SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of Utah news organizations is throwing its support behind KSL-TV’s legal effort to obtain the names of two Utah County businesses tied to a coronavirus outbreak in May.
The television station sued the county earlier this month after it declined to fulfill a public records request seeking the information. County leaders had linked the two companies to 68 cases of COVID-19, drawing national attention when they alleged employees were told to show up even after they tested positive or came into contact with infected co-workers.
“Having opened the door and generated the public interest, the county cannot now avoid the reality of the situation it created,” attorney Edward Carter wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday in 4th District Court in Provo on behalf of several news outlets and professional associations. “That reality involves intense public interest in knowing the identity of the businesses that the county singled out.”
The news organizations that joined the legal fight this week are the Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Logan Herald Journal and KSTU-TV FOX 13. They were joined by the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Utah Press Association.
The organizations said the disclosure would ultimately help shed light on how county officials handled the public health response. And they noted reliable information is crucial amid the pandemic “and can even be a matter of life or death.”
After county commissioners took to social media to announce the employers’ role in the outbreak, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said he would not identify the businesses because the allegations ultimately were not substantiated. He said the employers had not actually forced people to work. Instead, they told sick employees to go home, Leavitt said, but urged them not to “noise it around that you were sick.”
In the absence of clarity following the conflicting statements from the attorney and the county commissioners, the public is left to speculate whether the businesses’ possible political connections are shielding them from scrutiny, the news organizations contend. Yet any such suspicions can’t be investigated.
Utah’s public records law does not permit authorities to keep the information secret, and even if it provided an increased level of protection, the public interest would outweigh any privacy concerns, the news media groups said.
In denying the records request, county officials noted the two businesses at the north and south ends of the county — one a manufacturing-type facility — do not significantly interact with the public. They also cited patient privacy concerns.
In response to the KSL suit, attorneys for the county wrote in court filings that it “has worked extensively with state and local leaders on efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while balancing various public and private interests.” The county argued the records law prohibits the release of the information and that Leavitt’s statements in May spoke for themselves. The county attorney’s office said it did not have further comment Thursday.
The news media argued the outbreak was too large, infecting nearly half the workers at one business, to single out any employees. And it was too small to indicate that each and every worker fell sick.
The news organizations also noted they are not seeking to obtain the names of particular workers.
Moreover, recent outbreaks at Utah meatpacking plants illustrate that going to work in the pandemic is “one of the key risk factors,” and the Utah County spike in cases provides a chance to educate the public.
Arguments in the case are scheduled for Monday.