Charlie Bullington, owner of Yo Transportation, wants his riders to share his conspiracy theories.
On western the edge of the St. Louis metro area, a local taxi company's policy of refusing service to vaccinated and masked customers has roiled the small town of Pacific. Now, residents and riders are dealing with the consequences of what happens when a local taxi market is cornered by a delusionist.
"We don't really have cab service out here," says Jessica, a Pacific resident who asked to be identified only by first name. "Occasionally you can get a Lyft driver that's close enough, but, you know, they're not always available. I have to schedule it."
One day in June, Jessica says she had planned to enjoy a night of restaurant food and music from one of her favorite local bands. She tried Lyft, but no driver was available in the area.
But there was another option, a locally owned car service operated by a fellow resident of Pacific. The company, Yo Transportation, runs a fleet of pink-colored taxis that ferry passengers in Franklin County and travelers on their way to St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
That day, Jessica says, she called the Yo Transportation number and left a voicemail requesting a ride. Charlie Bullington, the owner, returned her call and asked her if she was a returning customer.
"I said, 'No,' since I had I just moved to the area not too long ago," she recalls, describing the conversation. "And then he said, 'Well, I have two rules.'"
In that moment, Jessica says she assumed she was about to be told that riders can't smoke or drink on the way to their destination. She wasn't expecting the first rule to be, "There's no masks allowed in my vehicles."
Still, that wasn't a deal-breaker for Jessica. The delta variant hadn't yet begun tearing through Missouri. She had caught COVID-19 in 2020, and, when the vaccines rolled out in 2021, she got her shots at the first opportunity.
"I told him that wasn't a problem," she continues. "I'm vaccinated, I had COVID, I'm good without a mask. That doesn't bother me."
According to Jessica, Bullington's responded, "I'm sorry, but that's my rule number two, and you just broke it. We can't pick you up this evening."
Jessica was startled. After asking him what he meant, she says Bullington explained that he doesn't allow anyone vaccinated for COVID into his vehicles. The phone call ended, and she eventually managed to book a Lyft ride to the show at a higher price than what she would have paid had she comported with the rules of only taxi service in town.
"When he told me his rules, I just couldn't believe what I heard," she says now. "And I guess I'm not the only one that feels that way."
Indeed, online reviews and social media posts going back to the summer of 2020 show multiple instances of riders complaining about Bullington's behavior and Yo Transportation's anti-vaccine and anti-mask policy.
On Facebook, one woman said a Yo Transportation driver had denied her a ride because she was vaccinated and "shedding skin cells with poison in them" — likely a reference to the theory, which has no basis in reality, that vaccine "shedding" can sicken people nearby.
In a June thread about the taxi service posted to a Pacific-focused Facebook thread, two people wrote that they knew of passengers who had similarly been denied service for wearing a mask.
But based on a survey of web postings and reviews, the company actually adopted its antagonistic stance to COVID mitigation measures long before the availability of vaccines. For example, in an August 2020 Yelp review, a rider wrote that their Yo Transportation driver went on a "political rant" during the trip and told them that their masks "can make us sick."
The review concluded, "Save yourself and your sanity and don't use this company."
On Google's page for the business, another reviewer claimed that their driver texted them repeatedly even after denying them a ride, writing, "This man spent 2 hours harassing me via text about his anti mask nonsense. I had to ask him three times to leave me alone."
A second would-be rider shared a similar experience, detailing in a Google review, "When I declined to the ride after learning about the no masks policy, they texted me anti-mask propaganda which was not appreciated. It is my choice to wear a mask just as it is their choice to not wear a mask."
However, Yo Transportation appears undeterred by the reaction of people who are still doing what they can to keep themselves and those around them safe. On August 5, KMOV (Channel 4) aired a segment about Bullington's business, breaking the story about his unusual strategy of discrimination. The segment featured an interview with the business owner himself, but also included the voices of Dr. Farrin Manian, an infectious disease expert with Mercy Hospital, and a woman who said she agreed with Bullington because she believes that the COVID vaccine and mask measures are "a bunch of hooey."
For his part, Bullington told KMOV reporter Emma Hogg that he has no plans to alter his ridership policies or beliefs, even if it impacts his company's bottom-line: He disclosed that he loses around three in ten riders as a result of his policy against the masked and vaccinated.
During the interview, Bullington said of his company, "We're very against the vaccines" and later claimed, incorrectly, that Missouri is "One of the top three lowest vaccinated states" and that "I'm proud of all the Missouri people for standing against this."
In fact, Missouri is the 13th least vaccinated state, with around 42 percent of the population completely vaccinated. As of Friday, around 48 percent of residents — more than three million Missourians — had obtained at least the first dose of a two-shot vaccine.
But for residents of Pacific, where Yo Transportation is often the only option, Bullington's beliefs have become a reality everyone has to deal with — like when John Jomp's car was in the shop and he needed a ride to Walmart.
"When I called him, he insisted — he asked me if I was vaccinated, and then said I can't ride with him." Jomp says in an interview, describing his attempt to book a ride with Bullington.
Jomp, a former Uber driver, says there's just not enough people in Pacific to make the rideshare app work like it does in the towns closer to St. Louis, where drivers are constantly circulating between rides and often just minutes away.
"It's hard to find rides that originate in Pacific. He's the only 'taxi service' around him, so people have to use him," Jomp says.
"It's hard to understand why he's doing this," he adds. "He's just one of those conspiracy theorists. A lot of folks are."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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