Officials with the state health department are processing what they say are “hundreds” of public records requests for information about COVID-19 cases at Wisconsin businesses, prompting concern among some of the state’s largest business organizations over how much information the department will release.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said Thursday the department’s records custodians and legal team are working through the pile of requests. Goodsitt did not indicate who is making the requests or when the information might be made public.
“We have no immediate plans to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on our website,” Goodsitt said in an email. “However, we are always striving to give Wisconsinites and their communities the information they need to protect themselves from COVID-19.”
“As you know, this is an incredibly time-consuming process as records custodians and attorneys must review every document — there are hundreds of thousands — and redact private or protected information,” Goodsitt said.
On Wednesday, a conservative media outlet quoting anonymous sources reported that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration was planning to post online the names of any business with at least two COVID-19 cases.
The report prompted the state’s largest business organizations — including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Wisconsin Grocers Association — to send letters to Evers’ office saying releasing such information would have severe impacts on businesses already struggling through the pandemic.
Susan Quam, the restaurant association’s executive vice president, said she understands the administration’s need to respond to a public records request but cautioned that releasing such information would mislead the public.
“Our concern is primarily that, unfortunately, you’re not going to know the full story of every single individual who became ill and where they contracted it,” Quam said. “It’s just going to put businesses further at risk.”
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reported the state unemployment rate dipped slightly in May, but was still 12%. While retail and service industries experienced some of the biggest gains since April, those industries also took some of the hardest hits as stores and restaurants were forced to close as the pandemic spread.
Early in the pandemic, meatpacking plants in Wisconsin and elsewhere were particularly hard hit, with more than 600 workers in meat plants in the state sickened by mid-May, forcing the closure of at least one plant in Brown County.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, also raised concern that such a list would potentially spread false information that could damage Wisconsin employers, according to a letter it sent Evers on Wednesday.
The letter states that COVID-19’s long incubation period makes it difficult to track where exactly infection occurred and linking companies to individual infections would implicitly cast blame on those businesses.
“Spreading misleading or outright false information will not help local public health authorities control the spread of COVID-19, or provide the public with the tools necessary to make more informed decisions,” the organization’s president and CEO, Kurt Bauer, said in the letter. “Bad data will undoubtedly lead to bad decision-making, and will further damage Wisconsin’s business community without protecting the public’s health.”
Bauer added that releasing company names would “likely lead to expensive lawsuits that do not promote the public good.”
“Once information like this becomes public, anything can come about afterward,” Quam said. “Should an entity use the information in a way that’s going to hurt a business, that business may feel they have been unfairly targeted.”
Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, also cautioned against making the names public, citing potential legal ramifications.
“Legally, the business does not need to report an employee that has tested positive, nor may they be aware that an employee has tested positive,” Scholz said in a letter to Evers and DHS Secretary Andrea Palm. “Investigations are sparked through contact tracing, which works to pinpoint exposure, which may or may not be the workplace. By publicly disclosing these individual’s employers it is implying that they were exposed to coronavirus on the job.”
In addition to business organizations, Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, released a statement Thursday accusing Evers and DHS of trying to “publicly shame businesses with two or more positive cases.”
Evers’ office declined to comment.
State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.