City officials in Nashville are under fire after a thread of emails were released by Fox 17 News on Thursday demonstrating that Mayor John Cooper and Metro Health Department shut down bars and restaurants despite COVID-19 contact tracing showing they contributed very little to disease transmission.
In June, the city began a contact tracing initiative for certain “coronavirus clusters.” While the tracing results showed that more than a thousand cases of COVID-19 were discovered to be highly transmissible for people on construction sites and in nursing homes, bars and restaurants combined only had 22 cases.
According to emails obtained by the local news station and a subsequent Tennessean factcheck, the mayor’s senior advisor and a health department employee discussed how much information to release to the public, including deciding not to release information about transmissions linked to individual businesses.
“This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?” health department employee Leslie Waller asked.
“Correct, not for public consumption,” senior advisor Benjamin Eagles replied.
When asked about the low numbers produced from supposed transmission in bars and restaurants by a reporter, health department official Brian Todd didn’t know how to respond and asked other officials for assistance.
“Please advise how you recommend I respond,” he wrote.
A reply from an unidentified source on the email chain clearly stated that the department did not “want to say a specific number” because the numbers were “low.”
“My two cents. We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site,” the email read.
“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,” it continued.
Cooper closed bars and restaurants earlier in the year due to rising COVID-19 concerns.
While neither the mayor’s office nor the Metro Health Department responded to the allegations, a Metro staff attorney verified the emails at the request of a local councilmember Steve Glover.
“I was able to get verification from the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Health that these emails are real,” the staff attorney said.
According to Glover, the emails and lack of response by the mayor’s office and health department indicate deception.
“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 said.
“They are fabricating information,” Glover added. “They’ve blown there entire credibility…It’s gone. I don’t trust a thing they say going forward …nothing.”
Instead of responding to a comment request on the issue to Fox 17, the news outlet reports that it was “told to file a freedom of information act request” to confirm and verify the emails.
When an investigative reporter at Fox 17 News pressed the mayor’s office for comment on the issue at a press conference on Thursday, Cooper’s spokesman Chris Song accused the station of having a “lapse in journalistic judgment” by not following up again.
“When you asked for comment, there was absolutely no context for the comment that you requested,” Song said.
“We’re asking you now,” the reporter replied. “We asked you before, we’re asking you afterwards. It’s so funny that a metro staff attorney validated these emails in one hour that you told us to FOIA.”
Update, Sept. 19: After these news reports came out, Mayor Cooper’s office put out the following statement saying his office had publicly released the low transmission rates in July:
Following an exchange of emails dating June 29, 2020 between the Mayor’s office and Metro Public Health in which our administration gathered information about the sources of COVID-19 spread in Davidson County, the number of cases and clusters linked to Nashville bars was shared with media in response to a question during a press conference on July 2, 2020. FOX17 Nashville was at this press conference.
Among others, The Tennessean and NewsChannel 5’s Phil Williams have fact-checked and debunked the allegations within FOX17’s September 16 report. Mayor Cooper calls on the station’s general manager, Noreen Parker, and the reporter, Dennis Ferrier, to apologize to all Nashvillians for misleading the city and eroding public trust through negligent reporting.
Fox 17 removed its story and apologized Sept. 18 for calling the email discussion a “cover-up,” because the information had in fact already been publicly released. This Federalist article’s headline and original text has been updated accordingly. Yet a lawyer for local bars and restaurants still says the city has used its COVID data as a weapon.
“They misrepresented the number of cases to the public just by using general terms in order to hide the fact that they were actually retaliating against the bar owners that chose to sue them for being closed without any scientific data,” attorney Kirk Clements alleged to Fox 17.
According to the Tennessean factcheck of this local controversy over shutting down bars and restaurants despite low COVID-19 spread connected to them, on Thursday “Cooper defended the decision-making on bars, insisting that restrictions were less about how many cases had been traced to bars and more about their potential to become ‘super-spreaders.’ The closure of bars, he said, was a large contributor to Nashville’s dramatic progress against the virus.”
This story from Fox 17 Nashville has been taken down because it turned out that the data in question had been disclosed publicly last summer. That data, however, did indicate very little Covid 19 spread from bars and restaurants. Officials shut down such establishments anyway. https://t.co/nJ5mGRjYEB
— Brit Hume (@brithume) September 19, 2020
(Thread) The Nashville story is insane. The city had actually moved to Phase 3 in late June but then right before July 4 weekend, when bars and restaurants were planning to recoup lots of lost revenue, the mayor went BACK to phase 2 and shut all bars down for two more weeks.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) September 17, 2020