bookmark_borderAs restaurants open, warrantless searches should not be on the menu

As restrictions on people and businesses are gradually lifted, a disturbing new practice has emerged. Some cities and states are requiring restaurants and other businesses to collect information on customers to assist governments with contact tracing efforts.

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is asking all businesses to keep track of everyone who enters their establishment. “Businesses will be expected to play a role and to have a plan in place to help track employees and clients in their space,” a city spokesperson said. Michael Hecht, the President of Greater New Orleans, Inc. voiced opposition to this idea, saying that business owners are concerned about “privacy of customer data and whether customers even want to give this data.”

In Kansas City, Missouri, restaurants must collect customers’ names, phone numbers, and check-in and check-out times.

Elsewhere in Kansas, Linn County implemented a similar requirement for a variety of businesses including restaurants, health clinics, dentists, pharmacies, banks, stores, and day care centers. A newspaper publisher and a restaurant owner have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the requirement authorizes warrantless searches. “Constitutional rights do not get suspended during a pandemic,” said Samuel MacRoberts of the Kansas Justice Institute. “There is a clear process by which governments can obtain business and personal records. Unfortunately, Linn County has ignored that process and put the basic rights of its citizens in serious jeopardy.”

Austin, Texas is also requiring restaurants to keep a log of diners. The president of the Texas Restaurant Association, Emily Williams Knight, called the requirement “simply not right” and voiced concerns about the burden on small businesses and the privacy implications for customers.  

Rhode Island has enacted a similar policy. “Establishments shall maintain an employee work log and retain the names and contact information of individuals placing reservations for a period of at least 30 days and make this information available to RIDOH upon request for the purposes of contact tracing,” the phase 1 re-opening guidelines state.

In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee initially planned to require restaurants to track each customer’s name, email address, phone number, and what time they came in to eat. Fortunately, however, he changed his mind and made the data collection voluntary.

Hopefully these data collection requirements will not become the norm. People have a right to privacy. People have a right to live their lives without their activities being tracked and monitored. And people have a right to go about their business – including going to stores, restaurants, and bars – without anyone knowing their identity, if they so choose. Requiring people to provide their identities whenever they visit a restaurant or other business is a disturbing step towards a totalitarian society.