ALBANY – Face masks for all customers. One-way foot traffic in hallways. Social distancing enforcement and signage. New hand sanitizer stations.
Those are some of the measures that malls in New York vow to put in place when they are allowed to reopen.
But the “when” is still uncertain.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given no indication when indoor shopping malls will be allowed to reopen with new safety precautions after they were closed in mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to more than 24,700 deaths in New York.
In-person retail shopping was allowed weeks ago in Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan. For malls, only stores with exterior entrances, such as department stores, were able to reopen.
Stores inside the malls have been able to have curbside pickup for customers, but few are doing so — leaving mall owners, stores and customers wondering when the ban on indoor areas will be lifted.
The uncertainty has been frustrating to mall owners who feel they’ve been without any clear sense of their immediate future.
A spokesperson for Wilmorite, a company that owns four malls and major shopping plazas in the Rochester area, explained that company leaders aren’t sure which phase their properties are in, and haven’t gotten any information from the state about when they move forward.
Last week, Cuomo indicated no time frame for malls to reopen as five regions of upstate New York are expected to enter the fourth and final phase on Friday.
“On the malls, I get their point and we’re looking at that,” Cuomo said June 16 when asked at his daily briefing about malls’ eagerness to reopen.
But Cuomo said the question is whether malls with their large gathering spots can enforce the safety requirements needed to reopen and limit the spread of COVID-19.
“There’s a big variance between what is theoretically possible and what can actually happen in reality,” he continued.
“Well, we’ll have the rules and we’ll enforce the rules. Yeah, I understand that, but that’s also theoretical.”
On Tuesday, Empire State Development, the agency overseeing the reopening, said: “The full reopening of malls is under discussion and remains to be determined.”
Later Tuesday, the Times Union in Albany reported that malls, gyms and movie theaters would not be part of Phase 4 and instead would be evaluated separately.
Why malls say they should be allowed to reopen
Malls, with their hundreds of tenants, have been struggling under the weight of the shutdown.
Analysts have estimated that as many as 20,000 stores may close in the U.S. this year, and half of those could be at malls.
Already malls were in the midst of the transformation, moving away from retail as shoppers increasingly buy products online and more toward entertainment, such as more restaurants, clubs and arcades.
New York’s four-phase plan allowed outdoor dining in Phase 2 and indoor dining in Phase 3, with limited occupancy and safety steps.
But restaurants without an exterior entrance have not been able to reopen, leaving food courts and other indoor eateries in malls still shuttered.
Mall owners are urging the Cuomo administration to let malls reopen with strict guidelines.
“For the past three weeks, nearly all of our New York mall tenants have been waiting for the state to allow them to reopen,” Pyramid Management Group said in a statement.
“Many need to do so sooner rather than later, in order to have a fair shot at salvaging their businesses.”
The Syracuse-based Pyramid owns many of the largest malls in New York, including Palisades Center in Rockland County; the Poughkeepsie Galleria; the Galleria at Crystal Run in Middletown; Destiny USA in Syracuse and Crossgates in Albany.
Simon Property Group, the largest mall owner in the country, has opened its outdoor plazas, including its outlet centers in Waterloo in the Finger Lakes and Nanuet and Woodbury Common in the Hudson Valley
Simon, which also The Westchester in White Plains, said it is awaiting further guidance from the state on when it could allow shoppers indoors.
“Employees capable of carrying out work duties from home will be directed to do so,” Simon’s coronavirus exposure mitigation protocols said. “Our employees will be informed that they should not report to work if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have experienced symptoms in the 72 hours prior to start of shift.”
Simon said it will test body temperatures for all of its employees returning to work.
The mall owner said stores allowed to reopen will be required to operate at half of their full capacity.
Other precautions include using dividers to maximize one-way traffic flow, social distancing markers at food courts, restrooms and enhanced sanitation.
How malls plan to reopen
Malls and their tenants have argued that the struggling economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic would be boosted by the thousands of employees at malls getting back to work.
Mall owners initially expected they might be part of Phase 2 reopenings, which allowed for retail stores and plazas to resume operations.
On Friday, five regions of upstate New York — the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, Central New York, Southern Tier and North Country — are expected to go to Phase 4.
But Phase 4 doesn’t automatically mean that everything that is still closed can reopen.
Large gathering places, such malls, movie theaters, gyms and casinos, appear to be being reviewed by the state separately.
And the state hasn’t given any sense when those types of facilities could resume.
“Pyramid stands ready to open,” the company said, saying it has more than 20,000 jobs at stake.
“Our properties are as safe, or safer, than those occupied by freestanding retailers and restaurants across the state.”
It added: “We’re ready.”
Wilmorite has a full reopening plan listed on its website, which includes detailed guidelines around social distancing, signage, masks, sanitization, seating areas, mall hours and more.
A number of stores and restaurants with external entrances are currently open for business at all four of Wilmorite’s properties, including Eastview Mall in Victor, Ontario County. A separate list details which stores or restaurants are offering curbside pickup.
Mall tenants that haven’t yet opened must come up with a future reopening plan to be submitted to the mall leadership and are responsible for adhering to curbside pickup rules currently in place at Wilmorite properties.
“We realize that shopping, dining and entertainment may look a bit different when we reopen, and that each tenant may have a different approach and individual needs,” the plan reads.
“We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to reopen in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable and safe.”
Some of the more notable changes include:
- Rearranged seating areas throughout the mall to account for social distancing
- The temporary closure of mall carousels and children’s play areas
- Some entrances will be equipped with touch-free doors
- Installing touch-free fixtures in bathrooms
- Tenant employees must get a temperature check when arriving at work
- Reduced mall hours
Wilmorite’s suggestions for tenants upon reopening include:
- Monitoring store capacity with an employee at the entrance
- Using a one-way customer flow system throughout the store/restaurant
- Using touch-free payment methods
- Placing social distancing reminders throughout the store/restaurant