As Madison struggles with COVID crisis, emails show health department developed plan that ‘works for our business community’

Health director
Janel Heinrich, left, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, speaks to reporters Wednesday at the Alliant Center. At right is Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control for UW Health. (Photo by Erik Gunn)

Madison, Dane County and Wisconsin are currently dealing with crisis-level spread of COVID-19 and in recent months Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) President Zach Brandon has been a vocal critic of local limits on businesses to mitigate the spread. 

In the early months of the pandemic, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court had struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide stay-at-home order, Brandon and the GMCC were intimately involved with Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) as the health department drafted local health orders for businesses. 

Recently Brandon has pushed back on the idea that local businesses are to blame for the local spike in infections, but emails, obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner, show Brandon and other GMCC staff members giving PHMDC business liaison Bonnie Koenig direct input on draft orders in the early months of the pandemic.

PHMDC Business Liaison Bonnie Koenig’s email to GMCC President Zach Brandon.

“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 writes in a May 17 email before detailing exactly how GMCC influenced the drafting of the Forward Dane plan — which was released publicly the following day. 

Later that month, in a video conference with Downtown Madison Inc., Brandon bragged about the influence GMCC had in developing the plan. 

“I don’t know that the public and the business community will really know the work that was done by these organizations,” Brandon said. “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.”

Brandon later backed off that statement, telling Madison365 that GMCC only had limited input.

PHMDC Business Liaison Bonnie Koenig lays out how GMCC influenced the Forward Dane plan.

“I know that some elected officials have tried to twist those words and turn them into something that they certainly were not intended to [mean],” Brandon said in an interview with Madison365. “So what I was acknowledging was that, as I would hope, the business liaison officer for public health [reached out] to us to have a conversation about the specific items that were about business reopening and how they would work and were they clear. We never changed, never had access to, the thinking or gave any input to, or made any changes, in the percentages.”

Previously undisclosed emails show the Forward Dane plan catered directly to the business community — allowing area business interests to have direct say over the rules dictating how they’d need to operate during the pandemic. 

After the Forward Dane plan was released, several City of Madison alders and Dane County supervisors sent a letter to local leaders, pleading for more input over policy decisions to protect the interests of their constituents.

Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce
Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce (photo by Ruth Conniff)

“This plan calls for a broad reopening of all businesses and allows for mass gatherings indoors for up to 50 persons,” the May 25 letter, signed by more than a dozen elected officials, states. “It is particularly concerning that the plan lacks information about measures for the increased contact tracing and case management that will be needed with reopening. What facts changed between May 18 and May 22 to lead to such a major shift in our public policy?”

While members of the city council and county board were looking for a seat at the table, PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich was communicating with the group that did have say over health policy. 

“I appreciate your support and the partnership with the chamber to reinforce messaging and develop guidance based on the plan that works for our business community,” Heinrich wrote in a May 19 email to Brandon. “I am sure there were many questions we didn’t get to and others we probably don’t have answers to yet but working together we’ll be able to navigate this tough situation to move us all forward.”

PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich’s email to GMCC President Zach Brandon.

Heinrich’s message to Brandon, that health policy would work for the business community, came one day after the release of Dane County’s Emergency Order #2, which insisted “Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) is using data and science to determine what actions are necessary across Dane County to slow the spread of the disease.”

Madison Ald. Rebecca Kemble, one of the May 25 letter’s signatories, says it’s now too late to recover from the business community having a say in health policy. 

“We are now reaping the consequences of the poor decisions made behind closed doors and without public or Common Council input last spring,” Kemble says. “This is a terrible way to learn the lesson that when it comes to a global pandemic, there is no way to ‘balance’ business interests with public health. We should have done much more to protect people last spring.”

“[Heinrich] reinforces what I have been saying all along,” Kemble continues. “This was not a public health plan, it was a ‘plan that works for the business community,’ in other words, a business plan.”

On May 18, Dane County reported 15 new cases of COVID-19. This month, on Nov. 6, the county set a daily record of new reported cases at 528. 

Throughout the spring and into the summer, the focus stayed on helping area businesses get customers in the door, rather than keeping community members from contracting the virus. 

On May 27, Koenig and fellow PHMDC staff member Lynda Seeger were set to speak at a virtual lunch meeting to members of the Madison business community — a regular occurrence, the emails show. In preparation for that presentation, GMCC Vice President Kevin Little sent the meeting schedule and a list of discussion topics to Koenig and Seeger. 

“With phased easing of regulations, how can we boost public confidence that spaces are safe?” Little asked. 

This framing of the local response to the pandemic is contrary to the advice of government officials and economists. In his address to the state Nov. 10, Gov. Tony Evers underscored the point that people won’t return to normal economic habits until the spread of the virus is checked.

“Each day this virus goes unchecked is a setback for our economic recovery,” Evers said. “Our bars, restaurants, small businesses, families, and farmers will continue to suffer if we don’t take action right now — our economy cannot bounce back until we contain this virus.”

Months after having direct input on policy decisions, Brandon has recoiled as PHMDC attempts to get a hold on the raging spread of COVID-19 in the area. 

“We feel an increasing shift of blame to businesses without data that backs that up,” Brandon told the Wisconsin State Journal. 

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PHMDC spokesperson Sarah Mattes says GMCC was no more involved in developing local health orders than other groups that were briefed on the plans such as UW-Madison, Madison Metropolitan School District and Dane County United Way. 

“GMCC had no impact on our metrics or the levels at which different sectors could open,” Mattes says. “The Forward Dane plan was created by [PHMDC] staff and informed by a thorough review of the literature, evidence, and data frameworks emerging to support minimizing risk of transmission of COVID-19. Initial drafts were informed by our liaison team, which has been in place since March.” 

“This team works closely with partners in various sectors, including food security, housing, healthcare, long-term care, education, childcare, business, transportation, recreation, public safety, and emergency management,” she continues. “Their job is to develop close relationship with these sectors, understand how they operate, and serve as a resource to support implementation of best public health practice.”

Mattes says that Heinrich’s appreciation for GMCC input is about template policies and recommendations listed on the PHMDC website in the Forward Dane section.

“[Heinrich] is referring to the template and recommendation documents,” she says. “We were thankful at the time for the support that GMCC was providing in amplifying the order requirements and our recommendations with businesses.”

A GMCC spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.