By the end of November, many in Wisconsin knew the worst of COVID-19.
State residents had been infected at one of the highest rates in the nation. Nearly 1,300 deaths had been reported that month alone; some hospitals, overrun, had treated patients in lobbies, hallways or ambulance garages.
But there was still something fundamental about the disease that Wisconsin residents could only guess at.
Even though the state budgeted $75 million to trace the virus' path, its health department chose from the earliest days of the pandemic to reveal little about outbreak locations.
Then, during last fall's surge, the state's most powerful business and manufacturing group sued to make doubly sure nobody but the state could access those records.
So once the wave crested, there was nothing public at the state level to answer claims like those from the head of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association on Nov. 30, who said there was no data that proved people were more likely to contact the virus in restaurants.
The same was true for data about bars, churches, stores, meatpacking plants or manufacturers.
Lobbyists against naming businesses
Lobbyists argue that naming businesses with outbreaks would brand them with a "scarlet letter" and be used to out their infected employees.
Worker rights advocates and public health experts say that Wisconsin residents have a right to make informed decisions and use the data to help identify employers who flout precautions.
Other states publish outbreak locations, and at least one local health department that published them in Wisconsin says it would still be giving residents that information, if not for the lawsuit from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
Melissa Perry, epidemiologist and chair of the environmental and occupational health department at George Washington University, said that just as they do with outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease or hepatitis A, health departments should share where COVID-19 outbreaks began.
"The same principles apply," she said. "You inform, you communicate regularly, you continuously track, distribute information to empower citizens — that's how you get all the faster to the end."
Thanks largely to the vaccine, far fewer Wisconsinites are dying than in November. But COVID-19 has now claimed more than 6,500 lives, and as more and more people venture back out, they do so without the fullest possible knowledge of which environments are the coronavirus' favorites.