On Memorial Day, Park Meadows, one of metro Denver's toniest malls, fully reopened as part of a variance granted to Douglas County by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment several days earlier amid the COVID-19 pandemic — though the word "fully" is a bit misleading.
True, customers were allowed access to the mall's interior, as opposed to anchor stores with separate entrances, which had been operating previously. But probably 70 percent of the shops inside were still closed — not that they were missing out on loads of business.
During our visit on May 25, the number of customers strolling the corridors represented a trickle rather than a flood, calling into question predictions of pent-up demand made by President Donald Trump and other business boosters. It looked like an extremely sub-par Tuesday during the dog days of summer, not an exciting shopping extravaganza capable of sparking a long-awaited retail explosion.
Douglas County has been among the most aggressive jurisdictions in Colorado pushing for reopening after Colorado Governor Jared Polis's stay-at-home order was replaced with the safer-at-home program a month ago. But the variance has strings attached.
As noted in a news release from the City of Lone Tree, home to Park Meadows, the variance "can be rescinded if any two of the following triggers occur: a 20 percent increase in positive cases in three-day rolling average over a fourteen-day period, more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in two weeks, a substantial increase in hospitalizations directly related to COVID-19 over a two-week period, or the inability of TCHD [Tri-County Health Department] to contact trace new cases within 24 hours of a known positive test result occurs."
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To get a feel for Park Meadows before and after the reopening, we also visited the complex just after noon on Saturday, May 23, and at that time, the parking lots surrounding it held a relative handful of cars. There was enough space available to accommodate just about every recreational vehicle in the state — and social distancing definitely wasn't a problem inside the stores, either.
Take Macy's, where most of the stations on the main floor were unoccupied by employees and only a scattering of patrons wandered about. Meanwhile, a calming female voice sounding through overhead speakers said, "Welcome back to our store," which seemed essentially unchanged, as if it had been frozen in time and was defrosting ever so slowly.
Nordstrom had a much better setup, with an inviting entryway monitored by a staffer checking capacity (not that the store's limits were being pressed in any way) and a redesigned sales space in which some merchandise had been removed to allow for six-foot gaps between customers, including a pair of elderly women who seemed like poster grandmas for what Polis frequently refers to as Colorado's most vulnerable demographic. Then again, sixty-foot gaps were possible in places.
As for Dick's Sporting Goods, its name has taken on new dimensions during the pandemic. At the other stores we visited, virtually every customer wore a mask and demonstrated a concern for those around them. At Dick's, in contrast, around 30 percent of men among the very modest number of shoppers hadn't bothered with face coverings — a phenomenon we've been documenting for the past couple of months.
One dude in particular demonstrated his contempt for social distancing, too, by coming within a foot or so of customer after customer. But to his credit, he resisted painting his face with Braveheart-style warpaint and screaming "Freedom!" in their faces.
These dynamics remained in place at the same time on Memorial Day, when the parking lot boasted a few more cars, but not many. Once again, Dick's proved to be the single most uncomfortable place to linger at Park Meadows: the fewest masks, the least social distancing, the highest percentage of oblivious or actively aggressive assholes.
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The story was different inside the mall proper: Around 90 percent of the customers were wearing masks and left room for others to pass them. But most of these would-be consumers seemed caught off-guard by the number of major retailers whose corporate handlers continue to feel that reopening now isn't worth the possible liability risks. The Apple Store, Sundance, PacSun — even Starbucks was still shuttered.
A few of the smaller stores at Park Meadows seemed to be benefiting from these decisions: The busiest operation was, unexpectedly, Shoe Palace, where enough customers were present to squeeze those six-foot bubbles. But the majority of shops we saw were empty or close to it, with masked employees standing by as potential patrons walked past, seemingly more interested in looking than buying.
This could all change in a couple of weeks, if virus cases remain under control and people get more comfortable going into retail environments again. But on day one of its return, Park Meadows was more ghost mall than consumer paradise.