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Is open government still the law in Florida? | Editorial
So why is the state health department blocking the release of public information?
A man is tested for COVID-19 at a walk-up testing site run by Nomi Health on Dec. 28 in downtown Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A man is tested for COVID-19 at a walk-up testing site run by Nomi Health on Dec. 28 in downtown Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 9

The Florida Department of Health undermined the fight against COVID-19 by halting detailed reports on the pandemic last June. That was strike one. Strike two is the department’s effort to scuttle a lawsuit that seeks to hold the state accountable for making that poor decision. It’s another reminder of where Gov. Ron DeSantis stands on open government.

Attorneys for the department filed a petition this month at the 1st District Court of Appeal seeking to shield agency officials from having to explain why the state stopped releasing the reports. The move was in response to a lawsuit filed in August by the Florida Center for Government Accountability and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, that seeks to obtain the information under Florida’s Public Records Law. (Times Publishing Co. and several other media outlets have intervened in the case in support of the plaintiffs.)

Smith and the nonprofit sued after the department denied requests for detailed, county-level reports, including COVID case counts and other metrics, that up to June 4 were posted daily on a DOH website. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the state restricted the release of information as part of its plans to reopen the economy, “painting the illusory picture that the virus had been defeated.”

“Floridians have an immediate need for access to information about the virus and its impact on and spread in particular communities,” the lawsuit states. “This information is vital to the ability of citizens to understand the risks and make informed decisions about their lives.”

That was true as the delta variant ripped through Florida, and it’s still true today, as the omicron variant poses a continuing threat. Yet the state continues to tangle over the reports and over the effort to depose agency officials to understand how the decision came about. The data is particularly helpful for local authorities to identify COVID hot-spots and to target resources at the local level. And it offers citizens a fuller picture of how the virus threatens them in their own communities.

But the department doesn’t want to provide the information or even explain itself. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper issued an order last month rejecting the department’s request for a protective order to prevent a deposition of a department representative about the agency’s decision-making process. The department contends it is acting under its rulemaking authority; “(the rule) provides, unambiguously, that the department has the authority to determine when the exception to the public records exemption at issue should be applied,” its petition to the appeals court claims. In his Jan. 3 order, Cooper rejected such arguments, citing the state constitutional guarantee of open government, and ruling that “only the Legislature can create statutory exemptions from disclosure under the Public Records Act.”

The department’s actions are bad policy, bad faith and bad law. Why not give Floridians the information they need to make more informed health decisions? Where is DeSantis’ usual clamor about personal freedom? And why are state officials trying to dodge accountability for their decisions?

The appeals court should put an end to this nonsense, the sooner the better. The public needs timely access to this data as much as the information itself.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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