COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions
Posted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 at 3:38 pm
Last update: May 3, 2020
Kirby Farris & Jessica Zorn answer your legal questions about how Covid-19 impacts you and your community. Check back regularly for updates.
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- Do I have to pay my stimulus check back on my taxes next year?
- My deceased loved one received a stimulus check. Am I allowed to cash it?
- Can I expect a stimulus check?
- Are my student loans affected by the CARES Act?
- I still have to work even though many businesses are shut down. Am I entitled to hazard pay?
- Do salaried workers still get paid during shutdowns? Are hourly workers entitled to be paid?
- I am away from my office because of a temporary shutdown, but I cannot pay my bills. What can I do?
- How can I phase my small business back into operation?
- One of my employees tested positive for COVID-19. Do I have to tell them to stay home?
- I own a business. Can I make an insurance claim for my losses due to the COVID-19 crisis?
- I had a contract with a customer, but I couldn’t perform my duties because of the coronavirus. Does the customer still have to pay me?
- I run a small business in Birmingham and the pandemic is hitting my business hard. What are my options?
- Do I absolutely have to follow Birmingham’s new mask ordinance?
- What will change after Governor Ivey’s Safer-at-home order goes into effect on May 1?
- What is the effect of Governor Ivey’s statewide health order?
- What was the purpose of Governor Ivey’s March 27, 2020 Order suspending public gatherings?
- The county and state health departments have issued regulations limiting gatherings of more than 25 people. Is violating a health department order an actual crime or are these just guidelines?
- I am nervous that my family member is not being treated well in their nursing home, but I am not allowed to visit during this crisis. Can I sue the nursing home for neglect during this pandemic?
- My case is in litigation but my attorney doesn’t seem to be moving it fast enough. Is there anything I can do?
- I caught a case of COVID-19 at my workplace. Is there any recourse I have against my employer?
- How is the coronavirus affecting my case with your firm?
- How do the school closings affect my custody agreements for my kids?
- Will workers’ compensation insurance cover me if I catch the virus at work?
- I feel like my neighbors are not taking the virus seriously, and they keep hosting parties. If my elderly mother gets sick, can I sue my neighbors for failing to follow the health department regulations?
- Do I still have to pay my car insurance even though I have been driving less?
- My insurance company is refusing to pay my business interruption claim. What do I do?
- I am disabled and I am scared to go out in public to get the things I need. Are there any resources to help me?
- Is interstate travel banned by law right now?
- My elderly family member has tested positive for the virus and I fear for their safety. How can I make sure they have a valid will in place in case the worst happens?
- I cannot pay my rent or my mortgage because I lost my job due to the COVID-19 outbreak. What should I do?
- If my child’s day care closes down, am I still responsible for paying my child’s tuition?
- I received a call about getting a coronavirus test in exchange for my Medicare number. Am I at risk of getting scammed or hacked?
Do I have to pay my stimulus check back on my taxes next year?
The short answer is no. Social media rumors are running rampant about having to pay your stimulus check back or that your stimulus check will be deducted from your tax refund next year, but the IRS has denied those claims. The stimulus relief checks are one-time payments that are considered an advance “credit” on 2020 taxes. The stimulus money is non-taxable and will not be included in your income, so it shouldn’t affect your bottom line or your entitlement benefits. The Tax Foundation website clarifies that the stimulus check is not an advance on your 2020 tax refund. “The recovery rebates are an additional refundable tax credit that will be applied to 2020 tax returns,” and “this is an additional credit for the taxpayer on top of whatever refund or tax is owed for the 2020 tax year.” In short, you do not have to pay back your stimulus check when you file your taxes next year.
My deceased loved one received a stimulus check. Am I allowed to cash it?
Probably not. It is best to ask your accountant or tax attorney whether or not your loved one’s check can be cashed. The answer depends on whether your loved one has an open estate, whether that estate is expected to file and pay taxes for 2020, or whether the decedent is filing jointly with someone who is still alive.
