Media outlets demand names of two Utah County firms accused of ignoring COVID-19 safeguards

(CDC via AP) This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China.

The Utah Media Coalition, made up of the state’s largest news organizations, is prepared to go to court to obtain the names of the two Utah County businesses that reportedly flouted coronavirus restrictions and created hotspots of the virus.

But the coalition’s attorney said in a letter to county commissioners Monday that it doesn’t have to come to that and called on them to release the information without a public records fight.

In a time of “struggle and uncertainty,” the letter said, “there may be better and more constructive ways for all of us to spend our valuable time and energy than in litigation. For that reason, we earnestly ask you to reconsider the county’s position on this issue and to stop protecting the businesses who did so little to help — and possibly to hurt — all of the rest of us.”

Utah County Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter Monday afternoon.

Earlier this month, Utah County leaders called for compliance with coronavirus recommendations after they said two companies in the area had ignored guidelines and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to still report to work.

Together, those companies were responsible for 68 cases. At one of the businesses, 48% of employees tested positive for the virus.

The county commissioners criticized the businesses in question for “putting employees, their families and ultimately the health of the community at risk.”

But the county and its health department have so far declined to provide any details about the companies and have denied public records requests from The Salt Lake Tribune and the state’s other major media organizations for more information about them.

The county has said that neither of the companies have direct interaction with the general public and argues that releasing the information would violate the private health information of employees.

The Utah Media Coalition argues through its attorney, however, that the county could protect individuals by redacting their names from any documents that show the names of the businesses.

And it points to a line in state code that notes the protections do not apply to one who "willfully or maliciously or with reckless disregard for the welfare of others transmits a communicable or infectious disease.”

“Arguably, that is exactly what the rogue businesses here did,” the letter states.

And despite the county’s assurances that the businesses did not work directly with the public, coalition attorney Michael Patrick O’Brien argues that “no business is isolated from the public.”

“The two involved businesses may not be store fronts or retail operations, but they likely have sales people, purchase supplies, receive/make deliveries, put their products in the stream of commerce, utilize repair/maintenance services, have business visitors, share space and common building/parking areas with others, and interact for business reasons with others,” the letter states.

“The employees of these businesses dine, shop, go home, go to church, visit with family and friends, get their hair cut, and interact with others in countless other ways,” it continues. “The actions of these businesses have put hundreds of persons at risk at a time when we are all called upon to protect ourselves and others from this highly contagious disease.”

In lieu of information about the businesses, the letter argues, it becomes much more difficult for residents who have potentially had interactions with the businesses and their employees to take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Companies that imperil public health are routinely identified to the public — such as when restaurants and food manufacturers violate health codes, when businesses and individuals engage in fraud, or when companies use poor safety practices that put employees or the public at risk, the letter states.

It’s “not so they can be shamed,” the coalition’s letter argues, “but so the members of the public can take appropriate steps to protect themselves.”

The Tribune has appealed the county’s initial denial of its public records request to Ainge, the chief administrative officer over appeals. From there, an appeal could go before the State Records Committee and finally, depending on the outcome, to district court, though most appeals don’t make it that far.