Newsdate: April 8, 2020
Many equine facility owners want to close their barns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but are worried that if they do, they will lose business, they will have to lay off employees, their customers will be very upset and some might even sue them. Some have already closed their barns and are facing questions and pushback from boarders and trainers. Other equine facility owners want to keep their barns open to keep their business from going under, keep their employees working, and provide their understandably anxious boarders with access to their beloved horses as well as an outlet for healthy exercise, fresh air and a sense of normalcy. But these barn owners are also concerned that if they don't lock down their barns, their facilities will contribute to the pandemic. Federal, state and local government guidance on COVID-19 has been inconsistent, and so far, there is very limited guidance specifically for equine facilities. Accordingly, ELS wishes to provide the horse community with the data and information it needs to make sound, science-based decisions.
Here's what medical experts currently know about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19:
- It “[u]sually spreads from close person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing."
- It “[m]ay also spread through airborne transmission, when tiny droplets remain in the air even after the person with the virus leaves the area.” Viable coronavirus has been detected in the air up to three hours later.
- “The limited data we have for COVID-19 strongly support the possibility that SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—is transmitted by inhalation of both droplets and aerosols near the source. It is also likely that people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic throughout the duration of their infection are spreading the disease in this way.”
- “[P]eople may acquire the virus…after touching contaminated objects.” The novel coronavirus can live up to 72 hours on stainless steel and plastic, and up to 24 hours on cardboard.
- COVID-19 “can spread before symptoms of the disease emerge, and symptoms can vary widely even in a close family cluster.”
- “The explosion of COVID-19 cases in China was largely driven by individuals with mild, limited, or no symptoms who went undetected,” Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
- As of April 8, 2020, there were more than 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, including over 380,000 cases in the United States. The number of confirmed cases continues to rise steadily, and the following U.S. states currently have the highest numbers of cases: New York (over 140,000), New Jersey (over 44,000), Michigan (over 18,000), California (over 17,000), and Louisiana (over 16,000).
- “There's still a serious shortage of testing for COVID-19 across the U.S…While COVID-19 testing criteria can vary depending on where you live, tests are being rationed in every state. Demand is far outstripping capacity from Alabama to Oregon.” And providing widespread testing will depend upon having adequate supplies of testing materials as well as trained health care workers available to administer tests.
- There is currently no FDA-approved treatment for COVID-19. Doctors and other medical professionals treat COVID-19 patients by providing supportive care such as “supplementary oxygen and mechanical ventilatory support when indicated.” The FDA has permitted the use of plasma containing antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients for certain critical COVID-19 patients, but “the treatment is still considered experimental.” Scientists are also examining whether certain drugs used to treat other diseases and conditions, such as malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, may be effective to treat COVID-19 patients.
- “People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV).”
- The Centers for Disease Control now recommends the use of face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
What does this data mean in the context of a typical horse boarding and/or training facility?
- Anyone at the facility, of any age, could be carrying the virus and therefore contagious, whether or not they have symptoms. That means boarders, clients, stall cleaners, grooms, veterinarians, farriers, trainers and others.
Because the virus can stay viable in the air and on various surfaces, even strictly observed social distancing isn’t completely effective to prevent transmission of COVID-19. That means even if boarders and others stay at least six feet away from each other at all times, they can still contract and spread the novel coronavirus at the barn. For example, after a 2.5 hour choir practice in which members were met with hand sanitizer at the door, no one was sick, and everyone practiced social distancing, at least 45 attendees contracted COVID-19, resulting in two deaths.
There are also practical limitations to implementing recommended safety protocols at equestrian facilities:
- Social distancing by staying at least six feet away from other people isn’t realistic in a lot of barn situations, such as leading horses past each other in a typical 12-foot aisleway, or using a shared tack room.
- Many surfaces at equestrian facilities are “high touch,” such as entry gate keypads, barn and tack room door handles, arena gates, and faucets used to water horses. At most equestrian facilities, it just isn’t practical to identify each one of these high touch surfaces and disinfect it after each person touches it.
