Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner made a tour of our area last Sunday, visiting a shuttered hospital in Shady Acres and then making stops at the H-E-B grocery store in the Heights as well as the Kroger on West 43rd Street.
At the latter two stops, Turner walked the stores with executives for each company, surveyed their stock and took stock of their social distancing practices. We know this because Turner posted photos of himself on Twitter as well as a short video with Joe Kelley, the president of Kroger’s Houston division, in which they thanked the store’s employees for being on the front line of the region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some who responded to the Twitter posts thanked Turner for visiting the neighborhood and showing his support for the grocery stores, which are important to all of us as we adhere to Harris County’s stay-at-home, work safe order and eat more meals at home. But many were critical of the mayor, because some of the photos showed him violating social distancing guidelines by standing closer than 6 feet from Kelley, H-E-B executive Scott McClelland and others.
In one of the photos, Turner was even fist-bumping a customer.
“I get boosting morale but we must practice what we preach,” wrote one Twitter user. “A photo says a thousand words. The severity of COVID-19 is not portrayed in this image. Social distancing is what will save this country. Being in close proximity with people will only perpetuate the spread.”
Emailed questions to Turner’s media relations staff about his visits to the grocery stores – seeking his thoughts on their social distancing practices as well as the backlash he received – were unanswered.
His critics certainly make a good point, although I’m hesitant to be too tough on the mayor over this. He has probably been out and about more than any other Houstonian during the last two weeks, which is part of his job but also commendable.
During a scary time for the world, and not just our city, it’s important for our leaders to demonstrate that life can and should go on, even if we must make significant adjustments.
As Turner has repeatedly told us, based on advice he’s received from Houston’s medical professionals, it’s also important to stay away from each other right now. That’s why restaurants’ dining rooms are closed, why churches are utilizing online services and why non-essential businesses have been forced to do business remotely or halt their operations altogether.
The necessity of social distancing as we combat COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, leads to a significant question about the grocery stores Turner visited on Sunday: Are they safe places to be as we try to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has infected at least hundreds of people in the Houston area and already led to multiple deaths?
Based on what I’ve read, heard and seen – both in photos, in person and by driving past crowded supermarket parking lots – the answer is no.
Now, let me make it clear that I have not recently visited any of the grocery stores in the Heights, Garden Oaks or Oak Forest areas. I live about a 30-minute drive away in an outlying part of Harris County.
Area residents have said on social media that multiple local stores and their customers have taken measures to practice social distancing, including limiting the number of customers in the store at one time, But there also have been comments about those stores being too crowded at times.
Let me also say that I love H-E-B, the Texas-based grocery chain that has good prices and great in-house products. Since I moved back to Texas from Missouri in 2016, it’s safe to say I’ve spent more money at H-E-B than at any other business.
But I’ve been scared to go there for most of the last month, mostly because elected officials such as Turner keep telling us to avoid crowds. And there’s almost always a crowd at H-E-B, especially as people keep panic-buying.
Since the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo was called off on March 11, I’ve ventured into my local H-E-B only once – after being underwhelmed by my first-ever curbside order, which didn’t include everything I wanted even though I had to wait more than a week. And I only went inside because the parking lot was less full than usual.
It was quite the stressful experience, even though there were relatively few other customers in the store. It was impossible to stay 6 feet away from others at all times, and the COVID-19 precautions H-E-B put in place didn’t make me feel much safer.
Sure, they had employees outside wiping down carts and social-distancing signs and clear plastic shields between customers and cashiers, all of which were appreciated. But those shields were no more than about a foot wide and a foot tall, which means they probably wouldn’t do much if someone on either side of it coughs or sneezes up a storm.
Of course, we all need to eat to survive, which means we need to buy food, and we’re supposed to stay home as often as possible until the end of April. So the need for groceries isn’t going away.
What’s my solution to this conundrum? I don’t have a simple one in this unsettling, unprecedented time.
I’ve been doing most of my grocery shopping at a local Mexican market that’s small and only allows five customers inside at a time. I also found a nearby farmers market that’s open air and not always crowded.
I may place another H-E-B curbside order before the stay-at-home order is lifted – earlier this week it was extended through April – and I suspect we may get to a point where grocery stores are restricted to curbside or delivery services and don’t allow customers inside.
Would that be feasible for us or those essential businesses? I’m not sure, but I know it would be safer than what’s going on now.