Driving along U.S. Route 224 in Boardman Tuesday afternoon, you couldn’t be blamed for forgetting we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Traffic resurged and cars crowded shopping centers, including the Shops at Boardman Park and the Southern Park Mall.
People were clearly ready to get out of their houses, but the supply of possible shopping destinations did not meet the demand.
Although retail stores were permitted to reopen, only a handful of businesses were ready for customers Tuesday. In the Shops at Boardman Park, Target, Value City Furniture, H&R Block, T-Mobile, Skechers Outlet and Five Below opened their doors to customers, but the remainder were closed or only offering curbside pick-up — like Kohl's.
Of the dozens of stores at the Southern Park Mall, fewer than 10 were open Tuesday: Hollister, Hibbett Sports, Tri-Healthy, Rue 21, Gracylane, Shelby’s Sugar Shack, Zumiez and Journeys.
The mall's anchor stores — Macy's and JCPenney — remained closed.
"I think by the end of the week, we're going to be — I'm hoping for — 50 percent," said Southern Park Mall General Manager Brian Gabbert. "So, we're getting there."
Donning a mask as he walks throughout the mall, Gabbert is clearly anticipating the mall’s slow return to normal.
"You're walking through the mall that's empty and you've got a few tenants coming and doing a few things, but it's a very small percentage,” said Gabbert. “It's a different place when nobody's here."
Two anchor stores at Eastwood Mall in Niles — JCPenney and Macy’s — were also dark when Mahoning Matters visited Tuesday afternoon. Elsewhere in the Eastwood plaza, customers were seen exiting Dick’s Sporting Goods, oversized bags in-hand, while the Best Buy next door continued to offer only curbside pickup.
Joe Bell, spokesman for mall owners Cafaro Co., said Macy’s decided to delay opening a few days, and though he’d heard JCPenney’s intended to open Tuesday, it was still shuttered that afternoon.
“A lot of the big boxes on the surrounding outparcels will be opening, as I understand,” Bell said. “A lot of these retailers had to deal with logistical issues … staffing, inventory, cleaning, whatever measures they need to install for physical barriers in some cases.
“But they’re getting to the point where they want to get open again.”
Inside Eastwood Mall, only about a third of stores were reopened as of Tuesday afternoon. Major brand stores like Victoria’s Secret, Lane Bryant, LensCrafters, Hot Topic and Old Navy remained closed. Other stores advertised reopening in the coming days or weeks.
Dillard’s, however, was open Tuesday and shoppers queued up for a storewide half-off sale, while keeping some space between them.
Bonnie Diglaw of Howland, who perused clothing racks Tuesday, said she was mostly happy to get out of the house. She said she was glad to see floor decals that helped shoppers keep the recommended distance.
“I wouldn’t know six feet if it bit me,” she laughed.
Diglaw said she felt confident enough Eastwood shoppers were masked, like herself, but she’s still concerned about a resurgence of new infections that state officials have suggested will come with the return of retail.
CLEANING UP SHOP
Mask-wearing has become a cultural flashpoint of sorts, and, at Southern Park Mall, different perspectives on the state’s mask recommendation were on display Tuesday.
At the main entrance of the Southern Park Mall, masked customers walked inside. People fumbled to put on masks to enter the mall. A group of teens with smirks on their unmasked faces walked to their cars, laughing at those taking serious precautions.
At both Southern Park and Eastwood, about half of customers wore face coverings Tuesday, by Mahoning Matters’ estimations.
Neither mall requires customers to wear masks — though a sign greeting Eastwood shoppers strongly encourages them. The state has mandated them for store employees. Tenants have the flexibility to enact individual policies regarding customers' face coverings.
“Seeing us in masks probably relieves that anxiety (for shoppers),” said Hannah Corbett, manager of the Eastwood Books-A-Million.
There, employees submit daily self-surveys attesting they are free of COVID-like symptoms before starting work, she said. The store also offers gloves to customers who request them and sanitizes pens between each transaction, she said.
Becky Buckwalter thumbed through a fresh book while peering over her surgical mask. She’s a recent nursing school graduate who came from Pennsylvania — where in-person retail is only allowed in about half of the state — and said she was eager to read something other than a medical textbook.
She said while the return of retail is “exciting and also scary,” she was heartened to see at least some Eastwood shoppers had their faces covered.
In compliance with the state's requirement to close food courts, tables and chairs surrounding the play area near Southern Park Mall’s entrance have been removed. In their place, signs and stickers on the floor remind guests to maintain distance from each other.