- Hand-washing facilities at some equestrian facilities are limited at best, particularly at facilities that do not have indoor restrooms.
In light of the above data and practical considerations, ELS’ attorney, Rachel Kosmal McCart, believes that equestrian facility owners should seriously consider closing their facilities to all persons, including boarders and customers, who are not directly responsible for caring for the horses at the facility. And for self-care facilities and those persons who absolutely need to be on-site to feed, clean stalls and provide necessary veterinary and farrier care, the barn owner should implement strict biosecurity protocols based upon current medical recommendations. These protocols should include providing essential employees with appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Non-employees who enter the premises should be required to provide and wear their own PPEs. Making these tough decisions and taking decisive actions could literally be life-saving measures.
Questions and Answers
Q: If I choose not to close my barn at this time, do I have potential liability?
A: Yes. As a barn owner, you have a legal duty to keep your employees and your customers safe. According to the data cited above, even seemingly healthy people can carry and transmit the virus. Therefore, the safest course of action is to limit your employees’ and customers’ potential exposure to the virus at your facility. The best way to do that is to limit access to only those persons absolutely necessary to provide essential care for the horses, and for those persons, implement strict biosecurity protocols based upon current medical recommendations. As with all decisions made during this rapidly evolving pandemic, your decision not to close your equine facility will be viewed in the harsh light of hindsight. If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 linked to your facility, your reasons for keeping it open won’t seem very compelling.
Q: If I close my barn and deny my boarders and customers access to their horses, do I have potential liability?
A: Although boarders might be very upset that they are not able to visit their horses and provide them with personalized care, being upset doesn’t equate to a viable legal claim. As with any other legal claim against a boarding facility, an aggrieved boarder must be able to show that they were financially damaged. Any financial damages associated with boarders not being able to see their horses would likely be very minimal and difficult to prove. And the barn owner must view this relatively remote risk against the grave risks of boarders potentially exposing barn workers and each other to COVID-19.
Q: If I have on-site trainers at my facility, should any barn closure extend to them?
A: Whether to allow on-site trainers access to your facility during a lockdown requires an analysis of whether their presence is essential to maintaining basic equine health. Do your barn workers provide feeding, cleaning and turnouts for horses in training? If so, then the trainers do not need to be present on a daily basis. The trainers may not be able to conduct their business, and their clients’ horses may lose physical conditioning and training progress, but these risks must be balanced against the compelling public health risks. Again, the safest course of action is to limit facility access to the smallest number of persons absolutely necessary to provide basic care for the horses.
Q: What if the governor of my state has not issued a stay-at-home order and/or my state has designated livestock operations as essential businesses that can stay open? Should I still consider closing my equine facility to boarders and customers?
A: Yes. As noted above, as a business owner, you have a legal obligation to keep your workers and customers safe. Based upon the data cited above, the virus is easy to transmit, and can and is spread by persons who have no symptoms. Accordingly, the best way to keep your workers and customers safe is to do everything you can to limit the possibility of contracting COVID-19 at your facility.
States designating livestock businesses as essential are most likely doing so because so many of these businesses are part of the food supply chain and produce meat, eggs and other edible animal products for human consumption. While horses may technically be “livestock” as defined by state law, the vast majority of horse businesses in the United States are not part of the food supply chain.
Q: What if my facility has horses that MUST be taken out of their stalls for exercise every day and we have no turnout areas or the horse is not one that can be turned out for its own safety?
A: You and your customers should consult with your veterinarians for guidance regarding safe exercise protocols for the horses in your care. Options may include handwalking, longeing and rotating limited turnout areas. To limit the potential for the spread of COVID-19, only the smallest possible number of people should be on site to provide exercise for horses.
Q: If I close my barn, how should I handle boarders and customers who want to drop off payments, supplements, blankets and other supplies?