The IRS has instructed that if you receive a check for someone who has passed, you should pay the money back. On May 6, 2020, the IRS.gov website stated that “a [stimulus] payment made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned to the IRS by following the instructions about repayments.” Instructions to repay are copied below. The IRS continued, “[r]eturn the entire payment unless the payment was made to joint filers and one spouse had not died before receipt of the payment, in which case, you only need to return the portion of the payment made on account of the decedent.” If you received a paper check, the IRS asks that you write “VOID” in the endorsement section on the back of the check, and mail the voided check immediately back to your local IRS office in your state (for Alabama, that office is the Memphis Refund Inquiry Unit / 5333 Getwell Road / Mail Stop 8422 / Memphis, TN 38118). Include a note stating that the recipient of the check has died. If you have already deposited the check or if the payment was made by direct deposit, then submit a personal check or money order to the appropriate IRS location. You should make the check payable to “U.S. Treasury” and write “2020EIP” and the social security number of the decedent in the memo box of the check, with an additional note saying that the recipient has passed away.
Can I expect a stimulus check?
If you are single, you filed taxes for 2018 and you made less than $99,000.00 per year, then you will probably receive a stimulus check after Congress passed the CARES Act last week. Individuals who made less than $75,000.00 in 2018 will receive $1,200.00 (and for every $100 you made over that threshold; your check will be reduced by $5). If you are married, you and your spouse filed taxes for 2018 and you collectively make less than $150,000.00, then you can also expect a stimulus check for you and your spouse. People who owe child support will not receive stimulus checks. Check with an accountant to make sure you qualify.
Are my student loans affected by the CARES Act?
Yes. Not only has your interest rate plummeted to zero, but the national CARES Act passed last week says that student loans do not have to paid for six months. This delay applies only to federally-held student loans. Contact your loan servicer to find out whether your April payment will be required, but by May most providers will have stopped collecting from you.
I still have to work even though many businesses are shut down. Am I entitled to hazard pay?
Hazard pay is additional money that you receive when you are working under especially dangerous conditions. There are no federal or state regulations requiring employers to give hazard pay, so whether you receive it is largely up to your employer. Some companies are voluntarily deciding to pay their employees hazard pay during the COVID-19 crisis, but most are operating on usual salaries and hourly rates.
Do salaried workers still get paid during shutdowns? Are hourly workers entitled to be paid?
Not necessarily. If you are on a salary, your employer must pay you for the full day if you work any part of that day (from home or in the office). If the business is shut down completely, and you as a salaried worker cannot work any part of that day, then you may be required to use sick/medical/vacation leave in order to be paid for that day.
Hourly workers will likely not be paid during shutdowns. An employer is not required to pay an hourly worker if that hourly worker is not working.
Importantly, Alabama is an at-will employment state; employers can fire anyone at any time for any reason as long as that person is not in a protected class (based on age, race, religion, disability, etc.). If you are a salaried or an hourly worker and your employer is doing something to help you get through the shut downs – like giving you paid sick leave or saving your job for when the pandemic is over – then the employer is doing that voluntarily to help you.
I am away from my office because of a temporary shutdown, but I cannot pay my bills. What can I do?
File for unemployment. The State of Alabama has relaxed regulations on unemployment benefits because of the coronavirus epidemic. If you are legally quarantined by a doctor, your employer shut down because of the epidemic, or you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, then you are entitled to apply for your full income up to around $550 per week. If you are away from work because you are caring for a family member with COVID-19, then you may also apply for benefits of 2/3 of your income up to $200 per week.
Other restrictions on unemployment benefits have been lifted, too. There is no “waiting period” before you apply, and you are no longer required to prove that you are actively looking for work while you are receiving benefits.
You can apply for unemployment benefits on the Alabama Department of Labor website but start early and stay patient because the website has been overloaded with requests in the past week. Some reports indicate that it has taken members of the public seven or eight hours to complete the application due to website issues.
As of March 23, 2020, there is a potential third stimulus package being negotiated in Congress to help individuals while they are laid off. The stimulus package may have additional measures to help you, like individual or family payments in cash, slight increases in social security payments, breaks in payroll taxes or relief from student loan payments. Details on this stimulus package are unknown and nothing is guaranteed, but there is potentially more help coming on the federal level.
While you’re waiting for relief, talk to your mortgage provider, landlord, or other company collecting a bill. Many businesses have introduced measures to help customers who cannot afford to stay current on their bills.
How can I phase my small business back into operation?
