As cases in the Rio Grande Valley continue to soar with record highs reported in almost consecutive days, concerns are also mounting with regard to local businesses who don’t disclose to the public whether their employees contracted the coronavirus.

In addition to discourse about how much information businesses can disclose about whether employees test positive for the coronavirus, concerns remain prevalent on social media where employees and consumers have criticized local restaurants for not closing or encouraging curbside services instead of dine-in.

Such criticism stems from fears of positive cases existing at certain establishments.

Businesses in Hidalgo County, however, are under no obligation to disclose that employees have tested positive for COVID-19, county officials have said. There are also federal medical privacy protections that prohibit employers from identifying or sharing health information about employees.

But this hasn’t stopped residents from demanding transparency from local businesses they fear may have cases of coronavirus.

Through social media, concerned citizens have speculated about businesses with employees who contracted the virus not telling customers.

One employee of a McAllen wings restaurant, who spoke under anonymity for fear of termination, said employees did not show up to work due to management refusing to tell their customers that they had three employees test positive.

According to the employee, the owner of the McAllen restaurant knew an employee was in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, but did not disclose that information to the staff.

Other businesses such as Brews-N-Cues Sports Bar and Roosevelts at 7, have been more forthcoming. Through social media, representatives of the companies informed their patrons of their respective situations.

Ruben Salinas, the owner and manager of the Weslaco bar, released the following statement on Facebook: “It’s my obligation to inform everyone that I have tested positive and will be in quarantine for 14 days as well as the bar.”

McAllen eatery Roosevelts at 7 also took to social media, in this case Instagram, to provide a detailed statement regarding a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19.

In the statement, the restaurant explains to the public that the staff member who tested positive has not been in the building since being tested, nor showing any symptoms since their last day of work on June 20.

To ensure safety and precaution for all, the statement read, Roosevelts at 7 will be closed for a professional, deep clean and sanitation, in addition to confirming every employee gets tested before reopening.

“The health and safety of our staff and our customers is our top priority and we are both grateful and appreciative for your support and understanding during these difficult times,” the statement read. “Please check our social media accounts for updates on our reopening. Thank you again and please stay safe.”

WHAT ABOUT THE GUIDELINES

Carlos Sanchez

Hidalgo County spokesman Carlos Sanchez explained the proper procedures for concerned citizens to take regarding businesses who don’t disclose if an employee tested positive for the virus.

According to Sanchez, employees or concerned consumers should report businesses who aren’t following the county’s orders to local law enforcement.

Sanchez said law enforcement at the onset of the pandemic dedicated their mornings to visiting businesses to educate them on how to follow the orders appropriately.

However, Sanchez said he has not seen any businesses fined for not complying with the orders. Businesses can receive a fine up to $1,000 for violation.

When asked about procedures businesses must take when an employee tests positive for COVID-19, Sanchez said it was a tricky question.

“The employer is under no obligation to self disclose,” Sanchez said. “Certainly, it works to the favor of customers and winning customer support.”

Additionally, Sanchez said employers are prohibited from disclosing the identities of employees who test positive under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA.

Under HIPAA, individuals’ identifiable health information is protected.

According to Sanchez, when someone tests positive for the virus, they will receive a court order provided by the health department. He also said that the sheriff’s department and the justices of the peace will tell the positive patient that they must self isolate.

However, for businesses, Sanchez said they are “not under any obligation to disclose that an employee tested positive.”

What does this mean for residents concerned about businesses not disclosing that employees have tested positive?

“Well it’s what we’ve been telling the public for weeks, if you really don’t need to go out and eat at a restaurant, don’t.” Sanchez said. “The safest place for everyone is to stay at home.”

He continued to stress that if individuals do have to go out, to get groceries for example, then they should continue to wear masks and avoid large crowds.

“Stay at home, that is the safest place,” Sanchez said. “We’ve been saying that since the beginning of this outbreak.”

WHAT ABOUT THE ETHICS

Rabbi Claudio Kogan, M.D., who holds degrees in ethics and bioethics, weighed established medical privacy protections against calls for transparency amid a public health emergency.

It is important to distinguish confidentiality and privacy, Kogan said regarding the ethics behind the HIPAA laws in place.

Rabbi Claudio Kogan

Kogan explained confidentiality is to prevent the release of identifiable information of a patient as opposed to privacy.

In addition to HIPAA, there is patient autonomy — a patient’s right to make decisions on their medical care without the influence of their healthcare provider.

Regarding the ethics behind business transparency when an employee contracts the virus, Kogan referenced Tatiana Tarasoff’s case.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that when a therapist predicts his patient is a danger to another person, they have a duty to warn that person of danger.

The ruling was in response to a psychologist’s handling of Prosenjit Poddar, a graduate student who was their patient, who confided in them that he was going to murder Tatiana Tarasoff.

“In this case, we learn that confidentiality is only broken to prevent harm to others,” Kogan said. “Breaking confidentiality is OK when trying to prevent harm to others.”

Using coronavirus as an example, Kogan explains the physician or facility physically owns the medical record, but the information contained in it is the property of the patient.

In medical ethics, Kogan said there are four principles they always stress: patient autonomy, beneficence (what is best for the patient), non-maleficence (to do no harm) and justice (to do what’s best for all).

“In this pandemic, those are principles that will be challenged,” Kogan said. “Hopefully in a couple of months we’ll have a vaccine.”

Kogan notes, in his opinion, there’s a shift of paradigm regarding the coronavirus — patient autonomy has now become a regard of public safety due to the severity of the pandemic.

What would be in the best interest for the patient now becomes, according to Kogan, what will be the best for society: “The best interest of the public is to arrange for a situation which the patient, the person, the employee, has to be tested, notified. And the idea is that everybody will be tested.”

Therefore, businesses informing the public about their employees testing positive are, in Kogan’s view, doing it “the correct way because it’s letting the public know the truth. If you’re not saying that, in some ways, you’re hiding the truth.”

Additionally, Kogan said he cannot stress enough that people must put more effort in being physically distant as much as possible during the pandemic.

“It’s important to use the term ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing,’” he said. To him, using the term social distancing, does not correctly emphasize what people must be doing due to its vagueness.

He said it’s within people’s nature to be social, but it’s important to not let collective guards down with regard to safety during the pandemic.

“If I am worried, it’s because we’re in a situation that only people with symptoms have been tested,” Kogan said. “Everybody should be tested.”