Wisconsin Appeals Court Sides Against Business Group in Effort to Block Release of COVID-19 Data

A Wisconsin appeals court panel on Monday reversed a lower court order blocking the release of state health department data on businesses linked to COVID-19 cases, siding against a powerful Wisconsin business association.

The Madison-based 4th District Court of Appeals sent the lawsuit, brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, back to circuit court with orders to dismiss it.

According to the state Department of Justice, the state can release the records in question once the court-imposed injunction is lifted, a process which involves a 30-day lag to give WMC and other business groups the chance to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which they have vowed to do. The Wisconsin Supreme Court could prevent the release of the records if it takes up the case.

The state Department of Health Services since last summer had planned to release the names of more than 1,000 businesses with more than 25 employees where at least two workers have tested positive for COVID-19. That prompted an outcry from Wisconsin businesses, which said releasing such information to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media outlets that requested the information, including the Wisconsin State Journal, would have severe impacts on companies already struggling through the pandemic.

Gov. Tony Evers’ administration briefly reversed course, but the governor in the fall told reporters the administration planned to release the information in the near future, prompting legal action.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, along with the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce and New Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court against Evers, then-Health Secretary Andrea Palm and Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, seeking to block the release of business names. The business groups allege the information they want blocked is derived from diagnostic test results and the records of contact tracers, and that such information constitutes patient health care records that must be kept confidential.