Nightclubs packed with sweaty dancers. Restaurants covering up their coronavirus outbreaks. Stores not enforcing mask-wearing. If you’re a Houston business owner not taking appropriate pandemic precautions, the Facebook group COVID–Call Outs is your worst nightmare. The public group, which has amassed more than three thousand members, describes itself as a “place to publicly call out and criticize businesses and people who have chosen greed and selfishness.” Over the past few months, the group’s self-appointed health inspectors have crowdsourced dozens of Houston-area businesses they allege are putting profit over safety.
Ten rules govern the group, including “No individual call outs,” “Don’t have hurt feelings,” and the number one rule: “Be fearless.” (“Sometimes standing up and taking back control is scary, but it’s the only way.”) The members have been happy to oblige. Here’s a sample of recent posts, with the business names redacted since Texas Monthly couldn’t verify the allegations:
“I will never support this company ever again after ~20 years of eating at the West Gray location. *toilet flush*”
“All visible kitchen staff was unmasked [sic]. NO!”
“[Redacted] had a positive employee working and fired staff for speaking up about safety concerns.”
COVID–Call Outs was created on March 17 by Kelly Ingram, then a makeup salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Houston Galleria. She became incensed at the department store’s lax hygiene standards. Ingram says Saks failed to provide hand sanitizer despite the fact that her job required her to apply makeup to customers’ faces. “I complained to my managers, but they didn’t care,” Ingram says. “The only announcement they made was that if you were caught stealing toilet paper, you would be fired.”
Ingram launched the Facebook group after being furloughed by Saks during a coronavirus-induced sales slump. In talking with her friends in the service industry, she realized that her grievances were far from unique. “Everyone I knew seemed to be pretty disgruntled about the way their employers were handling it,” she says. “It went from people who did body work, like me, to people who worked in grocery stores, and then people who worked in offices.”
The group scored its first major success in late March, when it highlighted the story of Joe Federico, an employee of Extra Space Storage. After hearing that CHI St. Luke’s Hospital in the Woodlands had put out an emergency call for N95 masks, Federico took eighty masks from a company warehouse without permission and donated them to medical staff. When his boss found out, Federico was fired. Some of Federico’s friends posted on Facebook about what happened, and news of the incident made its way to the COVID–Call Outs page. Soon after, Federico was rehired.
The Houston Chronicle ran a story about Federico’s experience on April 6, alongside another feature about Ingram and COVID–Call Outs. In the wake of the two Chronicle stories, the group’s membership spiked. One of the new members was Anica Landreneau, the Washington, D.C.–based director of sustainable design for international architecture firm HOK. Landreneau was born and raised in Houston, where she still has family. “My mom is in her late sixties, she’s diabetic, and I’m worried about her health,” she says. “I follow the group so I can tell my mom where to shop and where to avoid.”
Similar Facebook groups have popped up around the country, including in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and Anchorage; in April, the Wall Street Journal reported on an epidemic of online coronavirus-shaming in small towns. Richard Scarborough, who owns a small IT business, joined COVID–Call Outs because he saw fellow business owners requiring their employees to come back to work prematurely. “This isn’t about people not wanting to come back because they’re making more on unemployment,” he says. “These people could actually die. But many companies don’t care—they’re more worried about staying in business than keeping their employees healthy.”
Although most of the group’s posts highlight bad behavior, Ingram also encourages members to praise businesses that are doing things right. Restaurants that voluntarily divulge coronavirus infections among their staff are thanked for their transparency. Stores that enforce social distancing and mask-wearing are recommended.
After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, Ingram expanded the scope of the group. Members are now encouraged to suggest Black-owned businesses to support, and to call out businesses engaged in racist practices. “I felt like it was our duty, considering the number of members we have,” she says. “I mean, racism is just as important as COVID-19. It’s another epidemic.” A few members left the group over the change in direction, but most have responded positively, Ingram says.
A major influence on the group’s philosophy is journalist Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which examines the phenomenon of social media shaming. Ingram, who has read the book several times, says it was a major reason why she discourages attacks on individual business owners. As the moderator, she has to delete several such posts and comments every day. “Shame is a powerful tool,” she says. “It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a person—it can ruin your life. So we stay away from attacking individuals and stick with businesses.”
Recently, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner appeared to take a page from Ingram’s book by launching a virtual “Wall of Shame” (since renamed the Wall of Accountability) for local businesses that aren’t following the city’s health guidelines. At least one of the businesses included on Turner’s list, Spire nightclub, had previously been called out by the Facebook group. Ingram, who hasn’t been able to find a new job since being permanently laid off by Saks Fifth Avenue on April 4—retaliation, she believes, for her online activism—says the mayor should hire her to manage the page. A Change.org petition calling on Turner to put Ingram in charge has attracted more than 250 signatures.
Some of Turner’s critics have dismissed the list as a publicity stunt, but the mayor counters that public shaming is one of the few tools he has to enforce health guidelines. Like many members of COVID–Call Outs, Landreneau, the Washington, D.C.–based architect, has given up on America’s political leadership to keep the country healthy. “There’s an absence of consistent guidelines on the national, state, and local level,” she says. “You have to rely on businesses to act with integrity. And the only way to do that is for the public to hold them accountable.”