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.
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.
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