Two Utah County-based businesses that county executives publicly stated had instructed employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 to report to work didn’t actually do so, according to Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.
On May 4, the Utah County Commission and mayors throughout the county released a statement that said contact tracing conducted by the Utah County Health Department and Utah Department of Health found that two businesses “instructed employees to not follow quarantine guidelines after exposure to a confirmed case at work and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to report to work.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, Leavitt said subsequent investigation into the matter by the Utah County Attorney’s Office revealed that the claim that these businesses told sick employees to work was unsubstantiated.
“What we learned from that (investigation) was that the original communication from the health department wasn’t accurate,” said Leavitt, who was speaking in his role as attorney for the Utah County Commission. “In fact, there were not two businesses who were forcing employees to work (while sick). That was information that was not right. It was information that was communicated at an abundance of caution from the Health Department from the County Commission. And as we’ve gotten deeper into the issue, we’ve learned that the assertions weren’t true.”
Leavitt said he did not begin a criminal investigation into the businesses beyond asking county investigators to speak with the county health department “because it became abundantly clear that there really was nothing to investigate.”
The county’s May 4 announcement, which was emailed to media outlets in a press release, stated that 68 employees between the two businesses had tested positive for the virus.
When asked whether that information was accurate, Leavitt said he didn’t “know the answer to that.”
“I’m not saying that those businesses weren’t a hotspot,” he said. “I am saying that these businesses were not forcing their employees to work.”
Leavitt said the Utah County Commission sent out the announcement “believing the truth of what they were saying, because they were believing the information coming from the health department.”
“And because the virus moves so quickly and so invisibly, they felt a real need to disseminate the information in an effort to warn businesses not to engage in that kind of conduct,” he said.
A Utah County Health Department spokeswoman said she could not provide comment on the subject but that the department would release a statement later in the day.
Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who chairs the Utah County Commission, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
When asked why it took three weeks for the county to conclude that these businesses didn’t instruct sick employees to work, Leavitt said that “government doing something like this in three weeks and acknowledging its error is probably pretty remarkable as far as the speed … because government typically doesn’t come out and say, ‘We made this mistake.’”
Leavitt added that he hoped the media and public would recognize the error happened during an unprecedented time when county officials are doing their best to keep the public safe and informed.
“The businesses didn’t compel anyone to work,” Leavitt said. “That’s an important fact to know. The other important fact to know is the health department should not be vilified here. The health department is doing their very, very best under difficult circumstances.”
The Utah County Health Department has refused to release the names of the two businesses referenced in the May 4 announcement from county executives, arguing that Section 26-6-27 of the Utah Code prohibits the department from doing so.
Section 26-6-27 states that information collected or possessed by local health departments “relating to an individual who has or is suspected of having a disease designated by the department as a communicable or reportable disease … shall be held by the (state health) department and local health department as strictly confidential.”
The Daily Herald filed a public records request on May 6 requesting documents related to contact tracing conducted by the Utah County Health Department, which was denied by the county two days later.
On May 18, an attorney representing five media outlets — including the Daily Herald — sent a letter to Utah County Commissioners Tanner Ainge, Bill Lee and Nathan Ivie stating that the media outlets would be prepared to pursue litigation if the county didn’t release the business names.
Leavitt again declined to identify the businesses Tuesday, echoing comments made previously by state and county health department officials that doing so is unnecessary since neither of the businesses interact directly with the public.
“We didn’t name the businesses because the allegations were not substantiated and because, number two, the businesses did not service the walk-in public, and so we believed that we didn’t need to warn the public because the public had no threat of stumbling into a business that was engaging in this kind of conduct,” said Leavitt.
Michael Patrick O’Brien, the attorney who sent a letter to the Utah County Commission on behalf of the Daily Herald and other media outlets, said in the letter that “(d)espite the County’s contentions to the contrary, these businesses indeed are public facing.”
“No business is isolated from the public,” O’Brien wrote. “The two involved businesses may not be store fronts or retail operations, but they likely have sales people, purchase supplies, receive/make deliveries, put their products in the stream of commerce, utilize repair/maintenance services, have business visitors, share space and common building/parking areas with others, and interact for business reasons with others.”
Leavitt didn’t address the letter, which was also mailed to him, during Tuesday’s press conference but acknowledged that different people may have different legal opinions as to whether the names of the businesses should be made public.
“Whether we were right or whether we were wrong in that decision not to name the businesses is something upon which reasonable people will debate and disagree,” said Leavitt.