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Public Health asked Chamber of Commerce to weigh in on reopening plan, angering some elected officials


While it was crafting the “Forward Dane” reopening plan in May, Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) sought advice and took suggestions from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce (GMCC), provided the GMCC with a near-final draft of the plan a day before it was released publicly, and allowed GMCC staff to make edits to documents associated with the plan, documents obtained by Madison365 show.

PHMDC briefed other organizations — including the University of Wisconsin, Madison Metropolitan School District and the United Way of Dane County — on the details of the plan before it was announced, but did not solicit feedback from those organizations.

They also did not brief or seek input from elected County Board or Common Council members.

Not only were other organizations such as MMSD, United Way and UW Health not included in the drafting process, the Common Council and County Board of Supervisors – and by extension the public – were excluded from it as well. We were notified by press release,” Alder Rebecca Kemble said in an email to Madison365.

Some elected officials said the involvement of GMCC in the crafting of the plan shows a deference to business interests on the part of PHMDC staff.

I think it shows a completely unfair influence of business and wealthy interests on policy making in Dane County,” said County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, a member of the Health and Human Needs Committee. “The stakes couldn’t be higher when we’re talking about the health implications of people’s lives. It’s very concerning.”

The Forward Dane plan was essentially a business plan, lacking many elements of what a comprehensive public health plan should have contained,” Kemble wrote.

Wegleitner also expressed concern that PHMDC did not consult the city’s two ethnic business organizations — the Latino Chamber of Commerce and Madison Black Chamber of Commerce.

Leaders of both organizations confirmed they were not briefed or consulted by PHMDC staff.

“It just shows how narrow, and the lack of diversity actually involved in the decision making process,” Wegleitner said. “It’s particularly disappointing when … public health states that racial equity and social justice is a part of every aspect of their work, and they’re supposed to be a resource for the rest of the city and county when it comes to racial equity and social justice and … this is the opposite, the exact opposite.”

Unfortunately I don’t think the county really is intentional and how they do their outreach to communities of color,” said Jessica Cavazos, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce. “As an organization we constantly are trying to figure out ways to help with information in dual language and culturally appropriate outreach to reach those continually challenged by the system. Guidelines have to be made easy. And community outreach workers should go directly to those communities affected and share information on how to best operate their businesses or to give the proper resources in order to continue (to) help our hotspots how to stay safe.”

Both PHMDC and GMCC staff say the GMCC’s feedback did not significantly alter the core tenets of the plan, such as the metrics used to determine when the County could move to each phase of the plan or the proportion of capacity that restaurants and other businesses would be allowed to operate with under each phase of the plan.

Still, the fact that the GMCC was invited to give feedback when no other group was offered the same opportunity bothers Wegleitner.

“I think top down policymaking that gives an unfair influence to moneyed interests whose first priority is not public health, but their bottom line, is going to result in bad policies because you don’t have a diverse perspective in terms of setting the policies. You’re not being inclusive about who is able to give input on those policies,” she said. “I can’t say how exactly the numbers would have been different if we were provided a more transparent, equitable and inclusive process, but certainly I think there would have had a much more input and it would have been much more fair and I expect the policies would look different.”

The editing process

Multiple sources indicate that PHMDC staff briefed several groups about the details of the Forward Dane plan in early and mid-May. The briefings were given in the form of PowerPoint presentations in remote, online meetings. At that time, none of the groups were given drafts of the plan or documents associated with it.

Emails between GMCC staff and PHMDC Business Liaison Bonnie Koenig indicate that GMCC staff were briefed on the plan on Friday, May 15. GMCC President Zach Brandon told Koenig in an email that he would prefer to have been provided with a document, but that GMCC staff would provide feedback on what was presented.

The next day, Koenig emailed Brandon and GMCC Public Policy Manager Adam Barr to recap the suggestions they had made, which included, according to the email from Koenig, “define capacity,” “expand capacity by using outdoor spaces,” “no more ‘essential and non-essential,” and several others.

“The ideas you shared will be presented today as PHMDC continues to work towards finalizing this plan,” Koenig wrote. “I appreciate your willingness to partner now and into the future for getting the public health guidance to our business community. And I am grateful for all of your commitment to a safe, phased-in reopening, and agree that this needs to be balanced with supporting our economy and community confidence.”

Later that day, Brandon emailed Koenig with additional suggestions, including “Recommend using the ability to maintain social distancing as the metric for closed-to-the-public offices instead of capacity” — a piece of feedback PHMDC did not take — and “recommend clarifying indoor vs outdoor gathering limits” and others. In that email, Brandon also wrote that it is “exceedingly difficult” to consider “potential issues and conflicts … without the actual document and access to the evolving decisions being made.”

Email from Zach Brandon to Bonnie Koenig

Koenig responded later that day, saying Brandon’s email with further suggestions “arrived at the perfect time this morning during our discussions and was shared to all present. And, as you will see, many of these great insights have been incorporated to the extent possible … My hope is that the final plan shares the balance of public health and our business community’s voice.”

