In a photo posted to Twitter this weekend, a giant electronic sign on Lower Broadway urges passers-by: “Don’t share our air” in bright orange letters. Right beside it, a maskless group poses for selfies.
A video shared last month shows sidewalks brimming with people and hardly a mask in sight. TMZ picked it up with the headline, “Nashville Bars: Here’s Why Coronavirus Is Out of Control.” It’s been shared on Facebook more than 18,000 times.
The Metro Nashville Police Department has issued 20,000 verbal warnings to maskless visitors on Lower Broadway since mid-July. But not a single citation.
And as frustration mounts over the lack of enforcement in the bustling tourism district, even the industry’s biggest cheerleader worries the crowds could cause more harm than good.
“The optics are horrible,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. As more of these images come to light, Spyridon feels caught in a bind.
Lower Broad right now. No masks, no distancing, cops do nothing, it's like any other Saturday night.
— NashvilleResist 🗳️ #91DaysToNov3 (@NashvilleResist) August 2, 2020
“I think we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he says. “If we don’t do anything, then we look careless, greedy, I don’t know, caution to the wind. And if we tighten down in a harsh manner, then we’re quote unquote ‘violating somebody’s rights.’ ”
Spyridon wants the tourism industry to reopen eventually. In fact, he’s desperate for it. He says the city has already lost $2 billion in visitor spending since the start of the pandemic.
But Spyridon says his team isn’t marketing to tourists right now. They haven’t since March. The harsh truth, he says, is that it’s not really safe to travel right now.
“If you’re gonna come, you need to agree to comply,” he says. “And, if you can’t comply, then consider postponing your trip until it’s safe.”
Heat maps from the mayor’s office have shown downtown turning darker and darker red since honkytonks started reopening for live music in late May.
And Spyridon says not taking outbreaks seriously now could make it harder for the tourism industry to bounce back.
“We want to win the war. And if we have to lose a couple battles along the way, so be it,” he says. “But, getting back up and running for the long term is way more important in the long term than having a couple good weekends. Some people may not want to hear me say that. Others will be glad to hear me say that.”
Mayor John Cooper says the city’s economy — which relies heavily on the tourism industry — is experiencing “a fragile but hopeful recovery” that needs to be protected.
“We want to get people back to normal. But the way to do that is for cooperation and compliance,” he said at a press briefing Tuesday morning, when asked about the large unmasked crowds of tourists flocking to downtown.
“Anybody who comes here who’s not willing to follow our health orders, they need to be aware that we’re not gonna put up with that,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, Cooper said in a tweet that he’d met with the police department about enforcement and expected the coming weekend to “look very different.”
But the city is struggling to figure out how to rein in a spike in cases while also trying to avoid another economic shutdown.
Last month, Nashville forced most bars to close for in-person service. But some honky tonks on Lower Broadway that serve food and have more square footage are classified as restaurants, not bars. They have been allowed to stay open.
Andrew Cook says that strategy has taken an unfair toll on small bars like his.
“We’re paying the price for the negligence of the bigger bars and establishments that are coasting by on these loopholes and, you know, getting away with what they shouldn’t be getting away with,” he says.
Cook is the co-owner of the Fox Bar and Cocktail Club in East Nashville, which shifted to takeout-only last month, when the city took a step back to phase two rules. He says officials need to crack down on rule breakers in the tourism district, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Otherwise, small businesses like his will be stuck in limbo.
“We have no options, really,” Cook says. “We’re just sitting and waiting and the mayor, the health department, the police, they’re not doing anything. You know, verbal warnings are not gonna deter people at all. People are coming here from all over the country are either bringing the virus or taking it home with them. They’re walking around with no masks downtown. I mean, it’s a joke.”
More than 23,000 people have signed an online petition urging the mayor to shut down Lower Broadway. And the mayor says “all options are on the table” if the situation doesn’t improve.
But Spyridon thinks officials ought to tighten public health enforcement downtown, instead.
He says many business are trying to do the right thing. More than 700 have signed onto the CVC’s Good to Go program, which provides up-to-date COVID-19 information and other resources to businesses that pledge to follow strict health guidelines.
“A second shutdown would be absolutely and permanently devastating to the industry,” Spyridon says. “We have to get this right now.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.
Clarification: This story has been clarified to reflect that some, but not all, honky tonks have been allowed to stay open.