HEB, the beloved Texas grocery store chain, was early out the gate at the start of the pandemic with strict and unambiguous safety protocols, a fact that its customer base largely celebrated. But ten months in, the chain’s employees have been bullied so badly by anti-mask zealots that its managers feel they can no longer safely enforce their rules, as VICE has learned.
HEB’s response to the pandemic was swifter and more thorough than Governor Greg Abbott’s. As Justin Noakes, HEB’s director of emergency preparedness, told Texas Monthly in March, the chain began putting together its COVID-19 response plan in early January, when it seemed an outbreak was inevitable in the United States. That plan involved purchasing limits on highly desirable items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, as well as strict social distancing rules, customer limits in stores, and mandatory masks for both employees and shoppers.
HEB’s mandatory mask rule came months before Abbott issued a statewide mask order. And while Abbott’s rules have been patchily enforced based on local politics and the typical gamut of issues anti-maskers have with wearing a small piece of fabric on their faces to keep themselves and their neighbors safe, HEB had been gently but firmly insisting on 100 percent compliance in its stores. Throughout the pandemic, HEB stores have had mandatory mask signs posted on their front doors, periodic announcements about mask wearing and social distancing over store intercoms, and a basket of disposable masks near the entrance for anyone who doesn’t have one on them to wear.
Masks are still required inside HEB locations statewide, but recently, multiple HEB shoppers have told VICE that the mask compliance in HEB has fallen off. An email shared with VICE from a store manager in the Houston area reveals that vitriol from ardent anti-mask shoppers is to blame:
“Many [customers] have become verbally and even physically abusive in some stores. I have been personally told by customers that HEB does not honor the rights they fought for in the war, told they have medical concerns with masks, and I was violating their rights and HIPAA laws. We offer masks and inform customers of the [county] ordinance in place. However, when it comes to making them leave, due to the way many have reacted, we have stopped doing so. Our safety is priority, we do not want our leaders at risk for the abuse we have all taken the last several months.”
A spokesperson with HEB told VICE that there has been no official change in the store’s mask policy, and HEB continues to supply masks and require them in store. Exceptions are only made for children and “individuals with health-related issues,” and HEB still requires masks in counties that fall below the statewide mask order threshold of 30 active COVID cases.
Inside store locations scattered throughout the state, shoppers report a different situation. “They still require masks, but of the 100 or so people I saw, only about half were [wearing them],” Benjamin Park said of a recent trip to an HEB near Conroe, Texas. “All the workers were wearing masks, at least. But nobody was at the doors checking or handing out masks to those who weren't.” The Conroe location Park is referring to did not return a request for comment from VICE.
Andi Hoyt said she noticed the same thing at the HEB near her parents’ house in Hood County. “I went to HEB to get an item for Thanksgiving dinner on the Wednesday before, and there is a big sign on the door that says ‘masks mandatory,’” Hoyt said. “Inside, probably 20 percent of people had no mask on at all, and another 30 percent were wearing it incorrectly. I stopped an employee and asked if masks were mandatory and he said he believed so.” The HEB location Hoyt is referring to did not return a request for comment from VICE.
Nearly 10 months into the pandemic, the U.S. still lacks firm common-sense federal guidance requiring masks and social distancing, and fatigue and vitriol as a result of people who continue as if public health is a matter of debate continues to climb.
It doesn’t help that Texas’s response to the pandemic has been weak, if not actively harmful. Abbott’s administration has been openly antagonistic to cities and counties that have tried to enact measures that would alleviate mass suffering. Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued El Paso at least once for its curfew and attempted lockdowns, as the city faces an outbreak that health experts say is on par with, if not worse than, the prior outbreak in New York City.
HEB employees, many of whom work long shifts on an hourly wage, cannot be expected to bear the state’s responsibility for it, yet by not doing so, they endanger themselves and all who shop at the chain. With the promise of a vaccine on the horizon, nerves continue to fray as the country heads into what health experts predict will be the darkest, deadliest part of the pandemic.
HEB declined to respond to repeated follow-up requests from VICE, inquiring about stores that are patchily enforcing mask rules; we will update this story if they respond.
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