The names of businesses linked to COVID-19 cases, originally set to be released last week, will be delayed until at least late November while a lawsuit brought by the state’s largest business lobby moves forward.
Waukesha County Circuit Judge Lloyd Carter granted a request from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce to extend a restraining order blocking the state health department from releasing the data at a hearing on Wednesday.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services was set to release the records last Friday in response to a public records request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed in June for data on facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks.
During the hearing, Carter stated the data includes the names of approximately 1,000 businesses with 25 or more employees who have had at least two employees test positive. The records do not include data from the past 28 days.
Ryan Walsh, attorney for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said those businesses could suffer “irreparable harm” if their names are released. The trade association also argued that the public might be able to identify specific employees who tested positive for COVID-19 from the data.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook from members around the state worried about this,” Walsh said.
Andie Bensky, an assistant attorney general appearing on behalf of the state health department and Gov. Tony Evers, argued that the health department has the authority to use its discretion in determining whether disclosing the records is in the public interest.
According to Bensky, the health department has around 20 outstanding open records requests seeking similar data.
There is “tremendous public interest” in the outbreak data, she said, adding that there is “no evidence whatsoever beyond generalized speculation that any of the member employers are going to suffer any injury at all.”
“A lot of that information is already in the public sphere,” she said.
Tom Kamenick, an attorney with the Wisconsin Transparency Project, appeared on behalf of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the hearing Wednesday.
Many workers at food processing plants told the Journal Sentinel they first learned about cases at their companies through co-workers. The newspaper has also reported on nursing home residents and their loved ones who said administrators did not inform them about outbreaks until residents started dying.
Public health and open records experts have argued in favor of transparency.
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, previously said the information can help the public be more aware about whether they may have been exposed.
“Transparency enhances our ability to do effective disease containment,” Benjamin said. “The less transparent we are, the more difficult it is.”