Businesses will only be allowed to re-open once Governor Ivey lifts the stay-at-home statewide order. Keep abreast of the local news and other avenues to hear about when the order will be lifted. Although Georgia’s governor has announced plans to start re-opening our neighboring state, Governor Ivey in Alabama has indicated that she will listen to the scientific community and take advice from professionals before taking steps to re-open Alabama’s economy.
It is possible that small businesses will see a surge in business once Alabama’s economy is up and running. Make sure your business is well-staffed to handle the extra traffic. However, it is also possible that people will still be hesitant to go out in public even after the order is lifted. Keep records of your sales and lost profits in case you need to make an insurance claim for business interruption. As always, contact your trusted business planning professional for the best advice on what to expect once you re-open. However, from a legal perspective, the statewide orders will control when you can start up again.
One of my employees tested positive for COVID-19. Do I have to tell them to stay home?
You should. As an employer, you have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect your employees. Allowing a confirmed case of COVID-19 into the office is unreasonable considering how transmittable the virus is. Although you (as the employer) can decide whether to give the employee paid time off, it would be in your best interest to accommodate employees who have tested positive or who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
I own a business. Can I make an insurance claim for my losses due to the COVID-19 crisis?
It depends on your policy and what is covered, but you may be able to make a claim under the public liability, employee compensation or business interruption portions of your policy. You will need to be able to prove that your losses were caused by the coronavirus, so maintain paperwork on any employee who has tested positive and keep the state and local health orders on file so that you can prove why you needed to shut down. Insurance could come in handy during this uncertain time, specifically for small businesses.
I had a contract with a customer, but I couldn’t perform my duties because of the coronavirus. Does the customer still have to pay me?
Contract questions are always governed by the terms of contract; read the wording carefully and focus on any portions of the contract that address cancellations (whichever party had to cancel for whatever reason).
Generally, when someone cannot perform under a contract because of an unpredictable event or a new regulation prohibiting performance, then legally there was an “act of God” (i.e., natural disaster, epidemic) or “mutual mistake” (i.e., you both assumed beaches would be open) that cancels the contract. If a contract is cancelled, you are excused from performing your end of the contract, but the other party is also excused from paying you. Non-refundable fees are still generally non-refundable, but most contracts will provide for some sort of refund to a customer if a contract is not completed. Talk to a business, personal injury or contract lawyer if you have more specific questions.
I run a small business in Birmingham and the pandemic is hitting my business hard. What are my options?
You are not alone in struggling to keep your business running. The City of Birmingham Director of Finance said that the City is expected to lose $9 million in revenue over the next four months due to the virus affecting local small businesses.
This question is best saved for a business or financial advisor, but from a legal perspective you may want to keep an eye on Major Woodfin’s proposed Birmingham Strong initiative. It’s a large fund intended to help offset losses and provide low-interest loans to small businesses up to $25,000.00 to help them stay afloat during these uncertain times.
To give feedback on the Birmingham Strong initiative before it is put into place, please visit the Birmingham Strong website.
Do I absolutely have to follow Birmingham’s new mask ordinance?
Yes. There is a fine of up to $500 for not following the ordinance, which requires private citizens to wear face coverings in public beginning May 1. However, the ordinance does not apply to children ages 2 and under, and it does not specify which type of mask you wear (it can be a bandana or a scarf, for example).
What will change after Governor Ivey’s Safer-at-home order goes into effect on May 1?
Importantly, most businesses and retail stores are allowed up open up again on May 1, 2020, as long as they limit the number of people in the stores, keep public areas sanitized, and enforce 6’ of space between customers and staff. Individuals are no longer ORDERED to stay home, but instead encouraged to only go out for essential errands. Lastly, some elective medical procedures are allowed to proceed under the new guidelines.
However, purely entertainment venues (like movie theaters, skating rinks and bowling alleys) are still closed and purely social gatherings of more than 10 people are still banned. This includes commercial gyms and hair salons. Daycares may not allow more than 12 children in a room at a time, and schools will remain closed. Restaurants may not serve in-house dining, and nursing homes must still restrict visitation. Although there are incremental changes in the new order, many things still remain the same.
What is the effect of Governor Ivey’s statewide health order?