A: As all horse people know, there is no such thing as “a quick trip to the barn.” To limit unnecessary access to your facility, discourage in-person drop-offs. Encourage boarders and customers to pay electronically or by credit card, and if they must pay by check, ask that they mail it. Request that boarders have supplements and other supplies sent directly to the facility. And for those few items that boarders and customers insist on dropping off, create a designated unmanned drop-off area in a secure location at the facility. Limit drop-off visits to five minutes or less, and ensure that the drop-off area isn’t located near any area of the facility that would tempt persons dropping off items to engage in conversation, watch horses being exercised or check on their own horses. Require your boarders and customers to notify you prior to dropping off any items so you can verify whether there is a safer way to get the items to your facility and so that you can promptly retrieve items and sanitize the drop-off area in between drop-offs.
Q: My facility provides equine therapy. Isn’t it essential that I stay open during this extremely stressful time to provide support for my patients and clients, some of whom have serious mental and/or physical health concerns?
A: Each facility owner should make their own decision, but consider that other health care providers, such as dentists, have either closed completely or are operating for emergency services only. Consider also that equine therapy often requires several persons to be in close proximity, so social distancing may be impossible to maintain, which puts all persons involved at risk of exposure. And further consider that the barn workers who must be at the facility to provide basic care for the horses do not have a choice about whether they come to work, and the more people who come to the facility, the more risk of exposure the barn workers have.
Q: My livelihood depends on keeping my facility open. How could I possibly close it right now without going bankrupt?
A: The vast majority of business owners who have closed or cut back their businesses could not afford to do so. But they have done so because their state ordered them to do so, or because they feel that the public health risks associated with staying open far outweigh the financial impact of closure. In recognition of the severe financial impact of COVID-19 on business owners and workers, the U.S. government passed the CARES Act, which provides expanded unemployment benefits, disaster relief grants and very low interest loans that do not need to be paid back if used to pay for payroll, rent and utilities. For more information, visit the Small Business Administration’s COVID-19 resource page. In addition, many states are implementing their own programs, so review your state’s official website for more information, and keep checking back because the information and available benefits will likely change from day to day. In addition, many families will be receiving economic stimulus payments of $1,200 or more within the next few weeks. Finally, if you haven’t already filed your 2019 income taxes, this would be a good time to prepare your returns and determine if you are entitled to a refund. If so, it would benefit you to file as soon as possible to get your refund in process. If not, you have the option of waiting until July 15 to file your federal tax return, and many states have also extended their filing deadlines to July 15 as well – check the website for your state’s revenue department to verify.
Q: A lot of students are out of school right now and looking for something to do. I’ve heard that young people don’t usually get COVID-19, so is it okay to hire them or have them help out on a volunteer basis around the barn?
A: No. As noted in the data cited above, young people can and do get COVID-19, and even if they don’t get sick, they can silently transmit the virus to others who do. And from a legal perspective, it is much safer to have your regular barn workers perform basic horse care tasks. They know their jobs and they know the horses, so they’ll be able to provide care in a competent and efficient manner without any unnecessary social contact. Plus, as an employer, you should have workers’ compensation insurance that will provide coverage for your regular barn workers (whereas your insurance is unlikely to provide much, if any, coverage for injuries or illness sustained by volunteers or non-W-2 employees).
Q: My facility is self-care only, or some of my boarders are on a self-care program. What should I do?
A: Minimize the number of persons present at your facility at any one time, and implement biosecurity protocols based upon current medical advice. If most or all of your boarders are self-care, requesting that they set up a care-sharing schedule where they cooperate to provide care for one another’s horses so that each owner does not need to be at the facility every day. You can also establish set times during which the care must be provided, and close the facility during all other times. And restrict access to persons who are absolutely needed on site to care for the horses – other family members and friends must stay home. If only some of your boarders are self-care, consider providing them with full care during this difficult time to limit potential virus exposure at your facility.