Coronavirus clampdown: The virus casts a shroud over American civic life

States and cities across the country are cutting off access to open records and canceling in-person meetings, starving the public — not to mention lobbyists and other influence-brokers — of information as the coronavirus outbreak reaches into all corners of civic life.

The public access shutdown comes just as local officials make unprecedented decisions about health care and how to disburse billions of dollars in federal aid. And it could undermine years of hard-won victories on access to information, some transparency advocates say, with now-temporary restrictions enduring even after this crisis has receded.

Meetings that typically allow constituents to physically interact with their representatives have been suspended. Activists and lobbyists no longer have physical access to state lawmakers in some places. And many cities and states, their staff preoccupied with the virus, have halted or curbed their responses to public records requests. 

That is meeting pushback from some public transparency and good government advocates who warn that a public health emergency shouldn’t undermine the public’s access to the workings of government — particularly when that government is making critical, life-and-death decisions. One advocate drew a parallel to how some records vanished from public view after the Sept. 11 attacks. Read more…