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  1. Opinion

How coronavirus candor gets you fired, then smeared by Gov. Ron DeSantis | Editorial

The DeSantis administration claims to be transparent. Then why fire a data manager after a dispute over releasing data?

Gov. Ron DeSantis loves to share praise from Washington about Florida’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. But when that narrative is threatened, his administration’s response is to temporarily hide the numbers, fire the data manager who objected and then smear her. This is fast becoming the governor’s routine: Claim to be open while hiding the facts, question the credibility of information or individuals who cloud his success story, and criticize the media for reporting the complete picture.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Langston Taylor reported, data manager Rebekah Jones lost her role maintaining the state’s COVID-19 data one day after she objected to the removal of records showing people had symptoms or positive tests well before the cases were announced. As internal emails obtained by the Times showed, Health Department staff gave the order shortly after reporters began requesting the data from the agency in early May. Jones complied with the order, but not before she told her supervisors it was the “wrong call.” By the next morning, control over the data was given to other employees. Jones said Tuesday that she was offered a settlement and the opportunity to resign in lieu of being fired, but a spokeswoman for DeSantis said Tuesday that Jones had been terminated.

The data noted that some people first reported coronavirus symptoms as early as Jan. 1, far earlier than when positive cases were first confirmed in March. But the information vanished from the database for much of May 4 and 5 before being restored. These first reports of symptoms could be immensely helpful in tracing the virus’ early spread throughout Florida. But they also could be embarrassing for the governor, for they came as DeSantis continued to deny through early March that community spread was occurring in Florida, despite the fear of some public health experts. And they predate by months the governor’s issuance of a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect April 3.

DeSantis dodged the issue during a news conference Tuesday, saying Jones’ concerns had been misrepresented by reporters. Then his spokeswoman issued an email accusing Jones of “insubordination during her time with the department.” DeSantis upped the ante Wednesday, declaring Jones shouldn’t have been working for the state because of serious criminal charges against her. But he misstated the nature of the charges, which is a single pending misdemeanor charge for stalking in Leon County.

The charge has nothing to do with the issues at hand - the order for Jones to remove data from public view and the basis for firing her. If anything, the smear job by DeSantis’ office only reinforces the suspicion that these actions were out of line and the governor’s team is incapable of adhering to a single, credible cover story.

The economy won’t fully re-engage until Floridians and tourists are convinced that the state has a handle on the outbreak. That starts with dealing openly and honestly with the public in these unprecedented times. Just as he did by initially withholding information about coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, DeSantis is severely testing that confidence.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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