Covering Up Workplace Covid-19

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an excellent article on Sunday, January 31 about the failure of the California Public Health Department (CDPH) to abide by state law requiring the agency to disclose information about COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace, and about the failure of county public health departments, including San Francisco, to disclose information about workplace outbreaks.

Of course the Chronicle consigned this article to the business section, when it really belonged on the front page above the fold. And the reporters, Chase DiFeliciantonio and Shwanika Narayan, were a bit hobbled by the need to be “objective” and allow both sides to get their say, as if there is a side that has some reasonable excuse for hiding COVID-19 outbreaks from you and me.

So, let me up the game a bit. What these public health departments are doing is a simple cover-up, designed to protect the corporate elite at the expense of the health and safety of us workers and our families and friends. You know, like former President Richard Nixon pretending to know nothing about the Watergate break-in.


Last September the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 685 (AB685). Among other things, this bill mandated that if there is a “potential exposure” to COVID-19 – for example, a worker testing positive – employers are supposed to tell their workers, their unions if they have one, and their county public health department. They are also supposed to create a “disinfection and safety plan.” Nice law, if you can enforce it.

More to the point of this article, AB685 also requires the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to post on its website information that “allows the public to track the number and frequency of COVID-19 outbreaks and the number of COVID-19 cases and outbreaks by industry reported by any workplace.”

AB685 became effective January 1, 2021. It is now February. There ain’t nothing on the CDPH website yet. If you don’t believe me, click here.

This reporter sent an email on February 1 to the Office of Public Affairs of the CDPH, and asked if they could explain why there is no information on their website, as required by AB685. Their answer was just as informative as their website. That is to say, they have not answered.

It appears that the authors of Sunday’s Chronicle article got a similar response from the CDPH, as the CDPH would not tell them “when it will begin publishing the AB685-mandated information on its website.” That is journalistic language for they told us to “Go take a hike.” Sorta like Nixon erasing that famous tape. I did say cover-up, didn’t I?

Laws are only pieces of paper if they are not enforced, good for wiping your you-know-what and not much else.


The Chronicle article also included a thorough survey of county health departments in California and what they are doing to report workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. The headline of the online version of this article sums up their findings very well: “L.A. and Oregon disclose workplace outbreaks. Most Bay Area health officers won’t. Why?”

If you wanted to know what businesses in San Francisco have outbreaks, you could search the SF Department of Public Health website all day, until your fingers and your keyboard wear out, but you would come up blank.

On the other hand, if you want to know where there are active outbreaks in Merced County, all you have to do is click here.

The authors of the Chronicle article did the journalistic thing and quoted various experts saying that publicly revealing information about COVID-19 specific workplace outbreaks would make everybody safer. Like, maybe you don’t want to shop at some store, or eat at some restaurant, where there has been an outbreak. Or maybe, if you work there, you might want to demand some changes, or perhaps take a leave.

Of course, being journalists, they also quoted various experts spouting the company line – that such revelations might hurt the business involved. Who can argue with that?


So, like an “essential” worker looking for the vaccine, the public is pretty much on its own, trying to figure out where it is safe and where it is not. As are most workers who might want to know whether or not they are working in a safe worksite.

Here are some numbers that did NOT come from our public health departments, but from a couple of studies reported in an article in David Sirota’s The Daily Poster:

–> Workers deemed “essential” have a 55% higher chance of being infected than those who aren’t working. Their family members and roommates are of course also placed at much higher risk. This according to a study from University of Pennsylvania researchers.

–> Looking at it from a different angle, workers who test positive are nearly twice as likely to work in an office or a school than at home, according to a study by the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Those statistics probably come as no surprise. But what workers are at the greatest risk? That might surprise you.

At the top of the list are cooks. Cooks. Take that to your favorite supposedly-safe outdoor dining establishment.

After that come “packaging and filling machine operators,” which includes cannery and food production workers, chemical and pharmaceutical packagers, and even tobacco company workers – the people who put the commodities you buy at the store into all those colorful bottles, boxes and cans designed to separate you from your money.

Next comes agricultural workers (eat your vegetables, dear), then bakers (very sweet), and after that construction laborers.

Here is the full list, based on research from UC San Francisco:

Do you see yourself on that list?

You might notice that I almost got through this whole article about COVID-19 without once mentioning former President “Dark Ages” Donald Trump. Hard to believe. But this is no longer Trump’s pandemic. The people in charge now are politicians like Mayor London Breed, Governor Gavin Newsom and – dare I say it – President Joe Biden.

In fairness, Biden is new to the job and he has his hands full with crazy Republicans and corporate Democrats. But Breed and Newsom and their ilk have been on the job since well before the pandemic. Breed can give orders to the SF Public Health Department and Newsom can give orders to the California Department of Public Health. When will they step up to the plate and tell them to dump the cover-up and come clean? Let’s hope it is soon.

This is an expanded version of the article first published by 48 Hills on February 1, 2021.


Marc Norton’s website is MarcNortonOnline.