Nashville Tourism During Covid: Is the City Doing Enough?
Last weekend, in a new building with sweeping views of Nashville’s skyline in a gentrifying neighborhood in East Nashville, organizers advertised a party on social media dubbed “The V.I.P. Viewing of the Fashion House.” Masks were scarce. Hookahs were plentiful. And bodies by the hundreds packed and writhed in tight. Judging by videos posted to Instagram the next day, Nashville looked like it had opened its own Hedonism resort.
One out-of-town attendee who goes by DaddysJuiced appeared in a video that showed him on his knees, his face burrowed in the ass of a woman. Framed in one of the home’s massive windows, DaddysJuiced did his thing while being gawked at by a long line of people waiting to get inside on the street below.
Just under three miles away in Nashville’s Broadway entertainment district, a less analingus-centered though similarly batshit scene was unfolding, one that had been going on for weeks. A sign set up in front of the three-tiered drinking temple Honky Tonk Central flashed, “Wear Mask Its the Law!” but few heeded the punctuation-be-damned mandate. Tourists milled about with masks below their chin, in hand, or without one at all. A photo on social media showed two bare-faced bros hoisting beers as they posed for a selfie with Metro Nashville police officers. On the corner of Fifth and Broadway, a stone’s throw from the Ryman Auditorium, a stretch pickup truck ferried drinkers and their red plastic cups into the night.
Welcome to Nashville During a pandemic, where the party carries on, unabated.
Lower Broad right now. No masks, no distancing, cops do nothing, it’s like any other Saturday night.
— NashvilleResist 🗳️ #86DaysToNov3 (@NashvilleResist) August 2, 2020
We should have seen it coming. For nearly 10 years, Nashville has cultivated its image as Las Vegas East (its nickname is NashVegas, after all), a city that advertises itself as a tourist-friendly destination to drink to excess and get rowdy, then validates it with an unbalanced focus on Broadway tourism. Romanticized as ground zero for rising country singers who play for tips in overhyped cover bars like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Kid Rock’s Badass Honky Tonk and Rock & Roll Steakhouse, the district on weekends pre-pandemic was typically tense and crowded. The threat of a sucker punch feels imminent. Party buses, wagons pulled by tractors, and mobile hot tubs creep by with drunk tourists crammed inside. It’s a sad hell that not even Kristofferson could envision in a song.
Up until this weekend, little of this had changed during the pandemic. Nashville, while publicly trying to combat a raging virus, remained addicted to tourism. In early July, just a few days after the city abruptly canceled its Fourth of July fireworks spectacle because of a surge in COVID-19 cases, the city’s Twitter account asked, “What’s your first stop in Nashville?” Most replies referenced various bars and landmarks; a few tweeted “hospital” or “COVID test.” It wasn’t an overt call to visit, but nonetheless, the tourists came.
The city has been sending mixed signals, says Erin McAnally, a writer and consultant who, with business partner Chelsea Crowell, published a joint op-ed last week about the ongoing Broadway problem in the Tennessee Lookout. “They can’t have it both ways,” she tells Rolling Stone. “You can’t leave it open to interpretation and have tourists coming or sending out these signifiers that bring more tourists here.”
Nashville is making some modest progress in battling the surge — infections were averaging around 400 a day last month before dropping to its current daily levels of250 — but not with any help from the rotating cast of partygoers. Only over the past three days have masks become a more common sight downtown after Nashville mayor John Cooper vowed last Tuesday to get things under control. Following his lead, Metro police made their first arrest on Wednesday for a mask violation — a 61-year-old black man who gave his address as the Nashville Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter. (The charges were later dropped.) On Friday, MNPD issued 20 citations and made one arrest; Saturday saw 18 citations and three arrests.
Along with (finally) enforcing the mask mandate and shutting down the “transpotainment” industry of party buses that circle downtown, the mayor implemented a new public health order on Saturday that prohibited restaurants and bars in downtown and midtown from selling to-go alcohol. The inclusion of the midtown neighborhood, near historic Music Row, underscores how the Broadway behavior, like the virus itself, has been spreading. Bars in midtown have been busy and, last weekend, members of a bachelorette party acted out in the city’s Gulch neighborhood,with one attendee allegedly intentionally coughing on a restaurant employee after being reprimanded for moving tables in violation of the eatery’s social-distancing policy.
“Nashville currently has a mask mandate in place, no bars are allowed to be open and all restaurants must end dine-in service at 10 p.m. It’s imperative for our visitors to comply with these restrictions,” Dr. Alex Jahangir, chair of the Nashville COVID-19 task force and Nashville health board chair, tells Rolling Stone. “We don’t want their trip to Nashville to end with them contracting the virus here and taking it back home. While many of our more healthy and younger visitors may not care if they get the virus, if they take it back to their communities, they can infect family or friends who may not be as tolerant of the virus and end up in the hospital or morgue. One careless weekend of fun in Nashville isn’t worth that long-term consequence.”
