New documents released by Utah County this week after a public records fight identify the two businesses that created COVID-19 hot spots in the area as Built Bar, an American Fork company that manufactures and distributes nutritional supplements, and Wasatch Truss, a Spanish Fork construction firm.
After announcing in May that the businesses had together infected at least 68 people, the county repeatedly declined to release their names to the public, arguing that neither of the companies had direct contact with the public and therefore didn’t pose a threat to public safety. A 4th District Court judge saw it differently and ruled Monday in favor of KSL-TV, ordering the county to disclose the information.
Emails show not everyone was kept in the dark about the businesses, though. Health department employee Tyler Plewe informed staff members about the locations of the hot spots in April, “so that you feel safe if you are heading out into the public.”
“This is sensitive information,” he noted, “so please keep it within the office.”
Emails between Utah County Health Department staff show they began to feel concerned about the outbreak at Built Bar in mid-April, when an employee there indicated that “there have been a lot of people who have been positive at his workplace but have been told by the manager to not say anything and to return to work as soon as they feel better.”
“The manager is encouraging those who have tested positive to not identify contacts and and not to ‘alarm people,’” the health department employee who had spoken to the Built Bar employee continued in an email. “Patient feels that he wouldn’t have gotten sick if the manager wasn’t allowing sick people to come to work.”
A different contact tracer reported the next day that she had spoken with a separate employee who told a similar story.
“She stated that several other coworkers tested positive,” the contact tracer wrote. “She stated that the manager’s secretary told each of them that they were not to disclose to any coworkers their infections, that this would ‘cause a panic.’”
An employee is currently suing Built Bar in 4th District Court for allegedly “knowingly, intentionally and recklessly” exposing its employees to the coronavirus by refusing to provide employees with personal protective equipment or to sanitize its facilities and threatening to terminate anyone who raised safety concerns about COVID-19.
Built Bar, which has denied the merits of the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. The company told The Salt Lake Tribune previously that it closed to sanitize its facility while cases were increasing and put additional safety measures in place to confront the spread of the coronavirus. Production employees were paid during the closure, the statement said.
Documents show Built Bar was investigated by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, which said in its report that the company had provided updates to all its employees about policy and procedural changes in light of the pandemic as part of its initial response to the coronavirus. Personnel were also instructed not to come in if they were sick, though the department noted that the company did not provide a written policy to that effect.
“Moving forward the firm will provide additional personal protective equipment; masks will be provided to personnel in production lines where products are susceptible/exposed,” agriculture officials wrote in their report. “The firm provided an additional handwashing station at the employee entrance as well as provided floor markings for personnel on where to stand to prevent grouping and promote social distancing.”
Since reopening, Built Bar has also hired a third-party cleaning company to contract for services.
Richard Beckstrand, an inspector with the Department of Agriculture and Food, noted that the facility was “immaculate” when the company reopened. But he raised concern going forward about “the number of potential illnesses and their continued efforts to ensure that sick employees are immediately excluded and potential close contacts are also excluded.”
“They could be looking at a situation where they run out of employees who are able to meet the definition of no illness and no exposure and at that point do they still do the right things to prevent more illness?” he wrote in an email to the county. “That’s why I tend to believe some of the stories about employees being pressured to work while having active symptoms of COVID.”
Later that month, health department employees noted another “troubling pattern,” with several cases linked to Wasatch Truss in Spanish Fork.
Emails show the company cooperated with health department workers for contact tracing. They also closed the worksite for cleaning, conducted temperature testing each day and provided employees with “as much PPE as possible,” a health department official wrote.
Shortly after concerns about the two businesses were raised in April, the Utah County Commission released a public statement calling for compliance with coronavirus recommendations and stating that the companies had ignored guidelines and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to still report to work.
The county commissioners criticized the then-unnamed businesses for “putting employees, their families and ultimately the health of the community at risk.”
Later on, the county walked back those claims, confirming that the companies were a source of mass infection but saying they had wrongly claimed the businesses had required employees to come to work despite a COVID-19 diagnosis. County officials have been able to give few details about how they investigated those claims and how the breakdowns in communication occurred.
John Turner, general manager at Wasatch Truss, told The Salt Lake Tribune he wasn’t aware that his company was considered one of the two businesses the Utah County Commissioners had referenced in their May statement until he got a phone call from a reporter on Wednesday.
“It’s the weirdest thing in the world,” he said. “We did not force anybody to come to work or say you’ve got to come back to work or you won’t have a job. It was exactly the opposite. As a result, we have everybody back.”
Turner noted that there hasn’t been a COVID-19 case at the company for seven weeks and emphatically denies initial claims that the company had instructed sick people to come to work. None of the emails provided to The Salt Lake Tribune through the open records request indicate that there were complaints from employees about that company’s handling of the outbreak.