(The Center Square) – Eight news organizations, including The New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press, will be among plaintiffs when a lawsuit lodged against the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) for refusing to publicly post daily COVID-19 pandemic data goes to trial on Sept. 29.
Second Judicial Circuit Judge John Cooper Monday granted a motion filed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, AP, Gannett, McClatchy, New York Times, Scripps Media, Times Publishing Co., Washington Post and the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation to “intervene as plaintiffs” in the legal challenge.
Cooper, the same Leon County jurist who repealed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school mask mandates earlier this month – an appeals court restored the ban while the state appeals – granted the organizations’ motion and set the trial for Sept. 29-30 in his Tallahassee courtroom.
State attorney Rick Figlio argued against allowing the media groups to join the suit, claiming doing so would engender “unmanageable political theater” and requested a 40-day trial postponement.
Cooper dismissed the claim and denied the request.
State law requires the suit be heard “immediately,” Cooper said. “I didn’t draft the statute. I don’t know why people have a hard time understanding that statutes are supposed to be enforced.”
Citing a diminishing pandemic, the Florida Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 data dashboard ceased issuing daily updates of new case, hospitalizations and deaths on June 5.
The dashboard included detailed information on cases and deaths, broken down by gender, race, ethnicity, county-by-county. It included current and cumulative cases in all long-term care facilities and prisons in weekly updates.
When the Delta-variant fueled COVID-19 pandemic came roaring back across Florida in July with numbers that eclipsed previous peaks, FDOH, under DeSantis’ directive, refused calls to return to daily reporting, posting weekly updates on Fridays.
The nonpartisan Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, sued FDOH and Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees over the state’s “refusal to provide COVID-related statistical records it used to make public daily.”
The 238-page lawsuit, filed Aug. 30, features 30 pages of exhibits and seeks an immediate hearing to force the FDOH to daily publish “county-level information and other sociodemographic data on the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
The suit contends Smith, a member of the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, in a July 23 letter asked Rivkees for 14 days’ worth of daily Orange County COVD-19 case counts, positivity rates, hospitalizations, death rates and vaccinations.
In an Aug. 9 emailed reply, FDOH Legislative Director Drew Love told Smith “the specific data you have requested for Orange County are considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure.”
In the suit, Smith claims FDOH “falsely stated the information was ‘confidential’ under state law, even after making those same records available for nearly a year on the Department’s daily COVID dashboard.”
During Monday’s hearing, Figlio told Cooper that FDOH provides all state data daily to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) but for public use, it “exists in indecipherable form.”
He said FDOH determined “internally” that such detailed information was “no longer a public health necessity” in June and has not changed its view despite the July-August surge.
Because there’s no longer “a public health necessity,” state confidentiality law precludes FDOH from publishing that same detailed information, Figlio argued.
“The #DeSantis administration claimed in court that critical COVID-19 health data is ‘confidential’ and exempt from public record because THEY SAID SO,” Smith said in a Tuesday tweet. “Hmm. Was it confidential before when the data was on the COVID dashboard every day for almost a year? Doesn’t make sense.”