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TALLAHASSEE — A reporter for the state capital bureau operated jointly by two of Florida’s largest newspapers was denied access Saturday to a news conference by Gov. Ron DeSantis detailing the state’s latest efforts to contain one of the largest outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the country.
Mary Ellen Klas, a Herald staff writer who works in the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, said she was refused entry into the Capitol in Tallahassee to attend a news briefing by the governor, lieutenant governor, director of emergency management and state surgeon general regarding COVID-19 testing, access to medicine and efforts to prevent New Yorkers from flying into the state.
The reason for her exclusion, she was told by a governor’s spokeswoman: She had earlier requested social distancing.
Days earlier, Klas asked that the governor’s staff help protect reporters by holding Zoom-style video conference press briefings so that questions could be asked without requiring reporters to gather in close proximity.
The top editors of the Herald, Times, el Nuevo Herald, Bradenton Herald, Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel made the same request of DeSantis’ office in a March 20 letter. DeSantis’ office did not respond, according to Miami Herald President & Publisher/Executive Editor Aminda Marqués González.
The governor’s office continues to hold briefings that run counter to the recommended 6-foot-rule that public health experts say is necessary for social distancing.
On Twitter, Klas said a reporter for the News Service of Florida was told that he would be shut out as well if he insisted that Klas be allowed to cover the press conference in person. She posted a video of the DeSantis spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, explain that Klas could view the press conference on a state-sponsored public affairs media service that live streams state government events.
“It’s available via Florida Channel. We’re providing the satellite coordinates,” Beatrice said, declining to address Klas’ question about who decided she could not attend. “I have nothing else to add.”
“I asked for social distancing. I didn’t ask to be excluded,” said Klas, who said she tried to attend Saturday’s briefing because recent efforts to submit questions in writing had been unsuccessful. “The problem with having this available on a satellite feed is there’s no interaction, and we’d already had several days where they weren’t answering [our] questions.”
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A reporter from the Orlando Sentinel was admitted to Saturday’s briefing.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, DeSantis’ chief spokeswoman, said in an email Saturday that a small group of reporters were invited to attend the briefing in an effort to respond to requests for social distancing. She said she alerted a different reporter of the Times/Herald bureau but did not explain why Klas was not allowed to attend. Klas was already at the Capitol entrance when Ferré called Lawrence Mower of the Times.
“Every endeavor is made to ensure the public continues to have full access to information as the safety and security of Florida residents is our greatest concern,” said Ferré, who’d previously defended DeSantis’ decision to continue holding news briefings at the Capitol, arguing that a majority of reporters wanted to attend in person.
The decision to keep Klas from covering DeSantis’ press conference in person drew quick rebuke from the Herald, Times and some state lawmakers, all of whom warned that the state appeared to be limiting access to information during a time of crisis. Pamela Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an organization promoting the free press, questioned why the governor’s office would freeze out a reporter for a newspaper serving readers in the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties have more than 1,800 combined cases of COVID-19.
“The Miami Herald is one of the most important print journalism sources in our state that is largely read in a portion of our state that has a large proportion of the cases,” Marsh said. “To not allow a reporter serving the communities of our state to participate deprives the public of information they need to know.”
Mark Katches, executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times, said that “by restricting our ability to report and ask questions of his administration, the governor ultimately is penalizing the people of Florida who rely on the Times/Herald bureau for accurate and reliable information during an unprecedented public health crisis.”
Marqués, the Herald’s executive editor, said “depriving our reporters of access is depriving Floridians, our readers and the governor’s constituents.”
“A worldwide pandemic is not the time to engage in petty politics,” she said. “Florida’s revered Sunshine laws were written to prevent actions such as this.”
“No reporter ever wants to be the story, so this is especially exasperating since I — and the entire newsrooms of both the Herald and Times — have been working without stop for weeks to amplify this story and achieve the same goal as Gov. DeSantis,” Klas said, “which is to help keep people safe.”
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