What’s shopping in a pandemic like? Drive to your local mall

NEW YORK (AP) – Many Americans are getting their first taste of what pandemic shopping looks like at their local mall.

Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest mall operator, reopened several dozen shopping centres across Texas, Georgia and roughly 10 other states between Friday and Monday.

There, a new reality is on display: Play areas and water fountains are off limits. Employees wear masks and shopping in groups is banned. Shoppers can also get their temperature checked for free on the premises.

Among other changes: Every other urinal and sink is taped off, and there’s ample space between seating in the food court. Simon also has technologies that will make sure occupancy will not exceed one person for every 50 feet.

But despite all the safety measures, the question remains: Will anyone come?

Shoppers wait to enter a store inside of Greenwood Park Mall in Greenwood, Indiana. PHOTOS: AP
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, Sameda Majano wipes the hand rails of the escalator at the Galleria Dallas mall in Dallas
A woman walks through an empty plaza at City Creek Centre in Salt Lake City. Several major Utah malls have announced their reopening’s after Utah leaders moved the state’s COVID-19 risk level from high to moderate

“There are still a lot of people who are scared,” said Jon Reily, global head of commerce strategy at Isobar Global, a global digital agency. “The tricky part for malls is finding that sweet spot. Yes, you can come here and yes, you can be safe.”

So far, the early signs haven’t been encouraging.

At Simon’s Town Centre at Cobb, which reopened last Monday in Kennesaw, a suburb of Atlanta, many of the stores remained closed. Those still dark and locked by gates included Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, Helzberg Diamonds and the Build-A-Bear Workshop. Some of the kiosks selling jewellery, cell phones and T-shirts were open, though others were closed.

For sale at one of the kiosks: A black-and-white T-shirt emblazoned with a gas mask and the words “I Survived Coronavirus 2020.”

Douglas Butler, 28, arrived at Simon’s Lenox Square mall in Atlanta around 11am on Monday. It was much less crowded than normal, and he easily found a parking spot in the normally packed lot.

Mall employees were handing out masks at the door, and just about everyone was wearing one while also maintaining distance from other shoppers, he said. Many stores still weren’t open, especially the higher-end and designer stores. He bought two new pairs of shoes for his four-year-old son. He added he might pick up something for himself as well.

“Since I’m here, I might as well,” Butler said. “Everybody has a sale on. If you’re open, you have a sale.”

Meanwhile, a Nebraska mall got off to a subdued start on Friday morning with just a few shops welcoming customers and about half a dozen patrons wandering the open-air facility wearing masks.

Nebraska Crossing resumed business with new safety measures, including hand sanitising stations, plexiglass barriers and signs to promote social distancing guidelines. A handful of mall patrons walked through mostly empty pathways between stores, glancing into shop windows.

“I do think it’s a little soon, but it’s kind of slow and there aren’t a lot of people here, so I’m not too worried,” said Jasmine Ramos of Omaha.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University who has been consulting businesses and governors on reopenings, agrees that it is too soon. There first needs to be a “long-term verifiable significant reduction” in cases and ample virus testing and contact tracing, he said.

And shoppers should be required to wear masks, he said.

“Malls are inherently risky places for transmission of the coronavirus by design,” he said.

“They are there to have a lot of people congregating among each other and among the staff.”

Given so much uncertainty, many major national mall operators have held off on announcing reopening plans and are weighing safety protocols while waiting for stay-at-home restrictions to be lifted.

Taubman Centers, which operates 26 malls worldwide and is being acquired by Indianapolis-based Simon, said it plans to open three malls – two in Florida and one in Utah – on Wednesday.