LYNNWOOD— Jerry Irwin’s daily stroll winds through the retail heart of Lynnwood, an area that spans nearly 25 football fields.
But these days, it’s a solitary jog. Irwin, the manager of Alderwood mall, can often walk a mile or more and not see anyone.
“Sometimes in the afternoon, I’m the only one here,” said Irwin of the empty mall. “It’s surreal.”
His route traces the periphery of the sprawling shopping center and passes a hundred-some stores that have been shuttered since March 24: Ben Bridge Jewelers, GameStop, Yankee Candle, American Girl, Claire’s, Loft and Eddie Bauer, among them.
For more than two months, Alderwood has been closed in accord with Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide stay-home order that suspended business deemed non-essential.
The plan to unlock the doors and reopen the mall on June 1, under Phase 2 guidelines, was put on hold. Phase 2 would have allowed retail stores and malls to operate at up to 30% capacity and restaurants at up 50% capacity.
But local health officials cautioned earlier this month that Snohomish County was still seeing too many new COVID-19 cases to move into Phase 2.
County officials hope to speed things up. On Friday, they’ll seek the governor’s permission to enter Phase 2 of the four-phase schedule to reopen the state.
If that occurs, Alderwood could begin welcoming shoppers sooner than later, possibly in June.
“We are watching this very closely and will follow the governor’s orders,” Irwin said.
If neighboring counties’ reopening schedules lag, Snohomish County stores and retail centers could see an influx of shoppers.
Keeping the music on
Normally, Alderwood closes just twice a year, on Christmas Day and Easter. It’s been 60-some days since throngs of visitors darted in and out of Forever 21 or sipped a double latte.
Empty, the mall seems cathedral-like, its roof and ceilings buttressed by steel beams and brick columns. Sunlight peers through the skylights and brightens the concourses. A catchy tune plays over the speakers.
“We’re keeping the music on, so we have some life, something upbeat to listen to,” Irwin said.
Irwin and about a half-dozen maintenance and office workers remain on site, and they’ve not been idle.
With no people and no cars in the way, the maintenance crew has replaced electrical sockets, deep cleaned the mall and re-striped the parking lot.
“We have a project every day,” Irwin said. “We are going to do everything possible to keep things safe.”
In recent weeks, the focus has been on reopening Alderwood and its outdoor areas.
When the governor gives the green light to open, said Irwin, “we want to pull the trigger and just go ahead. We don’t want to be doing this the night before.”
With 1.3 million square feet of retail space and 170 stores and restaurants, the ability to socially distance inside a mall wouldn’t seem too difficult. But Alderwood is full of pedestrian intersections and comfy oases where shoppers congregate.
Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall, has asked managers — and it operates dozens of malls across the country including in states that have already reopened — to look at the shopping centers in a new light and ask: Where do people congregate and get too close?
“We had to walk the mall as if it were for the first time and lay out a plan,” Irwin said.
“You note where people gather,” he said. “You pay attention to the soft seating — couches and armchairs — and either remove them or move them much, much farther apart.”
When the mall does open, it will look and operate differently, said Irwin.
Bring your own stroller
Shoppers and employees will be required to wear masks. “If you forget yours, we’ll have some available,” Irwin said.
Hand sanitizing stations will be scattered throughout the mall.
And mall restrooms are being reconfigured. “We will eliminate every other urinal and sink, provide touchless faucets and hand dryers,” Irwin said.
Drinking fountains will be shut off. Parents won’t be able to rent a “mall racer,” the red plastic strollers that carry kids and packages. The 25-cent gumball machines won’t be there, either.
All of those fixtures “are too high-touch,” Irwin said.
Blue-and-white signs have been posted throughout Alderwood to remind customers to “shop with space” and “give everyone 6 footlong subs between each other.”
Half the seating in the Food Court has been removed, reducing capacity from 700 to 35o. Tables are now six feet apart. More could go, if the governor’s rules change, Irwin said.
Hours will be shorter. Alderwood will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“Inside and in front of their stores, the tenants are going to have to monitor that,” said Irwin.
Retailers are responsible for signage inside the store and with complying with the Phase 2 retail rules. Those include sanitizing fitting rooms, check-out counters and shopping cart handles. Customers can try on clothing, but if they don’t purchase an item, it has to go back to the storeroom for 24 hours before it’s returned to the sales floor.
Nordstrom, one of the mall’s three anchor department stores, plans to add dividers at registers, step up cleaning and sanitizing, and conduct health screenings for employees, among other precautions, the company said in an email.
Stacy Speicher, vice president of marketing at Ben Bridge Jeweler, another Seattle-based company, is taking “the governor’s orders very seriously, as well as the health guidelines in every state we operate in.” The jewelry retailer said it would temperature-check employees, offer in-person and virtual appointments, step up cleaning and disinfect jewelry, among other precautions, Speicher said in an email. Ben Bridge’s Alderwood store has been there since 1979, the year the mall opened.
Seattle-based Nordstrom and another 30 or so stores began offering curbside service at Alderwood earlier this month.
Retail has been hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.
In April, in-person general merchandise sales were down 20% compared to the same month a year ago. Sales of clothing and furniture declined by 60% or more compared to April 2019. Only online sales sparked, rising about 8%, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Overall, U.S. retail and food sales totaled $404 billion in April, down from $484 billion in April 2019, the report said.
Alderwood and owner Brookfield Properties declined to share information about mall revenue or the impact of the shutdown.
According to the state, Lynnwood’s business community, which includes the Alderwood mall area and the Highway 99 corridor, generated $3 billion worth of taxable sales in 2018. How this year’s figures will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis is a huge question mark.
Besides Alderwood, Brookfield also owns Bellis Fair in Bellingham and NorthTown Mall and Spokane Valley Mall. The two Spokane centers opened this week.
So far, so good, Irwin said. “NorthTown’s general manager was stopped by several customers who thanked him for their ‘diligence and prep,’” said Irwin, “and for enforcing all the distancing guidelines.”
When Alderwood does open, “it won’t be like a light switch,” he said. “It’s going to take some time for tenants to ramp up.”
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods