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WMC files lawsuit to block state plans to reveal businesses with multiple COVID-19 cases
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COVID-19 | PUBLICIZING INFECTIONS

WMC files lawsuit to block state plans to reveal businesses with multiple COVID-19 cases

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A judge has temporarily halted the state health department’s plan to release information on businesses linked to COVID-19 cases.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers said the state planned to release the information, in response to public records requests, “in the very near future.”

“We have an obligation to the public to obey the law in that area and we will be releasing to the people in the media that have asked for that information in the very near future,” Evers said.

At the same time, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, along with the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce and New Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court against Evers, Department of Health Secretary Andrea Palm and Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, seeking to block the release of business names.

Circuit Court Judge Lloyd Carter issued a five-day temporary restraining order preventing the state from releasing any business information.

Some of the state’s largest business organizations have raised concern that releasing information where multiple infections have occurred would have severe impacts on companies already struggling through the pandemic.

Evers had said the state would be releasing to the media information on closed investigations into businesses where multiple positive cases of COVID-19 had occurred. He said there are no plans to include that information on the state’s Department of Health Services website.

Some local agencies, including La Crosse County Health Department, have publicly identified businesses linked to positive COVID-19 cases.

WMC president and CEO Kurt Bauer said in a statement that releasing the information “has the potential to spread false and misleading information that will damage the brands of Wisconsin employers.”

“Not only could this cause significant financial and reputational harm to businesses, it would reduce the effectiveness of contact tracing, reduce the confidence level workers have in their employers and actually increase the likelihood of spreading the virus,” Bauer said in a statement Thursday.

In the lawsuit, WMC alleges that releasing such information “will violate Wisconsin laws requiring any person, including government actors, to keep confidential the information contained in medical records and will wantonly damage the reputations of businesses and workers.”

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WMC has said state law protects health care records, including the identity of a patient’s employer, and disclosing the names of businesses with COVID-19 cases could allow for the identification of the patients themselves. In addition, publishing employer names would violate the patient-employees’ privacy interests laid out in the 14th Amendment, WMC said.

Evers said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit at the time of the media call and could not comment on the specifics, or on exactly what information will be provided in response to the records requests.

DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said in an email on Thursday that DHS must comply with Wisconsin’s open records law and has received multiple requests from media outlets seeking the names and locations of where there have been COVID-19 investigations.

“We are working on responding to those requests,” Goodsitt said. “We will not be publicly posting the names of those businesses because we do not think that has public health value.”

Business organizations, including WMC, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Wisconsin Grocers Association, sent letters to Evers’ office this summer saying releasing the names of businesses where positive cases have occurred would have severe impacts on companies already struggling through the pandemic.

“If you put these names out there, you’re going to ruin businesses,” Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said Thursday. “You’re going to put a scarlet ‘C’ on these businesses.”

DHS officials in July confirmed that the department was processing outstanding records requests pertaining to public health investigations at individual businesses to determine what information might be released.

At the time, Palm said that after conversations with different partners, the department had walked back potential plans to publicly list the names of businesses that have witnessed multiple positive cases of COVID-19.

During a Milwaukee Press Club meeting on Sept. 9, Evers said he chose not to release the list of businesses because “there’s some privacy things going on there.”

“We believe that it is information that is not public and that it is information that we need to keep in a way that not only protects the businesses, but more importantly it helps us monitor, it helps us answer the questions about outbreaks and how we deal with outbreaks and do it in a way that isn’t a problem for us,” Evers said last month.

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