H-E-B officials explain why they stopped making masks mandatory

‘Our policy is to follow the local ordinances,’ H-E-B official says

An H-E-B customer wears a mask while shopping at a San Antonio area store on April 3, 2020. (Sal Salazar, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIOUpdate on June 17: H-E-B will require customers in Bexar County to wear masks once again after a new executive order was issued. Read the full story here.

Original story:

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H-E-B enforced a mandatory mask requirement in May but has since backed off leaving many wondering why.

An online petition, which has garnered more than 23,000 signatures since this weekend, asks H-E-B to reinstate the policy as COVID-19 cases are spiking in San Antonio and across Texas.

H-E-B officials told KSAT in response to the petition that while they wish all customers would wear a mask, enforcing that rule is complicated.

The petition points out that H-E-B, as a private company, is legally allowed to require all customers to wear a mask. But enforcing such a policy is difficult because the state has blocked local governments from mandating face coverings.

“The petition is well-intentioned but it’s more complicated than that. Without any guidance or rules from the local government like we had a couple of weeks ago, there is nothing to enforce. We would have to call (police) for every conflict and use illegal trespass. It’s very difficult to deny entry. We request all customers wear masks and encourage it with messaging,” said H-E-B spokesperson Dya Campos.

The confusion regarding H-E-B’s mask policy has also spread on social media with customers wondering definitively what the policy is.

On May 4, H-E-B spokesperson Julie Bedingfield told KSAT: “In consideration of our safety, and in compliance with the City of San Antonio ordinance and as requested by the Governor of Texas, H-E-B is requiring our Partners (employees) and customers to continue to wear face coverings while shopping. We appreciate everyone helping to keep each other safe."

In early June, another statement about face coverings from Bedingfield no longer used the word “requirement," saying instead, "H-E-B strongly encourages the use of masks or facial coverings by all our customers in all stores. Several municipalities in Texas have mandatory mask orders. H-E-B abides by the ordinances in those areas by strongly encouraging the use of masks, but we will not deny entry.”

Store officials may want people to wear masks, and they can encourage people to wear masks, but they say it’s the enforcing part that gets tricky.

“Our mask policy is that we request every customer that walks into our store wears a mask,” Campos explained, but she said stores are not able to enforce a policy requiring masks without government support. “We can’t physically deny entry. Our policy is to follow the local ordinances.”

Here’s a timeline for face-covering rules in San Antonio, Bexar County and Texas:

  • In late March, Gov. Abbott said, “Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas,” and allowed for fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to 180 days or both for violations.
  • The San Antonio mayor’s office first issued an advisory on April 8 recommending that everyone over the age of 5 wear a cloth face covering.
  • On April 20, new San Antonio and Bexar County orders made face coverings mandatory with fines for violators of up to $1,000.
  • On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that stated: “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings, but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”
  • The city and county orders that followed on April 30 stated that “all people 10 years or older must wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth when in public places” but there were no fines attached, to fall in line with Abbott’s orders.
  • On May 12, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg that said the local orders exceeded what was lawfully allowed and said local orders could “encourage” face coverings, but could not “require” them.
  • Bexar County’s executive orders that followed on May 19, and the latest on June 4, have stated: "All people 10 years old or older are strongly encouraged to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth when in a public place.”
  • On June 12, Wolff asked Gov. Abbott to issue a new executive order that would allow local jurisdictions to determine if mandatory face coverings are needed due to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
  • Abbott refused the county judge’s request on June 13 saying in part, “Judge Wolff and I have a philosophical difference. He believes in government mandates, and I believe in individual responsibility."

‘I believe in individual responsibility': Governor Abbott disagrees with Wolff’s request to mandate facial coverings

As for H-E-B, “We want customers to wear masks in our stores,” said Campos. “We know it’s the proven way to slow the spread of the virus.”

A KSAT report published Monday showed H-E-B partners at 33 stores in the San Antonio and New Braunfels area had tested positive for COVID-19 in June. A relatively low number considering Bexar County alone has 22,000 H-E-B partners, Campos pointed out.

Other grocery chains, including Walmart, Target and Costco, have either not immediately responded or declined requests from KSAT to disclose cases among employees at San Antonio stores.

While H-E-B won’t release the precise number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, the company does reveal which stores have had cases of COVID-19 with a statement posted on individual store webpages. That’s more forthcoming than most other retailers.

“We don’t have any spread in our stores. We have no in-store transmission that we can trace and the largest store in the company has not had a single COVID case,” Campos said.

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