May 15

How H-E-B, other Houston retailers are responding to new CDC mask guidance

Not much has changed – yet – on the mask front for retailers, many of which were re-evaluating their mask policies on Friday, a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines.

Walmart took the first big plunge Friday afternoon, announcing vaccinated customers would no longer be required to wear masks inside its stores. As for unvaccinated customers, Walmart said, “we will continue to request that nonvaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs.”

The CDC altered its guidelines Thursday for what vaccinated people can safely do, saying fully vaccinated people can resume pre-pandemic activities without masks and social distancing. The agency reminded people they still have to follow federal, local and business rules regarding masks and social distancing, pointing to federal transit policies requiring masks on planes, trains and buses.

Kroger and Ulta both said Friday they would require masks for entry at their grocery and beauty stores in Houston while they review the CDC’s latest guidelines. Spokespeople for H-E-B and CVS said simply they were evaluating their policies in light of the changes Thursday.

“As we have throughout the pandemic,” Kroger said in a statement, “we are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance, and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy.”

Local retailers said the CDC’s announcement would not immediately change things inside their stores and shopping centers.

The CDC’s latest update has been complicated to wade through, said Augie Bering V, owner of Bering’s Hardware, which has stores in Upper Kirby and West Houston. Understanding the latest development will require his human resources director to take an online class before he can make decisions about how to handle masks inside the store.

“For now, this weekend, it’s pretty much the same,” he said. “We’re not going to police it and we will still encourage it.”

Rex Solomon, owner of Houston Jewelry, said his employees and customers skew older, and it feels safer to stick with masks for the time being. “It’s best to be in, in issues of safety, convervative rather than risk-taking,” he said.

Kenneth Kats, whose firm Baker Katz operates PlazAmericas Mall in Sharpstown, said the mall stopped enforcing mask requirements in March, when Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mandate.

“The percentage of the population that’s sensitive to the people around them not wearing masks is dropping with the passing of time,” he said, noting both a desire to keep customers safe while also balancing retailers’ need for happy customers.

“It’s a fine line that everyone’s walking, including us.”

By Amanda Drane
Houston Chronicle

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