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 their loved ones.”
The court battle came after county officials backtracked on their initial reports that the two businesses had forced employees to work despite having COVID-19.
Just because they’re small businesses, that doesn’t mean there is a de-facto identification of people who contracted COVID-19. I simply don’t believe that identification of a business by itself would release to the public the identify of anyone at that business.
–4th District Judge Christine Johnson
After county leaders posted a signed letter on social media about those accusations, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt later held a press conference saying he would not identify the businesses because the allegations ultimately had not been 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.”
News organizations waged the legal fight for release of the records, arguing that in absence of clarity following the conflicting statements from the attorney and the county commissioners, the public was left to speculate whether the businesses’ possible political connections are shielding them from scrutiny.
“We are very pleased with the court’s ruling,” Hunt said after the judge’s decision. “As the court correctly recognized, the public has weighty and compelling interest in release of this information, particularly in the middle of a pandemic.”
“There is a strong public interest in transparency and accountability with respect to the county’s actions in this matter,” Hunt added. “Release of the identities of the businesses serves those interests so the public can form its own judgments about what happened.”