As state and local officials around Arkansas dust off their emergency response plans to tackle the outbreak of coronavirus, some are concluding that those plans are exempt from public disclosure.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week requested copies of emergency response plans covering epidemics and infectious disease outbreaks from several agencies, constitutional offices and local governments. The newspaper also sought the same information from four large public school districts.
Nearly half of the responses denied the release of documents under various claimed exemptions to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Other agencies did not immediately respond to the requests. When a citizen asks to see a public document under Arkansas Code Annotated 24-19-105, the Freedom of Information Act, the custodian of the record has three options: provide the record immediately for examination; cite a statute that exempts the document from public disclosure; or if "a public record is in active use or storage and therefore not available at the time a citizen asks to examine it, the custodian shall certify this fact in writing to the applicant and set a date and hour within three (3) working days at which time the record will be available for the exercise of the right given by this chapter.”
The secretary of state's office and the North Little Rock School District denied the newspaper's request, pointing to certain security records exemptions, a provision that was passed by the Legislature three years ago.
The attorney general's office denied a request by pointing to its "working papers" exemption under the Freedom of Information Act, while the Arkansas Department of Corrections cited a long-standing exemption for its emergency preparedness documents.
Ashley Wimberley, the executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said in an email that attempts by government agencies, including school districts, to shield their response plans skirt the Freedom of Information Act and deny useful information to the public.
"If there's ever a time for our government agencies to be transparent, it's in a time of crisis," Wimberley said. "These documents are not exempted from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. While there are other laws about nondisclosure that are specific to schools, it's still in the best interest of school patrons and Arkansas residents to have access to this information."
Among the plans that were made available for review was the state's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which was developed by the Department of Public Safety. The most recent copy of the plan -- totaling 415 pages -- was provided to the Democrat-Gazette on Thursday.
Among the agencies within the Department of Public Safety are the Arkansas State Police and the Division of Emergency Management.
The public safety plan includes a 10-page section on "biological incidents," which delineates a response headed by the Department of Health with the support of more than a dozen state agencies.
Separately, the Department of Health has developed an Influenza Pandemic Response Plan. The department provided a copy to the paper Friday. The strain of coronavirus detected in Arkansas is not a strain of influenza, or flu.
Meg Mirivel, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said state officials are working off of the influenza plan in their response to the coronavirus.
"Even though it is a different virus, it is still spread similarly, it's a respiratory virus," Mirivel said. "So, a lot of the plans that we've made in relation to pandemic flu are still relevant to this virus and how it is spread."
The influenza plan, which was written in 2014, was being updated when the coronavirus outbreak began, Mirivel said. A revised version of the plan is still expected to be finished later this year.
The Little Rock School District and the Conway School District also provided portions of their emergency response plans that are relevant to infectious disease outbreaks.
The pandemic response plan provided by the Little Rock School District covers several pages and details the district's prepared response in four phases: pre-pandemic, diagnosis of a national pandemic, mandated closure of schools and a follow-up phase. The district entered the third phase Thursday when Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the closure of schools in Pulaski County and in three other counties where the coronavirus had been detected.
According to its plan, the Little Rock district will now work with the Department of Education to provide continued education through the Alternative Method of Instruction, while also working with the state to provide food to children.
The crisis response plan provided by the Conway School District did not include a section dedicated to infectious diseases.
"The purpose of this [plan] is to act as a guide for school administrators and school personnel as to how to address a wide range of potential crisis situations in the school setting," the plan states.
The Division of Youth Services, which houses about 241 children and teens in detention, responded to the paper's inquiry with copies of screening tools that are being handed to visitors and staff members to determine if they have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus.
The Department of Corrections, which is responsible for the direct care of more than 15,000 prisoners at 20 units across the state, said its response protocols for a disease outbreak are shielded from the public.
Solomon Graves, the chief of staff for Corrections Secretary Wendy Kelley, said last week that operations at the units were normal. He also said agency officials were talking with medical staff members and reviewing their response plan in case the disease begins to infect inmates.
Graves denied a request by the Democrat-Gazette to review the plan. He pointed to two state laws exempting the department's Emergency Preparedness Manual from public records requests.
"We can only provide assurances that we have protocols in place," Graves said in a text message. "We have dealt with flu outbreaks, chickenpox outbreaks, scabies and widespread foodborne illnesses, among other situations. While they differ we remain confident that our protocols are sufficient to adequately respond to COVID-19."
Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said visitors over the weekend will be questioned about possible exposure to the virus and will have their temperatures checked using no-contact digital thermometers.
Secretary of State John Thurston's office, which closed the state Capitol to the public beginning Thursday, also said it would not release its emergency response plans. A spokesman cited a measure passed by the Legislature in 2017 that exempts from public disclosure records held by the state Capitol Police.
That law, Act 474, was passed along with Act 541, which exempted "emergency or security records" held by public schools and universities. Both laws were sponsored by state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
Stubblefield did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Information for this article was contributed by Ginny Monk and Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
SundayMonday on 03/15/2020
CORRECTION: An article published Sunday about government emergency preparedness documents incorrectly described what happens when records aren’t immediately available for review.