Nebraska mall plans to reopen despite climbing virus cases

An upscale outlet mall near Omaha plans to reopen later this month even as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to grow in the state

The owner of the Nebraska Crossing Outlets says their experience will be a case study of best practices for other malls, though it is not immediately clear how many stores will reopen when the mall does and how the facility will comply with state-ordered social distancing protocols.

“We’re looking at the great opportunity to set some best practices and help our retailers open their portfolios across the country,” owner Rod Yates said to the Omaha World-Herald. Yates didn't immediately respond Tuesday to a message from The Associated Press.

Retail analyst Jon Reily said he doesn’t think the mall will be successful with its reopening plans because consumers will likely be reluctant to shop there.

“People are very cautious,” said Reily, who is senior vice president of global commerce strategy at Isobar. “I don’t know if old patterns of going to the mall to buy nonessential items are really going to stick.”

Nebraska is one of the few states that still allows malls to be open even though many businesses are closed because the state prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and limits restaurants and bars to take out and delivery services.

The outlet sits next to a heavily traveled stretch of Interstate 80 about halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties, which include Omaha and Lincoln and their suburbs, had seen a total of 349 cases as of Tuesday morning. That’s about 40% of the statewide total of 871 cases of COVID-19 and 18 deaths linked to the disease.

The mall plans to reopen April 24, which would be roughly the same time state officials expect the number of Nebraska coronavirus cases to peak.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday the stores are free to reopen as long as they follow the state’s social-distancing guidelines.

“We didn’t ask them to close, and we didn’t ask them to open,” he said at his weekday coronavirus news conference.

Ricketts, a Republican, has encouraged residents to shop alone and limit their excursions to one trip per week, but he hasn’t ordered any formal restrictions. He said he discussed the matter with the shopping center’s managers, and told them that if they chose to open, they needed to follow the state rules.

Mall officials say they have purchased 100 thermometers for each store to use to check employees at the start of each day, and they plan to install 200 plastic shields at registers to separate customers and employees. Officials plan to encourage employees and customers to wear masks and gloves and avoid walking around in groups at the outdoor mall.

“Anything we do is going to be very controlled,” Yates said. “We’re not going to do any mass events that attract hundreds of people. We’re going to slowly ease ourselves into the process of getting ourselves open.”

It could be difficult for stores to maintain social distancing if crowds of shoppers returned, but Craig Johnson, president of consumer consultancy Customer Growth Partners, said he doesn't think the mall is likely to have that problem.

“My guess is they will be happy and delighted if a store gets crowded enough where people have to worry about their six-foot radius,” Johnson said. “I just don't think they're going to get a big crowd.”

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Associated Press Writer Grant Schulte contributed to this report from Lincoln, Nebraska.