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Nashville Officials Withheld COVID Numbers for Restaurants and Bars Because Cases Were So Low, Emails Show

Newsweek logo Newsweek 9/17/2020 Mili Godio
a close up of a busy city street at night: Downtown Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee on April 8, 2020. Five bars in the downtown area filed for a temporary restraining order against city official over coronavirus restrictions. © Getty/Jason Kempin Downtown Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee on April 8, 2020. Five bars in the downtown area filed for a temporary restraining order against city official over coronavirus restrictions.

Nashville officials reportedly concealed the low number of COVID-19 cases deriving from bars and restaurants in the city, according to emails between the Metro Health Department and Mayor John Cooper's office.

On June 30, contact tracing found that construction and nursing homes were the cause of most Nashville coronavirus cases with thousands traced back to those specific categories. Only 22 cases were traced back to bars and restaurants.

In the series of emails obtained by FOX 17 News, a discussion between the two offices about how to conceal the number associated with restaurants and bars from the public was shown.

"This isn't going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor's Office?" wrote Leslie Waller from the health department.

Senior Advisor Benjamin Eagles responded: "Correct, not for public consumption."

A month later, Tennessee Lookout reporter Nate Rau asked the health department about rumors circulating that only 80 cases resulted from the city's bars and restaurants.

Rau asked: "The figure you gave of 'more than 80' does lead to a natural question: If there have been over 20,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in Davidson and only 80 or so are traced to restaurants and bars, doesn't that mean restaurants and bars aren't a very big problem?"

As a result, Health Department Official Brian Todd asked five other health officials via email for guidance. "Please advise how you recommend I respond," he wrote.

An unnamed sender, whose contact information was cut out from the emails provided to FOX 17, responded: "My two cents. We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site. We could still release the total though, and then a response to the over 80 could be because that number is increasing all the time and we don't want to say a specific number."

Neither Cooper's office nor the Metro Health Department answered Newsweek's requests for comments or verification. Newsweek also reached out to FOX 17 for comment.

In response to the emails between the mayor's office and the Metro Health Department, Nashville Councilman Steve Glover reportedly requested that a Metro staff attorney inquire about the correspondences. The staff attorney said that they were able to verify from the mayor's office and the health department that the emails are authentic.

"We raised taxes 34 percent and put hundreds literally thousands of people out of work that are now worried about losing their homes, their apartments...and we did it on bogus data. That should be illegal," Glover told FOX 17 News about the apparent non-release of the numbers.

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Last month, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. estimated that the city's businesses have lost $2.4 billion so far in visitor spending during the coronavirus pandemic and are reportedly losing $100 million every week, according to the Tennessean. Cooper sent a letter last week to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to request an additional $82.6 million in COVID-19 relief to assist Nashville's tourism industry, music venue, small businesses and expand social resources.

"In its first year, our administration has demonstrated its ability to prudently and swiftly address Nashville's legacy financial challenges as well as deploy CARES Act funds (CRF) received to date," Cooper wrote in a September 8 letter. "However, Nashville requires a robust, speedy federal and state response in order to effectively jumpstart its economy and the economy of the entire state along with us."

He later added: "Critical local services are overwhelmed while Nashville's ability to meet those needs is impeded by insufficient local tax revenues generated by Nashville's previously booming hospitality and entertainment economy."

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