Leaked emails between an adviser in the Nashville mayor’s office and the city health department indicate that officials were interested in concealing the number of COVID-19 cases that were traced to bars and restaurants because the number was so low, according to WZTV-TV.
As of June 30, contact tracing efforts had found only 22 cases tied to bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, more than a thousand cases each were traced to construction and nursing homes. Health department official Leslie Waller emailed Benjamin Eagles, a senior adviser in the mayor’s office, to confirm that the information would not be publicly released. From WZTV:
Leslie Waller from the health department asks, “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?”
“Correct, not for public consumption,” writes senior advisor Benjamin Eagles.
By July 30, only about 80 cases had been traced to bars and restaurants, continuing to affirm that restaurants and bars were not significant sources of COVID-19 transmission in the city.
A reporter named Nate Rau spoke to the health department about this, asking, “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?”
This question prompted Brian Todd in the health department to email five others in the department to ask how he should respond to the question. One of the responses he received, from an official whose name is cut off from the top of the email, walks through how they could answer without revealing the specific details.
“My two cents: We have certainly refused to give counts per bar (i.e. # of cases per bar cluster) because those numbers are low per site, and there are data release standards prohibiting the release of a total count that is less than 10 per small geographic area,” an official responded to Todd. “We do have 2 bars now where the counts are over 10, but then that would single out those two and not the others. 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.'”
WZTV said the health department and the mayor’s office would not confirm whether the emails were authentic.
Nashville city Councilman Steve Glover had a staff attorney check into the authenticity of the emails, and the attorney told WZTV they were real. Glover accused city officials of a cover-up.
“They are fabricating information,” Glover told WZTV reporter Dennis Ferrier. “They’ve blown their entire credibility, Dennis. It’s gone; I don’t trust a thing they say going forward. Nothing.”
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Nashville’s restaurants and bars are still severely limited in how many people they can serve at one time. The city is in Phase 2 of reopening, which means restaurants can serve patrons indoors at 50% capacity, bars can only have 25 customers indoors and 25 outdoors at one time, and all restaurants and bars must close at 10:30 p.m.