Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Taste chef and managing owner Don Bowie.
As coronavirus cases in Texas continue to spike uncontrollably, a Houston bartender claims she was fired for questioning and tweeting openly about her restaurant’s response to news that an employee had allegedly tested positive for the virus.
For the past few weeks, Houston bartender Bevin Biggers has been posting about COVID-19 and the service industry on Twitter. In late June — just a few weeks after she rented a U-haul to provide water, snacks and first aid to more than 60,000 people protesting the death of former Houstonian George Floyd — Biggers started keeping a running list of bars and restaurants in Houston and other Texas cities that had closed after employees tested positive for the virus. Soon, she started posting about rumors of places that hadn’t closed, or were allegedly keeping positive employee cases a secret. Just after noon on July 1, she added her own employer, Taste Bar and Kitchen in Midtown, to the thread, writing, “If you have been to Taste Bar and Kitchen in the past 3 weeks, I would highly advise you to get tested for COVID immediately and quarantine.” Four hours later, she Tweeted that she had been fired for the post.
Update: I was fired for this post. https://t.co/MJ59zuDM5H— liquor bae bev (@theroyalbadness) July 1, 2020
According to screenshots she posted on Twitter, Biggers received a text on Monday from a barback at Taste saying that they had tested positive. Just a few days before, she’d posted screenshots from a private group text for Taste employees where a handful of workers, Biggers included, were complaining about feeling sick. She also tweeted that she felt so unsafe at work that she was considering quitting and starting an OnlyFans social networking account as a way to make money.
In Texas, if a worker tests positive for the coronavirus, the employer does not have a legal obligation to close or even to inform the public. Many restaurants and bars with positive employees have been closing temporarily to make sure their dining rooms are sanitized and other employees can get tested. Still more have closed preemptively, deciding that it’s just too risky to entertain customers right now. But thanks to the lack of any laws requiring them to report cases, the number of establishments that have opted to stay open even as staff become infected are not known.
That creates a thorny situation not just for uninformed customers, but also for employees forced to decide between earning a paycheck or keeping themselves safe.
In another screenshot Biggers posted to Twitter yesterday Taste chef and managing owner Don Bowie directly messaged Biggers to ask her to stop “venting and questioning management in the group chat.”
“We are also paying attention to the reality that staff members can’t afford to be out of work,” he wrote. “My goal is definitely safety first, followed by keeping my staff accommodated. I respect any of you who don’t feel comfortable working and it will never affect our outlook on that staff member regarding staying a part of the Taste team.” Later in that same conversation, Biggers claims that even though wait and bar staff were mandated to wear masks, the kitchen staff were not. She writes that her questions to management, based on state and Centers for Disease Control recommended guidelines, were ignored.
The messages between one of the owners after my complaints. pic.twitter.com/lIsiJkqYlH— liquor bae bev (@theroyalbadness) July 1, 2020
On Monday, Taste posted to Instagram that the restaurant would be closing through July 1 to sanitize the dining room and make sure all staff could get tested. The post made no mention of employees testing positive. In screenshots of the employee group chat shared by Biggers to Twitter on July 1, a manager writes that employees can get tested at the restaurant for free. Taste also posted on Instagram today that the restaurant was hosting COVID-19 antibody tests for the public for $75 each.
In a phone call with Eater this afternoon, Bowie contended that Biggers has not actually been fired. “She has been out of work because she hasn’t been feeling well,” he said. Bowie said that before Taste decided to pay for testing for its employees, anyone who was feeling ill was taken off the schedule for two weeks, including Biggers.
He also said that Taste managers decided last week that they would close this week for cleaning and a reevaluation of their health practices, a decision that was reinforced by Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement last Friday that he was walking back his Reopen Texas plan. Bowie said that decision was made before any allegations that someone on staff had tested positive. He also said that, as of his current knowledge, none of the staff at Taste has received positive results. He does not know who the barback referenced in Biggers’ screenshots is.
Bowie said that Taste has received two visits from health department inspectors and that neither visit garnered any citations. He also said that Taste decided to provide COVID-19 testing to employees out of an abundance of safety and because wait times at testing centers throughout Houston have been overwhelming.
“I don’t want to make it a battle between Taste and an employee,” Bowie said. “There’s way bigger things going on than that.”
As of now, Taste is planning to reopen this weekend after a deep cleaning on July 1.
Meanwhile, the restaurant appears to be undergoing further conflict over its operations. A spokesperson for Taste founder Kevin Kelley said in a statement that Kelley is currently suing Bowie to remove him from management and operations and to terminate his ownership interest, claiming “management deficiencies such as the complaints by Bevin, alleged theft, fraud and other reasons.” Kelley filed suit against Bowie in Harris County on June 3.
“You’ve got two business partners going through a business dispute,” Bowie said. “That’s pretty much the only comment I want to say on that.”
Biggers, who declined to comment for this story, said on Twitter that she is planning to hire a lawyer.