the logo of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce overlaid with a Caduceus symbol

How Madison’s public health officials talk to the business community

By Dayna Long

This story was produced in partnership with Tone Madison.

At the end of last summer, I wrote about the concerning relationship between Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce (GMCC). I argued that the interests of a public health department during a pandemic and the interests of the business community were contradictory, and that concessions to business interests might stimulate the economy, but would make all of us less safe. Madison365 reported on this in greater detail in August. Wanting to understand the relationship better, I also submitted a public records request for all communications between PHMDC and GMCC since April. I received those records several weeks ago. You can view them here.  

Emails between the two organizations give us insight into instances when GMCC was able to influence final public health orders and instances where it was not. I learned more by talking to people whose experience with PHMDC at the start of the pandemic was different from what communications between PHMDC and GMCC show. 

An extensive review of email communications shows that representatives from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce had greater access to information and opportunities to weigh in on local COVID-19 policy than elected representatives on the Madison Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors and, by extension, the public. These communications also show a gulf between PHMDC’s cooperation with the business lobby and its interactions with individual workers and labor advocates. There’s a case to be made that as a result, PHMDC’s reopening plan was weaker than it might have been if it had been informed by a greater array of perspectives. This case is strengthened by the improvements that resulted from later collaborations with a different, labor-oriented organization. 

A year out from the start of the pandemic, there are perhaps more questions we should be asking, though. There are greater issues underlying the problematic nature of business lobbyists being given more information and access to public health decision making than the public itself. From which decisions actually constitute a public health emergency to the strength of our representative bodies relative to other players in city politics, the difficulty of the last year has demonstrated that there’s room for improvement on at least a few fronts.

An extensive back-and-forth with the Chamber

On Friday, May 15, PHMDC’s Business Liaison, Bonnie Koenig, invited Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon to meet so she could share an advance overview of Forward Dane, PHMDC’s plan for a phased reopening. Though Koenig did not share an actual draft of Forward Dane at the meeting, which was attended by Brandon and Adam Barr, GMCC’s former Public Policy Manager, they discussed the plan in enough detail to allow GMCC reps to provide feedback, which Koenig summarized in an email the next morning, writing, “The ideas you shared will be presented today as PHMDC continues to work towards finalizing this plan. I appreciate the willingness to partner now and into the future for getting the public health guidance to our business community. And I am grateful for all of your commitment for a safe, phased-in reopening, and agree that this needs to be balanced with supporting our economy and community confidence.”

The suggestions Koenig reiterated include “No more ‘essential and non-essential”—as in, not delineating between essential and non-essential workers/businesses—and “Leave room for business innovation.” Brandon replied with a few additional notes of his own which, as Koenig put it, “arrived at the perfect time this morning during our discussions and was shared to all present. And, as you will see, many of these great insights have been incorporated to the extent possible.”

Not all of the Chamber’s suggestions actually made it into PHMDC policy. For example, Brandon’s suggestion that closed-to-the-public office occupancy limits be determined by workers’ ability to maintain social distancing rather than a percent of building capacity did not make it into the final order. In other cases, the feedback was accepted. The word “essential” did not appear in another order after Order #2, which was followed by Phase 1 of Forward Dane, effectively flattening out the perception that some businesses or activities should be prioritized above others. Koenig summarized exactly what was incorporated in another email on Sunday, May 17, when she also shared a draft of the order. The emails leave no room for doubt that the Chamber’s suggestions directly and quickly influenced PHMDC’s decision making: “I am excited to share the almost final draft of the Dane Forward Plan, where you will be able to see how your insights have been incorporated in these specific ways,” Koenig wrote in her May 17 message. (Italics are Koenig’s.) One of the ensuing bullet points noted that “The language was changed to be less regulatory and showing more positive progression through phases.”

Koenig and GMCC representatives had a standing weekly meeting. Koenig continued to share information about forthcoming orders with GMCC throughout the summer. For example, when new COVID-19 cases began to spike just a few weeks after Dane County entered the first phase of Forward Dane, Koenig sent GMCC representatives an email to share that PHMDC would be introducing a new, more restrictive order and later shared some insights into what the new order would include. She also shared that while she had passed along GMCC’s concerns about broad, county-wide restrictions, PHMDC would not make the new restrictions more targeted.  

GMCC shared frequently asked questions from worried business owners, which Koenig answered. Some of the questions reveal the conflicting interests of bosses and their workers. For example, it appears that a common concern for business owners was that their employees might lie to them about testing positive for or being exposed to COVID-19 and wanted to know what rights they had in terms of accessing this information through PHMDC. On another occasion, a business owner fretted that the required quarantine period for someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 would be too long for their workers to go without pay. Nikki Javurek, GMCC’s Director of Business Development, explained that the question was coming from a business whose employees live paycheck to paycheck, as if workers’ financial struggles aren’t directly related to what the business owner chooses to pay them. Koenig regretfully explained that a negative COVID-19 test did not eliminate the need to quarantine. 

