California Senate passes bill allowing state to keep details of COVID outbreaks secret

California Senate passes bill allowing state to keep details of COVID outbreaks secret

At the time, Reyes wrote in a statement that she “introduced AB 654 to clarify that this data should be reported to the state of California and posted publicly based on both workplace and industry information as that was the original intent of last year’s AB 685.” In June, an investigation by this news organization showed that only about one-third of local health departments initially provided details of outbreaks in response to public records requests. Some officials argued that the law itself prevented them from releasing the data it sought to publicize, while the state health department only published aggregate data by industry on its website — interpretations that experts chalked up to the law’s vague wording. Yet at the start of September — as Reyes faced opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and a group of mostly Republican assembly members — language clarifying that the state must release outbreak data by both individual workplaces and broader industries was removed. The approved bill instead repeats the original phrasing of AB 685 and mandates health officials to share information by “workplace industry.”

“This is data that could truly help save lives,” he said. “The bill now does not seem to be ensuring transparency, but rather going in the opposite direction — and ensuring that the public, local leaders and local health leaders are going to be in the dark in a way they really shouldn’t be,” said David Snyder, an attorney and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition who called its passage “very disappointing.”

Authored by Inland Empire Democrat Eloise Reyes, Assembly Bill 654 was advertised as a clean-up bill for AB 685, a state law that was intended to provide workers and the public with information about workplace coronavirus outbreaks but which California counties had interpreted in drastically different ways. The bill passed 37-0 containing an urgency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately if signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“We have members with unvaccinated kids, older people in their households — it’s one thing if you know there was an outbreak; it’s another thing to just vaguely know that people in your industry were sick — which is completely useless,” he said. One source familiar with the proceedings said that Reyes’ office agreed to slash the transparency requirement once it became clear in late August that the bill would not move forward if the California Chamber of Commerce opposed it. Reyes’ office declined to make her available for an interview or comment on the discrepancy between her original statement and the bill’s final draft. Steve Boardman, communications director for SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents more than 47,000 people in California, emphasized that workers need “as much information as possible to protect themselves and their families.”

“We’re just so not out of the woods with this pandemic … At a very basic level, at least having some information about where the potential problems are would be helpful as a guidepost,” said Kevin Riley, director of the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program at UCLA. “But we don’t have it.” The bill contains other, smaller clarifications, such as exempting health care facilities from reporting COVID data twice. But the central reversion renders it useless in achieving Reyes’ stated goal, labor experts said, and upholds California’s patchwork reporting standards that leave millions of workers in the dark about how the deadly virus is permeating their workplace.

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