In March, Governor Ivey and the Alabama Department of Public Health issued a statewide health order to contain the spread of the virus. Now, everywhere in the state, gatherings of over 25 people are prohibited if folks cannot stay 6 feet apart. Bars and restaurants are still closed to in-house dining, and all the beaches are closed (yes, this includes private beaches – Governor Ivey stated that she has “decided to close beach access in any form.”). Preschools and daycares are also closed, unless they only provide services to first responders, law enforcement, or medical personnel. Lastly, all elective dental and medical procedures are delayed.
The statewide order is also different from the county and city orders because it loosely defines “essential” businesses, instead of just defining “non-essential” businesses. However, many businesses that remained open under the county-wide orders are probably still remaining open under the state-wide order. Reach out to an attorney if you are unsure whether your business can remain open.
What was the purpose of Governor Ivey’s March 27, 2020 Order suspending public gatherings?
Even though big urban areas of Alabama were already taking city-wide and county-wide precautions to keep everyone inside and safe, the smaller rural counties had less cases of the virus and therefore less guidelines on how to social distance and prevent the spread of COVID-19. On March 27, Governor Ivey signed an Order of the State Health Officer making it mandatory everywhere in the State for non-essential businesses to close their doors and events with more than ten people to be cancelled.
The county and state health departments have issued regulations limiting gatherings of more than 25 people. Is violating a health department order an actual crime or are these just guidelines?
Violating a state health department order is a crime in Alabama. The state health department orders were adopted as emergency rules by the Alabama State Health Officer, which makes the orders enforceable by statute (Ala. Code § 22-2-14). Hosting or attending a gathering of 25 people or more, where people cannot stand 6 feet apart, is a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $25-$500 per day.
I am nervous that my family member is not being treated well in their nursing home, but I am not allowed to visit during this crisis. Can I sue the nursing home for neglect during this pandemic?
Currently, yes. Health care providers still need to provide the “standard of care” even during emergencies, and most health care workers are working very hard to provide safe and effective healthcare treatment to those affected by the virus and shutdown. However, if you are worried about the safety of your loved one, contact a personal injury attorney who can help shed light on the problem quickly.
Even though lawsuits currently can be filed against healthcare workers, lawmakers have the power to pass laws giving health care workers immunity from lawsuits during the statewide shutdown. Immunity for healthcare workers means that no one would be able to sue a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare worker for negligence during the coronavirus emergency. Even if negligence occurs, a lawsuit would not be allowed, and there would be no legal way to recover damages for your loved one’s injuries. If you disagree with immunity for healthcare workers, contact your local representative in the state Senate and voice your thoughts. Again, most healthcare workers are working hard under dangerous conditions to meet the appropriate standard of care, but people stuck in nursing homes are also very vulnerable and they deserve to be protected.
My case is in litigation but my attorney doesn’t seem to be moving it fast enough. Is there anything I can do?
Call your lawyer for an update on your case. See if the court closures are delaying your case or if medical providers are having a tough time responding to subpoenas; both issues could delay your case during this COVID-19 crisis. It may also help to reach out to your attorney and tell them you would be open to mediation, which is a voluntary (remote, telephonic or video) meeting between the parties when everyone can get together and see if they can get the case settled.
You will not be forced to take a settlement during mediation, and you will only need to interact with your attorney and the mediator, not the other party. You will also not need to give testimony or tell your side of the story again. As the client, your job is to decide whether you want to take your case to trial or whether you’d like to take their top offer at the end of the mediation, and your lawyer can guide you in making that decision. Mediation could be a good way to get your case settled if it is stalled during the litigation process, so make sure your attorney knows that you are open to the possibility.
I caught a case of COVID-19 at my workplace. Is there any recourse I have against my employer?
Probably not. In order to recover workers’ compensation benefits from your employer, you need to prove that you caught COVID-19 at work, not at the gas station, at a grocery store, or any other possible place you could have contracted it. It is very tough to prove that you caught the virus at work. However, if your employer has failed to take reasonable actions to protect you and you got sick, it might be worth reaching out to a personal injury attorney to talk about your options.
How is the coronavirus affecting my case with your firm?
