Considering all the issues we are facing these days, the lack of transparency being shown by our state government about what information to disclose about the coronavirus pandemic might seem pretty low on the list of things to worry about.
But it’s important to remember that the right to know what your government is doing and what decisions it is making are important to everyone — not just journalists.
Whether or not a business has been deemed “non-essential” or “essential” by the state, for example, makes a huge difference. It’s the difference between being able to operate or not. It’s the difference between going to work or not.
How were the lines between essential and non-essential drawn? It may seem simple, but it’s not. Which companies got waivers. Which did not? Right now, there’s no way for us — and you — to know.
The state Department of Health has released little beyond county-level death totals, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rules. While such privacy is important, the release of information including the municipality of residence and gender of victims would not put that privacy at risk.
Throughout the reporting on the local and state impact of the pandemic, we and other journalists have continued to file Right to Know requests for information, but most often to no avail.
I sat in on a conference call this week in which Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said news organizations are basically being told that the state offices from which we are requesting information are closed and won’t be addressing our requests until they reopen.
We disagree. The government is still operating and making decisions. The fact that a physical office may be closed is immaterial.
Along the lines of transparency, today starting on Page A1, reporter Justin Strawser takes a look at what some of our Susquehanna Valley municipal government bodies and school boards are doing to try to keep the public informed and involved. State reporter John Finnerty also looks at what help they are getting in that effort.
Ultimately, we all have a right to know what our governments are doing. That right shouldn’t be a victim of the coronavirus or any other state of emergency.
Two more things I want to point out:
1. Twenty-five years ago today, at 9:02 a.m., a yellow Ryder rental truck carrying a massive homemade bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring more than 500. Even as we sit today mired in the midst of a completely different kind of national tragedy that has taken the lives of more than 30,000 people, it remains worthwhile to remember this terrorist attack. We have a commemorative page marking its anniversary today on Page F4, and a Page A1 story by staff reporter Rick Dandes.
2. Each Sunday we usually publish a section called Community, filled with mostly reader-submitted photos and short stories about events, honors, accomplishments and more involving people and organizations across the Susquehanna Valley. Now, with all the cancellations and closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, there simply isn’t enough of this content to fill a section. And so, for the time being, we are publishing the Community content we do receive in our Sunday Valley Life section. In the meantime, if you do have photos or stories to share about community people or events, please send them to Karen Renninger at email@example.com.
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