On Wednesday, May 20, Barr emailed Koenig to provide feedback on several documents intended to serve as template policies and guidelines to help businesses reopen. 

Suggested edits included changing the word “checklist” to “suggestions” and removing all references to “training.”

Edits to just one of several documents associated with the Forward Dane plan, suggested by GMCC staff

In an interview, Brandon said the word “training” was removed because it could imply that a business was required to hire an outside trainer, rather than simply share new policies with staff.

PHMDC staff repeatedly told Madison365 that these documents are not part of the Forward Dane plan, but they are posted on the Forward Dane section of the PHMDC website. In an email to Madison365, PHMDC staff said the documents were meant to serve as template policies for businesses to safely reopen, but that businesses were welcome to create their own policy documents.

Given that we expect all businesses and workplaces in Dane County to use these documents, we were of course interested in piloting them with actual business owners and operators,” PHMDC communications staff wrote.

On the evening of May 17, Koenig sent Brandon and Barr what she called an “almost final” draft of the Forward Dane plan. Records indicate that GMCC staff did not make any suggestions to change that document.

“I think we felt like we had taken our shot,” Brandon said in an interview. “They didn’t ask us to give inputs on the data and we (didn’t).”

The plan was released May 18 and Dane County began “Phase One” on May 26.

A United Way representative told Madison365 that United Way of Dane County was briefed on the plan but did not provide suggestions. A Madison Metropolitan School District spokesman said PHMDC and MMSD were in “constant contact” but he was unaware of any specific feedback given on the reopening plan. A University of Wisconsin representative told Madison365 that Chancellor Becky Blank was briefed on the plan, but was unable to say whether Blank or other university officials had offered feedback.

“Its purpose is to reopen the economy”

On May 28, Brandon appeared in a video conference hosted by Downtown Madison, Inc, where he said, “The (Forward Dane) plan is thoughtful, and it’s also infinitely better than it was when it was in draft form,” adding that business groups put a lot of time and effort into helping craft the plan.

He also acknowledged Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Joe Parisi, along with PHMDC staff, who he said had the “confidence” to share early documents and early thinking with the business community.

“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. “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,” meaning the capacities at which businesses would be allowed to operate under the plan.

“I think an important thing that not everybody grasped in the beginning and maybe don’t grasp today is that Forward Dane is a reopening plan. Its purpose is to reopen the economy,” he said. “That’s what it’s designed to do. The inverse of focusing solely on public health is the lockdown. And so this is the easing of the lockdown. This is the finding that equilibrium between public health, the economy, and that confidence that I was talking about. Those three things have to stay in check in order for us to rebuild the economy and accelerate into and out of a recovery.”

Brandon said GMCC was just doing its job to represent its members and the wider business community.

“Our job is to represent business and, when appropriate, influence government. And even though that’s our role, we’ve tried to do that in a way that acknowledges the importance of this moment in the role Public Health plays in keeping us safe,” he said. “Even when things aren’t clear, we’ve tried not to vilify them or to highlight that. We’ve tried to work with them privately to say, ‘Can we get clarification on this so that we can better help our members?’”

Brandon did acknowledge that the plan could have been shared more widely during the drafting process, and other groups could have been offered the chance to provide feedback, but also acknowledged that things were happening very quickly.

“I think you should always be able to overshare,” he said. “Could it have been shared broader? I think the answer is yes, but we didn’t have the mechanisms in place….I don’t believe that anybody was trying to leave people out. I truly believe that there were better angels in this situation. I certainly am proud of the work that we did, but I do think that it was all done with good intentions. And I think it’s easy to go back and look at film and tape from the event and say, ‘Hey, that didn’t go the way it should have or could have,’ but we learned from it and can do better. And I’m sure we can always do better. But I do believe in the better angels, it’s as if people are just trying to do as much as possible, as fast as possible, knowing the constraints that we all have.”

Rhodes-Conway and Parisi both issued statements in response to a request for comment from Madison365. 

“Public Health of Madison and Dane County has done a great job under difficult circumstances building the state’s first public health orders on rapidly evolving science – in the absence of guidance from federal and state levels,” Rhodes-Conway wrote. “The metrics guiding the Forward Madison plan are conservative –meaning more protective of public health — than others in the state. I urge other local governments in our state to adopt similar orders and make greater progress in curtailing this dangerous disease.”​

Parisi reiterated that PHMDC did not modify metrics or capacity requirements at the request of GMCC.

I think it’s worth noting that Public Health Madison/Dane County has the strictest public health guidelines in the state,” he wrote. “Public Health created a metrics oriented, data-driven plan in the absence of a cohesive state or frankly even federal blueprint that has left local units of government to make the choice to draft their own set of guidelines, or as we have seen in nearly every other Wisconsin County, have no restrictions at all.”

After PDMDC allowed businesses to reopen under “Phase One” of the Forward Dane plan, and then move into “Phase Two,” it was forced to roll back to pre-Phase One levels on July 2 when cases in Dane County shot up in late June.