The Daytona Beach News-Journal by USA Today Florida Network/Opinion
April 21, 2021
A Gainesville Sun editorial on behalf of the USA TODAY Florida network
Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly bashes the media over the way that his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been covered, claiming he isn’t being treated fairly.
Yet, the DeSantis administration has made it more difficult for news agencies to gather vital information on the state response to the pandemic. As the governor highlights successes in fighting the virus during regular news conferences, data and other information that reveal a mixed record have been kept hidden from the public until news organizations sue the state.
State agencies have refused or slow-walked public records requests for such information as infection rates at nursing homes and schools, vaccine agreements with grocery stores and pharmacies, and data on COVID-19 variants, as Jeffrey Schweers of the USA TODAY Network – Florida recently reported.
Florida is supposed to provide broad access to public records, as one of the few states where the public’s right to this information is embedded in the state’s constitution. But DeSantis has continued a trend toward secrecy that started under his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott, and also can be seen in public records exemptions that keep growing in number each state legislative session.
Such secrecy is particularly troubling during a public health crisis. Timely access to information about coronavirus outbreaks and variants helps people understand risks and prevent themselves and their loved ones from catching the deadly COVID-19 virus, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives in Florida.
The DeSantis administration’s tactics include stonewalling or outright ignoring records requests, failing to provide records in a timely manner and charging excessive fees in violation of the law. A recent request for emails about “pop-up” clinics by the Fort Myers News-Press, a member of the USA TODAY Network – Florida, initially came back with a $13,000 price tag.
“It’s basically a ‘so sue me’ kind of attitude, daring the requestor to enforce the law,” said Pam Marsh, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit First Amendment Foundation of Florida.