Cooper Responds To Allegations Metro Covered Up Low COVID-19 Case Counts In Nashville Bars
The Center Square [By Vivian Jones] –
A report by a local Fox News affiliate accuses Nashville Mayor John Cooper of covering up the low number of COVID-19 cases in bars and restaurants in the city.
While Cooper has not touted the city’s low number of cases tied to bars and restaurants in his news conferences and has maintained restrictions on bar operations, Metro Government has not concealed the information, nor has the Metro Public Health Department refused to comply with public records requests. The Center Square and another news outlet previously reported the number of cases tied to Nashville bars and restaurants – the data the mayor is accused of hiding.
Fox News affiliate WZTV published excerpts from several emails leaked from Mayor Cooper’s office and reported the emails show that the mayor covered up low case counts tied to bars and restaurants.
“We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site,” an unidentified Health Department official wrote in an August email to Brian Todd, who is the communications director for the Metro Public Health Department. “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 Fox 17 story also included a June 30 exchange on an unspecified topic between Health Department official Leslie Waller and Cooper adviser Benjamin Eagles, where Waller clarified that information being discussed would remain internal.
“This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?” Waller wrote.
“Correct, not for public consumption,” Eagles responded.
It is unclear from the excerpts published by Fox 17 whether information being discussed would be privileged under federal HIPPA regulations.
Additional emails from the same thread released by mayor’s office spokesman Chris Song on Thursday afternoon provided more context.
“We need to be able to release data as much as possible,” Eagles wrote, requesting clarification on the Health Department’s policy for sharing numbers of cases for specific industries. “What will our policy be regarding sharing case numbers from schools? We need to be able to communicate our policy either way.”
Cooper responded to the story Thursday morning at the first nonvirtual news conference he has held in months.
“Of course, there is no effort to withhold information,” Cooper said.
When Nashville’s reopening plan began May 11, bars serving food were allowed to operate at half capacity. Limited service bars that derive the majority of their revenue from alcohol sales were ordered to remain closed. When the city moved to phase two of reopening May 25, bars were ordered to remain closed. On June 22, when the city moved to phase three, bars were allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. Two weeks later, when Cooper reverted the city to phase two, bars were ordered to close for 14 days.
“Our public health investigators have found a record number of clusters originating from bars within the past week, which have affected employees, patrons and musicians,” Cooper said during a July 2 news conference, when according to emails released by Fox 17, only 22 cases were tied to bars in the city through contact tracing.
Amid extended closures because of public health orders, at least 24 Nashville restaurants and bars have been forced to close permanently since March, according to a list by Eater magazine.
Cooper said Thursday the city consistently has complied with public health directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“We responded to the White House directly. If you remember that era, Dr. Birx herself flew to Phoenix and drove from city to city to ask cities to close bars. Now we did that in advance of her actually being here,” Cooper said.
“Based on our density and our population and how people act, we should still be the most affected county in the state. But we took action,” Cooper explained. “We took action ahead of time, and, in response to careful information sent to us by the White House to do what we did, and it has been effective.”