Seven customers waited outside the gated entrance of Finish Line inside Ingram Park Mall on Saturday before the shoe store opened just after 11 a.m.

Inside, employees were spraying disinfectant on hundreds of shoes on the walls and wiping down countertops. A young family of about five gathered next to the gate, none of them wearing face-coverings, though a couple had handkerchiefs or masks slung around their necks or in their hands.

Michele Cox stood roughly six feet away from the group and looked at her phone while she waited for the gate to open.

“I did not want to come here,” Cox said through her blue disposable mask. She tried to buy the new Air Jordan 5 “Fire Red” online, but all the websites had sold out of her size. “I’m going to get them and leave right after.”

The northwest side mall reopened on Friday with new safety protocols, though only 20 percent of the shops inside have opened their doors. Each entrance features a sign with safety protocols on display with a hand sanitizing station.

Some larger stores, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, have employees with counters at the front door to ensure the store doesn’t exceed the 25 percent capacity that is allowed under Gov. Greg Abbott’s new emergency order. Restaurant dining rooms are allowed to open, too, though most are sticking to pick-up or delivery service for now. Movie theaters and museums are also permitted to open, though many remained closed this weekend.

Traders Village and other flea markets were told by City officials they could not reopen this weekend because the outdoor, close-quarters market poses a health risk.

“We were very surprised and strongly disagree with this decision,” said General Manager Rudy Escamilla in a news release.  “We feel we should be treated the same as any other retailer or shopping mall. It is a really unfortunate decision for the over 500 small businesses that operate at Traders Village.”

As of Saturday afternoon, Ingram Park Mall wasn’t staffing the entrances and most of the stores didn’t seem to be counting customers as they entered, though there were few enough people in smaller shops to easily count. The larger department stores such as JCPenny and Dillard’s remained closed.

Large department store Dillard’s is closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

“Seems like a waste of electricity” to open the mall for the small number of shops open, Cox said.

As a nurse who has colleagues on the frontline in New York, Cox said she is taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. She’s quarantined at home and usually only leaves for groceries or other necessities.

“I have two kids at home with asthma,” she said. “I hope they can go back to school in the fall. … A lot of people aren’t taking this seriously.”

Across the corridor, a Vision Plus employee sat at a small podium greeting customers. There were “do not enter,” “exit,” “stop,” and “enter” signs posted on the ground next to a poster directing customers to check in with him first.

“It’s been pretty busy,” said Steven, who declined to give his last name. The chairs inside had been spaced out and another chair had been placed outside the store as a waiting area.

Verna Wolf and her husband Don, an elderly couple wearing masks, approached the entrance. Verna was there to pick up prescription glasses that have been ready for her since just before the mall closed more than six weeks ago on March 18 to comply with local and state emergency orders. Steve took her temperature and she waited less than a minute before she was called back into the store to make sure her glasses were the right fit.

“This is a waste of time,” Don said of the face-covering rule. “I heard these masks don’t do anything. … It’s just working in the favor of robbers. Everybody’s a potential bandit.”

While the governor’s order doesn’t require masks and prevents local governments from handing out tickets or jail time for those who don’t wear them, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s local order mandates them and most large businesses require them to be worn inside.

According to Ingram Park Mall’s policy, masks and daily temperature checks are required for mall employees and the shops inside are encouraged to do the same. Customers are not required to wear face coverings, but they are made available at the mall office. Mall officials declined to comment.

The coronavirus, which is a respiratory disease, can be spread between people in close contact who are talking, sneezing, or coughing, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Recent studies show that some people who have the virus are asymptomatic and may be able to spread the disease, so the CDC issued a recommendation that people wear masks in places where it’s hard to maintain a six-foot distance from others.

The efficacy of masks – especially homemade ones – worn by the general public to stop the spread isn’t guaranteed, but experts do know that wearing a mask should not replace other measures such as washing hands, avoiding touching your face, staying home, and social distancing: the best way to slow the spread.

“They’ve got us walking around like idiots,” Verna said after she left the store with her new glasses.

The couple is not worried about catching the virus or potentially dying from it, she said. “If we do, we do.”

Restaurants experiment with ‘Brave New World’ rules

At Max’s Wine Dive at the Alamo Quarry Market, customers are first greeted with a hand sanitizer dispenser that has been adhered to the door. There’s another one on the inside.

About half of the tables have been marked off-limits with blue X’s, and patrons who want to sit at the bar must spread out. The menu is written on the chalkboard to minimize hand-to-hand contact, though some menus have been printed for outdoor guests or those who can’t see the board.

Bobby Boenig, general manager, wears a classic, black bandana around his face – as does the cook who has also become a server. Pre-coronavirus the restaurant had 30 staff members. Now it has eight.

They’ll hire more back eventually, but right now there’s not enough business to sustain more and he’s unsure about the future, Boenig said.

The maximum occupancy of the dining room and patio seating under the emergency order is 40, but they’ve only set up seating for 30, he said. About 40 people total came through on Friday after opening at 3 p.m.

Even if the governor increases capacity to 50 percent, Boenig said. “We don’t have enough space to do that and maintain social distancing.”

So far business has been okay, he said, noting that the Boiler House at the Pearl, which is owned by the same company, had an “excellent” Friday.

Many restaurants aren’t opening until later this week because they weren’t ready or it’s simply not financially worth it, he said. “We’ve been planning to reopen since we had to close. … Getting that menu on the chalkboard alone was a 20-hour ordeal.”

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They started washing and disinfecting the entire restaurant after it closed.

Staff is adjusting to what he calls the “Brave New World rules,” he said. Each employee has to fill out a form that asks if they’ve had any symptoms before they start work. Face coverings are mandatory for employees, but not for customers. Under the state rule, they aren’t required when eating or drinking.

The customers have been appreciative of the safety measures and the food, he said. “People are just sick of eating out of boxes at home.”

Taking it ‘a couple days at a time’

The Pearl Brewery complex is usually teeming with life on warm Saturday afternoons. Though it was not at the level of activity pre-coronavirus (the weekly farmers market draws hundreds), compared to the rest of the City, the Pearl was approaching some level of “normalcy” this weekend.

Botika Restaurant opened some patio seating to customers getting drinks and barbacoa tacos to-go. As Boenig said, the Boiler House had a line out the door. The Pearl’s website has a list of what’s open and closed. Seating and tables in once-crowded open spaces have been removed and the splash pad turned off.

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The Sporting District, a men’s apparel and lifestyle shop, reopened on Friday to much smaller crowds and lower sales, said store manager Dan Meek.

“Most everyone has been really mellow and groovy,” Meek said.

Dan Meek, manager of The Sporting District shop at the Pearl, says he's getting used to new sanitation rules in the shop.
Dan Meek, manager of The Sporting District shop at the Pearl, says he’s getting used to new sanitation rules in the shop. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

The store asks customers to wear masks, but when a small group came by yesterday without them, he didn’t make a fuss.

“They were the only ones here,” he said.

He keeps his eyes on what people touch and customers wash their hands before trying clothes on. The store is filled with leather goods, gadgets, and soft T-shirts that beg to be touched: books with interesting titles that need to be opened.

“It’s hard not to touch things here,” he said under his red bandana.

After people leave, he makes his rounds sanitizing shelves, shoes, and other goods. Most of the tester bottles of cologne have been put away.

Someone called to see if the store would be open for the rest of the week with normal hours, he said. “I told them I don’t know. We’ll reevaluate on Monday. … We’re taking it a couple days at a time.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com