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State-and-regional
Iowa stymies public information requests in pandemic

COVID-19 has Iowans wanting more information from federal, state and local governments to guide life-or-death decisions raised by the unprecedented pandemic.

Is it safe to go to the store? Do masks prevent spread of the virus? Should my kids go to school in the fall?

At a time when Iowans need accurate and complete information, some state agencies, including the Governor’s Office, are ignoring questions from reporters, refusing to do interviews and stalling on public records requests — sometimes for months, Iowa journalists said.

“I’ve heard from newspapers and TV stations that are at the end of their rope,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. State agencies are “facing legitimate concerns about coronavirus, but they are seemingly using it as a means of deflecting public records requests.”

Without critical pieces of information, residents may not fully understand changing public health recommendations and lose trust in public officials, said Gunita Singh, the Jack Nelson/Dow Jones Foundation legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Is Test Iowa as successful as governor boasts?

At a daily briefing last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds said about 15,000 Iowans have been tested at Test Iowa sites — which would put the daily test average far below the 3,000 promised when the program debuted in late April.

“Open government isn’t just a nice idea, it’s a cornerstone for an informed citizenry,” Singh said. “We see reporters going above and beyond, but we aren’t seeing government bodies across the board facilitating access to the information.”

Since March, Iowans have been deprived of information in the following ways:

• The Iowa Department of Public Health initially would not release data on hospitalization of COVID-19 patients, which KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids requested in early April, KCRG News Director Adam Carros said. Ultimately, KCRG had an attorney issue a demand letter to get the numbers made public in mid-May.

• Gov. Kim Reynolds’ staff would not answer the Centerville Iowegian’s questions about why an April 2 Seymour horse auction involving hundreds of people was allowed, even after Reynolds on March 26 had issued an emergency declaration banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

Editor Kyle Ocker or his staff tried to ask the question during then-daily press briefings.

“I have dialed in two to three times, one time up to 15 to 20 minutes early, and never got a question,” Ocker said. “The questions were never addressed by other media during the calls.”

• It took the Governor’s Office 142 days — more than one-third of a year — to fulfill a records request The Cedar Rapids Gazette filed March 3 to find out about communications between Jake Ketzner, the governor’s former chief of staff, and state officials over a $50 million cloud computing contract with Workday, which hired Ketzner in 2018.

When the office finally fulfilled the request July 24, it said there was one responsive email.

• Reynolds has so far declined to do an interview with Brianne Pfannenstiel, the Des Moines Register’s political reporter, about what it’s like to lead the state through a pandemic.

“I’ve suggested a short phone interview. I’ve pledged to drive to meet her wherever she is. I’ve said I’ll make myself available whenever she can squeeze me in — even if it’s off hours on a night or a weekend. But I’ve been given every variation of ‘we see the value in this interview but she’s just so busy right now,’” Pfannenstiel said. But “she has managed to make time for conservative radio and KCCI, though.”

Surging Iowa food stamp use starts to slow

The number of recipients jumped by nearly 11 percent, or 31,909, in April and another 7,851 to 338,192 in May — 5.6 percent above the previous year. Enrollment then declined from May to June.

• The Iowa Department of Education has said no to repeated requests from the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, or IowaWatch, for an interview with Ann Lebo to talk about COVID-related issues, including how rural school districts were going to serve students with limited internet connectivity.

• The Governor’s Office has not responded to a Register request for an audio recording or transcript of a call between Reynolds, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a COVID-19 adviser to President Donald Trump.

Reynolds tweeted about the call April 6, saying Fauci was “100% supportive, saying IA and NE ‘were on the same page’ with guidance he’s providing other states.”

Reporter Jason Clayworth said he thinks the governor’s tweet probably is accurate.

“But I also think it’s possible the conversation involved important context that may be valuable for the public’s ongoing assessment of how to save human life,” he said. “By thumbing her nose at record requests, the governor dodges accountability to the people she represents.”

Month in review: Every Sioux City Journal front page in July

Pat Garrett, Reynolds’ spokesman, said he believes his office had provided answers to many of these requests.

“Governor Reynolds and her administration has given an unprecedented level of access to the media and the public throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in an email.

“Whether it’s through daily press conferences, regular media availabilities, and hourly responses to media inquiries, we strive to be transparent. While there’s no way to immediately satisfy everyone’s request, the governor, her cabinet, and the entire team will continue to be as accessible as possible while combating the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Garrett announced Thursday that Reynolds would resume twice-weekly news briefings starting Tuesday.

Pandemic rules

Iowa isn’t the only state where reporters are struggling to get public information during the pandemic.

