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Texas supermarket chain learns from Chinese retailers

By MAY ZHOU in Houston, Texas | China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-30 09:52

A short line began to form outside an H-E-B supermarket in West Houston. Only a limited number of people were let into the store at a time to ensure social distancing, in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The practice was one of several undertaken by the San Antonio-based chain for public safety in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders at H-E-B, a private company established in 1905 with more than 300 stores in Texas and northern Mexico, said that they began communicating with Chinese retailers in January to prepare for the eventuality of the pandemic, according to Texas Monthly magazine.

Mellissa Walker, a West Houston resident, is a regular shopper at H-E-B. "I shop at H-E-B for most of my grocery needs and usually come here a couple of times a week, Walker, a stay-at-home mother, said while waiting in line on Thursday.

She listed changes she noticed in the past two weeks: "Markers appeared on the floor to mark the social distance at checkout lines. I have seen H-E-B employees spraying disinfectant on freezer doors and handles.

Fast-moving items such as water, canned beans and soft drinks are stacked in the front. Clear glass dividers popped up at checkout to separate the cashiers from the customers.

"I have reduced my trips to H-E-B to once a week since the city of Houston started to shut down restaurants two weeks ago. I am able to get pretty much everything I need so far."

Justin Noakes, director of emergency preparedness at H-E-B, told Texas Monthly that the company first developed a disaster-response plan in 2005. In 2009, when the H1N1 flu pandemic broke out, the company refined the plan. Noakes leads a group that prepares for emergencies year-round.

When Wuhan announced that the novel coronavirus was spreading via human-to-human transmission in mid-January, Noakes and his team started to watch what was unfolding in China. On Feb 2, H-E-B compared its emergency plan with what was happening in China and began to prepare in earnest.

"We modeled what had been taking place in China from a transmission perspective, as well as impact.

"As the number of illnesses and the number of deaths were increasing, obviously the Chinese government was taking some steps to protect their citizens, so we basically mirrored what that might look like," Noakes said.

H-E-B President Craig Boyan said that Chinese retailers have sent information about what happened in the early days of the outbreak.

Jon Taylor, professor and chair at the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas in San Antonio, said he was impressed by what H-E-B had done.

"It is both laudable and heartening that they were in contact with their Chinese counterparts and respected their opinions and best practices.

"That was not only counter to the behavior of (US President Donald) Trump and his administration, it was counter to an all-too-typical attitude on the part of American businesses toward China," Taylor said.

Taylor said that the US and China have an obligation to work together for the common good and the sake of humanity to fight the pandemic.


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