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This public-private partnership makes Madison sick

Collaboration between government officials and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce compromises public health in more ways than one.

Image: Detail from a map of COVID-19 cases by county and census tract, from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been a spectacular clusterfuck. The Trump administration didn’t drop the ball so much as violently lob it at the states, while simultaneously attacking any Governor who took meaningful steps to protect their states’ residents. Here in Wisconsin, Republicans and their lackeys on the Wisconsin Supreme Court quickly undermined Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, kicking the can even further down the road to be picked up by County executives and health departments. In Madison, we’ve been relying on the expert guidance of Public Health Madison & Dane County since the middle of May. 

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After being failed at so many levels, by so many elected officials—after seeing the government that we all pay into year after year refuse to take any responsibility for our collective safety and care—it would be nice to trust that the county health department, at least, is guided solely by a commitment to keeping people healthy and safe. But the opaque and inappropriate relationship between Public Health Madison & Dane County and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce makes that hard to believe. 

From the beginning, it seems that the Greater Madison Chamber—a non-governmental lobbying organization representing the business community—has had a hand in shaping reopening plans in our county and continues to exercise influence over local public health policy. In fact, they were apparently privy to details of Forward Dane, PHM&DC’s plan for re-opening, before any information was shared with members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors or Madison Common Council, individuals who—unlike anyone over at the Chamber of Commerce—were actually elected to lead our city and county. 

The President of the Chamber of Commerce, Zach Brandon, talked about this collaboration during Downtown Madison, Inc.’s What’s Up Madison breakfast meeting on May 28. Notably, Downtown Madison, Inc. originally grew out of the Chamber of Commerce, though it is now a separate organization. 

“I don’t know that the public and the business community will really know the work that was done by these organizations,” Brandon said of Forward Dane. “Late-night calls, weekend Zooms, lots of emails. But none of that would’ve been possible without the trust of public health and the mayor and the county exec to share early documents, to share early thinking.”

If it’s true, this is a pretty distressing admission, because when it comes to plans being cooked up by our government, the public actually has a right to know. Our government is meant to be open and transparent. These are key principles of democracy. Closed-door collaboration between leaders of a county agency, elected officials, and a lobbying group that represents many of the richest individuals in the Madison area is not open, transparent, or democratic, and that’s a problem. 

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is not the only group working to shape and (frankly) undermine public health policies that should be directed at keeping people safe. Groups like the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Wisconsin Tavern League, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and many others were agitating for the state to begin reopening as early as April 24 before Governor Evers “Safer at Home” order was struck down on Mary 13. More recently, some of the same organizations and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce organized to oppose any move by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to publicly name businesses that have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks. It’s ridiculous that this is even debatable, given that this information could be useful for consumers and workers and that it might deter people from taking unnecessary risks. 

But no organization has been granted the same mantle of authority by Public Health Madison & Dane County as the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. If you look at PHM&DC’s Coronavirus website, you will see that they actually refer business owners with business-related COVID-19 questions to the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, giving the appearance that the Chamber has some special COVID-19 expertise. The answers to these questions are even published on the Chamber of Commerce website where, unfortunately, some of them have already fallen out of date due to policy changes following a surge in cases after the start of Forward Dane.


An example Q & A from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce website. The information about the number of people permitted at indoor and outdoor events in this answer contradicts PHM&DC’s Order #8, which went into effect on July 13.

An example Q & A from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce website. The information about the number of people permitted at indoor and outdoor events in this answer contradicts PHM&DC’s Order #8, which went into effect on July 13.

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The influence that this group wields and the authority they’re being granted as spokespeople for business-related public health questions isn’t just undemocratic. It’s also problematic, given that the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce exists solely to promote the interests of a particular group in our community, interests that often conflict with what’s best for the majority and certainly with what’s best for workers. 

This is not to imply that individual business owners are evil or that it’s wrong for business owners to also weigh in on the issues of the day. It’s just a fact that the imperative of a business is to make money. Businesses make less money when they have to spend more on things that keep workers, customers, and their community healthy and well, like safety equipment, more staff, or appropriate disposal of toxic waste, for example. Businesses violate rules about health and safety for this reason all the time, in every city in the country. The tension between the priorities of businesses and public health goals is historic and unavoidable.  

But that tension is especially high right now, when the presence of a highly contagious virus in our community means that people are safest when they stay at home. For businesses that need customers—especially those that can only serve their customers in person, like salons, restaurants that rely on dine-in business, and bars—this means that their interests are actually diametrically opposed to what’s best for the health of our community. This is why organizations representing these businesses should have no place in shaping public health plans or policy: the outcomes they are hoping for and the outcomes a public health department should be trying to achieve are totally contradictory.

Some of the contradictions are clear in the difference between what PHM&DC allows in its orders and the advice it gives individuals. For example, in this article that was published in the Wisconsin State Journal as Dane County rocketed along into Phase 2 of Forward Dane, it was odd to read that bars and restaurants would be allowed to expand capacity from 25% to 50%, followed immediately by comments from Mayor Rhodes-Conway and Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich stressing that people should remain cautious. 

“The virus is still as infectious and dangerous as it has always been,” Rhodes-Conway said.  “Remember that the actions you take affect others.”

