Empower Wisconsin | July 1, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Empower Wisconsin has learned that Gov. Tony Evers’ power-grabbing Department of Health Services is set to soon post the names of all Wisconsin businesses that have recorded at least two COVID-19 cases.
This government-sanctioned disclosure will slam a Scarlet Letter on Badger State businesses already reeling from the pandemic and state and local lockdowns, business advocates say.
“Any business that is confronted with this report and suffers the unintended consequences, that’s equivalent to the old saying, Where do you go to get your good name back,” said Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.
But are the consequences “unintended”?
Multiple sources tell Empower Wisconsin that DHS plans to begin posting the information on Friday, the unofficial start of the Fourth of July weekend. Businesses with two or more coronavirus cases would be outed, although it’s not clear whether the reports will include recovered cases or strictly active numbers.
DHS did not return an email seeking comment.
Another source tells Empower Wisconsin that the Evers administration received an open records request from an unnamed media outlet. The administration originally rejected the request, we are told, but the media outlet apparently threatened legal action.
As of Wednesday, there have been 29,199 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, and 786 COVID-19-related deaths, according to Health Services. More than 551,000 test results have come back negative.
One source said there are ongoing discussions between the administration and “many different entities” about just how far and deep the release of information would be.
“It’s not a fait accompli,” the source said.
There would appear to be legal implications to releasing the names of businesses that have reported coronavirus infections, particularly at smaller businesses where federal health information privacy laws could be impacted.
More so, so many businesses that Evers and his overreaching DHS stalled with broad stay-at-home orders could be knocked out for good if they are marked with the Scarlet C.
DHS has all the records — from self-reporting to contract tracing and local data — and they have the power to release that information at any time, according to sources.
One source with knowledge of the situation said whether the Evers administration is intentionally attempting to be punitive, businesses and Wisconsin’s economy as a whole will be hurt regardless. What of the consumer’s right to know? The source said there’s a difference between a couple of cases and a mass infection. Government officials don’t typically release similar information on other virus cases, such as the flu.
Scholz, when Empower Wisconsin informed him of the data release, said the Grocers Association has a lot of concerns about the dissemination of COVID-19 information.
“We are really concerned how this going to work, how going to impact retailers and how consumers will feel not having the full depth of information,” he said.