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Atlanta shoppers still finding footing as stores prep for Memorial Day

The Mall of Georgia in Gwinnett County and other metro Atlanta malls have re-started operations with new safety measures in places during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the steps to encourage social distancing: marking some aisles for walking in only one direction. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
The Mall of Georgia in Gwinnett County and other metro Atlanta malls have re-started operations with new safety measures in places during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the steps to encourage social distancing: marking some aisles for walking in only one direction. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Some consumers don masks, heed 6-feet rule. Others, not so much.

Wondering what you’ll find on a stroll through those reopened metro Atlanta malls and stores this Memorial Day weekend?

Expect lots of signs and announcements urging you to do the right thing and many masked shoppers and retailers following the rules. But many customers still aren’t wearing masks and a few will breach your six-foot personal space, violating two of the biggest measures that public health officials say are crucial to keep you safe.

“Stores are doing a good job. There are a lot of customers that aren’t,” said Tony Muffuletto, a paralegal from Buford shopping Wednesday at Macy’s in the Mall of Georgia.

Muffuletto pulled his mask down only long enough to check out how he looked in a new hat. He said he’s cautious but not scared. Got his haircut a few days back and visited the mall earlier to buy jogging pants. But some shoppers fail the new basics, he said. “You can tell people are forgetting…or just don’t care.”

State officials say compliance is going well. But recent surveys show that, nationally, many consumers remain concerned about venturing out. Bankrate.com's May 18 survey found only one in five Americans would be willing to visit a non-essential retailer during the week of the Memorial Day holiday.

Many stores have reopened recently, including a number of major department stores. Some other national retailers remain closed, including Apple, or have limited operations, such as Best Buy, which is only open for curbside pickup or appoint-only in-store shopping in metro Atlanta.

Memorial Day weekend isn’t traditionally among the top sales days for many retailers. But it’s a big deal at some stores this year, as businesses try to recover from lost sales in March and April because of the coronavirus.

Atlanta-based kids clothing chain Carter’s created special shopping hours for expectant and new mothers and grandparents, required employees to wear masks, stocked masks for customers, launched contact-less curbside pickup and set out floor markings to encourage social distancing — “Smart! Now you’re 6 feet apart.”

“We are doing everything possible we can to make sure customers feel safe and comfortable,” said Patrick Moore, the company’s executive vice president of retail, adding business has been stronger than anticipated as stores gradually reopen.

Metro Atlanta retailers have put new safety measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic, including some to comply with executive orders issued by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Shoppers had to wait outside a T.J. Maxx store in Gwinnett County to avoid exceeding limits on how many people were allowed to be inside at one time. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Metro Atlanta retailers have put new safety measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic, including some to comply with executive orders issued by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Shoppers had to wait outside a T.J. Maxx store in Gwinnett County to avoid exceeding limits on how many people were allowed to be inside at one time. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

At dozens of retailers visited by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters this week, the vast majority of employees wore masks or other face coverings. Most had them pulled up enough to cover noses, which health officials say is important. Signs reminding about social distancing and requesting customers wear masks were common.

Retailers were seen enforcing limits on the number of customers in stores. A few had queues of shoppers waiting to be waved in. Dispensers with hand sanitizer were fairly common. Some retailers stashed away perfume and cologne samplers, closed public restrooms and cordoned off fitting rooms. Others had masks available to customers only if they knew to ask. But a metal bowl of masks awaited patrons entering a local Nordstrom Rack.

Still, during one AJC spot check at the Mall of Georgia, 58 of 100 shoppers entering the center weren’t wearing face coverings. There were similar results at Lenox Square and Perimeter Mall.

Exterior of Lenox Square on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Lenox Square and at least eight other malls and shopping centers in the Atlanta region plan to reopen on Friday — the latest sign of businesses reviving after the coronavirus shutdown. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Exterior of Lenox Square on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Lenox Square and at least eight other malls and shopping centers in the Atlanta region plan to reopen on Friday — the latest sign of businesses reviving after the coronavirus shutdown. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

At the Lenox Square Macy’s, a woman pulled a mask from her purse as a male companion opened a store door for her. She asked why he wasn’t putting on his. He shrugged and headed unmasked to the men’s department.

Simon Property Group, which owns Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza, Town Center at Cobb, Mall of Georgia and Sugarloaf Mills, has installed hand-sanitizing stations and requires employees to wear masks and gloves. Brookfield Properties, which operates Perimeter, North Point and Cumberland malls, didn’t return a request for comment by deadline.

The Mall of Georgia in Gwinnett County and other metro Atlanta malls have re-started operations with new safety measures in places during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the steps are signs to encourage social distancing. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
The Mall of Georgia in Gwinnett County and other metro Atlanta malls have re-started operations with new safety measures in places during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the steps are signs to encourage social distancing. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders set pandemic-related measures for businesses and individuals, including social distancing, cleaning and limits on crowd size. The orders put the onus on some state bodies to enforce the rules in different industries with help from the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which includes the Georgia State Patrol, as well as local law enforcement. Violations are misdemeanors.

DPS has received 1,892 complaints since an executive order began April 3. Statewide, the department has given 291 verbal warnings and issued 20 citations for reckless conduct, according to a spokeswoman. She added the focus has been on educating, not issuing tickets.

Brian Castrucci, president of de Beaumont Foundation, a private foundation focused on public health, said consumers are mostly dependent on those around them to maintain safety.

“There are no mask police. There are no good behavior police,” he said. “We are all going to have to be on our best behavior.”

Missteps are still common. Shoppers observed by the AJC this week frequently didn’t notice, or maybe ignored, floor markings indicating one-way travel for aisles. Occasionally, passersby would come within two feet of other customers. Reconfigured entry doors at the Mall of Georgia sometimes meant entering and exiting customers passed close to each other. Some stores didn’t have plastic shields at checkout counters and had workers and customers in close proximity at the point of sale.

At a Target store in Gwinnett County, an employee was stationed to help direct traffic near checkouts. Usually, she said, they listened when she urged them to stand in the right spot. But a few, particularly younger patrons, simply ignored her, she said, and did as they pleased.

Guidelines at Lenox Square say security staff will actively remind the public to comply with social distancing standards. Others, such as Home Depot, have people appointed to do the same thing.

Still, customers often have to sort out things themselves.

At P.F. Chang’s and a Cheesecake Factory in the Mall of Georgia, many diners were appropriately spaced to avoid being within six feet of other parties. But customers waiting to be seated in both locations gathered near entrance doors, making it difficult for other patrons to pass while keeping social distance.

Johannes Hopper had been waiting inside the Cheesecake Factory with his wife for a table to celebrate their 20th anniversary. He briefly stepped outside to check out the menu. When he turned to go back in, he saw the newly crowded entrance. He opted to wait outside, separated from his wife, hoping people would clear out.

“I worry about other people,” he said. “They don’t know how to follow directions.”

Widespread enforcement by the government is difficult, said Marcus Plescia, who is the Atlanta-based chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents leadership of state health departments. But social pressure can be a powerful way to get people to follow pandemic-related measures, he said.