FRANKLIN, Tenn. ― Even as Americans are being infected, hospitalized and killed by COVID-19 in record numbers, the scene Saturday night outside the headquarters of Christian financial personality Dave Ramsey’s Ramsey Solutions looked like a festival designed to flout public health guidelines. The talk radio host, who preaches debt-free living and business success, threw a maskless indoor company Christmas party at the company’s Franklin headquarters with more than 1,500 people invited to attend.
Across different floors of one building, guests drank and line-danced together, gorged on barbecue, gambled in a fake casino and partied in a “silent disco,” according to a map meant to help revelers navigate the bash. Outside there were igloos, dessert food trucks and carriage rides to be had. Several open bars were scattered throughout the building.
One worker estimated there were at least 1,000 guests in the building — the vast majority of them without masks — as well as several dozen people like himself working the event. “There was absolutely no [social] distancing being practiced,” said the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his job.
Ramsey has become a hugely influential figure in personal finance, with an especially strong following among Christians. The “Boots & BBQ” event, at which vendors were allegedly urged to not wear masks, is consistent with how he has approached the pandemic since the beginning.
In March, Ramsey kept the company’s offices open, with staff coming to work on-site even after employees had tested positive for the virus. He has railed against strict public health measures on his radio show, calling them “totalitarian” and framing guidance to wear masks — which are not required at the Ramsey Solutions offices — as a sign of irrational fear. In July, Ramsey opted to host a large business conference at his company’s headquarters rather than going along with the COVID-19 protocols required by the Florida hotel that was originally scheduled to host the gathering.
The company’s defiance of public health guidance has continued even as dozens of employees have been infected by the virus. Around 50 staffers tested positive in November, according to Religion News Service, which first reported the plans for Saturday night’s Christmas party. At least 5,462 Tennesseans have died of COVID-19, and more than 2,600 are currently hospitalized with the illness.
“There was absolutely no [social] distancing being practiced.”
On Saturday night, a line of cars stretched bumper-to-bumper for nearly two miles from the company’s headquarters. A masked uniformed officer from the Franklin Police Department stopped each car at the entrance to the headquarters as a private security detail looked on. The company was apparently keen to block any prying eyes from observing the event. As the party’s 7 p.m. start time approached, a reporter taking a video of the line of cars was tailed by what appeared to be a security vehicle and followed from company headquarters all the way back to the interstate.
Despite the health risks posed by such a crowd, many of the people working the event likely would have felt little choice but to be there. Caterers and other events companies are desperate for contracts due to the pandemic, with nearly all large-scale parties, concerts and other events ground to a halt. Any worker who bailed on the Ramsey party would have given up much-needed income just ahead of the holidays, and potentially jeopardized future gigs through their vendors.
The worker who spoke anonymously said he was provided with little information ahead of the event, but was told by a superior that Ramsey Solutions preferred workers did not wear masks so as not to make guests uncomfortable. Ultimately, many workers chose to wear them. There was also a pile of masks provided near the entrance, but the worker said most partiers opted to pass them by.
If local and state officials were aware of the party, they were apparently reluctant to step in and enforce any social distancing rules. Williamson County’s mask mandate applies to “publicly accessible” areas and businesses, which does not include a corporate office building. When a reporter called the county health department on Tuesday to see if any complaints had been filed ahead of the event, the call was steered to the state health department.
Shelley Walker, a spokesperson for the state health department, said the agency “would not have any jurisdiction over such an event,” though it encouraged Tennesseans to wear masks and practice social distancing. She referred a reporter back to local elected officials. The Ramsey building is within Franklin city limits, but Milissa Reierson, a city spokesperson, said the city would not enforce any rules at a private event.
“It’s private property and a private company,” she said last Tuesday. “We don’t really have jurisdiction over that.”
Reierson recommended the reporter reach out to the county.
Ramsey Solutions has stonewalled reporters seeking comment on its conduct. In contrast to Ramsey’s declarations that his company will not be ruled by fear when it comes to the pandemic, staff inside the company describe a culture thick with paranoia. The company’s leadership has become increasingly determined to prevent information from getting out, while concerned staffers fear retribution if they speak up.
Dan Voris, event producer at Ramsey Solutions, did not respond last week to questions about the size of the planned party and any safety precautions put in place. Neither did Megan McConnell, a company spokesperson. However, McConnell did respond internally once the scheduled party became public on Friday, after Religion News Service published its report. She wrote a staffwide email telling Ramsey employees to ignore the anger over the company’s plans.
“If and when you see controversial or negative things about Dave or RS on social [media], please do not defend us or engage with it,” McConnell wrote. “That just boosts the post’s visibility (and we’re not concerned about those people anyway).”
The worker who spoke anonymously said that most events employees like himself have been scraping by on unemployment benefits and any odd jobs they can find. He said whatever pay he gets from the Ramsey gig is smaller than it appears: After sharing indoor air with so many people, he believes he should quarantine for several days, forgoing any jobs that might put him in contact with others.
He’d heard that Ramsey Christmas parties are always a huge blowout. This year’s bash will certainly be hard to forget.
“It was the most people I’ve seen gathered in a year,” the worker said. “So yeah, it was kind of bizarre.”
This story was reported in conjunction with Nashville Scene. Dave Jamieson reported from Washington, D.C.