If you are injured and currently treating for your injuries, your case is not expected to be delayed. Please keep talking to and seeing your doctors so that you can start to heal, and we will continue to track your progress as you are treated. Remember to take extra precautions when going into a medical facility, like washing your hands or keeping your hands away from your face.
If our office is currently ordering your medical bills and records, it is possible that your case could be slightly delayed. We have a dedicated team of people who communicate with health care providers to get copies of your records and bills, but many doctors’ offices are overwhelmed and therefore it may take a little extra time to compile all of your records.
If your case is currently being negotiated with an insurance company, you should not expect delays at this time. Our office is open for business, and many insurance adjusters are working from home to evaluate and investigate your claim. Negotiations have not been stalled by the coronavirus.
Lastly, if your case is currently in litigation, you can probably expect some delay. Alabama courts were closed state-wide, so hearings and trials have had to be postponed. Many lawyers are opting to cancel or reschedule depositions. However, written discovery and subpoenas are being issued like normal, so we may still need to contact you about your case. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to your lawyer.
How do the school closings affect my custody agreements for my kids?
Custody agreements are governed by the specific order entered in your case, so any questions would be answered by reading the official custody order entered when the agreement was made. Although no official orders have been issued in Alabama, higher courts in other states have issued some guidance on how orders will be interpreted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, in Tennessee, the school calendar will control custody (i.e. if you have your kids for spring break, but the break is extended because of the virus, then you still have to give the kids to the other parent at the end of the week because the school calendar controls). The best thing to do is to contact your family law attorney and ask how your custody agreement would be interpreted if a problem arises.
Will workers’ compensation insurance cover me if I catch the virus at work?
It depends upon how the exposure occurred. To get the benefit of workers’ compensation benefits, you need to prove that you were injured during active employment. It is very difficult to prove that you definitively caught the virus at work (and not at the grocery store or at a gas pump, for example). However, medical workers may have a stronger case to gain workers’ compensation insurance benefits because their job involves likely mandatory exposure to the virus.
I feel like my neighbors are not taking the virus seriously, and they keep hosting parties. If my elderly mother gets sick, can I sue my neighbors for failing to follow the health department regulations?
Whenever a civil lawsuit is filed for damages, you must prove (1) that your neighbors had a duty to act reasonably to protect you, (2) that they breached that duty and acted unreasonably, and (3) that your mother got sick as a result.
In these uncertain times, people likely do have a duty to follow state law and avoid large gatherings. It is also pretty clear that they breached that duty by continuing to hold parties of more than 25 people. Although it may be difficult to prove your mother got sick as a result of the parties, you’d have a stronger case if your mother was completely quarantined and the only interaction, she had with the public was your neighbor’s parties. Talk to a personal injury lawyer who offers free consultations if you believe you or a family member got sick due to the negligence of someone else. During this epidemic, the entire public has a responsibility to take reasonable measures to contain the novel coronavirus.
Do I still have to pay my car insurance even though I have been driving less?
Yes. Your contract with your car insurance company is still valid, so you still need to pay your bill. However, many car insurance companies are giving rebates or refunds to policyholders because customers are driving so much less. ABC News reported on April 22, 2020 that State Farm policyholders can expect around a 25% credit, Geico is discounting 15% for your next full policy term, Progressive is giving a 20% credit to its customers at the end of April or May, Allstate is offering 15% off for April and May, and USAA giving 20% back on premiums for two months. Generally, you don’t need to take any steps to claim your refund, but check with your insurance company to discuss other options if you cannot afford to pay.
My insurance company is refusing to pay my business interruption claim. What do I do?
First, read your policy carefully to make sure the pandemic is covered. Verify that the statewide closings fall under the definition of “business interruption” and that there are no exclusions in your policy for pandemics. Once you have done that, send a letter or other communication in writing to your insurance company stating that these closings do fall under the definition of a “business interruption” and that you respectfully ask that the claim be paid. Keep a copy of that letter so you can prove that you tried to resolve the claim. If the insurance company still refuses to pay, contact an insurance or contract lawyer who can help negotiate the claim or file a lawsuit if needed.
Currently, some insurance companies are lobbying local lawmakers to ask them to pass laws stating that the insurers do not have to pay business interruption or other similar claims due to COVID-19. Write or call your local representative in the state Senate to make sure they know that small businesses are important to Alabama’s economy and that insurance companies should be responsible for the coverage businesses have been paying for.
