Wisconsin Supreme Court: Businesses' COVID records can be released

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Tuesday, June 7 that the public has a right to see government records related to the tracking COVID-19 outbreaks at businesses.

When the pandemic started, so did the tracking. Public health departments recorded statistical information about COVID-19 outbreaks that impacted businesses.

The state's largest business lobbying group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), along with the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce and the New Berlin Chamber of Commerce, filed a lawsuit in 2020. 

SIGN UP TODAY: Get daily headlines, breaking news emails from FOX6 News

The lawsuit sought to stop the state from releasing the names of more than 1,000 business with employees who tested positive for COVID-19. Each of those businesses had 25 or more employees, at least two of which had tested positive. It argued the release of such information could "irreparably harm" the reputations of the businesses.

Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote the court's majority opinion. She was joined by justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Jill Karofsky and Brian Hagedorn. They said WMC did not have the right to block the release of the records, ruling that the organization's "position would undo the legislature’s choice to preclude pre-release judicial review in most circumstances."

The groups that filed the lawsuit also argued that the information being sought is derived from diagnostic test results and the records of contact tracers, and that such information constitutes private medical records that can't be released without the consent of each individual.

Attorneys for the state argued that the information in question contained aggregate numbers only, not personal information, and could be released.

Justices Annette Ziegler, Patience Roggensack and Rebecca Bradley, joined in dissent, said they were concerned the decision would open the door to the release of personal medical information. 

testing for covid-19

Officials test for COVID-19

The ruling "closes the courthouse doors to anyone who may wish to challenge the release of personal medical information," Ziegler wrote. "This is egregious error."

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the law still protects people's privacy.

"We are talking about numbers of cases associated with various businesses, not the names of individuals who have come down with COVID," he said.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Get breaking news alerts in the FOX6 News app for iOS or Android.

WMC declined FOX6 News' request for an on-camera interview, but President and CEO Kurt Bauer wrote in a statement:

"WMC disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision, which has opened the door to massive public intrusion into private medical records possessed by state agencies. The governor’s attempt to shame and embarrass Wisconsin businesses is wrong, and the Supreme Court is equally wrong to allow it.

"Throughout the global pandemic, businesses took extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of their employees. At the same time, they were desperately fighting an uphill battle to stay open and keep those same workers gainfully employed. Unfortunately, their efforts were too often undermined by government policies that bludgeoned the economy."

Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers

It could take months or even years to see the full impact of the court's Tuesday ruling. Open records advocates count it as a "win" for the public's right to know.

The Milwaukee Health Department said releasing COVID-19 data is critical to the community and the future of reporting COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Associated Press' Scott Bauer contributed to this report.