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Herald editorial: Public’s right to know prevails in virus records case

By Daily Herald Editorial Board - | Jul 3, 2020

It took nearly two months longer than it should have, but the public’s right to know the identities of two Utah County businesses that became early COVID-19 hotspots prevailed in court this week.

Back in early May, county commissioners joined with mayors in a public letter to inform the public about the two businesses and to criticize them for allegedly disregarding safety guidelines after employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

What the county officials and mayors didn’t do is identify the businesses. At the time, the Utah County Health Department declined to name the companies. It justified its actions on Twitter, saying “Only the information that will help a member of the public know whether or not an exposure may have occurred will be disclosed.” The Health Department further argued that disclosing the businesses “unnecessarily puts the privacy of that individual at risk….”

We’re understanding about the delicate balance that public officials face in protecting individual’s privacy while releasing information that can help the public be better informed about a contagion that shows few signs of stopping. However, this editorial board has argued from the beginning that the public’s right to know demands the disclosure of the companies’ names, provided that steps are taken to protect individuals’ privacy.

Other news outlets joined our cause and a lawsuit from KSL led to the breakthrough this week as the county finally identified the two businesses as Built Bar, a food-processing company in American Fork, and Wasatch Truss, a construction company in Spanish Fork.

The matter appears to turn on state law, which states that gathered infection information relating to individuals must be kept confidential. We argued that the law only applies to individuals and not business entities. The court agreed and ordered the release of the information.

Now, residents can make their own informed decisions about the situation, including whether they may have been exposed to the coronavirus due to ancillary contact with either the businesses or their employees.

By the way, a Health Department official felt it was important to warn their own staff about the companies during the time that information was being kept from the public. While we’re not sure that it was within the official’s power to disclose the names, it’s a little hypocritical to tell the public that we don’t need to know this information while giving a heads up to those inside the government.

Journalists can also make inquiries of the businesses (if they wish to speak) or the employees (if they wish to speak) and verify the government’s findings. This is important because the situation is a lot messier than the original letter first made it out to be.

In late May, the county attorney cast doubt on the initial letter from the County Commission and city mayors by walking back the claims that the companies ignored coronavirus guidelines and saying that the companies didn’t force employees to work while sick.

Meanwhile, an employee at one of the businesses has filed a lawsuit, alleging that the company allowed the virus to spread.

How do we determine what really happened? Disclosing the businesses’ names gives the public and journalists an opportunity to find out more about what happened.

This disclosure is one example of the power of public records, in this case GRAMA or the Government Records Access and Management Act. We should all expect the government to serve the public and we need tools like GRAMA to ensure this happens.

While a responsive and responsible government provides residents with accurate and useful information, it behooves the public and news media to exercise a healthy skepticism and to not merely take officials at their word. To paraphrase a former president, we can trust but we should also verify.

This approach is vitally important as we run the risk of letting the coronavirus run out of control. As the number of new cases in Utah and the United States are spiking, all levels of government have failed at some point in combating COVID-19.

If government officials, from the president down, are putting it on individuals to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, we must have the information and resources to best protect ourselves. That includes knowing the locations of hotspots, like the two businesses from April.

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