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Malls Reopen as COVID-19 Infections Seen Spiking to 200,000 Daily

Malls are starting to reopen in preparation for retail stores to follow suit, but a lot remains to be done to get consumers comfortable with the idea of in-person shopping again.

Simon Property Group Inc. began opening 49 malls in some states where lockdown restrictions were eased. Those restrictions had many malls and retailers shuttered since mid-March to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. Now the challenge is to determine how best to maintain health, safety and social distancing among both retail workers and shoppers.

Curbside delivery, it seems, may be a go-to across the board.

In its own effort to get business going again, Chico’s FAS Inc. started offering curbside delivery for stores at strip malls, as well as a new shop-by-appointment service at its brands. At Tapestry, CEO Jide Zeitlin is adapting the curbside delivery option to storefront delivery for its reopened mall-based locations.

Inside stores, retailers are taking measures to improve cleanliness and communication about the new way forward for shopping. Contactless payments will also be on the rise as retailers look to limit touch points.

Macy’s Inc. CEO Jeff Gennette said last week that stores would open on a phase-in basis in accordance with state and local law requirements. The company will adopt enhanced cleaning measures, add signpost reminders for shoppers to keep their distance, as well as install protective plexiglass at points of sale where social distancing could be more challenging.

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Reopening report

Malls that reopened over the weekend had reduced hours so centers could be re-sanitized before opening again the next day. Many had signage on the floors to direct one-way foot traffic, and some limited access in and out through one or two entrances. Food court layouts have already been redone in some locations to increase the space between tables and seats. Some, such as the Greenwood Park Mall in Indiana, a Simon Property center, had security guards posted at the entrance to monitor head count to keep track of density within the mall, and offered face masks and hand sanitizing wipes free of charge.

However, shoppers seemed to be largely missing.

At the North Georgia Premium Outlets, an NPR report said there were no lines upon opening and few cars in the parking lot. The story was similar for the Mall of Georgia in Buford, according to local reports, with just a few dozen cars and a cluster of shoppers here and there.

At the upscale fashion and luxury NorthPark Center in Dallas, Gabriella Santaniello, founder and CEO of fashion industry research firm A Line Partners, said only about 18 percent of its stores were open.

“I saw workers wiping down escalator handrails. People were social distancing and wearing face masks. Some retailers were requiring the use of hand sanitizers before you can enter their stores, and others had greeters reminding you to socially distance,” she said. “At the registers, no cash was allowed, so you had to use credit cards or a digital payment app on your phone. I saw tape on the floors telling you where to stand if you are on line and retailers were also monitoring how many people they were allowing into a store.”

Neiman Marcus was open at NorthPark over the weekend, but had plans to open Monday limiting operations to just its personal shopping service.

Urban Outfitters and its sister nameplates Free People and Anthropologie were also open at the mall, with some shoppers inside the stores. While Urban had plexiglass installed at its registers, Santaniello said, the others did not.

At Finish Line—which had released five new Air Jordan retro styles on Saturday—the traffic story was a different one.

“I was on a line of 25 people waiting to get in and we were six feet apart. They would allow only 35 people in the store at a time, which sounds like a lot but it’s not really because this store is massive,” Santaniello said.

Among the retailers that were open at NorthPark this weekend, fitting rooms were closed, which could thwart some sales for customers coming back to stores largely because of the need to try product on for size.

Will shoppers shop? And will infections rise?

While the slow rollout of retail has some optimistic about getting businesses back on track, there are still concerns reopening could see COVID-19 infections increase.

Respondents to a recent Cowen & Company survey indicated subdued confidence in returning to stores. Just 5.8 percent said they would feel safe returning to stores. Others who were recently laid off had muted consumer spending intentions, saving what financial resources they have for essentials like housing costs and groceries.

Similarly, a report from Coresight Research, based on a U.S. consumer survey conducted on April 29, showed consumers are keen to remain sheltered in place over fears of the virus. Roughly 73 percent said they expect to avoid public places after lockdowns lift, up from two-thirds one week ago. And half of all consumers expect to avoid shopping centers and malls after the lockdowns end.

“We saw significant week-over-week increases in expected avoidance at almost all types of places,” the report noted.

And while President Trump wants to restart the economy by easing restrictions and opening retail locations, some states that have relaxed their shelter-in-place mandates have found it hard to enforce social distancing or require residents to wear face masks.

Texas began allowing restaurants to offer a dine-in option, provided they adhere to a 25-percent-only capacity rule, and it made a similar concession for theaters and shopping malls. Since then, however, Texas has also reported four consecutive days of more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases, whereas it only had two days in April where the new case count was that high.

Even in states like New York, where restrictions are still in place at least through May 15, temperature in the high 70s on Saturday saw many New Yorkers headed to sections of Manhattan’s Central Park, where New York City officials dispensed police officers to ensure visitors observed the social distancing mandate. Challenges in a city so densely populated will be great upon reopening, and the infection rate will have to be closely monitored.

While some Americans may start to feel antsy in the midst of extended quarantines, stay-in-place orders could end up extending a little longer. A draft U.S. government report that circulated Monday and was first reported by the New York Times, said new confirmed coronavirus infections in the U.S. will surge to 200,000 daily by June (up from 25,000 currently), with a daily death toll climbing to more than 3,000 on June 1, nearly double what it is now. A Washington Post report said the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have “disavowed’ the report even though the draft, which had been turned into a slide deck, reportedly included the CDC’s logo.