Release Business Names With COVID-19 Outbreaks
Let the public make informed decisions about their own safety.
In a scene from the movie “A Few Good Men,” the character played by Tom Cruise spars with Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup over a hazing that killed a soldier. Cruise demands, “I want the truth!,” to which Nicholson famously responds, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Wisconsin citizens are getting the “You can’t handle the truth” treatment from some officials over information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this summer, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services planned to post online the names of businesses and other establishments connected to two or more coronavirus cases.
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.
A customer who learns of potential cases at a business may decide to get more information or take precautions when visiting, rather than avoid the business entirely. A high-risk person may decide to stay home and order from the business online or by phone. Yet citizens can’t make these calls without appropriate information.
The hysterical reactions envisioned by Bauer and others 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 was low, providing peace of mind.
The website takes pains to say that “an establishment appearing on this page does not necessarily mean they did something wrong.” The county notifies businesses before this information is shared and provides guidance on “reducing future risk to staff and customers.”
Public disclosure might also help protect workers and incentivize businesses to do better. Consider the large outbreaks at Wisconsin meat-packing plants this spring, which are linked to at least 1,527 coronavirus cases and eight worker deaths in the state.
The Department of Health Services pulled back on its plans to post business information and is now facing multiple public records requests for similar information. At least one county is being sued for withholding the records of businesses associated with coronavirus cases.
This legal wrangling shouldn’t be necessary. The department and more counties should follow La Crosse’s lead and affirmatively post information about potential outbreaks in public places, with appropriate explanations to address concerns like Bauer’s.
Wisconsin citizens can handle the truth.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Christa Westerberg, an attorney at Pines Bach law firm in Madison, is the group’s co-vice president.
More about the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Milwaukee Health Department Announces Upcoming Changes to COVID-19 Services - City of Milwaukee Health Department - Mar 17th, 2023
- Fitzgerald Applauds Passage of COVID-19 Origin Act - U.S. Rep Scott Fitzgerald - Mar 10th, 2023
- DHS Expands Free COVID-19 Testing Program - Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Feb 10th, 2023
- MKE County: COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rising - Graham Kilmer - Jan 16th, 2023
- Not Enough Getting Bivalent Booster Shots, State Health Officials Warn - Gaby Vinick - Dec 26th, 2022
- Nearly All Wisconsinites Age 6 Months and Older Now Eligible for Updated COVID-19 Vaccine - Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Dec 15th, 2022
- City of Milwaukee Bi-Weekly COVID-19 Update - City of Milwaukee Health Department - Dec 9th, 2022
- MKE County: COVID-19 Disease Burden Remains Stable - Graham Kilmer - Nov 25th, 2022
- MKE County: Wastewater Data Shows COVID-19 Uptick - Graham Kilmer - Nov 18th, 2022
- City of Milwaukee Bi-Weekly COVID-19 Update - City of Milwaukee Health Department - Nov 11th, 2022
Read more about Coronavirus Pandemic here
Your Right to Know
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One thought on “Your Right To Know: Release Business Names With COVID-19 Outbreaks”
Christa is absolutely correct on this. There is no good reason why this information is not public, and keeping it secret has very likely caused unnecessary illness and death.