As Florida continues to see a high number of confirmed COVID-19 cases within the state, one Orlando leader is fighting for transparency and daily reporting. State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health and Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees over the state’s refusal to release vital and previously public COVID-19 health data and his lawsuit is gaining support.
In late July, Rep. Smith, a member of the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, submitted a public records request to the Florida Department of Health for daily COVID-19 pediatric hospitalizations, deaths and case counts occurring in Orange County. The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) submitted a broader request for COVID-19 data in all of Florida’s 67 counties.
In August, the state health department and Dr. Rivkees denied the requests, claiming that information it previously published on its COVID-19 dashboard is now considered confidential or is no longer available. Prior to June 3, 2021, the state health department released this information in daily reports that included detailed information for each county.
“The DeSantis administration has consistently refused to release COVID-related public records, which not only hurts our efforts to contain this deadly virus, it is also unlawful,” said Rep. Smith. “That’s why we’re suing them— to obtain the public records our constituents are entitled to under the Florida Constitution and to force the state to resume daily COVID dashboard reporting and avoid future litigation on this matter.”
The lawsuit demands the state health department make public the information the agency previously released daily, including county-level information and other sociodemographic data on the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to the COVID-19 virus.
“Providing citizens with more information about the rampaging virus is not only consistent with public health, but with the reasons why Floridians overwhelmingly passed open government laws,” said Michael Barfield, the Director of Public Access at FLCGA. “Virus politics should not dictate what information is made available to citizens so they can then make informed choices about their activities.”
Now several news media organizations are trying to join Rep. Smith’s lawsuit. The Associated Press, Gannett Co., The McClatchy Company, The New York Times, Scripps Media, Sun-Sentinel Company, Times Publishing Co., WP Company, and the charitable First Amendment Foundation filed to intervene as plaintiffs last week, referring to themselves as the “News Media.”
“The legal issues raised by this litigation mirror those confronted by the News Media in seeking similar public records information from the Defendants that Plaintiffs seek here,” the motion said.
Attorneys Andrea Flynn Mogensen, Victor Chapman and Steven Ruta with the FLCGA filed the lawsuit in Leon County circuit court.