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U.S. lawmakers push insurers to cover coronavirus business losses

By Suzanne Barlyn

By Suzanne Barlyn

March 20 (Reuters) - Some U.S. lawmakers are urging commercial insurers to pay businesses for losses stemming from the coronavirus outbreak, despite terms in the insurance policies that would otherwise bar coverage.

Eighteen lawmakers wrote to four trade groups on Wednesday asking the industry to "recognize financial loss due to COVID-19," the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as part of customers' coverage for so-called "business interruption."

"During times of crisis, we must all work together," the letter said.

The bipartisan move is the latest effort to push insurers to aid businesses that have been shuttered or had their operations curtailed, as officials race to combat the spread of the pandemic.

Most insurance policies that cover business interruption exclude coverage for pandemics and require that physical damage occur on site.

"Business interruption policies do not, and were not, designed to provide coverage against communicable diseases," the groups wrote in a response on Wednesday. They support federal assistance to businesses in need, they wrote.

David A. Sampson, president and CEO of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, told a group of state insurance regulators on Friday that the industry's systems were experiencing "stress points."

"If policymakers force insurers to pay for losses that are not covered under existing insurance policies, the stability of the sector could be impacted," Sampson said in prepared remarks.

There have been nearly 201,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 8,880 deaths as of Friday afternoon, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, more than 15,000 people have been infected and 201 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

California on Thursday ordered nearly 40 million people to stay home. New York state on Friday told all non-essential workers to do the same and ordered barber shops and nail salons, among other business types, to close starting Sunday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said he would ramp up restrictions within 24 hours, including shutting non-essential businesses.

In New Jersey, legislation introduced on Monday that would have made insurers pay losses to some small businesses was set aside after industry groups balked.

"An insurer's job is to absorb risk," said New Jersey Assemblyman Roy Freiman, a Democrat, who introduced the measure. "You can't sit on the sidelines and do nothing and say, 'That's too bad.'"

Freiman acknowledged insurers' concerns, such as not having set aside sufficient cash to pay for excluded pandemic claims.

But he said they must come up with solutions to help ailing businesses and said he may reintroduce the bill if they do not.

MK Diamond Products, a masonry equipment manufacturer in Torrance, California, was already decreasing its production hours while waiting for shipments from northern Italy and China that were stuck overseas during lockdowns, before California imposed its stay-at-home order, said Brian Delahaut, the company's vice president.

Delahaut's risk manager recently told him that his company's business-interruption insurance, which costs $28,000 per year, could not help, Delahaut said.

On Friday, the factory effectively had to close, while other employees work at home.

"We're in uncharted territory," Delahaut said. (Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn in London Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra, Noeleen Walder and Rosalba O'Brien)