Coronavirus Cases: A Nashville Restriction Eats Away at Public Trust Like Acid

A social distancing sign on a table inside the Home Team Pub, which has recently introduced strict social distancing rules after reopening from coronavirus restrictions in the Syracuse suburb of Liverpool, N.Y., July 22, 2020. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

The report that Nashville city officials downplayed and hid data which indicate that few of the city’s coronavirus cases could be traced to bars and restaurants, for fears the data would undermine public belief that the restrictions were necessary, represents the equivalent of acid eating away at public trust.

As our Brittany Bernstein covers on the home page, contract tracing determined “construction and nursing homes were found to be causing problems with more than a thousand cases traced to each category, but bars and restaurants reported just 22 cases” at the end of June. The data indicated that Davidson County, which includes Nashville, had 20,000 positive cases at that time.

Nashville began its phased opening in May, and on May 25, restaurants were allowed to open at three-quarters capacity, with bar areas closed. In late June, bars were allowed to reopen at half capacity.

But in early July, citing an increase in the number of cases, the mayor closed bars again and reduced restaurants to fifty percent capacity. What is particularly galling is that the numbers in these emails don’t align with the public statements from local officials:

Mayor John Cooper singled out bars as an infection risk in the city, saying they were the source of a “record number of clusters” of new cases this week.Dr. Alex Jahangir, head of the city’s coronavirus task force, said public health workers first detected a trend of bar-related infections last weekend and have since traced at least 30 new infections of Nashville residents across 10 different bars.

(Note this is a novel coronavirus, so it’s not that hard to have “a record number of cases” in any given location.)

Then on August 13, Nashville bars were allowed to reopen with a 25-customer limit or whatever smaller number that permits sufficient social distancing.

Based on what we can see, the mayor reinstated restrictions on bars and restaurants, even though there wasn’t evidence that those establishments were major factors in the increase in cases. Those businesses have every right to be outraged.

This spring, public officials at all levels were thrown into a public-health crisis that made the first SARS, H1N1, Ebola, MERS, and Zika look like small potatoes. It is understandable that mistakes would be made, but officials assured us that their decisions were data-driven and that they were following science (or “SCIENCE!” as Gavin Newsom insists).

When cities and states enacted lockdowns, mostly in March and April, the U.S. had about a million diagnosed cases, concentrated in cities, particularly in the Northeast. Lots of counties in the rest of the country had few or no cases. Enacting a full lockdown in those places — shutting down all nonessential businesses, telling people to stay home, placing restrictions on interstate travel — was an excessive step that burned through a limited supply of public patience. Eight weeks of lockdowns limited the stress on hospitals and bought time, but at extreme economic cost, and that time was largely not put to good use. We would have been better off if restrictions were enacted on a local basis, depending on the prevalence of cases — although our assessment of how many cases were in an area was impeded by the limited number of tests and the difficulty of getting fast results. Some corners of the public will be highly resistant to any attempt to reinstate those restrictions, because they no longer have faith that they’re necessary.

Every restriction enacted on the public comes with an inherent pledge: “We’re doing this because we have to, not because we want to, and because the data support this decision.” Except now we know, at least in this case . . . the data didn’t really point the finger at bars and restaurants at all.

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