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Simon Opening 49 Malls Starting Friday—But Do Shoppers Want to Risk it All?

Even as confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases reached the 1-million milestone this week, the nation’s biggest mall operator is gearing up to open 49 properties starting Friday.

Simon Property Group Inc. is readying the relaunch of more than four dozen mall and outlet centers between May 1-4, following a nationwide coronavirus shutdown on March 18, according to a statement on the company’s website. Shopping complexes in Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas are slated to open their doors and will limit operating hours, provide masks, offer sanitizing packets and use infrared thermometers to check visitor temperatures. Simon said facilities and fixtures will adjusted to enforce social distancing.

COVID-19’s impact has been swift and merciless, bringing economic and business activity to a virtual standstill over the past six weeks. And now that the pandemic shows tentative signs of stabilizing in U.S.—proof perhaps that social-distancing, curve-flattening measures are working—retail players in particular are itching to put their long-shuttered revenue generators back to work.

On Tuesday, women’s specialty apparel retailer Chico’s FAS outlined its own plans to re-open stores, pointing to its concentration in open-air shopping plazas or strip malls as a potential upside to encouraging traffic from consumers who might be wary of enclosed commerce complexes. CEO Bonnie Brooks says plaza stores are easier for staff to manage.

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“Our teams have the ability to manage the number of customers in the stores, provide hand sanitizer and masks to customers, create new flexible distance between clothing racks, and adjust fitting rooms to accommodate social distancing practices,” she said.

To give shoppers as many options as possible, Chico’s is also offering a “buy online, pickup in store” option that includes contactless curbside pickup and launching a new shop-by-appointment service across its entire brand portfolio: Chico’s, White House Black Market, the Soma intimates concept, Chico’s Off the Rack and White House Black Market Outlet.

A read on consumer sentiment shows that Americans are hoping the economy will be open for business sooner rather than later.

April’s Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index dropped to 86.9 from 118.8 in March, with the present situation component sharply declining to 76.4 from 166.7. Those results shouldn’t be a surprise given the mass furloughs and layoffs decimating the labor market.

However, consumers appear somewhat optimistic about the expectations portion of the Index, which rose to 93.8 from 86.8 last month. The short-term measure can be a more useful gauge of consumer confidence as it reflects consumer sentiment six months out.

“Consumers’ short-term expectations for the economy and labor market improved, likely prompted by the possibility that stay-at-home restrictions will loosen soon, along with a re-opening of the economy,” Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, said. Because consumers were also less optimistic about their financial prospects, there could be repercussions for spending as the recovery takes hold, she cautioned.

Over the weekend, states including Georgia and Texas announced plans to begin reopening stores and businesses to restart their economies, provided they are able to maintain social distancing and other health and safety guidelines. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, California and Florida are beginning to formulate plans to relax shelter-in-place restrictions.

Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation and Retail Industry Leaders Association jointly released an outline called “Blueprint for Shopping Safe” that serves as a plan for a phased-in store-opening approach, which also asks state governors to issue uniform, statewide protocols for retailers to adopt.