State agrees to settle lawsuit over COVID-19 reports

Naseem S. Miller, South Florida Sun Sentinel

The state has agreed to settle a lawsuit that stemmed from unreasonable delays by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office in providing the weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force reports to the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel.

As part of the settlement, the state has agreed to release the future weekly task force reports within two business days and pay $7,500 in attorney fees.

“We are satisfied with the settlement and hope we don’t have to sue again for crucial public records regarding the pandemic or any other important public matter. Onward,” said Julie Anderson, the editor in chief of the two newspapers.

The Orlando Sentinel sued DeSantis and his office on Dec. 11, alleging that DeSantis and his office have violated the Public Records Act by refusing the release of the reports. The Sun Sentinel joined in the lawsuit.

The reports, produced weekly, were sent to all state governors every week until recently and include critical information about trends in the spread of the virus, positivity rates and deaths in all counties and list recommendations for each state to contain the virus. In December, the task force stopped automatic disbursement of the reports and said it will provide them if the governors request them.

DeSantis’ office provided the task force reports for the month of November through Dec. 6, after the lawsuit was filed. But it said that reports starting from Dec. 13 are now provided to the Florida Department of Health, which has requested the reports and is yet to receive them.

During a first and only hearing for the case on Dec. 21, Judge John Cooper of Leon County Circuit Court asked the state’s attorneys why they couldn’t retrieve and review a report that’s at most 12 pages long.

They said they said they were busy with an election, other litigation and holidays, including Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving.

When the judge pressed them for a list of other litigation, the state attorneys backtracked their statement and said they were busy monitoring the election. They did not provide any specific reason for withholding the reports from the public.

They also argued that since the Sentinel has been able to obtain the report from other sources and inform the public, anyway, the issues in the lawsuit were moot, but the judge seemed unconvinced, noting it was DeSantis’ office that had a duty to provide it.

The reports’ recommendation page have strongly encouraged state officials to urge the public to wear masks and practice physical distancing, messages that have been absent from DeSantis’ frequent news conferences.

On Wednesday in Pensacola, DeSantis said “We’ve got to trust people, give them the information and ask that they use common sense.”

nmiller@orlandosentinel.com