Most of these questions were generalized and the businesses involved were not specifically named. However, Koenig did request that GMCC President Zach Brandon be included in a weekly PHMDC email report on compliance data, on the grounds that, “Zach is partnering with PHMDC to help us educate this businesses (sic).” In another email about complaints received about businesses, a PHMDC staff person refers to a business that had received a complaint shortly before PHMDC determined that there was an outbreak at the business. The name of the business is redacted in the records released to Tone Madison, which is in alignment with PHMDC’s policy of not publicly naming businesses where there are outbreaks, but public-health staff did share the unredacted name of the business with Brandon.

The connection was not one-sided. GMCC shared resources and its platform with PHMDC, inviting PHMDC staff members to share information with business owners at GMCC events, providing useful editorial suggestions on materials PHMDC developed, and using their website to share answers to frequently asked, business-related questions. Though GMCC representatives declined a short-notice request to sign on to PHMDC’s Mask Up, Madison initiative, following the announcement of the county-wide mask mandate, this was a collaborative relationship.

An uphill battle for labor

PHMDC is clear that it works with representatives from many organizations and not just the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. In an email response to Tone Madison‘s questions about this, PHMDC staff cited meetings with groups ranging from the Wisconsin Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired to the Tavern League to the Wisconsin Grocers Association. 

They also shared, as an example of how they have responded to the needs of worker-focused organizations, a link to a fact sheet that they put together “in direct response to a request from worker groups to the mayor’s office.” The fact sheet lists what employers are required to provide to employees to keep them safe on the job and provides contact information for PHMDC for workers who want to report a compliance issue. The worker group that requested the fact sheet is the Dignity at Work Coalition, a group of organizations representing labor and other social justice causes. The coalition was started by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, Executive Director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, in an attempt to help organizations with shared concerns take action together. I spoke with Rabbi Margulis and Rebecca Meier-Rao, Executive Director of Worker Justice Wisconsin, a member organization of the Dignity at Work Coalition. 

Last summer, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order, the Dignity at Work coalition recognized that they needed to act to protect workers who were being suddenly called back to work. This recognition was spurred, in part, by what Meier-Rao and her colleagues at Worker Justice Wisconsin had been experiencing since the start of the pandemic. 

Worker Justice Wisconsin aims to “build collective worker power through training, labor rights education, collective action and community engagement.” A lot of the organization’s day-to-day work revolves around helping workers deal with injustices in the workplace, from wage theft and benefit disputes to health and safety concerns. Many of the workers that turn to Worker Justice Wisconsin for assistance are immigrants, some of them undocumented.

In 2019, a normal year, Worker Justice Wisconsin helped workers recover over $90,000 in stolen wages. In 2020, the organization’s caseload tripled. Meier-Rao explains that at the start of the pandemic especially, workers were panicked. Many workers were laid off immediately and left with no income. This was especially hard for undocumented workers who did not qualify for stimulus relief money. But there were also many calls about abusive and illegal practices. 

“There was a lot of cases of workers calling because they were not paid their last paycheck. Because when things shut down, businesses just decided, you know, ‘That’s it. We’re not putting any more money out,’” Meier-Rao says. 

Worker Justice Wisconsin also received many calls from workers who were afraid of getting sick on the job. Especially in the beginning, employers were slow to adopt personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing measures, a national trend reflected in high, early case counts in food production settings. Meier-Rao recalls one incident with an area housekeeping service that continued to operate in violation of the state’s Safer at Home order, requiring its workers to clean people’s homes at a time when everyone was terrified of getting infected. 

“The PPE was pathetic,” Meier-Rao says. “I mean pathetic. The workers were scared to go to work every day.”

By the end of 2020, Worker Justice Wisconsin had helped workers recover $141,00 in stolen wages. 

Rabbi Margulis explains that when the Dignity at Work Coalition met to discuss the conditions workers were facing throughout the state, the experiences Worker Justice Wisconsin was reporting were not an anomaly. The group decided Dane County was a good place to take action because PHMDC had developed some of the most robust orders in the state. 

“So we had a meeting with folks from [Public Health Madison & Dane County], the mayor and other folks in the mayor’s office and someone from [County Executive] Joe Parisi’s office,” Margulis says. “And we talked about what we were seeing and what we thought was needed. That health department orders needed to be beefed up, they needed to have more teeth to them, more of an enforcement piece. And that the workers needed to have a place that they could complain anonymously and feel safe.”

