PROVO — Weeks after Utah County officials disseminated health department reports that two Utah County businesses had ignored COVID-19 guidelines and forced sick employees to work, the Utah County attorney now says that information was inaccurate.
County Attorney David Leavitt told reporters in a hastily called virtual press conference on Tuesday that Utah County Health Department officials, who interviewed those businesses’ employees while conducting contact tracing, were wrong when they reported to the Utah County Commission those businesses forced employees to work even after they tested positive for COVID-19.
“As we’ve gotten deeper into the issue, we have learned that the assertions weren’t true,” Leavitt said, “that there are not two businesses in Utah County that were forcing (their) employees to work.”
It took nearly three weeks for Utah County to “set the record straight,” as Leavitt put it, after reports of those alleged business violations rapidly spread on local and national news.
It’s still not clear exactly how Utah County officials got the information so wrong. Leavitt, pressed by reporters, did not have specific information about how the breakdown occurred and acknowledged the lack of clarity raises more questions than answers.
“I’m not in a position to answer those questions,” Leavitt told reporters. “I don’t think this is an issue that is going to go away quietly or very easily or very quickly, nor should it but I think it is important to set the record straight so that the media, in doing your job, is able to focus on the issues that are the most relevant.”
He did say, however, that health officials, when conducting contact tracing, interviewed people who tested positive for COVID-19 that “made certain statements that led health department officials to believe people were being forced to work despite having tested positive.”
It’s not clear how it was determined those claims were untrue.
However, Leavitt did not dispute the health department’s findings that 68 people were infected in “hot spots” around two particular Utah County businesses. When asked whether those businesses violated any COVID-19 guidelines at all, he did not have answers.
“I don’t have any of that information, that comes from the health department,” Leavitt said. “From my understanding, they didn’t force employees to work. Whether they were in strict compliance with all the health department’s guidelines or not, I don’t know. Certainly it wasn’t something of a criminal nature that would have come into my office.”
However, when pressed further, Leavitt indicated the spread of COVID-19 could have occurred because of employees who came to work without knowing they had contracted the disease. Additionally, Leavitt said “the only thing that was stated was, ‘Go home if you’re sick (and) please don’t tell, you know, please don’t noise it around that you were sick.’”
Asked for clarification on whether the employer told sick employees not to tell their co-workers about being sick, Leavitt backtracked, saying “I probably stated that too strongly” and told reporters “I would hesitate if I were in your shoes to report that. I can’t really substantiate the strength of that. I know I said it, but the degree to which it was said, what was said, which businesses said it, I can’t give you any concrete information on that.”
Pressed further about whether that would be a violation of COVID-19 guidelines, Leavitt said those employees said they didn’t feel well and “no one knows whether they have COVID or whether they don’t, and everyone is in complete stress understandably about COVID, I don’t think it’s necessarily an act of illegality to say, ‘Please be quiet and (don’t) tell people your sick,’ if that occurred.”
He said that’s a different scenario than requiring someone to work knowing they had tested positive for COVID-19.
Utah County Health Department officials did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday. However, a department spokeswoman told the Deseret News right after Leavitt’s press conference ended that they had just learned of it, and they were working on a response.
I don’t know how they got it wrong. But we all can get it wrong under the best intentions.
–County Attorney David Leavitt
As for the Utah Department of Health, which assisted the county health department with contact tracing, spokesman Tom Hudachko said he’s “not aware of any information” Utah County “has, or used, to determine the original claim wasn’t true.”
He also noted the state health department never disseminated any information about any businesses that had required employees to work when sick.
Utah County and state health department officials have declined to disclose the names of those businesses after health officials determined the businesses did not have “direct interactions” with the public and the risk to the general public was low. Utah County commissioners also agreed with health officials to not release the businesses’ names, citing privacy concerns and a desire to protect the businesses from public backlash.
A coalition of Utah news outlets — the Deseret News, the Daily Herald, the Salt Lake Tribune, Fox13 and KUTV — have appealed the county’s decision to protect those businesses’ names, arguing the public has the right to know about potential health risks.
“I’m pretty glad we didn’t name the businesses, frankly,” Leavitt said, “because the businesses did not engage in that conduct.”
But questions remain as to whether those businesses violated any other COVID-19 guidelines.
Leavitt said he couldn’t confirm whether or not one of the businesses was American Fork-based Built Bar, a food company that is being sued by an employee, alleging the employer did not take the necessary precautions to prevent the virus’ spread, and the facility experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, with 6% of staff infected.
Leavitt, in his online press conference, defended the Utah County Health Department and told reporters to “cut some slack to government officials who are just trying to do their best.”
“The business didn’t compel anyone to work; that’s an important fact to know,” Leavitt said. “The other important fact to know is the health department should not be vilified here. The health department is doing their very, very best under very difficult circumstances.”
Leavitt said he, too, contracted COVID-19 and it took him “almost a week and a half” to get tested “because no one would test me.” From his own experience with the disease, Leavitt said he understands the “gravity” of the virus and how it’s “quite life altering.”
Leavitt described the pandemic as “unprecedented,” and a challenge government officials are grappling with and learning from every day.
“I don’t know how they got it wrong,” Leavitt said. “But we all can get it wrong under the best of intentions. And in my mind, we shouldn’t try to penalize or vilify those who are trying to keep us safe.”