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

Cities and some states across the country have closed up their public record offices and relaxed sunshine laws during the coronavirus epidemic.
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Cities and some states across the country have closed up their public record offices and relaxed sunshine laws during the coronavirus epidemic.

When the number of COVID-19 cases started soaring in New Jersey about a month ago, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed an emergency package of laws to deal with the outbreak. One law loosened the requirements of the state's Open Public Records Act.

"We just have to deal with the reality of manpower, the ability to turn things around. We've gone to a different place," Gov. Murphy said at the time.

The law eliminates deadlines New Jersey agencies are supposed to meet in responding to records requests, but unlike some other emergency measures, this law has no end date.

The governor has called the fight against the coronavirus a "war," causing some government functions to be delayed, he says.

The law in New Jersey 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.

The mayor of Philadelphia, along with municipalities across the country, and governors in Washington, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Hawaii have all rolled back or suspended public records laws. Some federal agencies are also telling people to expect delays.

But transparency advocates say it is times like these when we should be upholding the public's right to information about decisions elected leaders are making.

"Transparency is often most important when it is least convenient," says Erik Arneson, the executive director of the Office of Open Records, a government agency in Pennsylvania.

Arneson 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.

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

Municipal and state leaders leaders say it's not about secrecy — but keeping the public safe with a limited amount of time and money.

Or, "there could be some categories of documents that they just can't access because they're not physically in the office," says CJ Griffin, a New Jersey attorney focusing on public records law.

Still, she says agencies shouldn't use the outbreak as an excuse to withhold information from the public, "especially any public records that relate to the outbreak itself."

Copyright 2021 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

Joe Hernandez
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