Coronavirus transmission in bars and restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee was so low the mayor’s office opted to hide it from the public, recently-leaked emails show. The statistics throw ongoing shutdowns elsewhere into question.

The Nashville Mayor’s office swept bar and restaurant transmission numbers under the rug because they were too low, emails obtained by local media suggest. The conversation between the mayor’s office and the local health department appears to show the figures were deliberately kept from the public to justify the shutdowns that put many Nashville residents out of work.

After running contact tracing on the city’s new coronavirus cases in late June, the health department discovered nursing homes and construction sites were responsible for over 1,000 cases each – but bars and restaurants were responsible for just 22. 

That was apparently a problem, as health department official Leslie Waller contacted the mayor’s office to make sure Nashville residents weren’t going to see the results. “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?” she asked in an email. A senior adviser to the mayor replied in the affirmative, and the stats went unseen by city residents. 

When a reporter asked a health department official a month later about a report that just 80 cases at the time had been traced to bars and restaurants out of more than 20,000 positive tests in the county, the official sent a panicked email to five of his colleagues asking them to “advise” on how he should respond.

The official was told to spin it as best as he could. “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,” the replying official wrote. 

We raised taxes 34 percent and put hundreds, literally thousands of people out of work that are now worried about losing their homes… and we did it on bogus data,” Nashville council member Steve Glover told local Fox affiliate WZTV, incensed over the apparent coverup. “That should be illegal,” he added.

They are fabricating information… I don’t trust a thing they say going forward.

When WZTV inquired further, they were told to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the city, with both the health department and the mayor’s office refusing to directly confirm the authenticity of the emails. However, Glover contacted an attorney on staff with the city who claimed he was able to verify the veracity of the emails with both the mayor’s office and the health department.

While keeping citizens scared of gathering in bars and restaurants would seem to be a ruinous move for a city that depends on tourism for much of its revenue, Nashville’s government may have a financial incentive to play up coronavirus transmission in public gathering places. 

The city earlier this week asked Tennessee Governor Bill Lee for $82.6 million in Covid-19 relief money to prop up its ailing tourism industry and expand social services. Around $12 million of the requested aid is supposed to help “put musicians safely back to work” in the city’s storied venues – though it would be split with other tourist-draw nonprofits like the Nashville Zoo.

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