Since March, officials in 31 states and the District of Columbia have modified Freedom of Information Act laws or warned requesters to expect delays or lack of response, according to a review by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C., group that provides legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and newsgathering rights of journalists.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed in a March 13 declaration proclaimed two parts of the city’s administrative code requiring agencies to respond to immediate disclosure requests in a timely manner had been “suspended for the duration” of the coronavirus emergency,” the Reporters Committee found.

Chicago Public Schools said the COVID-19 pandemic “may result in responses to FOIA requests being significantly delayed or impaired.”

The Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C., not-for-profit that promotes and defends free speech rights of high school and college journalists, reported May 21 that “COVID-19 has created real challenges for record holders, and a convenient excuse for schools looking to stonewall journalists.”

In Iowa, Reynolds has temporarily suspended the requirement that public meetings or hearings be held in person, as long as the public can participate remotely.

There have been no formal changes to Iowa Code Chapter 22, which provides access to public records.

Chapter 22 requires government bodies to provide access to public records as soon as possible. Agencies are granted a “good-faith, reasonable delay” if they are trying to determine if the record requested is indeed public or if they are filing an injunction to stop release of the record.

One part of the law says a reasonable delay for determining whether a record should be open for inspection should not “exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days.”

Bottleneck

Some state agencies, especially the Iowa Department of Public Health, are funneling information requests through the Governor’s Office, which creates a bottleneck. And because the governor isn’t subject to oversight from the Iowa Public Information Board, reporters have no recourse when requests are ignored — other than hiring attorneys.

“It removes a low-cost means of getting a resolution,” Evans said.

The Public Health Department, which has been a focus of many COVID information requests since March, earlier this month fired its longtime spokeswoman, Polly Carver-Kimm.

She told Register reporter Tony Leys it was because her bosses thought she shared too much information with reporters.

When Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman asked for emails between Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state medical director, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-processing plants, the department asked him to pay nearly $10,000.

The department also refers all questions about Test Iowa, Iowa’s $26 million no-bid COVID-19 testing program, to Reynolds’ office.

“It’s her program,” Garrett said.

When The Gazette followed up on a week-old request asking why Test Iowa had stopped sending health surveys to thousands of Iowans, Garrett said July 24 he had missed the previous email forwarded to him from Public Health.

He provided the answer July 24 (surveys stop after seven weeks if survey takers report no symptoms) but the delay points out the challenges of one office overseeing hundreds of requests — some of which could be handled by others.

Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia, who this weekend also becomes the new director of Public Health Department, has indicated plans to focus on transparency and communication within the department.

Solutions

Some state agencies across the country have proved a pandemic doesn’t have to hinder the public’s access to information, Singh said.

The Minnesota Department of Administration issued a statement in March reminding agencies of their obligations to respond to public records requests in an emergency.

“Entity responses must be prompt and appropriate, and within a reasonable amount of time. The reasonable and appropriate standards are flexible enough to accommodate changes in circumstances due to the current emergency. However, data request response times for data subjects remain 10 business days. ... Entities might also consider waiving copy fees at this time when they deem appropriate.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns recommends agencies post records online so they are available to the public even when offices are closed, according to the Reporters Committee’s research.

The committee recommends journalists submit requests electronically to help records custodians keep track. Journalists also should prioritize requests related to COVID-19 and streamline requests that need a timely response, the committee said.

“One practice we recommend is keeping lines of communications open,” Singh said. Agencies should tell reporters when there will be a delay, but estimate when the information will be available. Journalists should communicate more about their deadlines, she said.

“I don’t think the argument ‘we need to be making these sweeping changes’ carries any weight,” she said. “We are seeing examples of jurisdictions that are easily balancing the need to stay safe and also to provide the free flow of information.”


Local
featured
Swimming season ending
Sioux City public swimming pool attendance dropped 65 percent this summer

SIOUX CITY -- Attendance at Sioux City's three public swimming pools was a fraction of previous summers, the result of restricted capacity and a truncated swim season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Data from the Sioux City Parks and Recreation Department indicates that a little under 20,000 people went to the three pools -- Riverside, Lewis and Leif Erikson -- through July 31. 

The Riverside Family Aquatic Center had the highest attendance, with a total of around 8,100 swimmers, followed by Leif Erikson at around 6,900 and the Lewis Pool with less than 4,800.

By contrast, total pool attendance in fiscal year 2019 (which ended June 30 of that year) was more than 56,000, while attendance in fiscal year 2018 was above 57,500. 

The Cook and Leeds pools closed at the end of the 2016 swim season because of low attendance; the pools were replaced by splash pads. The splash pads did not open this summer, and neither did the slide at Riverside. 

Taken as a whole, Sioux City's three public pools saw attendance drop roughly 65 percent this summer. 

