Nashville officials hid figures on coronavirus cases tied to bars and restaurants because the numbers were too low

Fox 17 in Nashville has quite the scoop. Somehow it got hold of emails between an adviser to the mayor and the state health department which show them working out a plan to deceive the public about coronavirus numbers. They weren’t worried that the numbers were too high, rather they were concerned the number of cases tied to transmission at bars and restaurants wasn’t high enough.

On June 30th, contact tracing was given a small view of coronavirus clusters. Construction and nursing homes were found to be causing problems with more than a thousand cases traced to each category, but bars and restaurants reported 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 [to the mayor] Benjamin Eagles.

Almost exactly a month later, a reporter named Nate Rau inquired about the exact number of cases tied to bars and restaurants. The response from the health department spokesman was that “more than 80 cases” had been tied to bars. The following morning the same reporter sent a follow up question: “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?”

The spokesman immediately sent an email out to five other officials in the health department asking for advice on how to respond to that question. A few hours later he got a response which said: “My two cents. We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site…”

Fox 17 is treating this as a gotcha admission that they sat on the numbers because they were so low. But the email actually goes on to state that “data release standards” prohibit the release of counts less than 10 for a given area. So the author is claiming they had to keep the “per bar” figures under wraps because only two bars had more than 10 cases tied to them and the department didn’t want to single out those two bars. The email’s author (whose name is cut off) then added a possible solution for how to respond, “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.’”

So maybe “data release standards” explain why “per bar” totals weren’t released but notice that no part of this answer really addresses the reporter’s question, i.e. doesn’t that fact that these figures are so low suggest restaurants and bars aren’t a very big factor in spreading the virus? The real gotcha here is that the department and the mayor’s office apparently sat on these figures, which they knew would be significant if they got out, for a month.

Fox 17 reports that the mayor’s office and the health department wouldn’t directly confirm the emails were legitimate. The mayor’s office told the station to file an FOIA request for the information. But a city councilman named Steve Glover (that’s him pictured above) had a staff attorney ask. Glover claims the mayor’s office and the health department both verified the emails were real.

Understandably, Glover is livid. “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,” he said.

Here’s the Fox 17 report:

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