Texas grocery store HEB gets caught in the middle of the mask division


KERRVILLE, Texas – When Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he would lift the state mandate on the Covid-19 mask, he left companies in charge of setting and enforcing their own policies. HEB, a beloved Texas grocer and stalwart during past crises in the state, sputtered.

The company, which had experienced a series of altercations in its aisles over the mask policy, initially said it would urge customers to wear masks but require them from employees. A few days later, after some buyers and workers criticized the grocer, the chain clarified its position. I would leave signs and continue to advertise that masks are required and offer them to shoppers without a mask. HEB also said it would continue its policy of not aggravating situations where a customer refuses to wear a mask.

The change in HE-B’s message reflects the balancing act many businesses in Texas now face after the state put them in charge of establishing and enforcing the mask policy. Since the mandate was lifted on March 10, some HEB employees and customers say they have noticed more customers without a mask shopping in the aisles.

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After the chain’s initial statement that it would urge customers to wear masks, HEB President Scott McClelland told the Houston Chronicle that the governor’s move stripped stores of the “endorsement” provided by the threat of a fine, which, according to him, could lead to more people joining. stores without masks. McClelland said he had to weigh the physical well-being of customers and employees, given frequent mask disputes in stores, even when state mask rules were in effect.

“Of all the issues we’ve dealt with over the course of the past year, the masks are the most polarizing,” McClelland told the Chronicle. “Partly because they were used as a political weapon and partly because, frankly, people don’t like wearing masks.”

HEB said it expects shoppers to continue wearing masks in its stores and that it has increased security at many of its locations. “The end of the mask ordinances puts real pressure on retailers to enforce an emotional policy for many and we will not ask our partners to put themselves in harm’s way,” the company said in a written statement.

Governor Greg Abbott, here in February, rescinded the mask’s mandate on March 10.


Photo:

Bob Daemmrich / Zuma Press

Several HEB employees said they have noticed an increase in the number of people not wearing masks since the Abbott announcement. An employee of an HEB in the Bryan-College Station area of ​​East Texas said that during the tenure he would notarize an unmasked buyer perhaps every hour or so. Last week, as an experiment, he began counting people who did not wear masks during one of his shifts. In about five hours, he saw 38 people without masks.

The employee said he wanted HEB to take a stronger stance in favor of masks, although he said he understood that it would be difficult to implement. “They don’t want chaos and fights in their stores,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an easy choice, by any means … but it’s the right thing to do.”

At an HEB in Kerrville, a small Hill Country town in central Texas, employees didn’t appear to bother the few unmasked shoppers who showed up Friday morning last week.

“I don’t like people telling me what to do,” said a male customer. “Let me make that decision.”

Some of the larger chain retailers, theaters, hotels and restaurants said they planned to continue requiring masks in Texas, Mississippi and other states that lifted restrictions.

Many local business owners applauded the policy change, particularly in the hardest hit sectors, such as restaurants, which are desperate to win back customers. In a March survey of more than 700 restaurants by the Texas Restaurant Association, 44% of respondents said they would no longer require their customers to cover their faces.

Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease physician, says slowing down public health measures is risky because coronavirus cases could stabilize and then recover.

HEB, founded by the Butt family in 1905, has more than 400 stores throughout the state. The network was praised for its pandemic preparedness when Covid-19 first struck, has been a major competitor in vaccine launch, and is regularly praised for its response to hurricanes and other disasters.

Katy Bravenec, 37, said she lost faith in HEB after her initial statement and no longer plans to shop at her San Antonio store. Ms Bravenec said she investigated three HE-Bs after the mask mandate was lifted to see if customers were allowed to shop without a mask. After seeing a handful of customers not wearing masks at every store, he said he would take his business to a nearby Trader Joe’s.

“It didn’t fit his public image,” he said. “You cannot pretend to be a strong community partner and then lift the mandate of the mask when it is not only there for your workers but also for our community. It just seemed hypocritical. “

Wendy Wright buys from an HEB in Houston, but said she would consider switching to the nearby Kroger Co.

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shop if you notice an increase in maskless shoppers. Ms. Wright said she has been to HEB twice since the Republican governor rescinded the masks’ mandate. On the first trip, he estimated that about 10% of shoppers did not have a mask. She gave the store one more chance last Sunday and didn’t notice any unmasked customers or employees.

“I will take it week after week and if it seems like a safe place to shop, I will stay. If they let the masks slip, I’ll go to another store, ”he said. “I am 60 years old, I do not want to play with Covid.”


“The more we talked about it, it did not seem correct to apply it because it is not a law.”


– Augie Bering V, owner of Bering Hardware Stores in Houston

Other Texas businesses have struggled to know whether and how to respond to the lifting of restrictions.

In Pearland, Good Vibes Burgers & Brews restaurant told local media when the mandate was lifted that it was removing all mask requirements. A day later, on March 11, the company said that all employees would wear masks and that it would deliver disposables to any customer who wanted one. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

Augie Bering V, owner of Bering hardware stores in Houston, said it was a relief when Texas implemented a mask mandate over the summer. Since then, he said, few unmasked people have visited the stores. The lifting of the order of masks put business owners in a difficult position, he said.

“They put us in the middle,” he said. “Some of the conversations we had were: ‘We need to demand it in order to enforce it.’ But the more we talked about it, it did not seem correct to apply it because it is not a law. People might see it as a political issue. “

Almost everyone at Kerrville HEB was in masks on Friday morning last week, two days after the term was lifted. The options are largely regional, said Rachel Townsend, 24, a mental health worker. He realizes that there are far more people wearing masks in Kerrville, which has a high retiree population, than in his hometown of Uvalde in South Texas, he said.

In Fort Worth, Tatiana Miller, 39, said she sympathizes with Texas businesses caught up in the mask debate. Ms Miller said companies have no way to enforce a mask policy, mandate or no. He said he agreed with the policy of urging clients to cover their faces, but not forcing her to enter.

“Texans like their choice. It would be easier for people to decide what to do or not do, ”he said. “I feel like companies can’t win.”

Write to Patrick Thomas at [email protected] and Elizabeth Findell at [email protected]

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