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68 got COVID-19 after Utah County businesses told sick employees to work

County won’t identify ‘bad actor’ businesses that violated COVID-19 guidelines

Health care workers operate a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Monday, April 6, 2020.
Health care workers operate a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Monday, April 6, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

PROVO — Utah County officials aren’t disclosing the name of two businesses found in violation of COVID-19 prevention guidelines — including telling employees confirmed to be diagnosed with COVID-19 to still report to work before the required quarantine period ended.

Those businesses’ actions have resulted in 68 total positive COVID-19 cases, including one business that had 48% of its employees test positive for the virus, according to county officials.

“During the tracing contacts conducted by the Utah County Health Department and the Utah Department of Health, we found these businesses instructed employees not to follow quarantine guidelines after exposure to a confirmed case at work and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to still report to work,” a Utah County notice posted on social media Monday states.

The notice about the businesses is on the second page of the three-page notice, tucked in the fifth paragraph of a letter encouraging all businesses and residents to follow state guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, signed by county commissioners and mayors.

“This is completely unacceptable and resulted in a temporary full closure for one business along with heightened requirements for future cleaning and inspections,” the letter states. “Businesses who fail to follow COVID-19 guidelines are putting employees, their families, and ultimately the health of the community at risk.”

And yet, despite being pressed by reporters to release the names of the businesses, Ralph Clegg, the county’s health department director, declined to say Wednesday, citing privacy concerns and a desire to protect the businesses from backlash.

“We don’t release the names because there are a lot of privacy issues involved,” Clegg said on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show Wednesday. “If we were to release the names of the company and the people knew that half of those employees had been sick, they may take inappropriate action and target them in some way that would not be appropriate. ... And so that’s why these privacy laws in place is to protect individuals from consequences that they really wouldn’t deserve.”

Health departments commonly post names of restaurants after inspections find public health violations.

Health officials could choose to release the names of the businesses if they decided public health risk outweigh privacy concerns — but both state and county health departments chose to air on the side of privacy.

“Neither of these businesses conduct direct interactions with members of the public, and as a result, the risk to the public from these businesses is generally low,” state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said in an email Wednesday. “In determining whether to name businesses that are experiencing outbreaks publicly, we weigh protecting the public’s health with protecting privacy. In this instance, we feel we can continue to protect the public’s health without publicly naming these businesses.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist, also noted in a news conference Wednesday that neither of the businesses have direct interactions with the public, “therefore the risk to the general public is very very low.”

“We always work to protect privacy and balance that with protecting the public’s health, and in this instance we are able to protect the public’s health while maintaining privacy for the business and the employees,” she said.

Asked if the businesses will be fined, Dunn said Utah County did not have a public health order in place at the time of the business’ outbreaks, so there is no force of law if they didn’t follow the recommended preventative COVID-19 guidelines.

As of Wednesday, Utah County has reported 1,210 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 65 hospitalizations and 10 deaths. That’s 194.5 cases per 100,000 residents — Utah’s fifth-highest case rate by county. San Juan and Summit counties continue to have the highest case rate per capita, followed by Wasatch County and Salt Lake County.

All three Utah County commissioners said they didn’t know the names of the businesses, since they haven’t been released by the health department — but did say one is a “manufacturing” or “production” facility, and they’re located in different regions of the county, one north and one south.

One Utah County commissioner, Nathan Ivie, told the Deseret News he wants the public to have as much information about the businesses as “legally” possible, acknowledging that it’s “concerning” the information isn’t publicly available.

Ivie said the county health department is “acting under the direction of their legal advisers,” but his office is looking into whether more information could be released.

“When we were told about it, the next question was, ‘What was this business?’ Their answer was, ‘We can’t tell you because of privacy laws,’” Ivie said. “That was a red flag to me, so we’re looking into that.”

Ivie added: “If someone is holding back information because they think it’s not a good idea, then I’m very objective to that. If the information is being withheld because it’s truly legal and required to be withheld, then I can respect that, but I want all of the information legally available.”

Another Utah County commissioner, Bill Lee, said he didn’t know where he stood on whether the names of the businesses should be released to the general public.

“That’s just irresponsible on a high level,” Lee said of the businesses’ violations, but he added “you have to balance between a right to know and possibly destroying a business.”

Asked if he agreed the names of the businesses should be protected, Lee said he “deferred” to the county health department on that decision, though he thought that county leadership should at least know.

“I’ll tell you what, I’d hate to have groups of people out there picketing or doing something with the business, but I think we need to know what’s going on‚ our county leaders and city leaders need to know what’s going on so they can assist in appropriate ways,” he said.

Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge said on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show it’s “important to recognize there’s human cost on both sides of this issue,” noting the public health risks as well as the economic risks of lockdown.

“I’ve been a proponent all along for acknowledging that we need to be mindful on both sides,” he said, though he noted when there are “bad actors,” that could muddle the entire county’s efforts to reopen the economy.

“If there’s one bad actor like this, they could jeopardize the rest of our county being able to have a gradual reopening,” he said.

Utah County has continued to mirror statewide guidelines, with commissioners emphasizing they wish to balance individual liberty and economic health with public safety.

“I believe it’s imperative, rather than punishing all of society, that we go after the bad actors,” Ivie said. “So if you’re a known carrier and actively out endangering the well-being of others, I think those individuals, whether that’s a person or a company, that we need to correct that behavior. I don’t think it’s our job to restrict everybody’s rights as a society.”

Lee compared the dilemma to rooting weeds out of his lawn, either by spot treating the lawn or turning off the sprinklers altogether.

“I can surgically go after them, or I can turn the whole water off so everything dies,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like our reaction to this situation has been the reaction, ‘Let’s just turn the water off.’ I would never do that.”

Lee wondered what kind of “ripple effects” society will see — such as increased suicide rates — in wake of the pandemic’s restrictions.

“I want individuals to use common sense, and I think together we can get through this if we don’t just lose our heads and destroy everything in the wake,” he said.

Contributing: Mary Richards