Some Public Records Requests Suspended Amid Coronavirus Some cities and states across the country have restricted access to public records, citing a lack of personnel and a focus on public health during the coronavirus epidemic.

Amid The Epidemic, It Can Be Hard To Know What's Going On Behind Closed Doors

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Governments across the U.S. are scrambling to confront the coronavirus outbreak, with elected officials making life-and-death decisions behind closed doors. And while some people are eager to learn more about how their leaders are responding to the crisis, Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY reports that many public agencies are clamping down on public records, saying they are too busy dealing with the virus itself.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: On March 20, the number of coronavirus cases in New Jersey was soaring above 800. It's still the state with the second highest number of cases, at more than 80,000. But that day, Governor Murphy signed an emergency package of laws to deal with the outbreak, including one that loosened the requirements of the state's open public records act.

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PHIL MURPHY: We just have to deal with the reality of manpower - the ability to turn things around. We've gone to a different place.

HERNANDEZ: The law basically eliminates deadlines New Jersey agencies are supposed to meet in responding to records requests. Murphy says the overwhelming task of responding to the coronavirus outbreak means some government functions may be delayed.

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MURPHY: Let me say something - which probably is apparent to you - we're at war. We're at war.

HERNANDEZ: The New Jersey law is just one example of how governments across the country are relaxing their public records policies to give civil servants more bandwidth to deal with the pandemic. But transparency advocates say that's exactly why those policies should not be put on hold right now - so the public can access information about decisions elected leaders are making.

ERIK ARNESON: Transparency is often most important when it is least convenient.

HERNANDEZ: Erik Arneson is executive director of the Office of Open Records, a government agency in Pennsylvania. He says many people are worried about their health and keeping their jobs during the COVID-19 outbreak, and they want to know what the government is doing about it.

ARNESON: The last thing they want to do is also have a lot of questions about how their government officials are handling things. And if they get the sense that the government is hiding things, it's just the recipe for suspicion.

HERNANDEZ: Municipal and state leaders say it's not about secrecy, but keeping the public safe with a limited amount of resources. The mayor of Philadelphia and governors in states like Washington, Indiana, Rhode Island and Hawaii have all rolled back or suspended their public records laws. Some federal agencies are also telling people to expect delays. CJ Griffin, a New Jersey attorney focusing on government transparency, says there are valid reasons for why a public records request would take longer during a pandemic.

CJ GRIFFIN: There could be some categories of documents that they just can't access because they're not physically in the office. And maybe those records exist only in hardcopy, or maybe they're in an archive or storage.

HERNANDEZ: Still, she says agencies shouldn't use the outbreak as an excuse to withhold information.

GRIFFIN: Especially any public records that relate to the outbreak itself, in terms of information about the cases that are occurring and the government resources that are needed.

HERNANDEZ: Griffin says that could include information like how governments are spending money on coronavirus supplies and which companies are getting the contracts. Many public agencies have continued to release records during the pandemic - journalists and transparency advocates say - but not all of them. Arneson, the public records official in Pennsylvania, says that's a mistake.

ARNESON: Just like a state is not going to let its highways crumble during the pandemic, or a municipality is not going to let the garbage go uncollected during a pandemic, agencies need to keep handling the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act.

HERNANDEZ: Arneson says, to the extent they can, agencies should follow the law as if there were no pandemic. For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez in Philadelphia.

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