Timeline: Florida’s dark year for the sunshine law

How closely is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ following Florida’s sunshine law? Here’s a timeline from last year.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, during a press conference at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, during a press conference at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 1, 2021|Updated March 1, 2021

A year ago on March 1, 2020, Florida announced its first two cases of the novel coronavirus, and declared a public health emergency recognizing the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Only later did we learn that the spread of COVID-19 in Florida likely began in January, if not earlier, but as late as March 11, as the White House downplayed the virus, Gov. Ron DeSantis denied that community spread was taking place in Florida.

Related: Florida’s sunshine laws dim as DeSantis decides what to disclose

Here is a summary of the state of transparency in Florida over the last year:

Jan. 24: The Florida Department of Health acknowledges the existence of the novel coronavirus and launches a bare-bones web page with information.

Jan. 27: Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledges at a news conference that the state is monitoring the virus and calls it a “significant public health threat.”

Feb. 15: Raul Pino, the newly appointed director of the Department of Health’s office in Orange County, sends an email to FDOH that he is growing concerned about COVID-19 overwhelming his resources and asks the state to declare an emergency to allow his agency to monitor dozens of potential COVID-19 patients.

Feb. 18: DOH memos marked “confidential” show that more than 500 people in Florida had been flagged for monitoring after possible exposure to COVID-19, and more than a dozen people had been tested negative, while state officials are refusing to release these numbers to local hospitals.

Feb. 20: Samantha Cooksey, then coordinator for DOH’s COVID-19 response team, sends an email to the Florida Health Care Association, an industry group of assisted living facilities and nursing homes in Florida, spelling out guidelines for “pandemic planning.”

Feb. 25: Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees makes a presentation on COVID-19 preparedness to the Florida Senate but refuses to acknowledge the state is monitoring exposure to individuals in Florida. Records later show that the spread of the virus had begun as early as January.

Feb. 26: A memo from the Florida Hospital Association to DOH warns “the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States.” The agency continues to share little information about the growing threat with the public.

Feb. 27: DeSantis says at a news conference that the state is preparing for the coronavirus but says that there are no confirmed cases. In fact, records showed the state had confirmed its first case the day before.

March 1: Rivkees declares a public health emergency, giving the department more authority, resources and flexibility to reassign staff.

March: The Miami Herald asks the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office about COVID-19 deaths. Records later showed that attorneys for the state health department moved to block the records from becoming public.

March 28: The governor’s office bars a Miami Herald reporter from a news conference at the Capitol after she requested that organizers provide more room for social distancing.

April 10: The Tampa Bay Times found medical examiner data didn’t match the state’s records, with a count that was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health.

April 10: A month after the state had shut out visitors to nursing homes, the state refuses requests from journalists and families of residents to release the names of facilities where staff and residents have tested positive. The Miami Herald had its law firm, Holland & Knight, draft a public records lawsuit to seek the information.

April 11: After receiving formal notice of the pending case, the governor’s office attempted to quash the lawsuit by applying pressure on Holland & Knight, using as leverage the fact that the law firm could lose its contracts with the state. The tactic worked. Holland & Knight backed down. The Herald hired another law firm and several other news organizations joined in the lawsuit.

April 11: The Florida Department of Health acknowledges that its public website is significantly under counting the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 because the state only reports the number of Floridians waiting to hear back from state labs, not private labs.

April 16: The Florida Department of Corrections refuses to acknowledge inmate deaths or provide details on the testing of inmates at state facilities even after two inmates at a privately run prison in the Florida Panhandle test positive.

April 27: State for the first time releases the number of residents and staff infected by the coronavirus at Florida elder-care facilities but continues to refuse to disclose the number of deaths linked to each facility.

April 29: After the Tampa Bay Times found medical examiner data didn’t match the state’s records, the state ordered medical examiners to discontinue releasing the numbers.

May 1: After news organizations had to enlist lawyers, the state releases the first detailed information about coronavirus fatalities at long-term care facilities. Questions emerge about their reliability.

May 5: Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote in a tweet that “May 4th represented the best testing for Florida since the start of the pandemic” and cited inaccurate numbers that positive cases were declining. Data from the DOH’s case line portal showed there were actually more positive results recorded on that day.

May 6: After a coalition of news organizations and open-government advocates demanded release of every Florida fatality documented by a medical examiner resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement releases the list. It is riddled with holes, raising new questions.

May 7: Dissatisfied with the reliability of the coronavirus information being released by the state, Miami-Dade’s mayor signs an emergency order requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to disclose COVID-19 cases and deaths from residents and employees.

May 19: Department of Health data manager Rebekah Jones, who played a critical role in maintaining the data dashboard, was fired for “insubordination” after going public with her concerns about the agency’s commitment to “accessibility and transparency.” She told the Tampa Bay Times that after media requests about the publicly available COVID-19 data, she was asked to remove fields indicating when patients had begun experiencing symptoms and to exclude rural county data.

May 22: DeSantis says at a news conference that state has “the ability to contact trace and isolate on a local level when that’s needed.” The Miami Herald submits the first of several requests seeking the aggregate data collected by the state related to contact tracing. It has never been produced.

July 7: DeSantis said the state had received $138 million in federal CARES Act money for contact tracing and had “created a plan.” The Miami Herald asked for a copy of that plan and it has never been provided.

Aug. 29: After shielding COVID-19 cases in schools and day-care centers, DOH accidentally releases details on outbreaks and found that nearly 900 students and staffers had tested positive during as schools reopened.

Nov. 11: After weeks of refusing to release the state’s draft vaccine plan, the Department of Health gave it to the Miami Herald in response to a public records request. It recommends giving health care providers, medically vulnerable and first responders the first shots. That plan is later rejected by the governor who puts his attention on giving shots to those ages 65 and older regardless of medical need.

Dec. 3: A lengthy investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that county health department officials were ordered by the DeSantis administration in September not to discuss COVID until after the Nov. 3 election.

Dec. 17: The Orlando Sentinel files a complaint against the DeSantis administration, accusing the state of having “engaged in a pattern of concealment and suppression by steadfastly refusing to comply with the Public Records Act and delaying access to weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force reports.” After asking for the report for nearly six weeks, the state releases it in response to the lawsuit.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

Get updates via text message: ConText, our free text messaging service about politics news, brings you the latest from this year's Florida legislative session.

Sign up for our newsletter: Get Capitol Buzz, a special bonus edition of The Buzz with Steve Contorno, each Saturday while the Legislature is meeting.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.