Nashville Won’t Release COVID Data For Individual Restaurants And Bars, Emails Show

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CORRECTION: This story has been updated to provide full context as to what coronavirus case numbers were withheld and why, according to emails from local government emails. It has also been updated to include the mayor’s demand for an apology from Fox 17, and Fox 17’s retraction for reporting quotes that lacked full context and were, consequently, misleading. This story reported the published emails similarly and has been thoroughly corrected. This version will remain published for full transparency. This story also removed comments from a Nashville council member since his remarks were made prior to Fox 17’s retraction. We regret the error.

Nashville’s Metro Health Department allegedly withheld coronavirus data for individual bars from the public, emails show.

Fox 17 Nashville initially reported that internal emails from the department discuss the low amount of coronavirus cases traced to restaurants and bars and how to hide those figures from the public, however, a Saturday CNN report showed that the mayor’s office withheld data for individual bars due to HIPPA violation concerns.

Fox 17 has retracted its original story.

“In a segment that aired earlier this week, we incorrectly asserted that Mayor Cooper’s office withheld COVID-19 data from the public, which implied that there had been a cover up. We want to clarify that we do not believe there was any cover-up, and we apologize for the error and oversight in our reporting,” Fox 17 said to CNN.

Contact tracing commissioned over the summer found that construction crews and nursing homes were more responsible for the virus’s spread than Nashville’s restaurants and bars, which reported 22 cases as of June 30, according to Fox 17.

In response to the findings, one health department official asked, “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?” the emails showed, Fox 17 reported.

“Correct, not for public consumption,” said Benjamin Eagles, a senior advisor to Nashville Mayor John Cooper, the following message shows.

CNN reported Saturday that the full version of this email exchange shows that the mayor’s office was not opposed to releasing the total number of cases contracted from bars, but would withhold the cases from individuals bars out of concern for HIPPA regulations.

“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,” Eagles wrote in his message, according to CNN.

“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,” he added.

A month later, Nashville’s health department was confronted about a rumor that the state capital’s restaurants and bars led to only 80 cases by a reporter for the Tennessean, according to Fox 17. (RELATED: Tennessee House Votes To Be Second Amendment Sanctuary State)

“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 [County] and only 80 or so are traced to restaurants and bars, doesn’t that mean restaurants and bars aren’t a big problem?” the reporter asked.

In an internal email shortly after, health department official Brian Todd asked others in the department, “please advise how you recommend I respond.”

Officials responded to Tood, confirming that data relating to restaurants and bars had not been released “because those numbers are low per site,” Fox 17 reported.

“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 response to Todd said.

The mayor’s office has denied the allegations of a coverup, according to Fox 17, and issued a statement Friday requesting a retraction and apology.

“Among others, The Tennessean and NewsChannel 5’s Phil Williams have fact-checked and debunked the allegations within FOX17’s September 16th report,” the statement said.

“Mayor Cooper calls on the station’s general manager, Noreen Parker, and the reporter, Dennis Ferrier, to apologize to all Nashvillians for misleading the city and eroding public trust through negligent reporting.”

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