I am disabled and I am scared to go out in public to get the things I need. Are there any resources to help me?
In the greater Birmingham area, yes, there are resources to help you. Call your local branch of United Way and ask about financial, nutritional, and other resources to help you through this time. Although Farris, Riley & Pitt does not endorse any particular private company, there are some companies like Shipt and Instacart that can deliver your groceries to your door so that you do not have to go into a store yourself. Stores like Wal-Mart also have grocery pick-up where you can stay in the parking lot and the workers will bring your groceries out to you. If you have a friendly neighbor or a healthy family member you can trust, do not be afraid to lean on your community during this time – many folks are quarantined in their home but others are braving the public businesses to help others during this crisis.
Is interstate travel banned by law right now?
No, but there may be checkpoints along some highways (particularly in Florida and Louisiana) which test peoples’ temperature and make sure they are not carrying the virus. Generally, there are no roadblocks preventing you from leaving Alabama. However, interstate travel is still not a good idea from a public health perspective. As of April 14, 2020, Alabama has less cases of the virus than Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee (only Mississippi seems to be doing better than Alabama). Therefore, it’s a good idea to stay put if you can and avoid spreading the virus along state lines.
My elderly family member has tested positive for the virus and I fear for their safety. How can I make sure they have a valid will in place in case the worst happens?
Contact your local trusts and estates attorney to have a will drawn up with short notice. However, in a pinch, remember that wills are not valid in Alabama if they are handwritten by the person who has passed away. Your family member can type up a short, simple will and then have it witnessed by two people (have two people sign it at the bottom, verifying that the sick person actually signed it) and then have it notarized. Because of the coronavirus crisis, Governor Ivey is now allowing notaries in Alabama to notarize documents remotely, so you may not even need to leave your house in order to get a document notarized. Although it is risky to write a will without the input of an attorney, it may suffice in the short term while you are worried for your loved one’s safety.
I cannot pay my rent or my mortgage because I lost my job due to the COVID-19 outbreak. What should I do?
The first step is to contact your landlord or mortgage provider to explain the situation to them. Some landlords may work with you considering the unusual situation, and many mortgage carriers have forbearance programs for people who are experiencing temporary financial hardship.
If you own a federally-backed mortgage, the CARES Act stops the mortgage holder from foreclosing on you until May 17, 2020. It also gives you the right to request a forbearance – or a temporary hold – on paying your mortgage, whether you’re behind on your payments or not. The temporary hold on payments will last 180 days, and you can request an extra 180 days after that. Importantly, the forbearance will not affect your credit score.
Alabama law has changed recently to allow more people to file for unemployment. You can apply if you lost your job (even temporarily) due to the outbreak. Apply by going to the Alabama Department of Labor website, but go to the site early – it has been overwhelmed with applicants in the last two weeks.
There are resources around Birmingham that can help you if you live locally. United Way can connect you with organizations that can help with utilities and food so that you can save more money for rent. When the Jefferson County Civil Courthouse opens to the public again, the Volunteer Lawyers group hosts a free legal clinic once per week to help people who are being foreclosed upon or who have other legal issues caused by the pandemic.
If my child’s day care closes down, am I still responsible for paying my child’s tuition?
Each day care has a different contract with their parents, so the answer to this question can be found in your initial contract with the day care. Generally, however, day cares have the right to continue to charge during closings that are outside of the day care’s control. Most day cares are small, local businesses in Alabama and continuing to pay tuition will not only help your local community, but it will also guarantee your child’s spot when the epidemic is over, and it will help ensure that there is a day care to return to.
I received a call about getting a coronavirus test in exchange for my Medicare number. Am I at risk of getting scammed or hacked?
Yes. The coronavirus epidemic has opened the door for scammers to try to gain access to your personal information, and they are particularly targeting senior citizens. Scams are showing up in form of phone calls pretending to be a hospital, fake charities, government imposters, and even purported “door-to-door” testing in exchange for social security numbers. Do not fall for these scams. If you feel like you need to get tested, call your healthcare provider and make an appointment at a certified testing site. As of March 22, 2020, there are two active testing sites in Jefferson County: UAB and Ross Bridge Medical Center.