Simon Property Group, the biggest operator of malls in the United States, has come up with a game plan for reopening 49 shopping centers across 10 states starting on Friday.
Security officers and employees will “actively remind and encourage shoppers” to maintain a proper distance from others and to refrain from shopping in groups. Food court seating will be spaced to encourage social distancing, and reusable trays will be banished. Play areas and drinking fountains will be temporarily closed, mall-provided strollers won’t be available and, in restrooms, every other sink and urinal will be taped off. Regular audio announcements will be made “to remind shoppers of their part in maintaining a safe environment for everyone.”
The company shared its ideas for what its pandemic-era malls will look like in documents attached to an April 27 memo, which were given to retailers and obtained by The New York Times. They provide a glimpse of how the broader American shopping experience is likely to look as the country begins to slowly reopen. But the success of such an approach depends largely on whether retailers will also decide to quickly reopen stores and whether the public will feel comfortable going to malls when tests for the virus remain difficult to get.
The memo was accompanied by a 47-slide presentation of “illustrative examples” of messaging that shoppers will see. They include signs welcoming them back to the malls and detailing safety precautions that have been taken, and directional decals for floors. Also part of the presentation was a depiction of a taped-off urinal, and maps for common areas that showed where hand sanitizer and seating might be placed and where “Temporarily Closed” signs could appear.
Simon Property, which has seen the future of brick-and-mortar retail seriously threatened by the pandemic, plans to open the shopping centers between Friday and Monday. The majority are in Texas, Indiana, Georgia and Missouri. Properties in Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alaska and Mississippi will also be reopened.
Simon Property, which is based in Indianapolis and at the end of last year owned more than 200 properties in 37 states and Puerto Rico, did not respond to requests for comment.
It is not clear how many retailers with stores in those malls will open their doors. Gap Inc., which owns its namesake brand as well as Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy and is a tenant in some of the properties being reopened, said on Tuesday that it was not opening any stores this weekend. Macy’s, also a Simon Property tenant, currently has all of its stores closed. On Tuesday, it said it had no update on when they would reopen.
Simon Property’s memo, which was first reported by CNBC, emphasized the safety protocols it was enacting as it started to invite customers to malls. Simon Property’s employees, contractors and vendors will be required to take their temperature before work, and stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or exhibit flulike symptoms, the documents said. They will also wear face masks and aim to stay six feet away from others. The mall operator said it would provide free temperature testing, masks and sanitizing wipe packets to shoppers upon request, and that they would be “encouraged” to wear face masks and wash their hands frequently.
“I think of this as a tightrope act,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University’s medical school. “On the one side are all the medical issues and on the other are all the financial, economic and social issues. If one gets out of balance we fall.”
Dr. Schaffner said he thought shopping malls should require temperature checks for customers, as has been mandated in parts of Asia. He also thinks masks should be required of customers, not simply provided to them on request. And that hand sanitizer dispensers should be accessible for both the public and employees in every store.
Some social distancing measures, he said, like blocking off some bathroom faucets, seem to run counter to the need for aggressive hand-washing.
The company did say in the memo that hours will be shortened to allow for increased cleaning. The malls will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday, when the hours will be noon to 6 p.m.
The mall operator also sent out a 10-page document of safety protocols, which forecast other changes in the typical American shopping experience. When paying for items with a credit or debit card, the protocols said, customers should use the card receptacle on their own without handing anything to an employee. They should be separated by six feet or a transparent barrier, and employees should wash their hands after each transaction.
And mall tenants should measure and assess employees’ body temperature “upon reporting to work,” the documents said, rather than allowing them to take their temperature at home.
Simon Property said it would make regular announcements on its audio system “to remind shoppers of their part in maintaining a safe environment for everyone.” The company also said it would use “traffic measurement technologies” to make sure that property occupancy does not exceed “a targeted level of 1 person per 50 square feet of space.”
“Every step is going to be imperfect,” Dr. Schaffner said. “But no matter how imperfect, if you start putting a series of barriers in place, you are going to slow the transmission of the virus.”
At the end of the illustrative slides, Simon Property shared the audio announcement that would be read to shoppers by security guards or the company’s employees: “Welcome Back, we’re keeping you safe through increased safety measures and operational enhancements. You can do your part through maintaining safe distancing and practicing Healthy Shopper Habits.
“Thank you for helping to keep our community safe.”
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