The article ends with safety tips from Public Health Madison & Dane County, some of which directly contradict the logic of opening bars and restaurants for in-person service in the first place, such as “Limiting your bubble. Consider how many people you are seeing day to day,” and “Minimizing trips out. Plan ahead so you can get all the things you need at once. Use online ordering or curbside pickup for lower-risk options.” 

Meanwhile, at the DMI breakfast back in May, Zach Brandon also spoke extensively about the need to build up consumer confidence, to help people see that it’s safe to go about some of their old practices, like getting a haircut and going out to eat. Of course, whether people believe it’s safe to do those things has nothing to do with whether or not it’s actually safe. Is it even possible for people to be confident consumers while continuing to remain cautious? I would argue that it is not, and that public health messaging and policies that attempt to address both aims end up being more confusing than anything.  

To be clear, while Public Health Madison & Dane County’s plan has given restaurants and businesses a green light to open up to customers, nothing they have shared on their website or through their social media has ever seemed to suggest that it is a good idea to go shopping for non-essentials or to go to a restaurant to have dinner, inside or out. They continue to stress that people are safest when they stay at home. They continue to stress that people must take responsibility for their safety and the community’s safety. But somehow, seeing other people enjoying cocktails and appetizers on patios downtown speaks a little louder than the cautious postings of the public health department (for a good time, watch the fireworks online this year!).

But there’s more than potential confusion on the line for workers for whom reopening means returning to in-person work, especially in retail and food service. Called back to their jobs, these workers are unable to follow PHM&DC’s practical advice to stay home as much as possible or to limit the number of people they’re interacting with. In fact, it is in the best interest of their employers—and in some cases, the workers themselves if they receive tips or commission—to interact with as many customers as possible. They also have limited control over workplace sanitation practices or sick leave policies that penalize workers who stay home sick, which are notorious in food service especially

For workers reading the latest order from PHM&DC, looking for clues about how to protect themselves, it is also not encouraging to discover that in many instances workers don’t even register as people. Throughout the order, limitations on the size of gatherings or the capacity allowed in a particular business excludes employees, though certainly the risk faced by employees as well as the risk they might pose to others at a gathering is real, whether they’re counted or not. Who stands to benefit from this, other than employers? 

The first two months of Forward Dane have been rough. The number of new cases climbed throughout June and into July. Since June 1, about 3,100 people in Dane County tested positive for the virus, about four times as many as became sick in the previous four months. This is not a trivial number of people to be diagnosed with what is not a trivial illness. It bears repeating that there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about COVID-19, like the long-term effects of the virus on survivors’ health. Some of what we do know is deeply disturbing, like that a significant number of people—even young and otherwise healthy people—don’t recover from COVID-19 right away, instead remaining sick for weeks after their initial test result, which the CDC confirmed in a report last week. And of course, some people don’t survive COVID-19 at all. 34 Dane County residents have died of COVID-19 so far this year, which is nine more people than the total number of people killed in traffic accidents in Dane County in all of 2019.

After a few weeks of particularly bad COVID-19 numbers in late June and early July, Public Health Madison & Dane County issued a new order that dialed back many of the restrictions that were loosened when we entered Phase 2 of Forward Dane and halted bar service all together. On July 13, PHM & DC’s latest order went into effect, requiring that individuals wear masks in all indoor spaces beyond their immediate living space. In the weeks since these changes, the 7-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases has dropped from 110 at its height to somewhere below 50, which is still higher than our pre-Forward Dane 7-day average of about 15. Making adjustments has helped.

But a lot of us are still holding our breath. What changes will these new, lower numbers spur and who will be the new casualties of any miscalculations? Which workers will be asked to return to in-person work next? What happens when fall comes and outdoor dining and other gatherings become impossible again? Will our utterly inept president, our ineffectual Congress, and our negligent state government provide aid to businesses that cannot operate safely and workers who cannot safely work? If they don’t, will the Restaurant Association or the Tavern League or the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce put pressure on PHM&DC to allow bars to resume service? To allow restaurants to expand capacity? Will we even know or will these changes just take place, leaving us all to wonder? Which local employers has Dane County Public Health Madison & Dane County already held private meetings with?  

A group of Madison Alders and Dane County Board Supervisors wrote a letter to Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich asking for more information about the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s involvement in crafting Forward Dane, and they’re still waiting to hear back.   

Individuals, including workers, are arguably Public Health Madison & Dane County’s very best allies in keeping our community safe. Unlike the business community, most of us have no greater priority than the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our friends and family. There is very little payout for putting ourselves or others at risk. In fact, people will actually risk their jobs to keep themselves and each other safe. This has been true since the beginning of the pandemic, when people took action to stay at home before public officials passed any orders. In many cases, workers—including workers here in Madison—also preempted their employers in taking action to make the workplace safer, from getting PPE to insisting on sick-leave policies that allow sick workers to stay at home without penalty. 

These are the people with whom Public Health Madison & Dane County should be working most closely and whose needs they should be addressing—not the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. Armed with clear communication about what’s safe and what’s not—communication that isn’t undermined by lax and contradictory policies, due to meddling by the business lobby—we will act to protect ourselves and each other. Will businesses? The history of workplace safety in the United States says otherwise.

Correction added: This article initially stated that Downtown Madison, Inc., is a project of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. DMI began as a project of the Chamber but is a separate organization.

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