By Shereen Siewert
The state’s largest business organization on Thursday filed a lawsuit that seeks to block the Evers administration from releasing the names of more than 1,000 businesses that have had two or more employees test positive for COVID-19 since the spring.
Gov. Tony Evers initially said the state wouldn’t release the names of such businesses. This week, Evers pivoted on that decision and said the state is obligated to release the information to comply with Wisconsin’s open records laws.
The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lawsuit was filed Thursday in Waukesha County Circuit Court and names Evers, Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan.
WMC officials say state law protects health care records, including the identity of a patient’s employer. Disclosing the names of businesses with COVID-19 cases could allow for patients to be identified, WMC argues.
In addition, publishing employer names would violate the patient-employees’ privacy interests laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, WMC said.
Evers, in a media briefing Thursday, said he had not yet reviewed the lawsuit, which was filed in Waukesha County Circuit Court and names both Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. Though he declined to comment on specifics, Evers said the state will be releasing to the media information on closed investigations into businesses where multiple positive cases of COVID-19 are recorded.
Elizabeth Goodsitt, in an email Thursday, said that the state has received multiple requests from media outlets seeking the names and locations of COVID-19 investigations and must comply with Wisconsin’s open records law.
In a letter sent in August to Gov. Tony Evers, WMC CEO Kurt Bauer warned that releasing business names may spread “false information that will damage the consumer brands of Wisconsin employers, causing them to incur a significant amount of financial losses and reputational damage.”
In an Aug. 4 column distributed to media statewide Christa Westerberg, an attorney at Pines Bach law firm in Madison and co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom Information Council, dismissed Bauer’s warning, saying that such arguments “disrespect the public’s ability to make informed, reasoned choices.”
“And, in a time of pandemic, there are valid public health reasons to allow members of the public to make these choices,” Westerberg wrote.
Westerberg said that hysterical reactions predicted by WMC have not happened in La Crosse County, which maintains a webpage for local COVID-19 outbreaks and investigations. It identifies establishments as low, medium or high risk based on an infected person’s activities and the nature of the business he or she visited.
La Crosse County’s information lets people who may have visited an establishment during a high-risk period know they should get tested or quarantine for 14 days. Or it lets them know their risk for exposure is low, which can increase consumer confidence and boost business in other cases.
Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dave Eckmann sent an email late Wednesday alerting members of the governor’s intent.