‘Plenty of work to do’ as Westfield Meriden mall readies for reopening

MERIDEN — Westfield Meriden mall’s largest anchor, Boscov’s department store, is moving teams into place to ready the store to reopen on May 21, one day after the mall reopens.

“That’s the plan at this point,” said owner Jim Boscov. “As long as we got the governor’s approval, and medical approval, and we’re ready. We’re just beginning the process right now. It’s complicated in terms of making the accommodations to make people feel safe and comfortable.”

Boscov’s reopened its Pennsylvania stores on Mother’s Day with new safeguards and the feedback has been positive. Boscov’s will provide face masks for its workers. Shoppers who come in without masks will be told they can get a free one for a $1 donation to first responders, Boscov said.

Store workers are also busy putting in partitions for the cash registers. Returns will be accepted at one counter and will remain in the store for several days before being returned to inventory. Hand sanitizer will be available at all entrances, dressing rooms will be closed and counters will be disinfected after each transaction, as per state requirements.

“We’ve got plenty of work to do,” Boscov said.

Boscov’s is just one of several stores in Westfield Meriden mall preparing to reopen when Gov. Ned Lamont lifts the ban on non-essential retail with large common areas.

Westfield, which operates malls in Trumbull and globally, shut its doors here in mid-March. Lamont’s Reopen Connecticut plan includes 10 pages of rules and regulations for malls and retailers that touch on everything from capacity, to social distancing, to the use of face masks by employees and making hand sanitizer available at store entrances.

The ban was designed to close retail centers to slow the spread of COVID-19. As the numbers of local
hospitalizations have decreased in recent weeks, state officials and the Reopen Connecticut Task Force are working on a gradual reopening.

“Businesses must exercise caution throughout the reopening, ensuring strict adherence to the rules listed here,” according to guidance from the state Department of Economic and Community Development. “Those businesses that are not able to meet the rules listed here by May 20 shall delay opening until they are able.

“While these rules provide a way for retail stores to reopen as safely as possible, risks to customers and employees cannot be fully mitigated,” the statement continued. “Customers who choose to visit stores during this time should be aware of potential risks. Individuals over the age of 65 or with other health conditions should not go shopping, but instead continue to stay home and stay safe.”

According to a Westfield announcement Monday, the Trumbull and Meriden malls will reopen with modified hours — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday.

The mall will institute required health and safety measures and "provide new services and amenities to address customer concerns during this initial recovery phase in the community,” according to the statement from Westfield.

The new practices include more frequent cleaning of so-called high touch areas, including restrooms, dining areas and water fountains.

Mall operators will also monitor and control the number of customers entering and enforce new policies related to social distancing and face masks.

The malls will also provide more hand sanitizer and handwashing stations and provide masks to customers and employees upon request, according to the statement.

Pleasantly surprised

City officials were pleasantly surprised to hear the mall will reopen.

“We need to get that mall back up and running, for the businesses inside and for the city as well, too,” Economic Development Director Joseph Feest told the Record-Journal this week, noting the mall is one of the city’s largest taxpayers.

Feest has been in communication with Westfield manager Chris Powers, with whom he’s already worked to allow certain businesses, including a pet store and a dentist’s office, to remain open in the mall.

“They’re an energetic group that is going to make the mall safe for people to come in. They’re going to follow all the CDC guidelines. Knowing Chris, they’ll even go a little bit further,” he said.

Feest is willing to work with Westfield on different initiatives to draw people back as the pandemic subsides, including having high school bands perform at the mall or using the mall’s parking lot for events and attractions.

City police will also be working closely with Westfield management and security officers to help enforce public safety.

The city will reach out to the mall to inquire how mall security plans to enforce face-covering requirements put forth in Lamont’s executive order, Police Chief Jeffry Cossette told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee this week.

The Police Department is able to enforce face covering by charging offenders in accordance with the executive order, Cossette said. But the easiest way, Cossette added, may be to have mall security first ask offenders to leave the mall if they’re not wearing a mask and, if they don’t comply, then call police, who would make “a simple trespass arrest where we can issue an infraction.”

Cossette told councilors other police departments have already taken this enforcement approach at businesses requiring masks.

“That seems to be a workaround that’s pretty slick,” Cossette said. “… We’re enforcing the governor’s order but we’re doing it through trespassing because the property owner is concerned about their customers … It’d be best if they as the property owner indicate that they don’t want anyone on our property that’s putting other customers in danger.”

Wary public?

At least one retail expert doesn’t expect to see a crowd of customers when the mall reopens.

Fred McKinney, the Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University, said he thinks malls are going to see a trickle rather than a flood. People have gotten used to shopping online for two months and will continue, he said.

“The consumer is primarily concerned about health and family health,” McKinney said. “There’s pessimism on the strategy of opening up too soon.”

McKinney cited a recent poll that reported 58 percent of consumers want to stay home a little longer. With added resources coming to households in the form of stimulus payments and increased unemployment payments, people will ask themselves “what is in the store that you’ve got to have that you can’t get online? That is going to have an impact as people have gotten better at this.”

McKinney acknowledges there could be some pent up demand to get out and see and touch merchandise.

Reporter Matthew Zabierek contributed to this story.

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz

"We’re just beginning the process right now. It’s complicated in terms of making the accommodations to make people feel safe and comfortable."

-Jim Boscov

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