Nashville is easing up on capacity limits on bars and restaurants and allowing them to stay open later starting this week. The further loosening is in response to continue improvement of coronavirus metrics. But it also comes as the city is being accused of overblowing the risk of restaurants and bars.
The truth is, the actual confirmed coronavirus cases directly linked to restaurants and bars isn’t an eye-popping number — roughly 80 at the end of July. And internal emails recently published by Fox17 show city officials have been careful with how they share these statistics.
At his weekly press conference, Mayor John Cooper says he has nothing to hide. His office published those emails itself shortly after being questioned on Thursday.
— Mayor John Cooper (@JohnCooper4Nash) September 17, 2020
“Of course we’re happy to share all information, but we want the right interpretation,” Cooper says.
The city’s interpretation is that any case traced back to a restaurant or bar likely represents the tip of a much larger iceberg. That’s because the largest bars and restaurants are in downtown’s tourist district, which has also been the focus of the most intense policing related to the city’s mask mandate.
City health director Michael Caldwell says most patrons are from elsewhere, and his department may never hear about those cases.
“When we do see numbers, even a small number, that raises big flags for us,” Caldwell says. He notes that few Nashvillians visit — apart from workers and musicians — but crowds come in from elsewhere.
City officials say their restrictions on bars have also been driven by a recommendation from Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House, who personally visited Nashville when the coronavirus was surging and recommended bars close down before cases got out of hand.
Caldwell says Lower Broadway hits all his top concerns: indoor, no masks and close contact combined with alcohol.
“We know what raises the risk of COVID, and when we see that, we want to do what we can to reduce that risk,” he says.
But with continued improvement, the city is allowing bars and restaurants to stay open until 11 p.m. and increasing indoor capacity to 50% per floor — a change directed at the multistory honky tonks downtown. The city is also giving the Tennessee Titans permission to fill Nissan Stadium to 10% capacity for games in October.