Petition calls for H-E-B to require facial masks

A petition out of San Antonio signed by thousands of Texas residents is calling on H-E-B supermarkets across the state to require customers to wear face masks when shopping in its stores. In doing so, organizers say the grocery chain could set an example in protecting both its partners and the public.

H-E-B operates more than 200 stores in South Texas. On Wednesday afternoon, the change.org petition had nearly 42,000 signatures and was attracting more by the second.

“For the benefit of its partners, its shoppers, and the wider public in Texas, H-E-B supermarkets need to REQUIRE customers in its stores to wear face coverings. Doing so will greatly protect its partners, its shoppers, and the wider communities where H-E-B supermarkets are located,” wrote the petition’s organizer David Spener.

On Wednesday, H-E-B stores in San Antonio stated customers shopping at their stores would be required to wear facial coverings following an order by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf, which mandated face coverings when social distancing is not allowed. The order takes affect June 22.

Last week, an H-E-B representative stated that H-E-B followed the mask ordinances across the state, including the one put in place by the City of Brownsville. Local officials no longer had the authority to require masks after Gov. Greg Abbott began lifting emergency restrictions.

Locally, both Mayor Trey Mendez and the city’s public health director Art Rodriguez said that under Abbott’s orders, businesses bear the responsibility of implementing masks and protections. Rodriguez likened it to “No shirt, no shoes, no service” policies common among retail chains.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in local stores continue to rise. On Tuesday evening, an employee in San Benito reported that management informed staff of three new cases among employees. H-E-B on Wednesday confirmed one additional case in an employee who was last in the company’s 1095 West Business 77 on June 7.

“At our stores, we continue to enforce proper social distancing practices, strict sanitation and require the use of masks or facial covering by all our Partners and vendors in customer facing and close contact positions,” H-E-B wrote on its website.

Two Harlingen H-E-B stores announced additional employee cases in the past two weeks. On June 12, the chain reported that an employee who was last in the store at 1103 Morgan Blvd on June 6 tested positive.

“All directly affected Partners at the location have been notified and the store has been deep cleaned and sanitized multiple times since then,” H-E-B stated.

On Tuesday, the store at 613 S. Expressway 83 reported that an employee who last worked on June 10 tested positive.

In Brownsville, recent cases have been reported at three H-E-B locations. On June 13, the store reported an employee who was last at the 1628 Central Blvd store on June 10 tested positive. On Tuesday, the store reported a partner at Brownsville’s 2250 Boca Chica H-E-B tested positive. That employee last worked on June 8.

At H-E-B’s 2155 Paredes Line Road location, an employee tested positive on Wednesday. H-E-B reported that the employee was last in the store on June 9.

In a statement sent on Wednesday, H-E-B’s border region public affairs senior manager Linda Tovar stated that when local governments no longer had the authority to require masks in public, H-E-B felt it couldn’t do so safely.

“H-E-B’s policy has not changed. H-E-B followed the mask ordinances across Texas and when the local governments could no longer enforce the ordinances, we could no longer safely deny entry into our stores,” she wrote.

“Without government enforcement of mask ordinances, denying entry to stores has unfortunately led to violence against retail employees. While H-E-B will not deny entry, we request all customers wear a mask or face covering in our stores to protect our Partners and their fellow neighbors. Masks are a proven way to slow the spread of coronavirus and H-E-B requests the use of masks in our stores.”

Tovar noted that many carriers are asymptomatic and urged social distancing, masks, proper hand washing, and sanitation.

In an update on Wednesday, the petition’s organizer shared links to coverage from papers across Texas, citing other large retailers that have successfully implemented mandatory mask policies. One of those was Costco, which requires masks, though the policy doesn’t apply to customers unable to wear masks due to a medical condition or children under the age of two.

Other retailers like Walmart and Target are requiring employees to wear masks or other face coverings, but like H-E-B are only encouraging the public to wear them in stores. However dollar stores such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree on Central Boulevard in Brownsville require customers to wear face coverings while inside the stores.

Petitioners offered suggestions to the chain to protect customers and staff.

“How about handing out free face masks at the entrance to stores for those who do not have their own. How about in their PSAs asking the governor to change his policy?”

The organizer pointed out that H-E-B made a six-figure donation to Abbott’s second inaugural celebration, as reported in 2019.

“The petition is not meant as an attack on H-E-B, but rather as a message to them, as the leading grocer in our community, that all customers and employees want them to reinstate the mask-wearing policy for customers so we can all be safer,” he wrote.

“People HAVE to go to the grocery store and supermarkets are a prime location where COVID can be transmitted due to the sheer numbers of people going in and out. We want H-E-B to resume the leadership role it assumed as an exemplary corporate citizen at the beginning of the pandemic.”

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com