Judge orders Utah County to identify 2 businesses tied to COVID-19 hot spots

A statue by Avard Tennyson Fairbanks sits in front of the Historic Utah County Courthouse.

The historic Utah County Courthouse. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

PROVO — A 4th District Court judge on Monday gave Utah County officials 48 hours to hand over documents revealing the names of two Utah County businesses that health officials had found were in violation of COVID-19 guidelines last month.

The ruling was a victory for KSL-TV, which was joined by a coalition of other Utah news organizations in the legal fight to unearth the names of those two Utah County businesses tied to hot spot outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in May.

After hearing oral arguments in an online court hearing Monday, 4th District Judge Christine Johnson rejected Utah County’s arguments that releasing the names of the businesses would also result in a “de facto identification” of those business’ employees who participated in health department contact tracing investigations and those who may have contracted COVID-19, which would be private, personal health information.

“Just because they’re small businesses, that doesn’t mean there is a de-facto identification of people who contracted COVID-19,” Johnson said. “I simply don’t believe that identification of a business by itself would release to the public the identify of anyone at that business.”

The judge also sided with the media’s arguments that the public interest outweighs Utah County’s aim to keep the names of the businesses protected because of a risk of possible “backlash” against the businesses — a scenario the judge called a “hypothetical.”

“As far as the public’s interest, generally, I do believe the public has a significant and weighty interest in knowing about COVID-19 outbreaks, to the extent where they happen, who they happen to,” Johnson said. “That certainly helps the public prepare itself and know how individuals might protect themselves, to understand how other people have been sick, how other outbreaks have happened, where those outbreaks happened. I think we’re all in a better position to understand how to keep ourselves healthy if that information is transparently available.”

The judge ruled that information that could personally identify an individual is properly classified as protected information, but the county can still release documents with proper redactions.

While the county’s attorney argued the bulk of records KSL-TV sought were made up of contact tracing documents — and types of medical information that could come from a doctor’s office — media attorney Jeff Hunt argued that KSL-TV didn’t want personal information, but rather any documents such as perhaps email exchanges between county officials related to those two businesses.

“COVID-19 infections in Utah and across the nation are spiking and is prompting officials to consider greater restrictions on businesses and members of the public,” Hunt said. “Given that backdrop, in the middle of a pandemic, the public has a compelling interest in receiving timely and accurate information concerning the transmission of this highly infectious and potentially lethal virus.

“And knowing the names of (these) businesses … is directly related to that public interest so the public can make informed decisions about their health and the health of …read more

Source:: Deseret News – Business News


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