Maverick Life


Covid-19: What does it mean for shopping malls?

CORTE MADERA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 17: The parking lot at The Village at Corte Madera shopping mall is nearly empty on March 17, 2020 in Corte Madera, California. Seven San Francisco Bay Area counties have ordered residents to shelter in place in an effort to reduce social interaction and slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As Covid-19 spreads across South Africa at great speed, we look at the impact the virus has on public and cultural spaces.

As countries around the world take drastic measures to fight Covid-19, some stores, especially those providing basic necessities, like grocery shops and pharmacies, remain open – allowing people to get supplies as they need them. 

“Services essential to the life of our citizens will obviously remain open,” said French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on 15 March following the announcement that France was going into confinement.

Such measures, although they limit people’s movements and gatherings, still leave some opacity around places like shopping malls or markets (indoor and outdoor) and how they deal with the possibility of crowds of people mingling in a confined space.

In the US, real estate company Simon Property Group, behind some of the largest shopping malls in the country, announced that it was temporarily closing all of its nationwide centres following the pandemic.

Across the ocean, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recommended that people avoid pubs, cinemas and theatres although the recommendation left many confused about what appeared to be a half-measure, not demanding closures but discouraging people from gathering. 

The Guardian’s journalists Josh Halliday, Steven Morris, Lucy Campbell and Lisa O’Carroll quote guesthouse manager Andrew Welch who said: “If we close we commit business suicide. If we stay open we could be risking our health.”

Back home, shopping malls are still keeping their door open. 

“For the time being we will remain open and fully operational unless instructed otherwise by our health authorities,” says Donald Kau, the spokesperson for the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

“Many of our retailers supply essential products such as food, cleaning materials and medicines, all of which are in demand right now.” 

His statement was echoed by other malls across the country. 

“We have introduced additional precautionary measures for the safety of guests and enhanced cleaning procedures, including increasing our cleaning staff and using disinfectants that have the prescribed alcohol content,” adds Vanessa Herbst, marketing manager of Canal Walk in Cape Town.

“We are meticulously cleaning and disinfecting the common areas of the malls, especially touch points such as lifts and escalators, handrails and customer care kiosks.”

Scott Thorburn, general manager inland for Redefine Properties, a company behind a list of multiple properties including Maponya Mall in Soweto, Klerksdorp’s Matlosana Mall and East Rand Mall in Boksburg, said they were employing “extra cleaners with specific job descriptions to support regular staff in the intensive cleaning of surface areas that are subject to continuous human contact, including but not limited to, stair and escalator handrails, lift buttons, biometric security, door handles, guest relation areas, parking machine equipment and common pause area furniture”.

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers are now being placed at key places throughout malls and shopping centres, as well at the entrances of stores.

In addition, public events have been cancelled at malls across the country. 

The V&A’s Kau says, “We have cancelled all large public events that were due to take place across the property, but given the uncertain nature of… Covid-19… it would be impossible for the management of any public space to know who has the virus. 

“We rely on our tenants to keep their staff informed of measures they can take to protect themselves, and for people to heed our president’s call to be courteous to others by staying at home if they are ill and to seek immediate medical attention.”

Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis explains that, “The imperative of social distancing and the instructions to avoid physical contact, meanwhile, have given rise to the perception that even the most fleeting exposure to someone who has tested positive may be enough to transmit the virus. This is not accurate”. 

She quotes National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) director Lynn Morris who said in an interview with 702 that, “‘Close contact’ – the kind which can expose you to risk – is defined as being within one metre of a coronavirus-positive person without wearing protective gear for at least 15 minutes.”

Malls and their tenants mainly rely on patrons to act with extra care and caution to try to contain the spread of the virus by practising now widely-shared hygiene best practices.

“Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, respect social distancing. Don’t greet others by shaking hands. Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and do this with your bent elbow or a tissue and dispose of it immediately,” advises Herbst.

Closing, even temporarily, shopping malls and centres, could have a dramatic impact on sales and revenues for retailers, with many already barely surviving following months of load shedding and a gruelling recession. 

Asked what they would do to ensure businesses survive yet another blow, property managers were vague.

“Many of our tenants will be exploring the critical considerations that will inform your decisions to continue operating. We will explore with them how best to proceed,” says Kau.

In the meantime, and as the #StayHome hashtag turns into a rallying call for people to avoid going out, we all need to think of alternative ways to support local businesses while respecting health and hygiene requirements as recommended by the World Health Organisation and stay safely, as much as possible, at home. 

Although not ideal, online shopping is an option, as is buying online vouchers that people can redeem once the virus has receded and times are kinder. ML

If you would like to share your ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

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