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In our opinion: A pandemic is no time for government to keep secrets

Deputy Luke Waldrop, left, and Deputy D. Crump, right, patrol the parking lot outside the Holladay Lions Recreation Center in Millcreek on Monday, May 18, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, local and state governments nationwide have begun to withdraw from public scrutiny. Some are either denying or delaying access to information about officials actions, key decisions or expenditures, often with the excuse that workers are overloaded because of matters related to the virus.

Utah is not immune to this. Salt Lake County is quarantining and isolating people who have tested positive for COVID-19, including some who are homeless, at the Holladay Lions Recreation Center or a hotel somewhere in the valley. Officials won’t say, citing concerns about security and safety.

Farther south, officials say two Utah County businesses recently were found to be lax with COVID-19 guidelines, leading to several new cases of the virus. The companies were said to have required sick people to come to work. Yet the county refuses to identify these companies, citing vague reasons about inciting retaliation or undue public fear.

It’s clear, however, that the public has a keen interest knowing where workers were put in danger and with whom those workers might have had contact, just as people need to connect dots and see whether the businesses include people with political connections or other suspicious circumstances.

They also need to know how their taxes are being spent. Salt Lake County apparently is spending $45,000 every two weeks to house first responders and others who have come into contact with the virus, as well as $39,000 weekly to a hotel to house homeless individuals. Other quarantine and isolation facilities exist in the county, as well.

Local and state governments, together with Washington, are spending trillions of dollars to fight the novel coronavirus or to mitigate its effects on the economy. Now more than ever, government transparency is vital. Large expenditures provide opportunities for fraud, especially when public oversight is limited. Governments may be prone to quick decisions of a speculative nature that demand accountability. They may bypass normal competitive bid practices, citing the need to act quickly, while few outside eyes are watching.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, articulated why openness is more important now than ever. “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,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying. “That’s the only way really to avoid waste, fraud, abuse and to ensure that governments aren’t overstepping their bounds.”

Those bounds tend to be stretched when emergencies occur or when public officials worry about public reaction. Often, politicians would prefer to avoid too much scrutiny, and a pandemic can provide a good excuse.

The Deseret News is part of a coalition of Utah news outlets appealing Utah County’s refusal to release records about the two businesses that defied COVID-19 guidelines. The paper also is fighting Salt Lake County’s refusal to identify quarantine and isolation facilities.

The idea isn’t to put people in danger, it is to keep governments accountable to the people they serve, and to put an end to the idea that public emergencies can be used to justify secrecy.