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Judges reject a protective order for Florida's health department in COVID data case

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida House of Representatives
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and the Florida Center for Government Accountability allege the health department violated the state’s public records law by turning down requests for daily COVID data.

In backing a Leon County judge, the appeals court panel said the department had not demonstrated that the decision “would result in irreparable harm.”

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal on Wednesday rejected an attempt by the Florida Department of Health to prevent a deposition in a case about providing COVID-19 data.

The Florida Center for Government Accountability and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, filed the lawsuit in August 2021, alleging that the department violated the state’s public-records law by turning down requests for daily COVID-19 data. The lawsuit was later joined by several media organizations.

The data, in part, would provide county and demographic information about COVID-19 cases.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper in January denied a Department of Health request for a protective order to prevent a deposition of a department representative about details of the agency’s decision-making.

Department attorneys contend that the data is shielded by a state law that says epidemiological information is confidential and exempt from the public records law and is “to be made public only when necessary to public health.”

They also point to a department rule carrying out the law about confidentiality.

The department contends that the rule gives it authority to determine whether the epidemiological data should be released. As a result, it argues that the plaintiffs should be required to challenge the rule in an administrative proceeding, rather than seeking the information in circuit court.

But the plaintiffs argue that the circuit judge should decide whether the department is justified in taking the position that the COVID-19 data is exempt from the public records law. As part of that, they are seeking testimony from a department representative.

In backing Cooper, the appeals court panel Wednesday said the department had not demonstrated that the decision “would result in irreparable harm.”

The panel was made up of Judges Stephanie Ray, Timothy Osterhaus and Rachel Nordby.