When Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced at a July 2 press conference that he was shutting down all bars in the city for at least 14 days, temporarily shutting down entertainment and event venues, and reducing restaurant capacities from 75 percent to 50 percent, he made no mention of an internal email sent within the Metro Davidson County Health Department just two days earlier on June 30 that stated there had been only 19 cases of COVID-19 traced to bars in the city, just three cases traced to restaurants, but 1,159 cases traced to long term care facilities and health care facilities, and a whopping 1,251 traced to the construction industry since March.
The Tennessee Star has obtained copies of that and several other emails exchanged between the Metro Health Department and Mayor Cooper’s office in June and July.
The email dated June 30, 2020 sent from Leslie Waller in the Metro Health Department at 2:31 pm to Benjamin Eagles in Mayor Cooper’s office contained this message from Waller with the accompanying COVID-19 tracing data:
Late Tuesday night, Fox 17 reported this update to its story that aired earlier in the evening, an interview of Rep. Mark Green (R-TN-07) about Mayor Cooper’s handling of coronavirus reporting:
Update: Brian Todd with the Metro Health Department contacted FOX 17 News to state there was a typo in the department’s initial release of the number of construction cases which stated the number of cases as 1,251. The actual number per Brian Todd is 251 as of the July 2 press conference.
Todd’s update comes two months and 22 days after the June 30 email that originally asserted there were 1,251 coronavirus cases traceable to construction, and serves to heighten the impression that the reliability of coronavirus data provided by the Metro Government is questionable.
You can see the full email exchange at the bottom of page 3 in the attached PDF shows that includes several other emails exchanged between the Metro Health Department and the Mayor’s Office between June 29, 2020 and July 7, 2020:
At the time, June 30, Davidson County had confirmed about 10,000 cases of COVID-19. We now know that somewhere between 2.5 percent and 12 percent of those cases, depending on which version of Metro Health data you use, were traced to the construction industry, a little more than 11 percent of those cases were traced to long term care facilities (LTCF) and healthcare facilities, two-tenths of one percent were traced to bars, and even fewer traced to restaurants.
Based on this data, and the internal email from the Metro Health Department asserting that two-tenths of one percent of all COVID-19 cases in Nashville/Davidson County had “cropped up [at bars] in the last week” Mayor Cooper shut down bars in the city for an initial 14 days from July 3 to July 16, and then extended another 28 days until August 13, for a total of 42 days all bars in the city were shut down.
No such shutdown was ordered for the construction industry on July 2, despite the fact that, according to the June 30 internal Metro Health email, 2.5 percent to 12 percent of Nashville’s COVID-19 cases were traceable to the industry.
Many of the details of these emails were first reported by Dennis Ferrier of Fox 17 in a story that first aired on Wednesday, September 16, and a follow up story that aired on September Thursday 17. Ferrier’s story’s focused on the factual basis upon which Mayor Cooper decided to announce on July 2 that he was shutting down all the bars in the city and reducing restaurant capacity from 75 percent to 50 percent.
Subsequent to a story published at CNN on Saturday, September 19, written by Oliver Darcy, Fox 17 took down the videos of those stories, as well as the written online version of those stories (written by Fox 17 staff other than Ferrier but based on his broadcast reports).
That CNN story, however, is riddled with factual errors, beginning with this claim:
Let me walk you through what happened: On Wednesday, Fox 17 in Nashville, a Sinclair-owned station, published what sounded like an explosive report.The story alleged that the mayor’s office covered up data showing low spread of the coronavirus at restaurants and bars. It essentially suggested that city officials did not disclose the info so that they could justify keeping local businesses shut down.
The coronavirus cases on lower Broadway may have been so low that the mayor’s office and the metro health department decided to keep it secret. Emails between the mayor’s senior advisor and the Health Department reveal only a partial picture. But what they reveal is disturbing.” (emphasis added)
Announcer: The coronavirus cases on lower Broadway may have been so low that the mayor’s office and the metro health department decided to keep it secret. Emails between the mayor’s senior advisor and the Health Department reveal only a partial picture. But what they reveal is disturbing.
Here’s Fox 17’s Dennis Ferrier with the story.
Ferrier: The discussion involves the low number of coronavirus cases emerging from bars and restaurants.
And how to handle that….and most disturbingly how to keep it from the public.
On June 30th, contact tracing was giving a small view of coronavirus clusters.
Construction and nursing homes causing problems more than a thousand cases traced to each category…. But bars and restaurants just 22 cases.
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
A month later the health department is asked point blank about the rumor there are only 80 cases traced to bars and restaurants.
Reporter Nate Rau asks “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 oly 80 or so are traced to restaurants and bars, doesn’t that mean restaurants and bars aren’t a very big problem?
Health Department’s Brian Todd asks 5 health department officials, “Please advise how you recommend I respond. BT.”
The name at the top of the response is clipped off but you may find the answer unacceptable.
“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 the health department or the mayor’s office would confirm the authenticity of the emails but Councilman Steve Glover had a Metro staff attorney inquire. Here’s the official answer:
“I was able to get verification from the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Health that these emails are real” answered the staff attorney
Glover says this is Metro Nashville orchestrating a cover up.
Glover: They are fabricating information. They’ve blown there entire credibility, Dennis, it’s gone. I don’t trust a thing they say going forward …nothing.”
Ferrier: Glover says he has been contacted by an endless stream of downtown bartenders, waitresses, and restaurant owners….Why would they not release these numbers?
Glover: 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 etcetera and we did it on bogus data. That should be illegal!”
