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Expert: Utah County should identify businesses involved in COVID-19 outbreaks

Posted at 11:56 PM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-08 13:44:35-04

PROVO, Utah — The Utah County Department of Health is not identifying two Utah County businesses accused of defying COVID-19 restrictions, resulting in 68 people testing positive for the virus.

Business leaders told employees not to follow quarantine guidelines after being exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case, and required employees who tested positive to still report to work, Utah County leaders said.

The health department, as well as the Utah County Commission Chair have stood by the decision to not identify the businesses, citing medical privacy laws known as HIPAA, Utah Statute 26-6-27, as well as their assertion that the businesses are not “public facing.”

Those arguments, however, are not applicable, according to Utah media law attorney Michael O’Brien. Both HIPAA and the statute protect individuals, but do not apply to businesses, O'Brien told FOX 13 News.

“Moreover, there is a general provision under the Utah Information laws say information about investigations related to civil enforcement or administrative should be made public unless it’s going to compromise the investigation or unreasonably interfere with it,” O’Brien said.

The businesses in question were identified through contact tracing, the health department said. In instances like this, authorities can identify people who may have come in contact with an infected individual. However, they do not need to notify the public, argues Utah County Dept. of Health Epidemiology program manager Lisa Guerra.

“One thing that I understand, but I am troubled about, is the urgency of sometimes people wanting to know which businesses these are,” Guerra said.

The decision to share information about the businesses, while not identifying them, was to demonstrate to people why they need to follow COVID-19 guidelines, said Tanner Ainge, chairman of the Utah County Commission.

“Obviously, I think all of us as residents in the county want that information to be treated confidentially. That’s state health code, that’s HIPAA compliance. That’s a major compliance,” he said.

Ainge said he doesn’t know the names of the businesses because of privacy laws, but said one was a construction site and the other a manufacturing facility.

Utah County's position seems to be driven more by emotion than legal reasoning, O’Brien said.

“The county says these businesses are not public-facing, and I don’t know what that means. Every business is involved with the public in some manner and I think the public has a huge interest in knowing what happened here and how they, other businesses or their employees may have been exposed,” he said.

For more information on Utah County’s response to COVID-19, click here. For the state’s response, click here.