MADISON — The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to stop the Evers administration from releasing the names of businesses with employees that have tested positive for COVID-19.
NFIB has filed an amicus — friend of the court — brief in the medical privacy lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce more than a year ago. NFIB submitted the brief with an army of business advocates, including the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, and Wisconsin Paper Council.
“The governor’s plans will ultimately do more harm than good for small business owners in Wisconsin,” said Karen Harned, executive director of NFIB’s Small Business Legal Center. “Publishing the names of businesses with employees testing positive for COVID-19 will permanently impact small businesses’ financial recovery throughout the state and not slow the spread of the virus. We urge the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reverse the court of appeals decision and not allow this ill-advised plan to proceed.”
Nearly two years into the pandemic, there have been more than 875,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS). Very few families, let alone businesses, have not been touched by the virus.
Still, the Evers administration, which has been roundly criticized for its many transparency failures, continues to push to out businesses. Employer advocates argue doing so is a direct violation of state and federal medical privacy laws.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in August agreed to hear arguments in the case.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported in July 2020, DHS had planned to release the names of businesses with two or more coronavirus cases. When caught, DHS officials falsely insisted they were receiving open records requests from hundreds of media outlets seeking the information, and that they had no other choice under the law.
After pressure from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other business groups, the agency paused in its plan.
Evers initially agreed with WMC’s position by publicly stating DHS would not release the names of businesses allegedly connected to COVID-19 cases because posting that data would create privacy issues.
“We believe that it’s information that is not public and it’s information that we need to keep in a way that not only protects the businesses, but more importantly it helps us monitor and helps us answer the questions about outbreaks and how to deal with outbreaks and do it in a way that isn’t a problem for us,” he said. “So there’s some privacy things going on there.”
Evers flip-flopped, with his administration declaring it would move forward with the information release. WMC and local chambers of commerce filed a lawsuit and sought an injunction, granted by a Waukesha County judge.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel joined the Evers administration in arguing the necessity to out businesses. In April, a three-judge panel from the District IV Court of Appeals, the state’s most liberal court, ruled against WMC and in favor of the governor and the Journal Sentinel.
WMC appealed to the Supreme Court.
“Small businesses in Wisconsin continue to struggle with challenges such as worker shortages and supply chain disruptions,” said Bill G. Smith, NFIB Wisconsin state director. “Unfortunately, the governor’s plans won’t help curb the spread of COVID, but rather inflate the current problems they’re already facing.”