Waukesha County Judge Allows Business Lawsuit over COVID Data Release to Continue

A lawsuit over whether the state can release data on businesses in Wisconsin tied to COVID-19 outbreaks will proceed after a judge on Monday denied motions from the state and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to dismiss the case.

The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, sued to stop the release of the data in October , arguing that businesses could suffer “irreparable harm.”

In a hearing that lasted three hours Monday, WMC attorney Ryan Walsh argued that the data is private medical information and that the state has to prove the records cannot be used to identify individuals who had COVID-19. “They claim they have been attentive to that, but ‘trust us’ is not good enough here,” Walsh said.

The records in question contain data on roughly a thousand Wisconsin businesses with 25 or more employees that have had at least two employees test positive or identify as close contacts.

The Journal Sentinel requested the records in June after workers at food processing plants and residents at nursing homes told the newspaper they were left in the dark about outbreaks at their facilities and had to learn about cases through word of mouth.

In her motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Assistant Attorney General Anne Bensky, representing the state, argued that the WMC had no standing to sue.

But Judge Lloyd Carter of the Waukesha County Circuit Court sided with the business lobby and said he was concerned that releasing the data could plaster businesses with a “scarlet letter.”

“We’re talking about businesses who are teetering on the brink of failure,” Carter said. “We’re talking about release of data with potential for irreparable harm to those businesses.”