"A lot of times it's easy to just kind of forget, as inundated as we are with it," said Gabbert. "For instance, when you walked up, my natural instinct was to shake your hand. You’ve got to have a constant reminder that, 'Hey we’re not doing that right now.'"
Custodial staff is visible throughout the mall, disinfecting chairs and other common spaces. Gabbert added staff are sanitizing restrooms on an hourly basis.
Hand sanitizing stations have sprung up in empty wall space. Due to shortages of hand sanitizer, providing enough for stations throughout the mall has been a challenge.
"Wherever we can add them in," Gabbert said about sanitizing stations. "And frankly where we can get them, because [hand sanitizer] is kind of tough to come by right now."
As for tenants, "folks seem to have come up with what they need."
Reopening safely won't be cheap. From hand sanitizer to cleaning equipment to take-out containers and other supplies, mall tenants and the mall itself will have to plan for additional expenses associated with operating during a pandemic.
"But for six weeks, there wasn’t a whole lot going on here," said Gabbert. "We had reduced some staffing there to kind of get out in front of some of the expenses we foresaw coming."
Though Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has said safety requirements mandated for reopening retailers are intended to engender consumer confidence, Cafaro Co.’s Bell said he feels shoppers are already of two minds.
“We have to realize there are two different kinds of people in society today because of all this,” he said.
“There are those who are itching to get out; over the past two months have been trying to get out and do anything. Then there’s the other segment of the society. After having listened to lots of frightening news stories and scary statistics, their brain has become acclimated to the idea that they should be frightened,” he said.
“Some of them have legitimate reasons [to be wary]. They may have underlying physical problems, medical conditions. Those people should not go out right now,” Bell continued. “We understand it’s everyone’s own personal choice.”
Rob McFarland, manager of Eastwood’s locally owned Hubbard Music, said he was surprised to see just how many people turned up Tuesday for the mall’s reopening, but it was “weird” seeing so many in masks filling the semi-dark concourses.
“I’d say it’s been about average [business] for what a typical day would be pre-COVID-19,” he said. “It hasn’t been good, but I would have expected worse.”
Aside from untested demand and a responsibility to keep customers and employees safe during the pandemic, McFarland said Hubbard Music is having difficulty sourcing new inventory, as most of its suppliers have been forced to close.
Was it the right time to reopen? McFarland sounded unsure.
“I guess? I don’t know. I have a family at home, so there’s part of me that’s cautious about getting back to it,” he said. “But there’s part of me, too, that thinks it’s time to get moving.
“I’m just kind of doing what the government said is OK to do. That’s all we can do at this point is trust the people calling the shots actually have our best interests in mind.”
Chris Grosbeck, who worked the counter at MiMe, a specialty store at Eastwood that uses photogrammetry and 3-D printing to make miniature statues of customers' likenesses, said he'd already booked a piece modeled after a customer's dog and another customer had called in an order for special parts.
"Actually, it is pretty busy and we've done well so far today, believe it or not," he said.
Likewise, Corbett said her Books-A-Million saw an early afternoon surge that was "busier than I thought it would be."
WASHINGTON PRIME VS. THE NYSE
Based on news out of New York earlier this month, Southern Park Mall owner Washington Prime Group has more on its plate than reopening malls in the midst of the pandemic.
The company is at risk of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
The Southern Park Mall owner announced April 28 it received notice from the New York Stock Exchange that the company does not currently meet certain NYSE continued listing standards. These standards require the company to maintain a minimum average closing price of $1.00 per share over a period of 30 consecutive trading days.
Washington Prime Group has until Jan 1, 2021 to regain compliance.
On April 21, the New York Stock Exchange reached an agreement with the securities and exchange commission, extending the cure period for companies like WPG.
The financial development follows news of salary cuts for executives and layoffs and furloughs of 20 percent of the company’s staff.
Gabbert did not comment on the company's financial situation but said the $30 million renovation of the site will continue as planned.
Meanwhile, he's focused on ramping up mall staffing and safety procedures in keeping with the pace by which customers return to the mall, which is tough to predict.
"I think the big thing is like I said, we're doing what we can to keep folks safe and create an environment where they can enjoy getting back to normal life again," "You're always fighting perception. We want to make sure that folks know, 'Hey we understand that this is a serious thing that's going on, but we're treating it very seriously,'" Gabbert said.
"... We're doing what we can to keep folks safe and create an environment where they can enjoy getting back to normal life again."