Texas Businesses Straddle Mask Divide

The controversy challenges retailers and consumers alike.

March 23, 2021

KERRVILLE, Texas—Texas businesses, such as convenience stores, grocers and restaurants, were left to enforce their own face mask policies when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide COVID-19 mask mandate. That has cause problems for H-E-B, the popular Texas grocer, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Texas and Mississippi lifted mask mandates early this month, following Iowa and Montana, which did so in February, as NACS Daily reported. H-E-B waffled on its own policy, at first requiring masks only for employees and then suggesting that everyone in the stores wear masks. While the stores posted signs and made announcements stating that masks are required, H-E-B also said its policy is to avoid escalating situations if a customer refuses to wear a mask.

H-E-B’s shifting messages reflect the tightrope walk that many businesses in Texas face as H-E-B and customers are spotting more maskless customers in the stores.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland told reporters he had to weigh the physical well-being of customers and employees, given the frequent disputes over masks when the state mask mandate was in effect. The governor’s move stripped stores of the “backstop” that the threat of a fine provided, which could lead to more people entering stores without masks, he added.

H-E-B has increased security at many locations. “The ending of 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.

In Texas, Mississippi and other states that lifted restrictions, some of the largest retail, hotel and restaurant chains plan to continue requiring masks. However, many local business owners—particularly hard-hit restaurants—cheered the policy change. In a March, a survey of more than 700 restaurants conducted by the Texas Restaurant Association reported that 44% of respondents will no longer require face coverings on customers.

Of course, there are customers who prefer the mask requirement. One customer, Katy Bravenec, said she lost faith in H-E-B after its initial statement and no longer plans to shop at her San Antonio store after seeing a number of customers not wearing masks there. Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Tatiana Miller said she sympathizes with Texas businesses caught in the mask debate. She knows businesses have no way of enforcing a mask policy, with or without a mandate and agrees with the policy of not making it mandatory for entry, while at the same time urging customers to wear a face covering.

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

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