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Legal Perspective - The Maritime Community and COVID-19

Most people who work in the boating industry don’t have nice things to say about COVID-19. It has brought financial hardship to so many. In addition to shattering our economy, the pandemic has touched virtually every aspect of our lives. We see its impact on the waterfront at marinas, boat dealerships, and boatyards. Nothing is the same anymore, from a simple trip to the supermarket or gas station. If there’s anything good to come from this ordeal, it might be the courage of health care workers and others on the front lines who are there for us. COVID-19 may also remind us about how much we took for granted in the not-too-distant past. This includes things like the small pleasures of walking around a marine supply store without thinking about social distancing policies, or the joy of carefree raft-ups at sunset. There’s almost something ironic about uttering the words “social distancing” and “boating” in the same breath. The two things are so diametrically opposed. By its very nature, boating is associated with social gathering, warmth, and the good company of friends and family. But times have changed and this is part of the new normal. We now see recommendations for boating practices that most readers would have probably scratched their heads about a year ago. This includes warnings not to venture far from homeports. Maintain safe distances from others at fuel docks and marinas. Wear face masks. When going out for the day, anticipate that some waterfront businesses will be closed. The list goes on… avoid rafting up. Keep the number of people on tenders low enough to ensure safe distances between everyone. As with the airline industry, reading things like this make one worry about the future. Such business models could be difficult to sustain, just as keeping half-empty planes that burn 20 gallons of fuel a minute in the air pose challenges for the airline industry. As for the serious cruisers out there, it’s difficult to imagine they’ll remained shackled to the home waters of a local anchorage. Everything is intertwined, as many sectors of the boating industry depend one another in a symbiotic harmony. Downturns in one sector impact other areas. In terms of boat production, operations have been suspended in various areas, from outboard engines to new vessels. Unfortunately, this impacts marine industries that rely on new vessel owners for business. But it isn’t only the boating industry that feels the sting of the pandemic. The entire maritime community has been impacted. In the cruise industry, ships sit idle after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented a No Sail Order. Additionally, some ports have turned ships away. Others have imposed bans on cruise ships. With cargo ships, some crews have been in an indefinite state of limbo as their vessels remain at sea longer or are stranded in port. This has resulted in great strains on commercial seafarers, whose lives are already difficult in terms of the burdens of being away from loved ones. From a legal standpoint, the pandemic has brought greater attention to the consequences of cancelled contracts, where one party or another cannot perform because their business is temporarily or permanently shut down. Depending on how a contract is drafted in terms of foreseeable or unforeseeable contingencies, the result is sometimes legal action. Even those not in the maritime sector see this with disputes between catering venues and those who had planned weddings or other events long before COVID-19 was on the horizon. In terms of contract law, the pandemic has caused people to read elements of their agreements more closely when it comes to damages for breach. People look more carefully at things like force majeure clauses, which could serve to free parties of liability in the face of catastrophic events such as wars, strikes, or other disasters. Before the pandemic, most people never thought too much about such fine print because those things seemed distant and remote. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made such contingencies more relevant. I wish all our readers, their families, and our local businesses good luck in weathering this storm.

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