Utah County Names Two COVID-19 Hot Spots After KSL-TV Lawsuit
AMERICAN FORK, Utah – Eight weeks after Utah County officials published a letter pointing at two businesses for failing to meet COVID-19 guidelines, KSL TV has learned the names of the two businesses.
The companies are Built Brands LLC, based in American Fork, and Wasatch Truss in Spanish Fork.
Fourth District Judge Christine Johnson ruled in KSL’s favor on Monday in a lawsuit challenging an open records request that the county had denied. The judge gave the county 48 hours to release the information on two businesses tied to outbreaks in early May.
Utah County Cases
On May 4, Utah County officials posted a letter on Facebook saying, “Unfortunately, we need to reference two cases of businesses in Utah County who did not follow COVID-19 best practices… that resulted in 68 positive COVID-19 cases, including 48% of employees being infected at one business.”
The letter went on to say, “we found these 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 still report to work.”
On May 26, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt walked back some of those claims, saying the businesses had not forced people to work, but urged them not to ‘noise it around that you were sick.’
Leavitt and other county leaders refused to name the businesses because of privacy considerations and because they were worried about a possible “backlash” against the businesses.
The KSL Investigators spearheaded the legal effort challenging that decision. KSL-TV was supported by a coalition of other Utah news organizations, who filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit.
The judge sided with the media’s arguments that the public interest outweighed Utah County’s aim to keep the names of the businesses private.
“As far as the public’s interest, generally, I do believe the public has a significant and weighty interest in knowing about COVID-19 outbreaks, to the extent where they happen, who they happen to,” Johnson said in her ruling. “That certainly helps the public prepare itself and know how individuals might protect themselves, to understand how other people have been sick, how other outbreaks have happened, where those outbreaks happened. I think we’re all in a better position to understand how to keep ourselves healthy if that information is transparently available.”
In an indication that the outbreak was serious enough to warn county employees about the hot spots, on May 5, the day after Utah County officials published their letter on Facebook about the outbreaks, Utah County Health employee Tyler Plewe sent an email addressed to “staff” in which he named the two businesses, writing, “This is sensitive information so please keep it within the office. I wanted to let you know of these locations so that you feel safe if you are heading out into the public.”
The email was included in documents released to KSL Investigators through the legal challenge.
Utah County told KSL that the email was sent from “an environmental health manager to staff that perform environmental health inspections in public settings.”
The statement continues, “Due to COVID-19, staff had expressed concerns about what precautions would be needed when working in a public setting.
“The manager in the referenced comments was conveying to staff that there was no additional precaution needed for their public inspections, as the two businesses under investigation were not public-facing businesses.”
Built Brands LLC
Those documents reveal health officials started investigating a COVID-19 case at Built Brands LLC, a protein bar maker in American Fork, on April 13. The person with the positive test said he knew of other employees with symptoms.
According to emails obtained in the open records request, multiple employees told health inspectors they were instructed by managers not to tell coworkers of their infections as it would “cause a panic.”
Health inspectors found 19 confirmed cases and about 50 other employees exhibiting similar symptoms. A cease and desist order was issued on April 15. The company was instructed on proper precautions and steps to take moving forward, including measures and precautions to prevent an outbreak in the future.
In a letter dated April 17, a Department of Agriculture and Food employee told the health department that Built Brands had done a good job of cleaning and disinfecting the facility, and that the Commissioner of Agriculture wanted to allow the business to reopen on a limited basis on April 20.
In mid-May, Juana Victoria Flores, a former employee, filed a lawsuit against Built Bar.
According to the lawsuit, Flores sent an email to Built Bar’s human resources department on April 7 saying that co-workers were sick and that it would be good to get professional cleaning or fumigation.
“We make food and we don’t want more people getting sick,” she wrote in the email, ending with, “I am really concerned.”
The suit alleges the company “took no precautions to sanitize their facilities after receiving knowledge an employee had tested positive for COVID-19.”
The suit goes on to say that employees, “were issued threats of termination if they discussed anything related to a COVID-19 infection” at the facility.
About a week after that email, on April 13, Flores tested positive for COVID-19. Her employment was terminated on May 7, according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Flores claim her termination occurred when she was unable to return to work and after she sought legal counsel.
Nick Greer, CEO of Built Bar, said Flores was part of a reduction of workforce of 39 employees and that the company did not know she had retained legal counsel until the lawsuit was made public.
“We have followed every CDC guideline and recommendation and even exceeded it,” said Greer at the time.
Greer also said the facility shut down in April for a week of cleaning and modifications and hasn’t had a case since reopening.
KSL reached out to Built Brands LLC for further comment today. They declined.
Internal emails from the health department show they became aware of cases of COVID-19 at Wasatch Truss in Spanish Fork on or around April 22, and indicated they were aware of up to 25 cases, representing one-fourth of the company’s total workforce.
In one report, an employee said he started having symptoms on April 17 and employees had been told someone at the company had tested positive. The workers were sent home.
KSL spoke with John Turner, the manager of Wasatch Truss on the phone.
He said his company took the outbreak seriously from the very beginning, and “never asked an employee to come back to work without approval.”
“In the beginning, there was a lot of confusion,” said Turner about proper prevention steps, but they have since “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars” to regularly disinfect, provide PPE, do temperature checks and enforce social distancing.
Emails between health department employees state the company closed for a day after learning about positive cases and hired a professional cleaning company to deep clean and disinfect the warehouse and trucks before resuming operation.
Turner said they have not had any cases since that time.
Public’s Right To Know
Attorney Jeff Hunt argued KSL-TV’s case to make the documents public.
“COVID-19 infections in Utah and across the nation are spiking and is prompting officials to consider greater restrictions on businesses and members of the public,” said Hunt. “Given that backdrop, in the middle of a pandemic, the public has a compelling interest in receiving timely and accurate information concerning the transmission of this highly infectious and potentially lethal virus.
“And knowing the names of (these) businesses … is directly related to that public interest so the public can make informed decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones.”
“There is a strong public interest in transparency and accountability with respect to the county’s actions in this matter,” Hunt added. “Release of the identities of the businesses serves those interests so the public can form its own judgments about what happened.”
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