Americans began trickling back into shopping malls on Friday, wearing masks and facing new rules.
Only two customers at a time at a Vitamin World in San Antonio. No shoe-sizing services at a Skechers in Gulfport, Mississippi. Mandatory hand sanitiser, spritzed on by a mask-wearing doorman, at a Louis Vuitton in Houston.
“It wasn’t that different from a typical shopping experience,” said Peyton Burrows, who went to the upscale Texas mall in search of a Louis Vuitton handbag and, like countless others, some measure of normalcy.
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Malls, restaurants and movie theatres in Texas and roughly a dozen other states began emerging from the coronavirus lockdowns that have fuelled six weeks of economic paralysis, leaving business owners, workers and consumers to make their calculations about what normal should look like amid an ongoing public health crisis.
More than half of America’s governors have now relaxed restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. But the reopenings are largely piecemeal and vary in scope. In Georgia, governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, last week opened nearly all businesses, including tattoo parlours and hair salons. Colorado began allowing in-person shopping on Friday, with strict social distancing protocols in place. Ohio is edging into reopening, allowing elective surgeries to resume.
Most department stores and national chains remained closed on Friday. The retailers that did reopen represented a smattering of brands: Rack Room Shoes, Gucci and Urban Outfitters. A candle kiosk in Mississippi and a food court Subway.
The landscape is even more muddled within states, with many large cities extending stay-at-home orders even as they are lifted in more rural areas. Officials in Nashville, Denver, St. Louis and other cities have told residents to stay home even as their states have moved to reopen. Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has insisted the entire state follow his plans to reopen, even though mayors in such cities as Austin and Dallas have baulked.
Public health experts, meanwhile, have warned that premature openings could lead to a resurgence of the virus, which has killed more than 64,000 Americans.
“There’s no question that at the end of this we’ll have to reopen as a society, but right now it’s happening scattershot without any consistency,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “Nobody has a playbook.”
The patchwork has left many national businesses unsure of how to proceed, though some are slowly rolling out plans. Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest mall operator, reopened three dozen shopping centres on Friday, with plans to expand to 49 properties in 10 states on Monday. Tapestry, the parent company of Kate Spade, Coach and Stuart Weitzman, reopened 40 of its stores for curbside pickup. Best Buy plans to phase in 200 stores this month.
Meanwhile, Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store chain, will open 68 stores on Monday, with the rest of its 775 stores coming on board in the next six to eight weeks. But there will stark differences from pre-pandemic norms: customers will not be allowed to try on makeup or dress shirts or get bra fittings. No ear piercings or alterations, either. Employees, meanwhile, will be required to get temperature checks and wear cloth masks. The company is also adding plexiglass barriers at cash registers and providing hand sanitiser at entrances, escalators and checkout counters.
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