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Construction groups oppose attempt to identify companies with COVID-19 outbreaks

A group of construction associations has joined the fight to prevent state government from publicly identifying businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks.

At the heart of the dispute is a lawsuit initially filed in October by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. The suit seeks to prevent the state from releasing the names of about 1,000 companies with 25 or more employees that have either had at least two workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus or have been identified as having come in close contact with someone who had the virus.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel requested the records in June in an attempt at gauging the size of outbreaks at various nursing homes and food-processing plants. Representatives of the newspaper went before a Waukesha County Court on Monday both to call for the release of those records and argue in support of the state’s contention that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce had no standing to file its suit in the first place.

Taking the opposition were the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, the Plumbing, Mechanical, Sheet Metal Contractors’ Association of Wisconsin and various other trade groups. In an amicus brief, the groups argued that releasing the names of businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks could make their employees appear guilty by association.

“Many of these employees work in small crews, much like a military unit or basketball team,” according to the brief. “It is not difficult to imagine the speculation and interrogation that will be fostered by the release of employer names.”

The groups also contended that naming the business publicly would violate federal law prohibiting the disclosure of private health information.

In an oral ruling from the bench, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Lloyd Carter agreed, denying the Journal Sentinel’s motion to dismiss the case and granting a temporary injunction blocking the release of the requested records. In effect, the ruling meant the lawsuit to block the public identification of companies with outbreaks can continue.

“We applaud the court’s decision today that will keep this information private,” said Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. “Gov. Evers said himself that this is not public information, and we are hopeful the temporary injunction granted today will soon be permanent.”

The Waukesha County case is the latest wrinkle in months of legal wrangling over the release of company names. The Journal Sentinel has met with some success in this pursuit. In one instance, the newspaper was able to get Brown County Health officials to release information showing one meat packing company, JBS Packerland, had seen far more cases than was previously known.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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