Judge rules Utah County must name businesses that created COVID-19 hot spots

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 testing at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Following a judge’s ruling on Monday, Utah County will be required to release information to the public identifying two businesses that reportedly created hot spots of the coronavirus and infected at least 68 people.

The judgment, issued virtually from the bench in 4th District Court, comes after KSL-TV sued Utah County earlier this month over its refusal to provide the names of those businesses, arguing that there was no legal merit for withholding them.

Judge Christine Johnson agreed on Monday and ordered the county to release the records within 48 hours.

The public has a “significant and weighty interest in knowing about COVID-19 outbreaks, where and how they happen [and] who they happen to,” she said in issuing the ruling.

“I think we’re all in a better position to understand how to keep ourselves healthy if that information is transparently available,” Johnson added.

The order to release the information comes amid national headlines and social media scrutiny in recent weeks over allegations from the county itself that the businesses had required employees to come to work despite a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt later attempted to walk back those claims by the County Commission, confirming that the businesses were a source of mass infection — with 48% of employees testing positive for the virus at one of the companies — but saying that county leaders had found assertions the businesses had flouted coronavirus guidelines to be untrue.

In court briefings and during oral argument Monday, Utah County’s attorneys argued that records naming the businesses had been properly classified as private and were protected from disclosure under Utah law. Because these are small businesses, the county argued, releasing their names would violate state code by effectively identifying the private health information of the large number of employees who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

But Jeff Hunt, a media law attorney arguing on behalf of KSL-TV, noted Monday that the news outlet was not seeking identifiable health care information related to any specific individual and that it was possible for the county to redact any of those details while still being transparent with the public.

The state has routinely identified nursing homes with outbreaks in their facilities, he argued, and pointed out that “there is no statute expressly making confidential the names of businesses that are investigated in connection with an outbreak of a communicable disease like COVID-19.”

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.

Heather White, the county’s attorney, also argued Monday that disclosure of the names could have a “chilling effect” on future contact tracing and epidemiological investigations. Several employees had been wary of participating in the process over concerns about their private information, she noted, and a ruling from the court to release the names of the businesses could make efforts with other organizations more challenging in the future.

The county contended, too, that the release of the information would have no substantial benefit to the public.

“The public interest does not mean a desire to know,” White said during oral argument Monday. And because the COVID-19 incubation period has passed, she said there was “no immediate public safety interest” in releasing the businesses’ names.

In a briefing filed in support of the lawsuit, several news organizations — including The Salt Lake Tribune — joined KSL-TV’s argument for what they saw as a strong interest in public disclosure. It was the county’s own statements that raised “public alarm” about the two businesses, “causing intense local interest in knowing the businesses’ identities,” they noted. And during a pandemic, the news outlets argued that information is “crucial and can even be a matter of life or death.”

Hunt argued that the shifting county story about the businesses had raised questions “about the conduct of the county in handling this case” and had created an important public interest in releasing the names of the companies.

“People are raising questions about whether the businesses might be politically connected or being protected by the county, whether there’s some improper political pressure at play in the case,” he said. “None of that may be true. But all of it is something the public is entitled to know about. And releasing the names of the businesses would be the first step in that process.”