MILLCREEK — A masked shuttle driver pulled up outside of the Holladay Lions Recreation Center on Monday, where two medical workers in full personal protective gear, masks and face shields slipped out of a side door to greet the driver.

When the shuttle driver pulled away, the two medical workers holding clipboards stepped back inside.

The Holladay Lions Recreation Center, 1661 E. Murray Holladay Road in Millcreek, was cordoned off with caution tape and metal fence barriers. Signs encouraging 6-foot social distancing “to prevent the spread of COVID-19” were posted around the perimeter of the building. What appeared to be a screening tent that was set up in the center’s parking lot billowed in the wind.

The Salt Lake County-owned recreation center is shuttered to the public — but not to everyone. Aside from the masked medical workers seen briefly from the outside of the center, glimpses of people could be seen through the glass windows of the recreation center.

One man, who stepped outside of the center into a fenced off outdoor area for a cigarette, declined to tell the Deseret News why he was there.

A Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy patrolled the parking lot. He would only say he was there for “protection,” declining to give more information about what the Holladay center was being used for, other than providing a phone number for Salt Lake County mayor’s office spokeswoman Chloe Morroni.

Since the beginning of Salt Lake County’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic, county officials have refused to identify which taxpayer-funded, county facilities are being used for quarantine and isolation facilities, or places where people who have tested positive for COVID-19 can quarantine if they don’t have anywhere else to safely self-isolate.

County officials have also declined to disclose the location of a hotel being used to house COVID-19 first responders and others, citing privacy concerns. They also won’t identify another hotel to house high-risk homeless, nor other quarantine and isolation facilities, which are being operated in county-owned facilities such as shuttered recreation centers, senior centers or libraries.

The Deseret News is fighting the county’s redactions, arguing that the public has the right to know how taxpayer-owned and taxpayer-funded facilities are being used, and that the county doesn’t need to go as far as to shield the names and locations of entire buildings, especially when locations of hospitals, clinics and homeless shelters are already public knowledge.

Morroni confirmed Monday that the Holladay Lions Recreation Center is being used “in response to COVID-19,” but would not say specifically how it’s being used or whether it’s a quarantine and isolation facility.

“Unified command made the decision early in the COVID-19 response not to share the locations of quarantine and isolation facilities due to privacy of the clients,” Morroni said in a prepared statement. “Furthermore, identifying the location of quarantine and isolation facilities potentially reveals private medical information about anyone observed at the facility.”

But Holladay officials, even though the center is located in Millcreek, have already indicated the recreation center is a county isolation and quarantine facility. In an April 14 Facebook post, the city said it was necessary to “activate” the Holladay Lions Recreation Center “for helping and supporting some of our most vulnerable populations who do not have a safe location to quarantine or isolate.”

“The city of Holladay receives daily briefings from Unified command, and meets with Unified command and other municipalities throughout the county on a weekly basis,” city officials posted. “The recreation centers are still recreation centers and will be open to the public when this current emergency is over.”

To neighbors who live near the recreation center, it’s no secret it’s being used to house COVID-19 patients.

One resident of the Olympus Cove neighborhood, Mike, who declined to give his last name out of fear it would impact his job, said after he was given the “runaround” by multiple county offices in response to his inquiries about the recreation center, said he was eventually told by a county health department employee that the facility is being used to isolate people who have tested positive for COVID-19, including some who are homeless.

Mike said his Millcreek neighborhood has had “some frustration with the county” and its secrecy. At first, Mike said his wife and her friend were only told by a police officer it was being used for a county emergency. “They wouldn’t elaborate, so all of us were worried about it,” he said.

“When they don’t tell us, it makes us feel the county is hiding something,” he said. “It makes us feel like something sinister is going on. ... When people are left to wonder, they imagine all sorts of things.”

After trying multiple county numbers, Mike said he finally reached a county health department employee, who said it was being used as a quarantine and isolation facility for COVID-19 patients who don’t require hospitalization.

To Mike, the county has “a responsibility to be more transparent with its residents.”

“Some people think the county can do this in the name of a health emergency, but then others feel, like I do, that the county is responsible to tell the citizens what they’re doing with the tax money they collect from us,” Mike said. “We have a right to know how they’re spending our money. And they can let us know without giving out personal information of people who are affected.”

County officials have said they intend to seek federal reimbursement for the dollars spent on their COVID-19 response.

When asked Monday why neighbors are being told by some county employees specifically what the recreation center in Millcreek is being used for, but the general public and the media isn’t, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said he doesn’t know.

“I can’t speak to what any individual employee may have said,” Rupp said, noting the county health department has over 400 employees.

Rupp said county officials have also declined to elaborate on how county facilities are being used amid COVID-19 because at times their uses can change, from being used for quarantine one week, then training another week.

“That can change depending on the needs of response,” he said.

Utah County businesses

Meanwhile, officials in Utah County are continuing to shield the names of two businesses that health officials say defied COVID-19 guidelines, including one business that required an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 to come to work before the recommended quarantine period ended.

A coalition of news outlets — the Deseret News, the Daily Herald, the Salt Lake Tribune, Fox13 and KUTV — have appealed Utah County’s denials to public records requests for documents identifying the two businesses.

“Obviously, we all can agree that the conduct at issue is egregious and its possible negative impact on the county and its citizens significant and widespread,” wrote Michael Patrick O’Brien, an attorney with the firm Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough who is representing the news coalition, in a letter sent to the Utah County Commission on Monday.

“Yet so far the county and its health department have refused to identify the names of the two businesses that engaged in such egregious and endangering behavior,” O’Brien wrote. “The public has reacted to this unfortunate decision with widespread surprise, concern and disbelief. ... There are good and legitimate reasons for this widespread negative reaction to the county’s decision, and thus we respectfully ask that you reverse it immediately.”

The coalition’s letter says the media outlets do not seek the information to shame the businesses, “but so the members of the public can take appropriate steps to protect themselves. Restaurants and food manufacturers violating health codes are identified, even when there is no pandemic. Businesses and individuals involved in fraud or financial wrongdoing are routinely identified to the public.”

O’Brien said that while county health and government officials seem to paternalistically believe that the public will not act responsibly with such information, there are laws established to deter and hold people responsible who may act otherwise.

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who read the letter Monday, told the Deseret News after reviewing the decision with county attorneys, “we feel like we’ve provided what is essential” to the public, and he stands by their legal analysis that the names of the businesses should be withheld for privacy and retaliation concerns.

“When you look at my responsibility of protecting my citizens in this particular incidence, there is a concern about a minority group that could be targeted in today’s political climate,” Ivie said, declining to elaborate.

Ivie said he “respected” the news outlets’ appeal, saying if there are disagreements in legal analysis, he welcomes the appeal process to hash it out.