The city's pools didn't open until the last full week of June; city officials had mulled not opening them at all due to the pandemic.

Lewis and Leif Erikson, the only two currently open, will close for the season Sunday. The Riverside pool closed abruptly this past week after a lifeguard at the pool tested positive for the virus. 

In previous years the city's pools stayed open a little longer into August.

All three city pools were limited to 25 percent of their full capacity this summer, meaning that only 180 people could swim at Leif Erikson at one time, while 250 could swim at Riverside. Lewis had the smallest maximum capacity, of only 150 people. 

"Naturally, our numbers were going to be down," Parks and Recreation Department Director Matt Salvatore said of the city's pool attendance figures. 

A Sioux City Public Pools Facebook page this summer posted daily updates on the capacities at each of the pools -- which pools had room for more people, and which reached their maximum allowable number of swimmers. 

Stephanie Pickinpaugh and her kids haven't been at the pool as much this summer, because of the coronavirus and the associated pool restrictions. She said these restrictions left her "disappointed" but she understood that they were "necessary, because of COVID." 

Photos: Sioux City swimming pools through the years

Pickinpaugh said she wasn't terribly worried about the virus at the pool, because any microbes probably couldn't survive in the chlorinated water. 

"I think, as long as we're following the CDC guidelines and social distancing, I think it's one of the only places you can be in a group of people," she said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pools themselves are not likely vectors of the coronavirus. 

"Evidence suggests that COVID-19 cannot be spread to humans through most recreational water," the CDC wrote in an advisory on visiting parks and recreational facilities


National
Negotiators report progress in COVID-19 aid talks

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers participating in rare weekend talks on a huge coronavirus relief measure reported progress on Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore a newly expired $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

“This was the longest meeting we had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “We're not close yet, but it was a productive discussion — now each side knows where they’re at."

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The Democratic duo is eager for an expansive agreement, as are President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps one half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

Prior talks yielded little progress. The administration is willing to extend the $600 jobless benefit, at least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands like aid for state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to renters and homeowners.

Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for voting by mail after the negotiating session was over. She and Schumer appeared more upbeat than they have after earlier meetings.

“We have to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, safely open our schools, and to do so in a way that does not give a cut in benefits to American workers," Pelosi said. She pressed her case for additional food aid and funding to facilitate voting by mail this fall as the pandemic rages on.

Mnuchin said restoring the $600 supplemental jobless benefit is critically important to Trump.

“We’re still a long ways apart and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent because it is not," Meadows said afterward. “There are still substantial differences, but we did make good progress.

The additional jobless benefit officially lapsed on Friday, and Democrats have made clear that they will not extend it without securing other relief priorities. Whatever unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be made retroactive — but antiquated state systems are likely to take weeks to restore the benefits.

Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 benefit, saying it must be slashed so that people don't make more in unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But their resolve weakened as the benefit expired, and Trump abruptly undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 for now.

Meanwhile, Mexico now has the third most COVID-19 deaths in the world, behind Brazil and the United States.

Mexican health officials on Friday reported 688 new deaths, pushing the country’s confirmed total to over 46,600. That put Mexico just ahead of the United Kingdom, which has more than 46,100, according to the tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Some countries are seeing hopeful signs: China reported a more than 50% drop in newly confirmed cases in a possible indication that its latest major outbreak in the northwestern region of Xinjiang may have run its course.

However, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, infections continue to surge. Hong Kong reported more than 100 new cases as of Saturday among the population of 7.5 million. Officials have reimposed dining restrictions and mask requirements.

Tokyo on Saturday saw its third straight day of record case numbers, the metropolitan government said. Nationwide, Japan's daily count of cases totaled a record 1,579 people Friday, the health ministry said.

And Vietnam, a former success story, is struggling to control an outbreak spreading in its most famous beach resort. A third person died there of coronavirus complications, officials said Saturday, a day after it recorded its first-ever death as it wrestles with a renewed outbreak after 99 days with no local cases.

South Africa on Saturday surpassed 500,000 confirmed cases, representing more than 50% of all reported coronavirus infections in Africa’s 54 countries. Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths.

Back in the United States, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said Saturday he tested positive for the coronavirus days after he sat close to another member of the panel, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, who also tested positive.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement that he has the virus but, like Gohmert, has no symptoms. He is at least the 11th member of Congress known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.

It's unclear where Grijalva, 72, caught the virus and whether it was from Gohmert, a Republican who has questioned the use of masks and often walked around the Capitol without one. Grijalva went into isolation after Gohmert tested positive on Wednesday, since the two had sat close to each other at a Natural Resources hearing the day before.

“While I cannot blame anyone directly for this, this week has shown that there are some members of Congress who fail to take this crisis seriously," Grijalva said in the statement.