Texas is the largest US state to allow a substantial number of retailers and other businesses to reopen for the first time on Friday, even as many of the state’s Democratic big-city mayors urged residents and business owners to ignore the governor’s advice.
To try and get a sense of how the beating heart of Texas retail – the Barton Creek Square in Austin – was faring during its first day back in business, the dogged reporters at the Texas Tribune ventured out to the capital city’s biggest mall to commiserate with shoppers bold enough to risk infection over a pair of sneakers, as the TT piece put it.
What the reporters found was hardly surprising: stores barely managing to meet the 25% max-capacity threshold set by the governor, a threshold at which most businesses simply cannot operate profitably. As a result, only a handful of Barton Creek’s smaller stores were open; all of the mall’s anchor tenants – department stores that have been particularly hard hit by the downturn – remained closed.
By the time the mall opened at 11am local time yesterday, lines of shoppers had formed, with everyone standing six feet apart, and lines forming outside stores allowing only a handful of shoppers to enter at a time.
Most of the patrons were there to shop, it seemed – little things mostly; shoes, swimsuits etc. At least one told the TT that she was just out to get some exercise. They ranged from young couples to older singletons.
No temperature-checkers were present when the doors opened; no masks, nor sanitizing wipes, were handed out. Shoppers were basically left to look after themselves
John Whitton and Marina Oneill stood by their car outside wearing face masks – Oneill’s a DIY mask made by her roommate from a bra cup – waiting to buy a swimsuit (for Oneill) and shoes (for Whitton).
“I think I’m going to buy a pair of skate shoes and take it back to 2002,” Whitton said.
One thing that caught our attention: the surprising number of individuals interviewed by the TT to expressed doubt about the virus (one called the outbreak “a farce”) or endorsed some other conspiratorially-oriented view.
By 10:58, a line had formed outside an entrance adjacent to the Cheesecake Factory. Patrons, many wearing masks, kept a 6-foot distance from one another, aided by blue tape pressed onto the concrete to direct them where to stand.
The line included an avid mall-walker hoping to exercise away from the Texas heat, a mother whose young kids — each no older than 10 — all wore face masks and an Austin-area teacher convinced the coronavirus was cooked up by President Donald Trump, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Though most customers wore masks, as mandated by law, only a handful of patrons wore gloves.
Shoppers were antsy. Resigned, too.
“I think it’s all a big farce. I believe there’s a virus, but we have bird flu and pneumonia and I’ve had several shots,” said Charlene Franz, 65, who came to the mall to fix the cracked screen on her Cricket cellphone and return a broken pair of sunglasses purchased from Loft.
Friday was the first day that shopping malls, restaurants, retail outlets and movie theaters were allowed to reopen in Texas after being closed since the beginning of April. According to Gov Abbot’s order, stores can open, but must limit occupancy to 25% of capacity.
As several mall employees eagerly told the TT (speaking anonymously for fear of losing their jobs), the governor’s order was actually making it harder on most small businesses, as they’re essentially being forced to operate at a loss, and employees are being called back in to work, despite the fact that both the business and the employees were probably better served with the ‘PPP’ loan-to-grant scheme and of course the beefed-up unemployment checks that, combined with the stimulus, have left many hourly workers with more in their pocket than they would otherwise have.
It’s just something to think about: Why would anybody want to push for a reopening if it would only seal the fate of thousands of small businesses?
Some employees returned to work reluctantly. A 42-year-old who helps operate two phone kiosks at Barton Creek said there’s “no use” reopening the mall at only a 25% occupancy.
“None of the businesses can survive on 25% business,” said the employee, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t licensed by the mall to talk to the press.
“All the major stores are closed. We get business when people come to the major stores, and then it all flows and comes to the kiosk,” he said. “We do want to get back to work, but the governor should’ve waited until we were at 50-75% so we have a chance to survive or not open at all.”
Remember, if small businesses don’t make enough money after reopening, they’re going to need to shut down again – but this time, it might be forever.
Yanick Almeida, 23, who works as a jeweler at one of the mall’s kiosks, said the business usually takes in several thousand dollars on a typical Friday.
“That was before corona,” he said. Around noon, he hadn’t made a single sale.
“If we don’t make any money, we’re going to have to shut down,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere because we’ve been shut down for about two months, and so far we’re still good.”
It’s worth wondering: Who benefits from the wholesale destruction of small business (or, in this case, the death of American malls, and the implosion of any securities backed by their debt)?