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10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

Business owners have a lot of rights. They have the right to set their own prices. They have the right to develop a code of conduct-even dress codes-for their employees. They have the right to protect their place of business, their employees and their customers from harm.

They don't, however, have the right to discriminate while exercising these rights. Yet that's exactly what The Kroger Co. is doing by banning a 7-year-old Columbus boy, Georgio Lee Chacon, from its play areas because he's HIV-positive.

Kroger's actions are particularly shocking because I've come to expect better from this growing supermarket chain. Its Columbus stores have done a lot to build the reputation of being good corporate citizens. This short-sighted move could quickly spoil all that.

Kroger claims it's acting out of concern for customer safety by banning Georgio-and all children with infectious diseases-from its play areas. That's a bunch of baloney. First, enforcing such a policy relies heavily on the willingness of customers to disclose private, medical information to play area workers-something Georgio's guardian generously did, but which many others might not-especially after seeing how Georgio's situation was handled.

Second, though 7-year-olds can play rough and even scrape a knee or bump a head hard enough to shed some blood, the chance of transmitting HIV to another person from such a cut is miniscule. Young Georgio would have to bleed profusely into another's open wound or into their eye for infection to even be a possibility. Casual contact won't do it. Runny noses, spitting, even contact with an infected child's urine won't do it. It takes blood-to-blood contact. Kroger's unwillingness to see that-as well as the incredible odds against blood-letting injuries occurring in a supervised play area stocked primarily with books and video games-is shameful.

By banning Georgio, Kroger has fueled the lingering stigma of paranoia surrounding this potentially deadly disease. It has also alienated hundreds of Central Ohio residents believed to be infected with either HIV or AIDS, as well as other shoppers who may find Kroger's reaction ignorant and distasteful enough to take their business elsewhere.

It doesn't have to be that way. Kroger still has a chance to show a little compassion in a very public way and reverse its decision. Such a move would surely win Kroger some community service points and allow it to dispel some enduring myths about HIV transmission and AIDS. That's certainly the right thing to do. I only hope Kroger opts to exercise that right.

Nancy Byron, editor of Small Business News-Columbus, welcomes your comments by fax at 842-6093 or by e-mail at nbyron@sbnnet.com.