NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Nashville Mayor John Cooper held his first in-person press conference in months Thursday, announcing that he’ll be easing restrictions on bars throughout the city. But, with a pending lawsuit against the city, there’s now controversy over email exchanges between Cooper’s staff and the health department.
“The hurt to these families, the revenue lost, to the city, the revenue lost to these business owners who have been struggling since March, it’s just absolutely criminal,” said Attorney Bryan Lewis, representing bar owner Steve Smith and several bars on Broadway in a lawsuit against the city.
Lewis announced the suit at the end of June. In gathering evidence, he said the city’s legal department released about 500 pages of emails from the Metro Nashville Mayor’s office and the health department to him. He claims many of them show the offices were purposely covering up the numbers.
“We are using these emails right now in attempt to try to allow, to get federal court to allow us to oppose Mayor Cooper, Dr. Caldwell, and the officials in the health department about these emails and why you would shut down this industry based on such a low number of cases to put thousands of people out of work,” Lewis told News 2.
Some of the emails show the mayor’s senior advisor, Ben Eagles, asking the health department for stats that would show where isolated COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring in social places, including events and bars.
Eagles shared with News 2 a graph sent by the health department in response to his inquiries.
“Right here, right when these emails were happening, the weekend prior, when public health told Dr. Alex [Jahangir] that they’d identified cases coming from bars, we see a spike and that’s six clusters at that time, July 1st, identified from bars, it’s the highest date to that point, and that was during the biggest spike of cases,” Eagles explained.
That Friday, July 3, the mayor’s office rolled back to a modified phase two, keeping bars entirely closed, the mayor said after finding a few dozen COVID-19 cases linked to ten different bars.
Cooper was asked at his COVID-19 press conference Thursday if stats were ever misleading.
“Of course there’s no effort to withhold information, we’ll do all we can to open up all information,” Cooper said, going on to explain how a White House official had traveled from state to state to inform cities of ‘super-spreader’ activities and the importance of keeping bars closed.
News 2 asked Eagles later that day during a one-on-one interview if the mayor’s office was trying to cover up COVID-19 numbers.
“Absolutely not,” Eagles responded. “And at every point for the last six months, we’ve held, I believe, over 75 press conferences, had an active dashboard where people can track the cases and things like the positivity rate, and we’ve been pretty transparent about the sorts of activities and events that would be risk factors.”
At the beginning of July, the city saw its highest COVID-19 positive rate of about 17%. It is now about 5%.
One of the email responses from the Metro Department of Health to Eagles asked if the numbers he was requesting were for public release, and he said they would not be publicly released, but were “to help understand and guide policy formulation.”
“For context, we are trying to help tell the story of where (what type of activities) the new cases came from,” Eagles also clarified again at a later date.
News 2 inquired why the health official asked if the information was for the public and the department replied:
“If we were to release the referenced document publicly, we would have formatted it to match the formatting of other reports from our office. We also would have made sure it was accessible and contained additional context.”
The Mayor’s office also responded to the allegations in a press release Thursday, stating a recent report from a Nashville television station was, “published with limited information and without context.”
Nashville Councilman Steve Glover told News 2 he is hiring a private investigator to look into the emails.
Lewis said he was getting a lot of calls from people wanting to join the lawsuit once word of the emails went out. He said he wants the mayor and health officials to give a deposition and ultimately answer in front of a jury.
Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.