Tuesday, May 19, 2020 / by Sergey Korostensky
Practising physical distancing wasn’t difficult as Calgary malls opened their doors Thursday for the first time since March’s pandemic lockdown.
At Chinook Centre, a lineup of customers waited for the doors to open, signalling a cautious lifting of a COVID-19 closure that’s also seen restrictions eased on daycares, museums and art galleries, and some health professions in the Calgary area.
Cleaning staff pushing yellow carts brimming with sanitizing liquid were as noticeable as shoppers were scarce at Market Mall.
The dearth of open stores amid an eerie quiet brought store owner Elena Evanoff to tears.
“It’s hard to see, it’s so dead,” said Evanoff, who’s operated the Paper Root card shop for the past 17 years.
“There’s so much fear, ridiculous fear.”
With the recent closure of competing card retailers, Evanoff said her February sales had spiked just before the pandemic and its lockdown hit.
“We were on our way up and now I have no idea if we’ll survive,” she said, standing behind a counter adorned with Lysol sanitizing wipes and toilet paper rolls bearing the image of U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the mall’s food court, four of two dozen kiosks were open and facing out to a seating area still barricaded by yellow tape and a continuing ban on public dining.
Arriving customers are greeted by hand sanitizing stations and floor tape dividing foot traffic in mall corridors.
At the Northern Reflections clothing store, Elena Kovalenko said she’d served three customers in the first 90 minutes of business.
“I’m glad the mall is open . . . we have so many loyal customers and I hope to see them,” said the assistant manager.
“With all the safety measures, maybe it’s safe.”
Outside Market Mall after buying a bicycle for his grandson, a masked Milan Holchak said he was happy to return to hands-on purchasing after so much depressing pandemic news and inactivity.
“We couldn’t go anywhere so I’m hoping everything’s going to be open and be safe,” said Holchak, who tugged at his light blue mask.
“Of course I feel comfortable (shopping).”
In some of the mall’s still-shuttered stores, workers could be seen making preparations to eventually welcome customers.
Southcentre Mall’s website on Thursday listed 20 businesses, including food outlets, that had opened their doors.
The mall’s tenants haven’t yet completed preparations for the relaunch, the mall’s operators said in a statement.
“A limited number of stores will be open on (Thursday) as they continue to reorganize space to ensure appropriate social distancing,” it said.
“Southcentre and its retailers are focusing all efforts on reopening the shopping centre with the health and safety of employees and customers top of mind.”
The first-day openings were as slow as expected, with about 30 per cent of stores initially open, said Darren Milne, spokesman for Cadillac Fairview, which operates Chinook Centre and Market Mall.
“We recognize there are still those who will be hesitant to come out, whether it’s the mall or a grocery store,” he said.
“In the next two weeks, we’ll see a significant number of retailers opening.”
The lockdown will result in some bankruptcies on Cadillac Fairview’s properties, said Milne, who wouldn’t say how many.
“Prior to the pandemic, retail sales seem to have had some momentum, but this has put not only a damper on those gains but completely erased them,” he said.
Even so, he said Market Mall is looking forward to welcoming some new major tenants in the coming months.
The mall retail landscape won’t return to its pre-pandemic rhythm overnight, said Calgary commercial real estate broker Michael Kehoe, who’s nonetheless upbeat about its prospects.
“It’s going to be a gradual reopening but in weeks rather than months,” said Kehoe, of Fairview Commercial Real Estate.
That retail fate, he said, hinges largely on female shoppers’ confidence in their safety, and it’s not entirely there yet.
But given Alberta’s overall success in fighting COVID-19, he said that should return, adding most businesses seem to have weathered the lockdown storm.
“The majority of the stores will reopen — there won’t be any retail apocalypse,” said Kehoe.
And he predicted consumer cabin fever will likely unleash pent-up desire to hit the malls despite a lockdown trend toward online shopping.
“Grocery shopping will likely be changed forever but people will venture out, they’re social creatures,” said Kehoe.
A mid-April survey of 1,504 Canadians conducted for financial transactions firm Payments Canada found 75 per cent of respondents say they’ve been spending less since the pandemic began.