Empower Wisconsin | Sept 17, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — It appears Gov. Tony Evers has reversed his position on making public the names of Wisconsin businesses with COVID-19 cases.
Business advocates are breathing a sigh of relief following the threat of public disclosures that could have been a huge liability issue for job creators, and a significant privacy concern for employees.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported in July, the state Department of Health Services had planned to release the names of businesses with two or more coronavirus cases. When caught, DHS officials insisted they were receiving open records requests from hundreds of media outlets seeking the information, and that they had no other choice under the law. Of course, the Evers administration has had all kinds of trouble filling records requests over its first 21 months in office, earning a poor reputation for transparency.
After pressure from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other business groups, the agency paused in its plan.
DHS officials told Empower Wisconsin in July that the agency had “no immediate plans” to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on its website.
“(H)owever, we are always striving to give Wisconsinites and their communities the information they need to protect themselves from COVID-19,” DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt wrote in the email.
That was less than reassuring to already-struggling businesses looking at the real potential they would be forced to wear a Scarlet ‘C’ in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Business groups kept asking Evers for a definitive answer. Ryan J. Walsh, attorney for WMC and legal counsel for the owner of several in-state businesses, warned of the legal issues releasing such information would create in a July 15 letter to Evers and his health secretary-designee.
“We also understand that, even if DHS chooses not to publish the names of all of these businesses on its own initiative and in a single list (which it has not definitively ruled out), the Department might release names in bursts, as it responds to open-records requests,” Walsh wrote. “Because these disclosures would permit third parties to uncover the identity of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, they would violate several state and federal laws, all of which protect Wisconsinites’ right to privacy in their health records. The disclosures would also likely inflict emotional distress on vulnerable workers and wreak reputational damage on both the patients and the employers.”
The Evers administration never formally responded to the letter, but at a recent Milwaukee Press Club event, the governor publicly agreed with WMC’s position by stating DHS would not release the names of businesses allegedly connected to COVID-19 cases because posting that data would create privacy issues.
“We believe that it’s information that is not public and it’s information that we need to keep in a way that not only protects the businesses, but more importantly it helps us monitor and helps us answer the questions about outbreaks and how to deal with outbreaks and do it in a way that isn’t a problem for us,” he said. “So there’s some privacy things going on there.”
Not known for definitive answers, the governor seems to have come as close to defined as he can get.
Evers has been known to go back on his word, particularly during the pandemic. Business groups remain vigilant, but they are relieved.
“We are glad that the governor has clarified this longstanding question so businesses have some certainty about how to proceed,” said Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.