When prospective tourists visit Nashville’s official website, they’re told the Music City is “good to go” despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic surging across the United States. But the hordes of mask-less visitors crowding the southern city have left residents and health experts fearful that a rise in new cases and hospitalizations in Tennessee—a state officially deemed a “red zone” by the White House—is only going to get worse.
“Nashville is halfway closed and people are not catching on. They still want to come to visit. They want to come party,” Kirsten Williams, a Nashville travel agent, told FOX17.
One Nashville EMT told The Daily Beast that the visitors “seem to forget” the country is in the middle of a pandemic.
“Over the last few weeks, things have definitely picked up here, but we are hanging in. But I think the biggest concern is that while residents in Nashville are taking it seriously from my point of view—wearing masks, social distancing—visitors seem to forget a pandemic is happening,” he said. “I don’t want to think about what will happen if things continue like this—I’m worried about these visitors.”
One of the first states to loosen virus restrictions in April, Tennessee set records for new cases in July. And this week, the White House privately said Nashville is seeing such an increase in the percentage of positive tests, it is among 11 cities that need to take “aggressive” steps—alongside Miami, Las Vegas, and New Orleans.
In Nashville, where local officials issued a mask mandate in July, the hospital system is starting to feel the effects of an outbreak cascading from more rural areas of the state. The Metro Public Health Department on Friday reported that just 17 percent of the city’s hospital beds are free. Available ICU beds also remain at 17 percent—both figures are well below the city’s 20 percent threshold for reopening.
Nashville also reported an increase of 294 new cases Friday, bringing the county’s total to 19,124 cases. So far, 174 people have died in Nashville, accounting for about 18 percent of the state’s total death toll.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper rolled back premature reopening plans, introduced a mask mandate, and closed down all bars in Davidson County on July 2 for two weeks. Earlier this month, the city reverted back to Phase 2 of their plan—with modifications—and said that restaurants that serve alcohol will have to close at 10 p.m.
“If you’re upset about these new rules, you’re not paying attention,” Cooper said in a Thursday news briefing. “We have to do this together. There’s no other way to stop the pandemic.”
But while Nashville has taken extraordinary steps to curtail the spread of the deadly virus, residents are worried that tourists crowding the Music City aren’t.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told The Daily Beast that while Nashville is “hanging in there” it is “not comforting” to see the tourist district filled with visitors not adhering to social distancing or the mask mandate.
“Our community by and large is on board with masks but people that are visiting downtown are not being as careful,” Schaffner said. “People are still going to religious services on the weekends—the virus will like that group activity just as much as a bar.”
He added that other—more rural and Republican—counties in Tennessee are also driving the surge of cases. “Tennessee is a deeply red state, and the cities are little blue dots comparatively. So if you go outside cities, you don’t see mask-wearing,” he said. “There are a whole lot of people who have listened to political leadership… and have decided not to wear them.”
Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, also stressed in a Thursday press briefing that the ongoing pandemic was rapidly spreading throughout Tennessee, particularly its rural counties. She said 10 cities and 24 counties are now on the state’s “red zone list”—including Nashville—and the state needs to focus its attention on the “incredibly pressing” issue.
So far, 83 of the state’s 95 counties are operating under unacceptable transmission rates, Piercey added.
“Let’s be clear: We’re not Florida. But Tennessee as a whole, while it’s not a hotspot, it’s warming up,” Schaffner said.
The White House, according to a report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, believes Tennessee is already facing catastrophic virus consequences. In a July 14 document from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, public health officials stated Tennessee reached “red zone” status—meaning there were more than 100 new cases for every 100,000 residents in the last week. Tennessee had about 155 new cases per capita in the previous week, compared to the national average of about 119.
“Tennessee has seen an increase in new cases and a decrease in testing positivity over the last week,” the report states, noting that the federal government has deployed FEMA support and medical supplies to the state. Shelby County, Davidson County, and Rutherford County represent 50 percent of the new cases in Tennessee, it said.
And in a private call with state and local leaders on Wednesday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, honed in on Nashville. Stating that the Music City is among 11 cities with alarming increases in positive test rates—a strong indicator that an area is losing control of the outbreak—Birx urged aggressive action.
“When you first see that increase in test positivity, that is when to start the mitigation efforts,” Birx said during the call, according to a recording obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. “I know it may look small and you may say, ‘That only went from 5 to 5-and-a-half [percent], and we’re gonna wait and see what happens.’ If you wait another three or four or even five days, you’ll start to see a dramatic increase in cases.”
During another briefing on Thursday, however, Cooper’s press secretary pushed back on the White House and Birx’s analysis, stating they were operating on “old information.”
“This is not new information. This is old information that Mayor Cooper and others in these press briefings have repeated several times over the past month, that case numbers had gone up, that the positivity rate has been increasing and, just as we have implemented aggressive measures, including a modified Phase Two, including a mask ordinance,” Chris Song said. “We are starting to see some of those numbers slightly improve.”
Dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of the Metro Coronavirus Task Force, on Thursday also stressed that the transmission rate has decreased to 1.08 percent in Davidson County—but “new cases went up and hospitals are seeing more COVID patients.”
And the Nashville EMT also believed that numbers were on the path to improvement in the city, but residents’ hard work would be upended if local and state officials didn’t take hard-line actions against tourism.
The EMT, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of job retaliation, said he’d seen first-hand how patrons at local bars downtown do not adhere to the mask mandate or social distancing guidelines, and owners “are scared to yell at them because they’re desperate for clientele after the shutdown.”
And the influx of tourism, desperately needed after the economy halted during Tennessee’s stay-at-home order, is already resulting in increasing COVID-19 numbers. According to heat maps, released by the city on Tuesday, a cluster of cases has emerged in downtown Nashville and southeast Davidson County.
“We need a state-wide mask requirement and we need a real emphasis on social distancing and not gathering in groups—and that includes religious gatherings,” Schaffner said.
While Cooper and other city officials so far have not made any official comment about stricter guidelines for tourists, Schaffner added that law enforcement has made an effort in the last week to remind business owners and patrons about the rules. City authorities on Friday also cracked down on party buses, amending a health order to force “transportainment” vehicles like pedal taverns and and party tractors that serve alcohol to close. They had previously been exempt from restrictions.
But Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has stressed he is not considering a state-wide mask mandate, despite believing in the importance of using masks. During a Thursday press briefing, Lee said that despite the surge of new COVID-19 cases, he is relying on local officials to make a “targeted approach.”
“It’s been shown that there’s improvement with wearing masks. It also engages people and gives them confidence to go out,” the Republican governor said, before adding “a mandate is simply a mandate. It doesn’t equate to mask-wearing.”
“There’s a great deal of trust at the local leadership,” Lee added. “So that targeted approach, we believe, is the best way to actually get people to engage in mask wearing more effectively than a state-wide one-size-fits-all mandate.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.