Brawl inside nail salon could have been a super-spreader event, Iowa judge says

A COVID-19 cell. (Image via National Science Foundation)

A brawl that broke out inside a small nail salon in eastern Iowa grew to the point where it could have been a super-spreader event for COVID-19, an Iowa judge has ruled.

Administrative Law Judge James Timberland, presiding over an unemployment-benefits case involving a former employee of the Classy Nails salon in Hiawatha, has ruled that the business owner’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of others exposed customers and workers to the risk of contracting COVID-19.

The case centers on Mai Phan, who applied for unemployment benefits after quitting her job as a nail technician at Classy Nails. Although the business had to close briefly in the early stages of the pandemic, Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed nail salons to reopen in mid-May, provided they limited the number of customers within the building to 50% of their maximum legal occupancy; operated on an appointment-only basis; and ensured all customers remained at least six feet apart.

When Phan returned to work, the salon owner, Ngoc Vo, allegedly refused to comply with the governor’s order. According to Phan’s testimony at a recent hearing on her claim for unemployment benefits, Vo did nothing to restrict the flow of business into the salon and continued to allow walk-in clients. Vo also is alleged to have kept the same number of work stations in place, although they were spaced less than six feet apart.

Phan testified the salon did not provide her with a face mask, but she brought one of her own to work. She testified masks were made available to customers for a fee, but the customers were allowed to forgo a mask while in the salon.

Phan testified the decision to allow walk-in business led to an altercation on June 4, when a prospective customer, identified in police records as Shacorrie McBride, got into a heated argument with Vo and then became violent. Other customers allegedly picked up products and other objects in the salon and hurled them at each other and at Vo.

With 18 people crowded inside the salon, the situation quickly escalated. The Hiawatha police were summoned and Vo telephoned family members who rushed to the salon to provide assistance. According to Phan, by the time the police and the owner’s family arrived on the scene, there were 27 people inside the salon.

Police records indicate McBride, who is Black, had become upset when the salon staff wouldn’t speak to her, which she believed was because of her race. She was given a no-trespassing order by the police.

Phan quit, and Iowa Workforce Development denied her request for unemployment benefits. She appealed that decision and Judge Timberland ruled in her favor, saying the owner “created and perpetuated unsafe, intolerable and detrimental working conditions” by failing to comply with the governor’s order.

Timberland ruled that the owner’s “decision to operate unlawfully unreasonably increased the risk that Ms. Phan, other employees, and/or clients would be exposed to and possibly contract COVID-19, a potentially life-threatening disease. The employer’s reckless disregard for the safety of its employees and clients led to the free-for-all brawl that could well have been a super-spreader event.”

Vo did not testify or provide evidence at the hearing. Jimmy Nguyen, who describes himself as Vo’s stepson, said Monday that all of Phan’s testimony at the hearing was false and he intends to appeal the judge’s decision. He said the brawl that broke out in the salon resulted in a customer being cited for trespassing, adding that the fight was unrelated to COVID-19 mitigation issues.

In May, after nail salons in Iowa were allowed to reopen, the salon posted messages on its Facebook page indicating masks were required of customers, adding, “We have equipments to protect for nail technicians and customers in this pandemic. Everyone has to wear face mask.”

Other recent unemployment-benefit cases involving the pandemic include:

  • Mark Davison, a cashier who allegedly called the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax and refused to wear a mask at work, was denied unemployment benefits after being fired from Des Moines’ Ingersoll Liquors. Assistant Store Manager Aaron Russo testified at a recent hearing that Davison made offensive and politically charged comments to customers. Russo testified he once overheard Davison in the store delivering a “political rant” that included claims that the pandemic was a hoax. When customers threatened to stop shopping at the store because employees were not wearing face coverings, the store owner instructed Davison to wear a mask.  Davison allegedly refused and was subsequently fired. He was denied unemployment benefits, with the judge citing his “wanton disregard” of his employer’s interest, his “bizarre behavior” and the “undisputed” allegation that he refused a directive to wear a face mask in the store.
  • Melissa O’Donald was awarded unemployment benefits after quitting her job as a cashier for Casey’s General Store, where she had worked for five years. State records indicate Casey’s corporate office had adopted a policy requiring stores to disinfect frequently touched surfaces every hour. O’Donald later complained that her co-workers were not following the disinfecting protocol, and that kitchen workers were ignoring a company policy requiring employees to wear face masks at work. When neither situation improved, she resigned. After Iowa Workforce Development denied her claim for unemployment benefits, O’Donald appealed, and Administrative Law Judge Christine A. Louis ruled in her favor, saying she had “resigned due to unsafe working conditions” and that any reasonable person would have done the same.