Public officials cite virus while limiting access to records

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FILE - In this Dec. 29, 2015 file photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Many state and local governments across the country have suspended public records requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic, denying or delaying access to information that could shed light on key government decisions. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Many state and local governments across the country have suspended public records requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic, denying or delaying access to information that could shed light on key government decisions.

Public officials have said employees either don't have the time or ability to compile the requested documents or data because they are too busy responding to the outbreak or are working from home instead of at government offices.

The result is that government secrecy has increased at the same time officials are spending billions of dollars fighting the COVID-19 disease and making major decisions affecting the health and economic livelihood of millions of Americans.

That's raised concerns among open-government advocates.

“It’s just essential that the press and the public be able to dig in and see records that relate to how the government has responded to the crisis," said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit. "That’s the only way really to avoid waste, fraud, abuse and to ensure that governments aren’t overstepping their bounds.”

The nonprofit Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has tracked more than 100 instances in at least 30 states and the District of Columbia in which state agencies, counties, cities or other public entities have suspended requirements to respond to open-records requests by regular deadlines or told people to expect delays.

Some governors have issued decrees allowing record requests to be put on hold for as long as the coronavirus emergency continues. Others have extended response deadlines by days, weeks or even months.

Various federal agencies also have said there may be delays in processing public records requests. The FBI temporarily stopped accepting electronic records requests in March, citing the coranvirus, but has since resumed. It's website now says record-seekers “can expect delays."