“It wasn’t that different from a typical shopping experience,” said Peyton Burrows, 24, who went to the upscale Houston Galleria in search of a designer handbag and, like countless others, some measure of normalcy.
Malls, restaurants and movie theaters in Texas and roughly a dozen other states emerged Friday from the coronavirus lockdowns that have fueled six weeks of economic paralysis, leaving business owners, workers and consumers to make calculations about what normal should look like amid an ongoing public health crisis.
More than half of America’s governors have relaxed restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. But the reopenings are largely piecemeal and vary in scope. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) last week opened nearly all businesses, including tattoo parlors and hair salons. Colorado began allowing in-person shopping on Friday, with strict social distancing protocols in place. Ohio edged into reopening, allowing elective surgeries to resume.
Most department stores and national chains remained closed Friday. The retailers that did reopen represented a smattering of brands: Rack Room Shoes, Gucci, Urban Outfitters, 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 Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has insisted the entire state follow his plans to reopen, even though mayors in cities such as Austin and Dallas have balked.
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 centers Friday, with plans to expand to 49 properties in 10 states Monday. Tapestry, the parent company of Kate Spade, Coach and Stuart Weitzman, reopened 40 of its stores for curbside pick-up. Best Buy plans to phase in 200 stores this month.
Meanwhile, Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store chain, will open 68 stores Monday, with the rest of its 775 stores coming onboard 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 sanitizer at entrances, escalators and checkout counters.
But even with the precautions, analysts say it will be difficult to persuade shoppers to come in and spend. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks, and many more say they’re worried about possible job cuts and furloughs as the effects of the shutdown continue to ripple across the economy. That has led to steep declines in consumer spending that analysts say will worsen in the coming months.
“Some people will go to the mall, but there are so many others who are afraid to go out or don’t have money to spend,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.
That didn’t stop the dozens of shoppers who lined up Friday outside Ingram Park Mall in San Antonio, waiting for it to open.
William Luna, 42, had come, wearing a homemade Spiderman-themed mask, in search of an exclusive Batman figure. Though he disagrees with the governor’s decision to reopen the state, he said he’s getting tired of sitting at home. Plus, he figured, there wouldn’t be much of a crowd at the mall.
“I don’t like being locked up,” said Luna, who is disabled and cannot work. “But I also understand.”
Inside the mall, signs warned customers about keeping their distance, and stickers on the tile floor indicated where people should stand. Vitamin World imposed a two-shopper limit, while Rack Room Shoes allowed 24 at a time. Most national brands were closed, but about a dozen locally owned retailers opened their doors. Jewelry kiosks and cookie vendors were busy preparing for foot traffic. At least a dozen people waited for appointments at the mall’s two optical stores.
Massage chairs, merry-go-rounds, and the food court were roped off. Most customers wore face masks and avoided touching surfaces.
Elsewhere in San Antonio, Johnny Hernández reopened his La Gloria Mexican restaurant Friday. “I’m optimistic we can move forward and it’s a risk I’m willing to take,” he said.
The restaurant used metal barriers to control entry, and wait staff wore black masks and gloves. A sign warned, “No mask, No service!”
The chef said he wanted to lead and set an example of how to run a restaurant in a pandemic. He spent two days training employees on the new standards and brought in new inventory. He has rehired 50 of his 150 employees. He feeds 1,500 people on a normal Friday. He predicted about 200 people would come on this day.
“People are ready to come back,” Hernandez said. “We are trying to respect the guidance.”
Two hundred miles away in Houston, Ashley Smith, 29, arrived early at the Galleria to return a $200 pair of sandals to Tory Burch, which happened to be closed. The recently laid-off medical worker said coming to the mall had been “a hard decision.” She needed the money, she said, but it took only a few minutes for her to regret her choice.
Hundreds of shoppers teemed around her. Some of the malls’s most popular destinations — Tom Ford, Neiman Marcus, Chanel, Macy’s, Starbucks, and the Apple Store — were closed. Others, such as Fendi, Valentino and Christian Louboutin, were completely devoid of merchandise.
Six missed delivery stickers were posted to the locked front door of the Chanel store. At Neiman Marcus, a “Temporarily Closed” sign redirected customers to the chain’s website.
“People really don’t seem to be taking the pandemic seriously here,” Smith said. “You don’t know if people are sick, and especially with me being African American, it seems like it’s hitting our community worse.”
“It wasn’t worth it,” she added.
Mall operators, analysts say, also have a financial incentive to reopen: Rent. A number of brands — including the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic — didn’t pay for their leases in April, adding up hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for mall owners. Retailers are also quickly running out of cash, making it all the more important for landlords to lock in whatever payments they can. “It’s a lot harder for retailers to say, ‘We don’t want to pay rent,’ if the malls are open,” Saunders said. “That’s the calculation.”
Alex Cunningham, who owns two mobile phone repair kiosks in the Galleria called “Street Talk” has been making his own financial calculations. It could be weeks until business returns to normal, he said, but it was important that he open anyway. On Friday, he said he had just two customers instead of the usual dozens.
“I’m just out here because I need the money,” said Cunningham, who added that he wasn’t worried about the virus. “I’ve only had a little bit of business, but I’m grateful for it.”
At the Gulfport Premium Outlets in Mississippi, Katherine Bosarge arranged colorful candles on her sidewalk cart, wondering the same things as the shoppers around her: “Which stores are open? Where is everyone?”
She was wearing a black mask with a New Orleans Saints logo but said she wasn’t worried about the coronavirus. What really scares her, she says, is the economic fallout of the shutdown. Unemployment benefits had helped tide her through these past few weeks, she said, but she was worried about how long it could take for sales to return to normal.
“I’m very glad to be back,” said Bosarge. “I wish there was more business. It’s going to be a slow recovery.”
Arelis Hernández reported from San Antonio and Peter Holley reported from Houston. Carmen Sisson in Gulfport, Miss., contributed to this report.