The digital billboards in New York City’s famous Times Square will go dark tonight at 9 pm ET for one minute to dramatize the plight of restaurants, non-profits and retailers across the country that are suffering business losses due to the pandemic and shutdowns.
Organizers say they want to alert the nation to the “very real prospect that hundreds of thousands of American restaurants, non-profits and retailers—employing millions—are in danger of going dark” because they say neither insurance nor existing federal assistance programs are helping as they should.
Among the coordinators of the publicity event is the Business Interruption Group (BIG), a coalition of restaurants and other businesses co-founded by Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling that is pushing for the insurance industry to pay business income losses of struggling businesses. Houghtaling also represents several clients suing insurers over business interruption.
“Business interruption insurance claims are being wrongfully denied. That is crippling the essential hospitality businesses that drive tourism and are woven into the fabric of our cities. The loss of revenue without the opportunity to recover lost funds robs business owners of the capital necessary to re-open,” said Houghtaling.
Insurers have balked at paying many of these claims, arguing that the coronavirus does not cause physical damage that is required to trigger business interruption coverage and that most policies also exclude viruses. The industry says it can’t afford to cover the losses its policies were not written or priced to cover and still meet its obligations to other policyholders.
Many in the insurance industry support a federal program that would allow businesses to buy revenue replacement coverage for up to 80 percent of payroll and other expenses. This plan, Business Continuity Protection Program, would be run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Congressional lawmakers also introduced a proposed “Pandemic Risk Insurance Act” bill on Tuesday, which would provide for a federal government backstop like the one already in place for terrorism risks.
Houghtaling offered an alternative to continued coverage litigation at a Congressional hearing last week.
Speaking at a House Small Business committee virtual forum on Thursday, Houghtaling proposed a federal subsidy program that insurers would be opt into, agreeing to pay claims under policies with and without virus exclusions but being reimbursed to payments they made under those policies that have the exclusions. (Houghtaling had not responded to CM’s request for a clarification at press time.)
Others behind tonight’s publicity event are billboard companies, the Times Square Alliance of businesses and the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
The Times Square billboards blackout is to be followed by a video urging the insurance industry to honor business interruption claims and support legislation. The video features opinions from Whoopi Goldberg, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the global Jewish human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Center, Chef Eric Ripert of restaurant Le Bernardin, Broadway actress and singer Liz Dutton and others calling on insurance companies to “do the right thing.”
“We’re not asking for a handout. We’re demanding that insurance companies fulfill their obligations, said Rabbi Hier, founder CEO and President of the Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, in a media statement. “Every sector of our economy and communities are at stake. #DontGoDark—Don’t turn your back on these American companies who loyally paid their premiums and without the insurance companies living up to their obligations could lead to incalculable losses of jobs and the specter of permanent damage to our society.”
The billboard blackout will be 46th Street to 48th Street on Broadway and the entire corner of 47th and 7th Avenue bracketing the center of the Times Square “Duffy Square.”
Over 100 million LED pixels, each representing $1,000 dollars of annual economic impact from Times Square alone, will be momentarily turned off.