“Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant” — Louis Brandeis
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a vehicle for allowing government to create roadblocks,
intentional and otherwise, for the public to participate and obtain information on how
government agencies are addressing the health crisis.
The California Assembly has a bill that would require government entities across the state to
provide increased access to meetings and more public participation, pandemic notwithstanding.
Assembly Bill 339 would require that members of the public be able to attend meetings
remotely so that they can make comments during the meetings via teleconference or video
While COVID-19 precautions have increased usage of remote participation options, not all
agencies allow for effective participation. Attorney Kelly Aviles, a member of the Californians
Aware board, says this has allowed “some agencies to limit access and does not allow people to
speak at meetings.” AB339 is supported by a number of environmental groups, the ACLU and
Another example of how COVID-19 has affected open government efforts in the state is
revealed in a lawsuit between the County of San Diego and San Diego media organizations,
including KPBS, the Voice of San Diego and The San Diego Union-Tribune. The point of
contention is over “critical coronavirus data,” says Aviles. The media outlets are seeking
epidemiological reports that would show the county’s contact tracing efforts. While the county
has provided some information about COVID-19 outbreaks across the county, it has not divulged
information on specifically where those outbreaks occurred.
In CalAware’s letter of support to the court she points out this data underlies “some of the most
important financial and policy decisions our government officials are making during the
pandemic.” The county’s attorney argues that the media and the public already are receiving a
great deal of information but certain information, according to the county’s chief health official,
must not be disclosed for the greater public good. The county won the initial court decision but
attorney Felix Tinkov has appealed the verdict on behalf of the media organizations. He
maintains that the county’s argument is based on the “unsubstantiated belief of Dr. Wilma
Wooten (the county’s public health office) that disclosure may result in chilling area businesses
from notifying the county of outbreaks in the future.” Tinkov says there is no evidence to
support her claim.
The Aviles letter of support for an appeal touches on another issue which this reporter also
encountered in efforts to obtain COVID-19 information from San Diego County.
In a May 2020 story I co-produced for NBC7 San Diego, we noted how the county was
responding to public records requests by stating that “Due to this ongoing emergency, staff does
not have the capacity to respond to your request until further notice.” A county spokesman at
the time added, “the county attorney is “following the state’s lead” by shelving public record
requests during the pandemic.”
NBC7’s requests for further information on nursing home outbreaks and deaths were denied
under this claim. We learned, however, that Los Angeles County health officials were providing
the same information San Diego refused to provide.
Said Tinkov in his appeal, “The virus does not respect jurisdictional borders, but spreads rapidly
and unknowingly to people who then travel between counties and infect people in other