Media Tour of new Provo Courthouse 05, court stk

The new 4th District Courthouse on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Provo. The courthouse is the second largest in the state of Utah.

A 4th District Court judge ruled Monday that Utah County must release the names of two businesses that created COVID-19 hotspots, resulting in 68 employees testing positive for the virus.

The two businesses in question were referred to in a May 4 announcement from the Utah County Commission and mayors throughout the county stating that contact tracing by the Utah County Health Department and Utah Department of Health found that the businesses “instructed employees to not follow quarantine guidelines after exposure to a confirmed case at work and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to report to work.”

Those claims were later walked back by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, who told reporters during a May 26 press conference that “there were not two business who were forcing employees to work (while sick),” though he confirmed that there were in fact two businesses linked to 68 positive cases.

“That was information that was not right,” Leavitt said. “It was information that was communicated ... (out of) an abundance of caution from the Health Department (and) from the County Commission. And as we’ve gotten deeper into the issue, we’ve learned that the assertions weren’t true.”

The Daily Herald filed a public records request on May 6 requesting information about the two businesses. Utah County denied that request on May 8, stating that the requested information “was obtained during an epidemiological investigation” and therefore “is strictly confidential under Utah Code 26-6-27.”

An appeal of the records request denial filed by the Daily Herald on June 8 was rejected by the county on June 12.

On May 19, attorney Michael Patrick O’Brien sent a letter to Utah County commissioners Tanner Ainge, Bill Lee and Nathan Ivie on behalf of multiple media outlets — including the Daily Herald — arguing that the code in question only applies to the names of individuals, not businesses, and stating that the media outlets would be prepared to go to court if the county didn’t release the business names.

KSL-TV filed a lawsuit in Utah’s 4th District Court on June 2 arguing that “the County’s position that the records are non-public is erroneous, and the Court should order the release of the requested records.”

“More specifically, the County’s classification of the requested records as ‘private,’ ‘controlled,’ and ‘protected,’ and refusal to release the records to KSL, is unlawful, and the Court should order their release,” wrote Jeff Hunt, an attorney representing KSL-TV.

After oral arguments by both parties on Monday, 4th District Court Judge Christine Johnson ruled in favor of KSL-TV, according to court transcripts, meaning Utah County is required to release the names of the two businesses.

“The court orders the specified documents to be produced and provided within 48 hours from today,” court transcripts from Monday said.

When asked for comment on the ruling, Ainge said Utah County “had real concerns that releasing information connected with an epidemiological investigation would violate the strict confidentiality requirement attached to such information.”

“Now the 4th District Court has ruled, which makes it clear we can and should disclose — which we are more than happy to comply with,” the commission chair said. “As the records are released from the health department and/or County Attorney’s office, the County Commissioners will be seeing this information for the first time along with the media. That’s how serious our health department has taken their responsibility for strict confidentiality.”

Ivie referred questions about the 4th District Court ruling to Leavitt, who he said was handling the matter. The Utah County Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

“I naturally feel that government records should be open and transparent and was leaning that way until our Attorney’s office concluded that the commission did not have the authority to release the information,” Lee said in a text message. “It is best that a court cleared up this issue, which they did and we will follow.”

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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