The meeting took place in June. By the end of June, PHMDC had created the fact sheet that the Dignity at Work Coalition had suggested. In PHMDC’s Emergency Order #7, released June 25, there was an additional requirement for businesses that the fact sheet be posted in the business “in a prominent location where all employees may access and view.” 

When I asked Rabbi Margulis for her thoughts about the fact that the business community was consulted in the development of the order but that workers and worker organizations were not, she was clear that she wouldn’t ascribe ill intent to anyone at PHMDC. 

“I would say that it’s probably a perspective that didn’t occur to them,” Margulis says. “But when we brought it to them and said you need to be putting things out from the workers perspective, the immediate answer was oh, of course yes.”

Meier-Rao, too, is sympathetic to the challenges PHMDC has faced. But she is also unequivocal about the imbalance in the relationship between employers and workers and whether business owners can be trusted to put the health and safety of their workers first.

“Employers have far more power than employees,” Meier-Rao says. “Which is why we stress collective action, because employees have to act together to even stand a minute chance of countering the power that employers have. And then you add to it undocumented workers who, by the way, are paying taxes but reap pretty much none of the benefits, except eking out a meager amount to survive, and maybe sending some of it back to their families. They have even less power. This is not a disputable fact.”

But it was the organization representing employers that PHMDC reached out to to establish a working partnership before Forward Dane was even finalized. The Dignity at Work Coalition initiated contact with PHMDC on their own, after the fact. PHMDC has said that any organization can reach out to them if they’re interested in meeting with a representative from PHMDC and that “While we have hosted and participated in a number of community-based forums throughout the pandemic, we have not been invited to any forums that were solely worker-focused. We’d be happy to attend any meeting to answer questions and concerns from workers.” 

The problem with waiting to be contacted by worker organizations is that worker organizations have been systematically weakened over the decades by anti-labor attacks, including Act 10 in Wisconsin. Unlike business owners, who have the money to assemble lobbying organizations like the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, the Tavern League, and the Wisconsin Grocers Association, workers are often left without any collective voice at all.

Elected Officials Playing Catch-Up

One way that all residents are meant to be granted a hearing is through their Madison Common Council member or Dane County Board Supervisor. These representatives have smaller constituencies than either the Mayor of Madison or the Dane County Executive, which theoretically gives residents a greater chance of being heard if they have a question or concern. But unlike Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, County Executive Joe Parisi, and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Alders and Supervisors were not involved in Forward Dane discussions and planning. Alders received a link to the press release announcing Forward Dane less than 10 minutes before the same release was shared with the public. Four days later, they received word that Dane County would be moving into Phase 1 of Forward Dane, again only shortly before the public announcement. 

Grant Foster, who represents District 15 on Madison’s Common Council, says that he was “shocked and surprised.” I asked Foster if his constituents were concerned about Forward Dane and the reopening announcement. He explains that knowing what constituents think is the ongoing challenge of being a representative, but says, “I had high confidence then and I think I still do that there was sort of broad concern. That move [into Phase 1] did not seem to match the level of concern that I understood or imagined from my constituents.”

Elena Haasl, who represents District 5 on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, also describes being surprised. “The pandemic has held—and still holds—so much uncertainty. I was kind of shocked that PHMDC announced the Forward Dane plan without consulting with any elected officials, but also without a lot of input in the community,” Haasl says. 

The four-day window between PHMDC’s announcement of Forward Dane and its announcement that the county would enter the first phase of reopening meant that Alders and Dane County Board Supervisors had very little time to collect input from their constituents and, if they were concerned, to make sure that their thoughts and questions were shared with decision-makers like PHMDC, the mayor, and the county executive. 

Still, Foster and Haasl joined seven other Alders and four other Dane County Board Supervisors signing on to an open letter to PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich, the mayor, and the county executive with a list of questions about Forward Dane, ranging from how PHMDC had settled on its metrics for Forward Dane, which were less rigorous than metrics put forward by plans like COVID Local, to what was needed to get contact tracing capacity up to recommended standards. They also noted that while Forward Dane outlined the metrics Dane County needed to reach to move forward into new, less restrictive phases, the plan did not specify what metrics would trigger a return to more restrictive phases if COVID-19 started spreading fast. They reiterated all of these concerns in another open letter sent June 29, in which they also requested that PHMDC issue a mask mandate.

