The woman who helped create and manage Florida’s covid-19 dashboard, an innovative accounting of the spread of the virus throughout the state, has been abruptly removed for her post—a move that she characterized as retaliation for her refusing to alter data that would help re-open the state.
As Florida Today reports, Rebekah Jones was the architect behind the dashboard, a publically accessible database tracking covid-19 cases, deaths, testing, and other vital data. She led a team of Florida Department of Health data scientists and public health officials who kept the information—such as cases and testing by county and zip code—free and readily available. Her work was praised by White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx (one of the few doctors Trump appears to listen to).
But in recent weeks, Jones had noticed data vanish from the dashboard without explanation, and the database has reportedly crashed, gone offline, and become less accessible. In an email Jones sent to colleagues and database subscribers announcing her departure, she expressed concern that her removal was an orchestrated attempt to censor data.
From Florida Today:
Citing “reasons beyond my division’s control,” Jones said her office is no longer managing the dashboard, is no longer involved in publication, fixing errors or answering questions “in any shape or form.”
She warned that she does not know what the new team’s intentions are for data access, including “what data they are now restricting.”
[Jones wrote:] “As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”
Jones was more frank in an email to a West Palm Beach, Florida CBS affiliate CBS12: She said that she was removed from her post because she refused to follow orders to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”
On Monday, Florida began what the state is calling Full Phase One of its covid-19 economic recovery plan. Restaurants, retail stores, as well as barbershops, nail salons, and gyms are allowed to re-open with 50 percent capacity. The rules are convoluted: for instance, they allow barbers and nail techs to go about their business as long as they social distance, a virtually impossible task.
This disconnect between logic and public policy seems to be of little consequence to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, who dragged his feet about enforcing strict covid-19 social distance guidelines for weeks, is one of the biggest cheerleaders of re-opening the state. (He even tweeted about a celebratory haircut.) But as ABC News reports, Florida’s reopening occurs without a significant drop in covid-19 cases: “Data provided by the Florida Health Department... has shown that the state as a whole isn’t making major progress toward bringing its cases and deaths down over the last two weeks.”
This seems to be the modus operandi of conservative politicians: Shift the focus on reducing the spread of covid-19 and setting up conditions that might allow for some resumption of public life by doubling down on commerce at the expense of any context. But if Jones’ warning of data tweaking is correct, those numbers might just fall in DeSantis’s favor sooner rather than later.