Five months ago, the online lifestyle guide EatWorkPlay CLT postponed its black-tie charity gala with days notice and little explanation. When I looked into the sudden change, I learned that the company regularly hosted events tied to charities and never donated the proceeds.
I also learned that the founder, Davon Bailey, owed tens of thousands to vendors, nonprofits, guests, and even employees. A few weeks after the story ran, several people filed formal complaints with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. As of March 30, the office had 22.
Most recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in touch with N.C. Department of Justice over the complaints against EWP, according to WSOC reporter Michael Stolp.
Now, there’s more.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it appears EWP has launched a new business: Social Distancing Essentials, which sells face masks and “re-usable grocery shopping gloves.” According to its website, there are only 250 masks available on preorder while supplies last. The $19.99 masks come in pink and black.
“Our mission is to help you achieve PEACE OF MIND by providing additional measures of safety during this country’s trying times while helping our community look great in the process at an affordable price. Let’s DO THIS – together,” the site says.
Bailey started EWP in 2015 as a way for young professionals to connect with each other at networking mixers and luxury events. At its peak, the media start-up had at least a dozen writers creating hundreds of stories a month about restaurants and things to do in Charlotte.
Its audience grew over the years to more than 85,000 across its social media platforms. Bailey wanted to expand the brand into other cities — still there are Instagram accounts for Austin, Nashville, and Raleigh-Durham using the same logo.
EWP also had an account called @ewpevents, which was used to manage events and chat with customers.
A former employee with access to the Instagram account @ewpevents contacted me on Saturday when she noticed the page looked different: The account name had changed to @socialdistancingessentials, and there was a new logo and bio. But the DMs and the followers were the same.
(Note: Minutes after posting this story the account had changed back to @ewpevents.)
The former employee worked for Bailey for four years. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I don’t want it to jeopardize my future employment or be threatened by him,” she said.
The employee filed a complaint against EWP on January 22 for unpaid wages of $350 for the period between September 14 and October 28, 2019. Because the case is still open, a representative of the N.C. Department of Labor would not share the name of the complainant. The state DOJ confirmed the dates, however.
Many of the @socialdistancingessentials followers have ties to Charlotte — @bardorestaurant, @tenparklanes, @eatworkplayclt. I asked random followers, and five responded and said they had no recollection of following the account. But one said she did remember following @ewpevents.
The former employee also shared a screenshot of the DMs. The most recent message in the primary inbox was from @davon.bailey.
As toilet paper and mask supplies diminish, and the cases of coronavirus climb, panic buying becomes common.
When consumers can’t find what they need — or what they think they need — at a grocery or drug store, they turn to the internet.
“At a time when we should be focusing on taking necessary health precautions and staying safe, some bad actors are focusing on taking people’s hard-earned money,” Attorney General Josh Stein said in a March 19 statement.
The office created a one-page PDF to help consumers shop with caution and identify scams such as “miracle cures,” coronavirus-related robocalls, charity scams, and price gouging
Since March 10, Stein’s office has received 561 price gouging reports related to COVID-19.
Better Business Bureau says it has received numerous reports about scam websites selling face masks online and has posted tips to keep in mind when shopping online.
For one, “be sure the online store has working contact info,” the BBB site says.
There’s no contact information on Social Distancing Essentials webpage, and the email a receipt comes from (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the same that was used for EatWorkPlay’s Charlotte Passport program for foodies, which also received complaints to the AG’s office. There’s no listing in the BBB database for Social Distancing Essentials, but EWP’s rating is an F.
A Mecklenburg County representative tells me healthy individuals shouldn’t be rushing to purchase masks anyway.
“Face masks for people other than healthcare workers (are) only recommended for those who are sick, not people who are well,” Andrew Fair, senior marketing and communications manager for the county, said in an email. “It’s best to practice healthy habits and stay at home.”
Social Distancing Essentials’ website says these masks can be used for grocery shopping, dog walking, carryout restaurant orders, outdoor exercising, and going to the gas station. The websites says they’re washable and reusable and have “up to three layers” of 100 percent cotton and felt.
The “reusable” grocery shopping gloves retail for $7.99, but in a reverse image search, I’m directed to a website called The Glove Shoppe where it appears the same gloves sell in a box of 100 for $17.95 (or about $0.18 per pair). Ace Hardware has the same box for sale for $19.99 and advertises the gloves as disposable.
Shipping is $3.50 for a mask and $2.50 for the gloves. I ordered a mask, which will arrive on April 9, according to the website.
I tried to ask Bailey about the new venture over the phone and via text Saturday. He didn’t answer my first phone call, but then called me back thinking I was someone else. When I asked him about Social Distancing Essentials he said, “I’m actually in the middle of something, can I call you back?” before hanging up.
Bailey has not called back.
At the very top of Social Distancing Essentials’ website is a countdown that starts at 15 minutes and continues down to 0:00. There’s a sense of urgency, as if you must buy the mask now or it’ll be gone.
It’s a common business tactic to make consumers feel like if they don’t act, they’ll lose their chance. EWP has used it before for its events, too: Tickets were “sold out” for November’s Willy Wonka gala, but the company ran a flash sale just days before postponing the event.
If you refresh the Social Distancing Essentials site, the countdown starts over at 15, and we’re all back where we started.