Ferrier: Again, we weren’t told by the mayor’s office this wasn’t true. We were told to file a Freedom of Information Act. Which allows us now to ask the question: Why are you keeping this from us? Why would you even want to, it’s just the real numbers. What could possibly be an honorable motive?
I’m Dennis Ferrier, Fox 17 News, your Code Red station.
The Fox 17 story was grossly misleading. For one, city officials never hid data about coronavirus spread at bars and restaurants from the public. That’s just false — and easily debunkable. The data was disclosed at a July 2nd press conference (which was streamed online and which a city official told me Fox 17 was present for) and to a local reporter, Nate Rau, for an article published August 4th by the Tennessee Lookout.
Later in that press conference, WPLN’s Blake Farmer asked for details about the mayor’s claim of “record clusters” around bars.
Dr. Alex Jahangir, chair of the Metro Nashville and Davidson County Government Coronavirus Task Force, responded to that question. The full transcript of that question and response is as follows:
Blake Farmer: Thank you. This decision to move back to phase two, it feels like the primary issue is the bars. You talked about record clusters around bars. When did you start seeing this? And can you give us a little more detail on what kinds of clustering you’ve been seeing and over what time period? (emphasis added)
Alex Jahangir: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Blake. So what I will tell you is Saturday afternoon [June 27] I got a call from one of our leaders of our epidemiologists. And this is not something that typically happens that I get a call. They were like hey, we are starting to see something .
And very quickly this is right at the beginning. They recognized that there was some trend they saw out there they were starting to see that was not typical. They reached out to me. Reached out to the mayor. And all the teams really started working together all weekend to get into the details here.
What we’re seeing is there are about at least 10 locations around the city that have had at least a total of 30 people confirmed that have tested positive. And these are Davidson County residents. And there may be others at these locations that live outside of Davidson County they may have been infected.
So this was atypical, right? (emphasis added)
The CNN article’s next claim that “the data [about coronavirus spread at bars and restaurants] was disclosed . . . to a local reporter, Nate Rau, for an article published August 4th by the Tennessee Lookout,” is chronologically irrelevant to Ferrier’s reports of September 16 and September 17 at Fox 17, which were focused on discovering the factual data upon which Mayor Cooper made his July 2 decision to shut down all bars in Nashville.
Indeed, Ferrier noted that the bar and coronavirus data released to Rau by the Metro Nashville government came long after Mayor Cooper’s July 2 announcements of his decision to shut down all of the bars in Nashville.
“A month later the health department is asked point blank about the rumor there are only 80 cases traced to bars and restaurants,” Ferrier said in his September 16 report.
In recent weeks, regulations from Nashville Mayor John Cooper and the health department have been ramped up a notch as bars were completely shut down and restaurants were given a 10 p.m. curfew.
The result has been restaurants shuttering, staff getting laid off and hours getting slashed. And, despite the painful business implications of the pandemic, a very small number of bars, namely the lower Broadway honky tonks, continue to receive the blame for Nashville not getting the spread of COVID-19 under control.
All of those health regulations and the ensuing fallout on Nashville’s hospitality industry call into question: just how responsible are restaurants and bars for the spread of the virus in Davidson County?
The answer, which the Metro Health Department initially said it could not release before reversing course, is “more than 80 cases” have been identified in clusters from restaurants and bars through the city’s contact tracing effort, according to a department spokesman.
“I do not see a problem with releasing the number of cases that are due to clusters at bars … it is just the issue of whether we can or should release the names of the bars,” one health official wrote to Eagles. That person added, “Releasing the names of bars or schools especially when there haven’t been many cases makes it possible to identify the individual(s) that were positive and HIPPA says you can’t provide any information that may help identify an individual.”For some unknown reason, Fox 17 did not include any of this in the text of its initial story. Instead, it ripped select quotes from context and spun a narrative that suggested the emails revealed city officials were hiding the data from the public because it didn’t show mass spread…
You can see the full exchange of emails between reporter Nate Rau and the Metro Health Department, beginning July 28 and ending July 30, here:
On Tuesday night, Ferrier filed another report on Metro Nashville’s COVID-19 reporting as it relates to bars and restaurants, this time hearing from Rep. Mark Green, who had a number of questions for Mayor Cooper:
Congressman Green says based on the numbers Nashville bars and restaurants should have never closed whatever the stated reason.
“This is a huge impact. We are all sort of in a symbiotic relationship with Nashville. We depend on Nashville, and to have that deception happen to have those economies forced to be closed when there was no scientific reason to be closed is egregious.” said Congressman Green.
We asked the Mayor’s office to respond to Congressman Green’s comment. They never replied to our email.
Last week, The Star quoted Mark Cunningham of the Nashville-based center-right think tank The Beacon Center of Tennessee. Cunningham said Cooper and members of his administration weren’t straightforward enough with their COVID-19 data. In effect, Cooper hurt local businesses and justified fears that government officials would abuse their power during this long emergency, Cunningham said.
Cunningham also said that, with this news, every bar in the city should open back up.
“The issue is that the data had showed very few cases from bars, and he knew that and he shut them down anyway. That’s the bombshell. He [Cooper] knew that there wasn’t an issue with the bars, yet he shut them down,” Cunningham said.
“Science only seems to follow the CDC recommendations when it fits his preconceived agenda, and he’s just had this vendetta against bars. Despite the contrary evidence, he basically has cost business owners, performers, and employees of their livelihoods with numbers that were contradictory to what he was saying publicly.”
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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Dr. Alex Jahangir” by nashville.gov. Background Photo “Nashville City Hall” by euthman. CC BY-SA 2.0.