May 10, 2020
H-E-B Got Cold Shoulder from GOP Governor
on Masks Despite Lobbyist Strike Force Role
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
H-E-B turned down an invitation to have a voice on the elite group of advisors who've been advising Governor Greg Abbott on the Texas coronavirus reopening after he spurned the massive homegrown grocery chain's push for a mask order across the state.
A Texas cultural icon that's the state's largest private employer, H-E-B hasn't been happy with the Republican governor for denying the firm's pleas for a face-covering mandate when the virus was starting to take a heavy toll on its workforce in April.
After H-E-B rejected an offer for a seat on the Strike Force to Open Texas, Abbott poured salt into the wound when he overturned mask requirements that local leaders had in effect in the largest cities and counties until their invalidation late last month.
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While H-E-B might have viewed the task force's creation as a publicity gimmick designed more for show than actual guidance, the falling out with Abbott is surprising on several fronts. The nation's 12th largest privately-held company with estimated revenues of almost $30 billion last year, H-E-B is owned and run by a major Abbott donor with Charles Butt as the chief executive officer. Butt has contributed nearly $1 million to Abbott since his initial election as governor in 2014.
H-E-B apparently didn't expect a sympathetic ear from Abbott on mandatory face-coverings even though one of the powerful lobbyists on its team at the Texas Capitol had signed on as the chief operating officer for the virus strike force.
Former Republican state lawmaker Mike Toomey had agreed to oversee the group's day-to-day operations in a move that prompted him to terminate his lobby registration in an attempt to eliminate perceptions of potential conflicts of interest in the special new role. Abbott received heat from conservatives and liberals alike for Toomey's enlistment amid claims that he could use the position to boost the lobby practice to which he plans to return at some point.
Toomey - an attorney who'd served five years in the Texas House before stints as the chief of staff for two Republican governors - had been an enemy in the eyes of many Democrats and hard-line conservatives as well as a result of his association with the business establishment.
H-E-B had added Toomey after the 2019 regular session to a cadre of lobbyists in Austin that already featured powerhouse Capitol advocates Neal T. "Buddy" Jones and Rusty Kelley and their teams at the statehouse. Toomey's lobby partner Lara Keel had been representing H-E-B for years as well before he joined it.
But the gubernatorial snub on a mask order appeared to pour water on warnings on the possibility of Toomey capitalizing on the strike force position for personal gain and sweetheart deals for clients.
Abbott had struck down the local face-covering orders at the same time he allowed a statewide stay-at-home edict to expire at the end of April amid the assertion that the COVID-19 surge was on the verge of a decline. The governor cited an increase in testing across Texas as a major justification for his decision to allow restaurants, retailers, malls and move theaters to reopen on May 1 in the initial phase of a gradual dismantling of restrictions that he'd implemented in March and April.
But H-E-B might be more offended now than it had been for several weeks with Abbott's dramatic capitulation to critics on the hard right late last week when he revised an executive order that had culminated in Dallas hair salon owner Shelley Luther's jailing in a perfectly-orchestrated set-up scheme. Abbott effectively transformed the orders that he's issued during the coronavirus siege into formal guidelines when he removed the threat of time behind bars as a potential consequence for violations.
H-E-B officials have been working with the governor's office on issues related to the state's reopening despite the company's decision to stay off the strike force. But Abbott's nullification of local mask orders coupled with the appearance of pandering to lockdown dissidents in the staged case in Dallas could hit an even deeper nerve with H-E-B as a business that's been a central hub in the Texas fight with the coronavirus that's taken a substantial toll on its workforce without a disruption in its operations throughout the crisis.
H-E-B had the foresight to start preparing for a catastrophe like the current pandemic with a compressive strategy for a swift and effective response as the largest business of its kind in Texas in an industry that's been as essential to the state's survival as health care. But the company found it much harder to protect its employees from the virus spread when it caught the governor and other state officials by surprise and clueless on how to respond in the initial stages.
H-E-B officials knew that a face-covering order would lessen the chance for the spread of the disease through the general population and the odds for infections of workers for a company that employs more than 1,000 people at 340 stores across the state. Grocery store employees have been one of the most vulnerable segments of the population as result of their close proximity with shoppers.
The University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium had published a report in mid-April that identified grocery store workers as the most likely catalyst for an exponential spread based on a study of employees in the Austin area.
"Our analysis suggests that grocery shopping can considerably increase the community-wide risk of COVID-19 and that both shoppers and workers can and should do their part to protect themselves and others from transmission in stores," the UT virus tracking group said in a 21-page report on its findings. "Furthermore, the risk of COVID-19 hospitalizations within the population of grocery workers is expected to be much higher than that in the non-working 18-49 year old population."
H-E-B in the past two has announced that employees have tested positive for the virus at stores in Brownsville and Corpus Christi. Multiple H-E-B workers have had coronavirus cases confirmed after working at stores in the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio areas and other places across the state from Waco to the Rio Grande Valley.
At least seven states including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have had statewide orders that require masks to be worn in public places and essential businesses that have been allowed to remain open during the crisis. More than 30 states have less restrictive face-covering requirements with governors allowing local leaders in many places to make the call on masks.
Republican Governors Charlie Baker of Masschusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland have ordered the people in their states to cover their faces when they're using public transportation and going inside businesses that are open. Businesses in those are other states are required to have all employees who interactive with the public donning masks at work.
GOP Governor Mike DeWine had a face-covering mandate for business customers and employees in place until he rescinded it last week amid the assertion that he had decided that it was too restrictive. But the mask order's cancellation hasn't stopped lockdown critics from protesting at DeWine's private residence and at the home of Ohio's top public health official as well.
The restrictions that Hogan ordered in an attempt to curb the coronavirus spread have been the target of a lawsuit that was filed last week by some GOP state lawmakers, businesses and pastors who are challenging the governor's orders. But Hogan held his ground for several days before he announced the first phase of a reopening plan that he'd been preparing before he was taken to court.
Abbott had appeared to be tuning out a growing chorus of criticism over a relatively cautious approach that he'd been taking for several weeks. But Abbott finally sided with the protestors on the hard right after Luther had spent two days in jail after she'd violated and taunted a gubernatorial order that had temporarily shuttered her hair shop and other businesses that had been deemed nonessential. Abbott had acted as though he'd been shocked that Luther had been locked up even though he'd initially had made violations punishable by up to five months in jail before announcing on the day that the state Supreme Court ordered Luther's release that the restrictions that had landed her behind bars would no longer be enforceable.
H-E-B has been a major staple of the Texas economy for decades as a firm that Florence Butt opened at her home in Kerrville in 1905. The business that's based in San Antonio now had weathered the last major pandemic that was known as the Spanish Flu before the store founder's son Howard Edward Butt started running the company after his return from World War I in 1919.
The current chairman took over in 1971 when the company that his father had gradually expanded recorded sales that year of $250 million. H-E-B has reinforced its reputation as one of the state's most charitable businesses by donating millions of dollars to relief efforts during the current pandemic while giving away countless of amounts of food to emergency shelters as well.
H-E-B has been consistently viewed as unrivaled in the way it treats employees and the loyalty that its devotion has inspired in return. While the grocer has been doing a substantial amount of business with curbside pickup and deliveries, its doors have remained open and most of the shoppers who venture inside have their faces covered now voluntarily in a state where they are no longer forced to do so to the dismay of H-E-B.