Wisconsin won't name businesses with multiple COVID-10 cases

MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is retreating from its original plans to name businesses and other places where there have been at least two confirmed cases of the coronavirus after business groups and Republican lawmakers opposed the idea.

The department told local health officials in a call last week that it initially planned to start naming the businesses online as early as this week. That prompted blowback from the state chamber of commerce, the Wisconsin Grocers Association and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, all of which raised concerns about the impact it would have on businesses.

After receiving feedback on the plan, the Department of Health Services has “no immediate plans to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on our website,” said agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt in an email Tuesday. That said, names of businesses could still be made public through open records requests filed by journalists and others, she said.

The state health department has 361 investigations into coronavirus outbreaks at workplaces and “other settings” that exclude facilities related to health care. There have been 507 investigations in total at non-health care facilities, according to the department's website.

The department does name nursing homes with active investigations.

Naming businesses where multiple coronavirus cases have been traced could “spread false information that will damage the consumer brands of Wisconsin employers, causing them to incur a significant amount of financial losses and reputational damage," said Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce leader Kurt Bauer in a letter to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on July 1.

Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, said in a statement last week that naming the businesses would be a “roadblock to their recovery" and “could be the final nail in the coffin for many.” Other Republican lawmakers, including Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, raised similar concerns.

But Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said releasing the names would give a better sense of how the virus is spreading and help people make decisions.

“My guess is that this would not lead to mass hysteria and may in fact help people and businesses get a better sense of the kinds of businesses that have seen outbreaks,” he said. “It may make some people feel more comfortable to know that a particular business has had experience with the coronavirus, which will presumably make it more vigilant.”

The number of newly confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virs in Wisconsin, like in a majority of states, has been trending upward the past two weeks. As of Monday, there had been 796 deaths and more than 32,000 confirmed cases. Of those who have contracted the virus, 79% have recovered and 2% have died, according to the state health department.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.