Two Florida newspapers sued Gov. Ron DeSantis after the Republican withheld a White House Coronavirus Task Force report urging the state to impose stricter coronavirus restrictions amid a large spike in infections in the Sunshine State.
The Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel filed a lawsuit last week accusing the governor of violating the Public Records Act by withholding weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force reports that provide information about the spread of the virus and medical guidance to contain the spread. "The state has given us no explanation as to why this crucial health information should be withheld," Julie Anderson, the editor in chief of both newspapers, told the Associated Press. "We had no choice but to ask a court to intervene to uphold the public records law."
The lawsuit came after the Center for Public Integrity obtained a December 6 report urging stricter restrictions during the holidays.
"Florida has seen stability in new cases, an increase in test positivity, and increasing hospitalizations and deaths, indicating unrelenting community spread and inadequate mitigation," said the report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which is headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx.
DeSantis has refused to release the reports since the start of December despite weekly requests from the newspapers. The lawsuit notes that Trump's White House has urged for the reports to be "widely" distributed.
"No public records law exemption exists that would prevent the inspection or copying of the weekly reports requested," the lawsuit says, adding that the "delay in providing the requested reports is unreasonable, unjustified and amounts to an unlawful refusal to provide the records. The public is entitled to timely access of these reports going forward."
Some states, including other Republican-led states, publish the weekly reports online, according to the AP.
"Despite the threat the virus continues to pose to Floridians, [Desantis and his office] have engaged in a pattern of concealment and suppression by steadfastly refusing to comply with the Public Records Act and delaying access to weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force reports," the lawsuit alleges. "The public cannot continue to wait for the crucial information contained in these reports and timely access is critical going forward."
DeSantis has adamantly pushed back on implementing restrictions to contain the spread in the state, which has reported nearly 20,000 deaths and more than 1.1 million infections. The governor has issued multiple executive orders limiting cities' abilities to enforce mask mandates and close businesses.
"No one's losing their job because of a government dictate," he declared earlier this month. "Nobody's losing their livelihood or their business."
The White House report urged public health officials to discourage all public gatherings and urge mask-wearing.
DeSantis has claimed that the situation will improve once vaccines are available to the public but the White House report noted that there won't be enough vaccines available until "late spring." He even suggested against medical guidelines that a single dose of the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna may be enough, even as he acknowledged that "I'm not sure that Pfizer would agree or FDA would agree."
DeSantis has frequently come under fire for failing to take stronger steps to protect his state's residents and flouting public health guidelines. The governor, his wife, and their two young children were pictured maskless at a packed high school football game on Friday. The couple is even planning a holiday reception for state legislators at the governor's mansion on Monday despite medical recommendations, Politico reported.
DeSantis has also been repeatedly accused of concealing or manipulating coronavirus data.
Medical examiners sounded the alarm in the spring after the state stopped publishing real-time data on coronavirus deaths. Rebekah Jones, a data scientist who helped build the state's public coronavirus data dashboard, was fired after she alleged she was asked to "manipulate" data to back DeSantis' push to reopen the state in May, which DeSantis denied. Jones' home was raided by armed police serving a warrant signed by a recent DeSantis-appointee last week after she was accused of improperly accessing the state's internal emergency alert system, which she denied. The raid prompted another DeSantis appointee to quit in protest, arguing that the raid was politically driven and "unconscionable."
After the raid, Jones accused DeSantis of trying to "intimidate" scientists into silence and alleged the state was still manipulating data.
"The manipulation is most prevalent in Florida with our statistics and reporting on death and hospitalization," she told Salon, claiming that death data still has a "very long delay" and ICU bed data is underreported. She added that the percent positivity rate used in Florida is "useless" and is not used by any "other state in the country."
Jones blamed DeSantis for ordering the raid, which his office has repeatedly denied, and claimed police seized "evidence of corruption" stored on her computers.
"This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo," she tweeted. "This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."