Empower Wisconsin | July 3, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Department of Health Services tells Empower Wisconsin that it has “no immediate plans” to out Wisconsin businesses that have confirmed cases of COVID-19, but DHS isn’t saying it won’t release names.
Meanwhile, an email from a Dane County health official obtained by Empower Wisconsin effectively catches DHS in a lie.
Surprised? This is the same heavy-handed Evers administration agency that had no plans to lock down the state — until it locked down the state a few days later.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported Wednesday, sources with knowledge of the situation said DHS was planning to begin posting the information today. Businesses with two or more coronavirus cases would be made public, although it’s not clear whether the reports would include recovered cases or strictly active numbers.
Other sources familiar with the matter said 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.
It took more than a day, but DHS finally responded to Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment.
“We have no immediate plans to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on our website; however, 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 an email.
She went on to write, what Empower Wisconsin “may be referencing is a series of open records requests from journalists we are working through.”
“We have received hundreds of requests for records, including emails, relating to businesses that our records custodians and legal team are currently working through to determine what we legally must withhold,” Goodsitt wrote. “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.”
Empower Wisconsin does know. We have several open records requests into the Evers administration — many of them fairly basic — that have gone months without being filled or have been determined by the governor’s legal team to be “nonresponsive.”
Just one problem with DHS’ response: the agency’s left-wing pals in Dane County contradict it.
“We have been working on an internal policy for public notification of businesses that have cases linked to them — but the State announced on the webinar yesterday that starting next week they would be publicly posting businesses with outbreaks…” wrote Bonnie Koenig, Environmental Health Services supervisor for Public Health Madison & Dane County in a recent email.
It’s clear in Koenig’s communication that DHS is planning to post the names of businesses with “outbreaks,” so the local health department’s internal policy will be revised to align with state consistency.”
THE STATE — the Evers administration — is leading the effort and plans to move soon.
“DHS cited that this is necessary due to public demand, a desire for transparency for open records laws,” Koenig wrote.
Sources with inside knowledge told Empower Wisconsin on Wednesday DHS and the governor’s office have heard an earful from businesses and advocates concerned about how the information will be released, whether it will provide context, if it will include old COVID-19 cases, whether the cases will involve employees or customers, too. In short, whether the Evers administration aims to mark businesses already hit hard by state and local lockdowns with a Scarlet C.
One source said the department’s response to Empower Wisconsin is “the most convoluted, non-denial denial” he’s ever heard.
“I think they’re trying to figure out legally” what information they have to release.
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.
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 said there are ongoing discussions between the administration and “many different entities” about just how far and deep the release of information would be.
Some Republican lawmakers said releasing such information wholesale would further delay recovery for businesses struggling with the pandemic and the government restrictions.
“If true, this could be the final nail in the coffin for many small businesses struggling to stay afloat,” state Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said Thursday in a press release referencing Empower Wisconsin’s story.
“Never in our state’s history have we seen a governor so committed to destroying small business. He couldn’t use his power to directly shut them down, so he’s moving to the next best thing. I expect nothing less from someone whose first act as governor was to replace ‘open for business’ signs with his own name.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), tweeted, “If the Governor goes down this road, he should then name any state agency that has an employee test positive and the location they work.
If the Governor goes down this road, he should then name any state agency that has an employee test positive and the location they work. https://t.co/1YxsB9VbUa
— Jim Steineke (@jimsteineke) July 2, 2020
Sen. Duey Stroebel said if the Evers administration decides to begin naming names, so to speak, it would be a “very chilling turn.”
“Wisconsin’s elected representatives refused to grant Andrea Palm and DHS the power to shutter businesses indefinitely. This sounds like an attempt to carry out the Governor’s restrictive policies through social intimidation and blacklisting,” Stroebel said. “Like the Mayor of Racine withholding COVID aid to a business who opposed the lockdown, apparently in 2020 Wisconsin you need to stay in the good graces of the executive branch, or else.”