In retrospect, the questions and concerns these elected officials raised look like the right ones. It was good to wonder how PHMDC would determine that we needed to tighten restrictions, something officials were forced to do after we hit the peak of our summer spike just over a month after entering Phase 1 of Forward Dane. PHMDC also issued a mask mandate one week after receiving the second open letter. Concerns about the number of contact tracers were also validated. An insufficient contact tracing capacity, reflected by a statewide deficit, led PHMDC to adopt a “crisis model” of contact tracing on October 21 when the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases was over 200 cases per day.

Given the legitimacy of these concerns, as well as the fact that our democratically elected representatives are one of the public’s best and only avenues for sharing feedback about city and county policy, it would seem to make sense to include this group in conversations about public health policy before the orders are finalized and announced. That didn’t happen. Throughout the summer, these elected officials continued to learn about new public health orders only shortly before the finalized orders were made public, even as PHMDC’s business liaison continued to share information about new orders with the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, attend weekly meetings with GMCC reps, and pass along GMCC’s feedback about impending orders with decision makers at PHMDC.

Lessons for after the pandemic

As more and more people get vaccinated, with the promise of a semi-normal summer on the horizon, it’s tempting to try and forget about what happened over the last year or to question whether it even matters.The end of this nightmare is in sight. Who cares? 

Over the course of the pandemic, a lot of people cared. There have been numerous instances of workers and groups of community members coming together in an attempt to shape public health decision-making and protect one another. In addition to Alders and Supervisors and the Dignity at Work Coalition, we saw workers at Epic Systems risk retribution to sound the alarm about the health-tech giant’s back-to-work plan, a revolt that quickly turned into an embarrassing national news story for Dane County’s largest private employer. Faculty, staff, and students put up a valiant fight to prevent UW-Madison from rolling out its Smart Restart, a plan of questionable intelligence that led to a huge spike of new COVID-19 cases on campus that trickled out into the community. Malia Jones, a parent and public health expert, spearheaded an effort to get non-essential businesses and gatherings closed last summer in the hopes that students might be able to return to classrooms in the fall. Late last year and this year, teachers all over Dane County objected to being made to return to in-person teaching without vaccines. 

These actions reflect a substantial number of people who felt unsafe, out of control of the decisions that impacted their lives, or both over the course of the pandemic. 

Alder Foster suggests that it might be time to take a look at the state statutes and local ordinances around public health emergency response. “They’re really meant to provide the ability to quickly put in restrictions to try and stop the spread of a pandemic disease,” Foster says. “The need to put in restrictions is a public health question. And I’m totally comfortable with that being a public health decision.” 

But he argues that subsequent decisions about what’s essential and what’s not, what should be open and what shouldn’t, and trying to balance the impacts of those decisions on the economy, education, and other interests, isn’t necessarily an emergency or a public health decision. It’s political.

“That did not need to happen without public input and without decision-making happening from our elected public officials beyond the mayor. And that’s probably my primary frustration, is that it could and should have,” Foster says. 

If all of us, as a community, had a hand in determining what activities were most important for us to resume, armed with information from PHMDC about what was actually safe, would we have chosen to open bars and restaurants for in-person, indoor service in May? Would we have wanted to keep them open in the fall, when students returned and it became too cold to eat outside? Who benefits from the fact that there was no formal avenue for the public to weigh in on these decisions? Whose priorities and preferences really did get a hearing? While business owners might like to believe that there is no such thing as essential or non-essential among them, the rest of us would probably have determined otherwise. 

It’s worth repeating a point that Rabbi Margulis made about how Dignity at Work chose to reach out to officials in Dane County about worker safety because PHMDC had the most robust orders in the state. PHMDC has worked incredibly hard over the last year to protect our community. One of the reasons it is easy to pick at the decisions of our local public-health officials is because they actually made decisions, unlike Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled State Legislature, which left us all for dead, or our clusterfuck federal government, led by a president whose greatest pandemic achievement was convincing millions of people that the virus was a hoax. PHMDC has an excellent blog, where staff members have written about their decision-making process and where they clearly try to address common questions and concerns. Staff members  are similarly responsive to questions over social media. PHMDC did all of this critical work while facing lawsuits, backlash, and harassment from an anti-science right wing.

At the same time, public health officials’ ability to execute robust orders and the positive outcome of those restrictions comes from the residents of Dane County, too—our willingness to cooperate to keep each other safe, and the quality of the people we elect to public office. There are anti-masker fools in Dane County, of course. But the biggest political outbursts around COVID-19 in our community came from people who wanted to be more safe, not less. We deserve more than to feel like our public health department is negotiating our safety in closed-door meetings with the bosses. We deserve to have a say.

Correction added: This article initially stated that four Dane County Supervisors signed the open letter to PHMDC. The correct number was five, not four. The article has been updated.

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