Politics & Policy

Fox Affiliate Retracts Report Alleging Cover Up of Low COVID Case Numbers Tied to Nashville Restaurants

Neon signs on Lower Broadway Area on in Nashville, Tenn., November 11, 2016 ( f11photo/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Fox 17 has retracted a report that accused Nashville officials of concealing the low number of coronavirus cases linked to local restaurants and bars. 

“We don’t have evidence of a cover-up and apologize for the error,” an anchor read during the affiliate’s Friday evening newscast.

The report was based on a series of emails in which an unidentified staffer in the mayor’s office told a health department official not to release case numbers associated with bars and restaurants. The report cast the emails, included in discovery as part of a lawsuit filed by Nashville business owners against the mayor’s office, as evidence of a cover-up, but the mayor’s office announced the numbers at a press conference just two days after the emails were sent.

Officials in Nashville, Tn. concealed from the media how few coronavirus cases had been traced to bars and restaurants in the city, according to emails sent between the mayor’s office and the city’s health department. 

Emails obtained by FOX 17 News appear to show that the two offices seemingly conspired to conceal data showing that while construction and nursing homes led to more than a thousand cases each as of June 30th, only 22 cases had been traced to bars and restaurants. 

In a discussion of the numbers, Leslie Waller from the health department asked, “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?”

“Correct, not for public consumption,” replied senior advisor Benjamin Eagles.

The next month, in response to rumors that only 80 cases had been traced to bars and restaurants, a Tennessean reporter asked, “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 only 80 or so are traced to restaurants and bars, doesn’t that mean restaurants and bars aren’t a very big problem?”

Health department official Brian Todd asked five health department officials for assistance in responding to the reporter: “Please advise how you recommend I respond. “

An unnamed sender responded, “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.”

A city staff attorney, at the instruction of council member Steve Glover, was able to verify that the emails are real, the report said. 

Glover accused the city of covering up the data and “fabricating information.”

“They’ve blown their entire credibility,” he said. “It’s gone, I don’t trust a thing they say going forward …nothing.”

The councilman said many bartenders, waitresses, and restaurant owners from downtown Nashville have reached out asking why officials wouldn’t release those numbers. 

“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. That should be illegal,” Glover said.

The mayor’s office did not confirm or deny the report, but told FOX 17 News to file a freedom of information act request. 

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