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An early casualty of the coronavirus

An early casualty of the coronavirus pandemic has

An early casualty of the coronavirus pandemic has been the loss of easy access to public information. Credit: Getty Images/dane_mark

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In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige suspended the open meetings and open records laws. In California, numerous governments and public agencies, including San Francisco, announced suspension or substantial delays in providing public records.

In Ohio, the state labor department stopped issuing daily unemployment figures. In the District of Columbia, the city council approved a measure that allows agencies to suspend fulfilling public information requests during “days of a Covid-19 closure.” In Waterville, Maine, the city council convened a subcommittee to discuss its coronavirus response, failed to give notice and allow for public participation, and was reprimanded by the city solicitor.  Florida has refused to provide names of elder care facilities with outbreaks of the virus. 

In New York, government agencies have said that there could be a slowdown in responding to requests for information under the state’s freedom of information law. The state only recently began including demographic information about race in the data that were being publicly released on COVID-19 victims. That level of detail is not only important for public health researchers and medical professionals, but also because they can help serve as a warning to take precautions for those people in groups that are especially vulnerable. 

“Many state agencies are releasing data on Twitter,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, an open-government advocacy group. “That’s better than nothing, but it means there is a ton of data being released in a very disjointed way.” Other states, such as Washington, have been able to supply more granular detail sooner, he noted. That helps experts figure out ways to better fight the virus, and to determine the lessons the pandemic has taught governments and medical experts.

The picture is even bleaker at the federal level. The FBI quickly shut down its record division and refused to accept any electronic request for records, insisting instead on paper inquiries.The White House ordered that high-level meetings about the coronavirus be classified. The Army stopped providing data on soldiers who are infected with the virus, saying the information could fall into the hands of the nation’s enemies. Federal officials have declined to identify nursing homes where residents are ill from the virus. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27 includes a provision that exempts the Federal Reserve from holding public meetings, a remarkable development because the agency will play a key role in shepherding the federal monetary response to the pandemic — and will be able to do so away from the public. Numerous federal agencies, including the State Department, have said they expect substantial delays in their ability to fulfill requests for public information under the terms of the federal Freedom of Information Act. And testimony from the U.S. intelligence community about the National Threat Assessment that is said to have foreshadowed the pandemic? Even before many states began shutting down, the Trump administration was refusing to schedule a public hearing on the report with Congress, a break with tradition.

It is obvious that some delays and detours are necessary as governments adjust to the new normal and step up their public health response. But the virus in the United States also should be an opportunity for governments to rethink how they maintain — and yes — enhance the ability of the public to track government actions and data whenever possible in real time. Daily briefings are good, but there is so much more that governments can do to keep the public informed, especially during a public health crisis of this magnitude.

Some states already have had a variety of models for keeping the public in the loop. Arizona, California, and New York for years have been live streaming or broadcasting their legislative sessions, although viewers still cannot see the hallway conversations where the real work often occurs. In Maryland, the General Assembly leadership finally this year allowed some video streaming of House sessions in an experiment that could be repeated again. 

In Minnesota, as the state began discouraging public gatherings, the state legislature began having phone calls among committees to talk about legislation to aid the public, and gave reporters a list of talking points afterward. “All we know was that they were holding phone calls,” said Dana Ferguson, who covers the statehouse for Forum News Service, based in Minneapolis. But when it came time for a vote on a key aid bill to help Minnesotans harmed by the economic and social effects of the virus, lawmakers called or texted the leadership, whose members then publicly declared in open session who was voting and how. “I think they learned from this,” Ferguson said. 

And now that many legislators are no longer in session, either temporarily or for the rest of the year — they need to be more creative about finding ways to allow the public to see and hear their off-season and off-camera deliberations, too.

At the very least, live streaming of government agency meetings, legislative sessions, committee hearings and meetings between mayors and councils should become the new normal. So should the posting of government data in understandable formats. States and the federal government should also be more willing to make electronic responses to federal, state and local Freedom of Information Act requests, unless the size of the file is simply too big to transmit digitally. Lawmakers and governors should start to budget for new software if they need it and can’t develop their own systems. 

Governments also should do everything they can now to digitize their records — something that those government employees in jobs that aren’t otherwise super busy right now might even be able to do from home.

In the many parts of the country where the shutdown of schools has demonstrated that the digital divide remains vast and many students lack access to online classes, governments should step in and find ways to make the internet a public utility. That also will help those communities where live streaming of government activities actually is taking place, but is impossible to access in households without high-speed broadband.

If governments take heed now, when the next big crisis hits, they won’t be able to act on the impulse to shut the public out. Instead, they will have become more accustomed to the idea that it is in everyone’s interest for the public to be routinely looking and listening in when they can't be there in person.

Miranda S. Spivack wrote the “State Secrets” series for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting about the rise in state and local secrecy. She is working on a book about community sleuths who uncover problems about health, safety and corporate giveaways that their state and local governments have tried to conceal.

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