss or damage.  

Hoffman wants the DC Council to step in and help.

 “What we’re trying to do is clarify that the business has been damaged and interrupted," Hoffman said. 

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Hoffman and Megan Barnes are local organizers for Thirst Group in a fight that’s gone national. It wants the governments who issued shutdown orders to make sure insurance providers treat a public health emergency the same as they would a fire or hurricane.  

 “We’re at 17 states now," Barnes said. "California, Washington state, Massachusetts,  Pennsylvania and Washington D,C, obviously." 

In May, the DC Council did briefly consider a mandate to help small businesses with their interruption claims, but dropped it over concerns it could give false hope or tie the Council up in litigation. 

“We’re looking to replicate that bill and have a broader discussion about it, not in an emergency session," Hoffman said. 

The group has started an online petition and is organizing industry professionals. 

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Michael Barry, head of public relations with the Insurance Information Institute, said the policy language is clear and courts across the country have been siding with insurance companies.

“The insurers have been prevailing and the reason is that the policy language is quite specific," Barry said. 

In many cases, Barry said, there are even explicit virus and bacteria exclusions.

He believes a government mandate wouldn’t likely survive in court either.

“All of a sudden you have a situation where the District of Columbia taxpayers are defending a law that may well be struck down by the courts," Barry said.  

Insurance companies are also not equipped to deal with the scale of claims the pandemic would involve, according to Barry, and it would put providers’ ability to offer business interruption claims of any kind at risk. 

Barry believes governments are better able to offer relief to restaurants directly.

Still, Hoffman says D.C.’s restaurants and bars are struggling to survive—and desperately need a lifeline to get through this pandemic.

“The insurance companies are well set up, especially with federal bailouts and support throughout the pandemic, to make sure that these claims are paid," he said. 

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