As Florida tries to move past the COVID-19 crisis and reopen businesses and venues, the former manager of the state’s novel coronavirus data project alleges she was fired for refusing to cook the numbers and make the state look better.
Rebekah Jones said Friday she was removed from her position, local outlet Florida Today was the first to report.
Jones built and managed the COVID-19 data dashboard for the state from March until May 5. Last week, she explained that for “reasons beyond my division’s control,” her office lost all connection to the portal, and neither she nor her team was any longer involved with it, its data, its publication, or answering questions.
“They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data,” she wrote last Friday in a message to researchers and collaborators on the dashboard project. She added, “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.”
Late Monday, Jones said she was not only removed from her position heading up the dashboard team but was fired from her job entirely because she refused to juke the stats. In an email to local outlet CBS12, Jones said she lost her position because she refused “to manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen” the state.
A spokesperson for Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said yesterday that Jones was fired for “a repeated course of insubordination,” adding that she exhibited “blatant disrespect” and was “disruptive.” DeSantis himself called the allegations of data manipulation “a nonissue.”
Florida was slow to adopt any shutdown or social-distancing measures, and it was fast to reopen, going to a “full phase 1” statewide this week. As of Monday, malls, restaurants, barbershops, and gyms have been allowed to resume business even in Florida’s busiest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward. DeSantis is also pushing for theme parks (such as Universal Studios and Walt Disney World) to reopen, according to Politico. Some individual cities, such as Miami Beach, are taking te reopening more slowly.
Other states have also faced allegations of manipulating data related to the novel coronavirus to make conditions appear more favorable. The Atlantic reported at length last week on data collection in Virginia, for example, where state health officials were combining data from two different kinds of COVID-19 test in a way that made the result look more favorable to the public. (The state has since discontinued the practice.)
Last last week, officials in Georgia, which has also been rapidly reopening businesses, faced criticism for publishing a deeply misleading bar chart that appeared to show a decline in COVID-19 diagnoses over time—by mixing up the dates on the X-axis and putting them out of order.