In case you missed it earlier this week, a group of eight national media outlets have joined a lawsuit against the State of Florida seeking a return to the daily release of the state’s COVID-19 case data, a practice that Governor Ron DeSantis ended in June this year when it appeared as if the pandemic might soon fade from the news cycle.
Despite the widespread adoption of vaccinations, the summer of 2021 saw far more infections, hospitalizations and deaths than the previous summer, and yet Floridians had to get their data from third parties rather than get the news straight from the DeSantis Administration, a missed political opportunity if ever there was one.
Some of the media outlets seeking that information are under the mistaken impression that they’re “entitled” to the data under Florida’s public records laws. Technically, that may be true, but lawyers for the state have already pointed out that the data collected and transmitted to the federal government is likely undecipherable in raw form, and the state has no obligation to generate new public records just for the sake of making them understandable to a news reporter.
But I’d still argue that DeSantis should require his Department of Health to return to the daily reporting of basic COVID-19 stats, including new cases, new hospitalizations, total hospitalizations, and deaths caused by the virus. The official explanation for why we’re not getting that information, according to a legal brief filed this week, is that the DeSantis Administration simply wants to avoid “unmanageable political theater.”
That was the actual phrase used by a state lawyer in court. I’m sympathetic to that argument, but it’s still a lousy excuse for withholding that information, especially when DeSantis expects parents to make informed choices about school attendance, vaccinations and masking.
In a previous column I wrote back in June, when the case count had trickled down to unremarkable levels and most of us thought the crisis was largely over, I applauded DeSantis’s move to cut off the daily case reporting since the numbers were small enough at that point that they largely didn’t matter anyway, and news organizations (The Capitolist included) were still reporting every small bump in case counts as if it were a new “surge” and every tiny downward lurch as proof that the pandemic was over.
When the virus returned to Florida with a vengeance just a few weeks later, setting records for cases, hospitalizations and deaths in July and August, it became clear that cutting off that data was the wrong move, especially since DeSantis has insisted that parents be granted the final say over how their students should best protect themselves during the pandemic.
How can parents make informed decisions without access to the latest data?
DeSantis’s argument is that most of those seeking the data, eight media organizations including the New York Times and Washington Post, and a showboating Democrat politician, won’t know what to do with the data when they get it, and he’s rightly concerned that those groups will use it to sow misinformation into the public discussion and create more problems than they’ll solve.
He’s not wrong, either. Neither the media outlets nor the politicians want the data for any purpose other than to create “unmanageable political theater.” That’s just what they do. It’s their raison d’etre.
In the case of the media organizations, they want it so they can create compelling news stories and clickbait headlines using the information as the basis for their news stories – and most of them have a decidedly anti-DeSantis political agenda. That’s especially true in the case of State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, the original plaintiff in the case, who wants the data so he and his allies (including those aforementioned media outlets) can score political points against DeSantis.
None of that should matter though. Political theater is part of the job and DeSantis has already proven adept at countering it. And arguing over what is or isn’t a legitimate use of important public health data is a tricky and potentially dangerous game. DeSantis would be better served by staying out of that minefield and should instead advance a consistent policy that both empowers the state’s citizenry by arming them with as much information as possible, and then give them the freedom to make informed decisions.
If parents choose to make those decisions after reading the partisan bilge of the Miami Herald or the misleading progressive hackery published by the New York Times, that’s their problem.