Utah County released emails which showed the names of two businesses linked to COVID-19 hotspots on Wednesday, marking the conclusion of a legal battle between media outlets and county officials over whether such information should be made public.
These businesses are Built Bar, an American Fork-based food-processing company, and Wasatch Truss, a construction company in Spanish Fork, emails between Utah County Health Department staff obtained by the Daily Herald on Wednesday revealed.
Both businesses were referred to — but not named — in a May 4 announcement from the Utah County Commission and mayors throughout the county stating that the county and state health department found through contact tracing that these 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.”
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt walked back claims that the businesses ignored coronavirus guidelines during a May 26 press conference, telling reporters that “there were not two businesses who were forcing employees to work” while they were sick. Still, Leavitt confirmed there were two Utah County businesses linked to 68 positive COVID-19 cases, as stated in the commission’s announcement.
In one of dozens of emails obtained Wednesday through a public records request following a judge’s ruling earlier this week, Tyler Plewe, bureau director of the county health department’s food safety and emergency response, warned staff about the two businesses, all while health officials refused to publicly name them.
“This is sensitive information so please keep it within the office,” Plewe said in a May 5 email. “I wanted to let you know of these locations so that you feel safe if you are heading out into the public.”
Plewe added, “We CAN tell the public that these hotspots are centered around close exposure in work and care center environments. These hotspots are not linked to community transmission.”
The next day, Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg told the Daily Herald there was no need to name the businesses because they “were not businesses where people would be walking in and out and getting services, and so there’s no reason to make it open to the public.”
Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist of the Utah Department of Health, made similar comments the same day during a press conference.
Utah County denied public records requests filed by the Daily Herald and other media outlets seeking information about the two businesses, stating that the information “was obtained during an epidemiological investigation” and therefore “is strictly confidential under Utah Code 26-6-27.”
The Daily Herald filed an appeal to the county’s records request denial; that appeal was rejected on June 12.
KSL-TV filed a lawsuit against the county in Utah’s 4th District Court in Provo 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.”
Judge Christine Johnson ruled in favor of KSL-TV on Monday afternoon and ordered Utah County to release the requested information within 48 hours.
Richard Beckstrand, manufactured food program manager for the Utah Department of Food and Agriculture, told Plewe in an email that Built Bar had 19 confirmed cases among employees and that dozens of other employees reported being symptomatic.
“19 cases and around 50 more with illness symptoms looks like a potentially BIG problem to me,” Beckstrand wrote in the April 17 email.
A former Built Bar employee filed a lawsuit against the company on May 13 claiming it failed to keep her and other employees safe during the pandemic.
In an April 21 email, Jared Ripplinger, a vaccine-preventable disease epidemiologist with the state health department, told a fellow health department official that “we are seeing a troubling trend with a particular worksite in Utah County, Wasatch Truss.”
In a later email, Ripplinger cited a half-dozen positive COVID-19 cases linked to the Spanish Fork construction company.
Neither Built Bar nor Wasatch Truss could be reached for comment on Wednesday evening.
In response to the 4th District ruling on Monday, Commissioner Tanner Ainge said the county “had real concerns that releasing information connected with an epidemiological investigation would violate the strict confidentiality requirement attached to such information” but was “more than happy to comply” following the court’s ruling.
“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,” Ainge said in a written statement. “That’s how serious our health department has taken their responsibility for strict confidentiality.”