BOH Mulls Restaurant Disclosure Order

By: Alan Pollock

CHATHAM The health board is considering an emergency order requiring the town to publicize the names of restaurants where people have tested positive for COVID-19.

Without violating the privacy of individuals who have been diagnosed with the illness, the board is seeking to inform the dining public when restaurants in town report COVID-19 cases. Restaurants are already required to notify the health department when employees, patrons or vendors test positive, but they are not required to disclose that information to the public.

Board of health member Noble Hansen agreed that sharing the information would have a public benefit.

“The concern is whether that gets close to a HIPAA violation of some individual,” he said, referring to the federal health information privacy law. Hansen proposed an emergency order that mandates the disclosure of restaurant names “unless the health department feels that the disclosure might reveal an individual’s status.”

Meeting with the health board and selectmen last week, Town Counsel Patrick Costello cautioned the town against adopting COVID rules that exceed state regulations. Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, case law does not yet exist, Costello said.

“I think it would be acceptable to disclose that we had a case from a restaurant employee,” Health Agent Judith Giorgio told the board. It would be important to be careful when applying the rule to small establishments that have only a few employees, she noted.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said several restaurants that had positive cases this summer were disclosed on social media or in the press. “Frankly, Chatham’s a small town,” he said. “It amazes me how quickly the word gets out in this town.”

Chatham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cavanaugh said she hasn’t spoken to the chamber’s restaurant members to get their opinion on the proposal. She offered to share the health board’s proposal with them to provide an opportunity to comment.

Health Board Chairman John Beckley said restaurateurs are welcome to comment, but “I don’t think we want to frame it in a way that we are waiting to hear back from them before we decide what we think is best.”

The health board voted unanimously to ask town staff to draft language for an emergency order requiring disclosure of restaurants that have positive COVID-19 tests, and to vet that language with town counsel. The board is expected to revisit the matter shortly.