April 20, 2020
Charis Wilson, FOIA Officer, P.O. Box 25287
12795 W. Alameda Parkway
Denver, CO 80225
Subject: Freedom of Information Act Request
Dear Ms. Wilson:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As background for this request:
- On April 2, 2020, as Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks I sent a letter to David Vela, Acting Director of the National Park Service (NPS), expressing our concerns about many parks remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic. A copy of the letter is available at: https://protectnps.org/2020/04/02/coalition-letter-to-acting-director-vela-on-continuing-covid-19-response/.
In the letter, we referred to the as yet unpublished March 2020 visitation statistics for the National Park System. Of concern is the fact that millions of people likely visited units of the National Park System that were open or partially open in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also expressed concern about the potential exposure of NPS employees at open parks to COVID-19 via contact with numerous visitors from across the country. We requested that NPS provide regular public notice of the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among NPS employees and at which parks those cases have occurred. To date, we have not received a response to our letter.
As of March 19, 2020, NPS visitation statistics for March 2020 have not been updated or appear to have been only partially updated as many of the parks listed in the posted report show the exact same visitation for March 2020 as they received in March 2019. See https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/SSRSReports/National%20Reports/Current%20Year%20Monthly%20and%20Annual%20Summary%20Report%20(1979%20-%20Present). Furthermore, the NPS has not yet disclosed the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among its employees or the location(s) of those cases.
- On April 6, 2020, the Coalition’s Associate Director of Engagement Emily Thompson submitted an on-line information request to the NPS Office of Communications (via https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/contactus.htm) requesting: “A list of parks and central offices where there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 among NPS employees; [and the] Cumulative # of confirmed cases-to-date for each of the sites listed (where cases have occurred).” The requested also stated: “We are NOT requesting any personal or demographic information about individual employees who have been confirmed with COVID-19; just the name of each park or central office where confirmed cases have occurred and the cumulative number of cases for each of those sites.” To date, we have not received a response to this request.
- On April 8, 2020, Thompson phoned the public contact number for the NPS Office of Communications (202-208-6843) to ask about our previous inquiries and to again seek the information requested. According to Ms. Thompson, “When you call the communications number, it takes you through a phone tree. The option to “speak with a team member” at the end of the tree results in an immediate pick up by a recorded message saying they’re not available. And the voicemail is full. I tried several other options, just to speak to any human, and it’s all automated. Media inquiries are given an email address.” In other words, the NPS Office of Communications cannot be reached and is apparently unavailable to answer information requests.
- On April 13, 2020, Ms. Thompson submitted an on-line information request to the NPS Office of Public Health to request the same information regarding the number and location of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among NPS employees. The request was submitted via the Office of Public Health’s on-line contact form at: https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1735/contactus.htm. To date, we have not received a response to this request.
- Also on April13, 2020, the Coalition’s Executive Director Amy Fehir e-mailed acting NPS Chief of Public Affairs NPS Alex Picavet to request the same information. To date, we have not received a response to this request.
- On April 17, 2020, an article was published on the Union of Concerned Scientists website asking, “Why isn’t the Interior Department publicly sharingdata about COVID-19 infections amongst its staff?” The article indicated that as of early April hundreds of parks (i.e., units of the National Park System) remained open or partially open to visitation. See https://blog.ucsusa.org/maria-caffrey/do-any-national-park-service-staff-have-covid-19-interior-department-isnt-saying.
Because NPS has been unresponsive to our multiple requests for basic information regarding the number of NPS employees diagnosed with COVID-19, I request an electronic copy of the following document or documents under the Freedom of Information Act:
- The most current version of the NPS “Current Year Monthly and Annual Summary Report, Total Recreation Visits for Mar 2020.” It would be similar in format to: https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/SSRSReports/National%20Reports/Current%20Year%20Monthly%20and%20Annual%20Summary%20Report%20(1979%20-%20Present). However, it would reflect actual March 2020 visitation for all parks listed, rather than simply repeating March 2019 visitation for many of the units listed.
- Any dated written communications, including but not limited to internal e-mails from the NPS Office of Public Health to NPS or DOI leadership personnel; NPS leadership team meeting minutes; or leadership briefing reports that indicate:
1) the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 that have occurred among NPS employees;
2) a list of parks and central offices where those cases have occurred; and
3) the number of cases at each NPS site where the confirmed cases have occurred.
Please note: We are NOT requesting any personal or demographic information about individual employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
In order to help to determine my status with regard to fees, you should know that I am a representative of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). The Coalition is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to study, educate, speak, and act for the preservation and protection of the National Park System and mission-related programs of the National Park Service. We are seeking the above information in order to better understand the extent of spread of COVID-19 among NPS employees while many parks have remained open or partially open to millions of visitors across the National Park System since March 1, 2020.
I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. Having such information will enable the Coalition to more effectively communicate and advocate for the protection of the health and safety of NPS employees as millions of people continue to visit the National Park System during the ongoing pandemic.
Thank you for your consideration. Given the limited scope of this request, we would appreciate a timely response.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
cc: David Vela, Acting Director, National Park Service
Charis Wilson, FOIA Officer, National Park Service