Tourists taking the virus home with them is an ongoing concern, and one that remains difficult to track. “Contact tracing is abysmal,” says McAnally. She and her husband both had COVID-19.
With mandates now being enforced, there are signs the party culture is migrating to escape the restrictions. At least three beer buses — including one called the “Rowdy ‘Rona” — were spotted 16 miles south in the Cool Springs neighborhood this weekend. They were quickly shut down by local police, but tourists clustered in the area’s bars. A video taken outside one establishment showed dozens of people drinking in the parking lot.
Crowell, the daughter of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell (and Johnny Cash’s granddaughter), says Nashville’s history of prioritizing downtown tourism comes at the expense of the city’s culture, small businesses, and, now, the health of its residents. In response, she spearheaded an online petition calling for the city to close Broadway bars until the pandemic is controlled.
“The truth is that in the last decade or so, give or take some, there were a lot of sweetheart deals given to developers and a lot of incentives to create this different incarnation of the tourism industry downtown. It was always touristy downtown, always tourist-driven, but it’s totally different than it used to be,” she says. “As long as these bars are open, they are going to draw in tourists that want to have a good time and don’t care about wearing masks and get close to each other — all of the things that scientists are advising against.”
Small-bar owners are beginning to raise their voices too. The proprietors of Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, the Fox Bar & Cocktail Club, and Chopper Tiki — all of them forced to close since March — held a press conference recently asking the mayor to enforce health regulations downtown. While some honky-tonks and restaurants have remained closed, like Robert’s Western World, Acme Feed & Seed, and the Southern Steak & Oyster, other drinking establishments have circumvented the mandates via their classification as a restaurant.
Dee’s owner Amy Richardson, a favorite bar and live-music venue among locals like Margo Price, calls it a “direct slap in the face to all of us who have been following the rules.”
“The city’s feeling is that [Broadway] triumphs everybody. Keep the money flowing in, and nothing outside of that matters,” Richardson says.
She and her husband Daniel Walker have taken out disaster loans to keep their bar afloat and are redesigning a backyard beer garden with social distancing in mind for when they are allowed to reopen. Neither of them know when that may be. “Luckily for us, our costs of being closed per month aren’t too prohibitive,” Walker says. “But some bars and venues, that’s not the case. They have astronomical rents and can’t keep throwing money at their landlords.”
The Nashville music community is starting to mobilize as well, with artists like Caylee Hammack, Maren Morris, and Cassadee Pope speaking out in support of small businesses and neighborhood bars.
“I get that the tourist trap is our money [maker], but if you kill all of the locally owned businesses, by the end of this, you’re not really helping anyone,” Hammack tells Rolling Stone.
“Broadway bars taking advantage of these loopholes right now are cannibalizing our Nashville small businesses who have been following the health orders since day 1,” Morris tweeted on August 4th.
Paramore singer Hayley Williams, a longtime Nashville resident, addressed tourists directly. “Please don’t come to Nashville. Plan your bachelorette party somewhere else this time,” she said in an Instagram video. “If you really believe in Nashville, don’t come here until this shit is handled.”
Slowly, glacially, the message seems to be getting through. Downtown, midtown, and the Gulch neighborhood — all tourist hot spots — had minimal foot traffic on Sunday afternoon. While there were diners on some patios and rooftops, Broadway bars like Tootsie’s and Kid Rock’s were closed. Of the pedestrians that were out, about half were properly wearing masks — a statue of Elvis in front of a gift shop sported a mask to help get the point across.
But skeptics like Crowell remains dubious. While she’s encouraged to see Broadway moving in a safer direction, she stresses that the progress doesn’t rectify what’s happening elsewhere in the city away from the tourist epicenter. Richardson’s Dee’s Lounge and others like it remain closed and Nashville is still recording new COVID-19 cases daily. Nashville Health added 190 new cases on Sunday, bringing Davidson County’s total to 22,904.
“City leaders have responded to our pressure and outrage, and the result is that the lower Broadway party scene is moving in a safer direction,” Crowell says. “The Broadway bars continue to be the squeaky wheel, each weekend getting more grease — resources, media coverage, and city dollars. While I respect the new efforts to create a safer area, I am adamant that the rest of Nashville is treated with the same importance as downtown and that the people who live here are prioritized over those who visit.”
There is at least a glimmer of hope. On Sunday, Crowell’s petition surpassed its 25,000-signature goal.