An investigation revealed that the leaders of Palm Beach County, Florida, where President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is located, went against federal guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic when they voted to reopen local businesses early -- even though the number of the coronavirus infections had not yet started declining. But local television news coverage of this important public health investigation has been sparse, with only one station reporting on it.
On May 16, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Palm Beach County failed to meet all the federal guidelines for reopening when it voted on May 5 to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to end the coronavirus lockdown, which he approved. According to its analysis, “In the two weeks preceding the decision, coronavirus infections and the percentage of people testing positive in the county had not declined, and now some numbers are trending upward.” That violates one of the federal government’s reopening guidelines, which requires either “a 14-day downward trend in the number of infections or a 14-day downward trend in the percentage of people who test positive,” as the Sun Sentinel reported.
One of the county commissioners told the Sun Sentinel that they knew the county wasn't meeting those guidelines when they voted to reopen anyway, but said “he prefers to look at hospital capacity rather than new infections as a measure of the outbreak’s severity.” According to the newspaper, “Data on hospitalizations over time is not publicly available and is not a federal guideline for reopening.” The Sun Sentinel also revealed that county leaders were using outdated information to inform their vote:
Palm Beach County state health director [Alina] Alonso has provided county commissioners with comprehensive updates about infection numbers, positive test rates, deaths, hospitalizations, ICU capacity, infections in long-term care facilities, and the geographic distribution of cases by ZIP code. That information was often dated, the Sun Sentinel found.
A closer look at the five graphs Alonso displayed at the May 5 commission meeting shows that only one — the trend line of positive cases — was current to that date. Two others, showing infected residents at long-term care facilities and ICU cases, were updated only to May 1. Another two graphs, showing trends in hospitalizations and deaths, were dated to April 30.
You’d think that the revelation that government officials loosened restrictions designed to tamp down on a deadly pandemic without the data to back up that course of action -- a decision-making process public health experts have consistently warned against -- would be widely covered in the area where it happened. But in this case, you’d be wrong.
An iQ media search for TV news mentions of the Sun Sentinel investigation from May 16 through May 20 in the West Palm Beach/Ft. Pierce market found that only one local station covered it -- WPEC, which is a Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned and -operated CBS affiliate and has a news-sharing partnership with the newspaper. The other major broadcast stations in the area -- WPBF, WFLX, and WPTV -- have ignored the investigation.
WPEC’s coverage consisted of nine brief news reports of the investigation, and it left out important details such as county leaders using different metrics that aren’t publicly available or consulting outdated information.
Florida government officials have been trying to hide information about the coronavirus pandemic from the public as people have continued to die -- ranging from resisting to release information about which nursing home facilities had COVID-19 outbreaks, ordering state medical examiners to stop releasing lists of people who have died of COVID-19, to firing the creator and manager of Florida’s COVID-19 information dashboard in an apparent effort to censor the data.
Given Florida’s documented pattern of hiding the truth, the Sun Sentinel investigation deserves better coverage than it has received so far.