Court enforces public’s right to know

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Oct 12, 2023.

OUR POSITION: A recent court ruling enforced the public’s right to have accurate information on COVID-19, information that Gov. DeSantis chose to withhold during the height of the pandemic two years ago.

It took two years in Florida courts to get Gov. Ron DeSantis, his administration and the Florida Department of Health to open their books on data during the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s numbers and information previously concealed from public view before and it’s a win for open government that the information will now be released, albeit a little late to help with personal health decisions.

A recent News Service of Florida story outlined how the Leon County Circuit Court ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by former Orlando state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith to release data that had been hidden from the public at a crucial period during the pandemic.

The court not only sided with Smith’s appeal but also required the Florida Department of Health (DOH) to pay $152,250 toward Smith’s legal fees and cover its own legal costs, according to the NSF story. It must also begin to post the COVID-19 data on its website over the next 36 months.

The data that was kept from the public included information on vaccination counts, case counts and deaths from COVID-19. Also missing were counts by county, age group, gender and race.

Smith, who lost reelection in 2022 and is now running in 2024 for a state Senate seat, accused the DeSantis administration of trying “to weaken the state’s public records law and hide information from the public,” according to the NSF story.

The DOH dragged the outcome of the case out for two years — all the while DeSantis and his Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo downplayed the seriousness of the virus and claimed vaccinations were not a priority, especially for those under the age of 60.

“The DeSantis administration settled in our favor because they knew what they did was wrong,” Smith told the News Service of Florida. “They gave their biggest, most vocal critic a huge victory. They couldn’t have handed us this victory if they weren’t guilty.”

Neither Ladapo or DOH admitted any wrongdoing and as we write this there has been no response to the court ruling.

While early in the pandemic accurate information was fairly easy to get, things changed as the outbreak became more serious in 2021.

At one point, according to NSF, Florida led the nation in deaths attributed to COVID with 23,000. It was about this time that information dried up.

Several media companies complained about the lack of information on state websites and eventually joined with Smith and the Florida Center for Government Accountability in the lawsuit to obtain all the information on deaths, hospitalizations etc.

When DeSantis dropped all restrictions on businesses and masks in the summer of 2021, declaring Florida was a leader in opening back up when other states were still restricting people congregating and were requiring masks, the county-by-county data and daily postings of COVID information online stopped.

When the Delta variant hit, infections and deaths rose again but DeSantis would not allow the DOH to post numbers as it had before.

The NSF story said Smith filed a request on July 23, 2021 for COVID-19 daily case numbers, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations for Orange County.

The DOH, however, refused to give out the information claiming there was a state law exempting “epidemiological research” from public records laws.

The DOH even went so far as to claim the information being requested did not exist. But, when the appellate court upheld the trial court’s order to produce the records, threatening to require a corporate representative to be deposed, the records were produced, NSF reported.

We applaud Smith for his persistence in fighting for the public’s right to know. We’re disappointed, and you should be too, that the state tried to hide those critical numbers.

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