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“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Those were the words, often shortened, in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address as the nation was mired in the Great Depression and hope was in short supply.

His words reassured a nation but also cautioned people to behave in a way that helped in efforts to remedy the situation.

He was part of a generation that cooperated to provide economic relief and defeat tyranny in World War II while dealing with shortages and rationing. Known as the world’s Greatest Generation, most from that era are gone. But they are probably rolling over in their graves watching how we behave during our own troubled times.

From hoarding to rumor mongering, we have not risen to the task as our parents and grandparents did.

When does the public’s right to know trump an individual’s right to privacy? That is a debatable question, except during a community spread pandemic.

Because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), public health officials don’t release the name or address, only the age and gender, of those who test positive for the coronavirus. The Pinal County Health Department was getting peppered with so many questions asking where those with COVID-19 live, Kore Redden, the county’s health incident commander, released a video explaining to the public what information couldn’t and shouldn’t be released.

“The thing is that it shouldn’t matter where a person is,” Redden said. “We should be practicing social distancing anyways right now because this is everywhere. Coronavirus is everywhere and we don’t want to identify, definitely don’t want to identify, a house... that could create civil unrest if somebody is singled out... so if we were to identify a person or location, it just creates more fear and we really don’t want to do that.”

But that hasn’t stopped some people from speculating or “outing” people on social media. This not only brings up ethical questions, but legal ones as well.

A truly ugly example of this was in Casa Grande this week. People began spreading a rumor on Facebook that a specific employee at a business in town had tested positive, advising people not to go to this business. Many readers called us asking to confirm the rumor.

The only ones who can confirm such a rumor are the individual or the business if they so choose through a public statement. That was the case Thursday night with a San Tan Valley McDonald’s restaurant. The owner issued a statement that an employee had tested positive March 9 and the restaurant had closed while it was disinfected and cleaned. It is open now.

A friend of a friend who happens to work at a business can’t provide trusted confirmation.

But there is something I can confirm. If the rumor turns out to be false, people who spread it can be liable, especially if the business is harmed financially.

“In general, one can sue whoever ‘publishes’ the defamatory information. So anyone, including the original person who said it/wrote it and then anyone who disseminated it afterwards could be liable,” said Peter Akmajian, one of the state’s leading civil attorneys, who also happens to be a friend of mine.

He said Facebook has said in court documents in California that it is a publisher and makes editorial decisions. That means that monitors can be legally held responsible for comments posted in chat rooms.

“Therefore, if Facebook publishes defamatory material and refuses to take it down, I think it can be sued,” Peter said.

This could be problematic if people are telling others not to patronize a business.

Health officials do have the power to shut down a business that poses a health risk for certain violations, but not for an airborne disease.

“While we highly recommend good hygiene practices including to disinfect communal areas and equipment, we do not have enforcement authority on this,” Pinal County Communications Director James Daniels said.

Before the pandemic runs its course, odds are good that a receptionist, a grocery store clerk, a cashier or a relative are going to test positive.

It’s up to us to make sure fear-mongering about who has the disease doesn’t go viral.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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