Every person who grew up or even just briefly lived in Texas knows two things, by heart: the pledge of allegiance to the state flag, and that “no store does more than my HEB.” The beloved grocery store is universally known (among Texans, and anyone who knows a Texan) for fresh tortillas, smiley employees, and generally being the best place to buy food in the state. But for the past three months, doing more has also included perhaps the smoothest and swiftest response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the entire country. HEB’s list of coronavirus safety measures is long and thorough, and more stores—especially in places with already high confirmed cases—should be doing exactly what the Texas chain already has.
Grocery stores have become an unexpected frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, as people facing quarantines and lockdown crowd in to hoard toilet paper, flour, and hand sanitizer (or just to absently browse, which is sick and wrong). Grocery employees are considered essential workers, meaning they’re among the few groups who have to keep leaving their homes and commuting, even as the rest of us are told to stay home and stay well. For workers and customers alike, grocery store aisles are easily one of the most dangerous places anyone can be during the pandemic. Some stores have taken measures to mitigate that danger and keep people safe, to the best of their ability. Others have gone the White House route and can’t seem to get it together, risking the health of countless people all the while.
HEB, meanwhile, has remained countless steps ahead of the game. Before the WHO upgraded coronavirus to pandemic status, before the White House and most state governments announced any plans, and before there was even a single identified case in Texas, HEB—the beloved, Texas-only grocery chain—was preparing an emergency response plan it’s been refining since 2005.
“When did we start looking at the coronavirus? Probably the second week in January, when it started popping up in China as an issue,” Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness at HEB, recently told Texas Monthly in an oral history about the store’s much-lauded response to the pandemic. Current customers and far flung HEB fans alike regularly praise the multi-billion dollar chain for doing more than the federal government to respond to coronavirus, a statement that becomes distressingly more true each day. After reading the Texas Monthly story, Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to HEB’s response as “a masterclass in preparation and being ready to support your community.” Within a month of the virus reaching Texas, HEB had done more to protect shoppers and employees and replenish empty shelves than any store in New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic.
Since early March, HEB has:
- Extended fully paid medical leave to anyone diagnosed with coronavirus
- Given hourly store, warehouse, manufacturing, and distribution employees $2/hour pay increases through April 12
- Shut down high-contact services, like bulk bins, salad bars, and the famous in-store tortillerias
- Offered concierge low-cost delivery services to seniors
- Asked corporate employees to volunteer for in-store and warehouse shifts
- Set aside essential items for employees
- Limited store hours to allow for restocking
- Put purchasing limits on a slew of essential items
- Placed social distancing stickers on the floor, marking where customers can be six-feet from one another
- Started individually sanitizing carts before handing them to customers, who enter the store single file during busy hours
- Installed plexiglass shields at registers to protect cashiers
The only grocery store I’ve gone to since coronavirus started spreading throughout New York City is a Union Market two blocks from my apartment, which I normally never shop at because it’s exorbitantly expensive. The last time I went, a little over a week ago, they’d just started closing early, letting seniors shop before opening, and had stuck pieces of painter’s tape every six feet on the floor in the register line, to mark where people should stand.
I stopped going to the Key Food around the corner because, the last time I went, the lines for the registers were crammed into one of the store’s slim aisles and it was impossible to move around without bumping into another person. It felt chaotic and dangerous to be there, and that was after five minutes, not an eight-hour shift. Compared to HEB, whose Texas stores are the size of airplane hangars, NYC grocery stores have the unfair disadvantage of having to cram as many aisles as possible into very small spaces…; but that’s just all the more reason to limit customers and minimize contact.
As a privately held, $28 billion-a-year company, HEB could probably swing more than a temporary, $2 raise for hourly workers, and employees still say working at even a well-prepared grocery store right now is unnerving and scary. But in the face of reports about Whole Foods employees getting sick, having panic attacks on the job, being instructed to buy hand sanitizer elsewhere, and encouraged to share sick leave with colleagues, HEB’s response is practically golden. HEB probably had a head start because it operates solely in a state where hurricane season means nearly annual emergency situations, but there’s no discernible reason why Amazon-owned Whole Foods (or any other grocery store) couldn’t start taking a page from HEB’s playbook and put many of the same measures in place to protect its employees going forward.
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