PEABODY — Employees could be seen wheeling mannequins on carts through the cavernous Northshore Mall Wednesday morning about an hour before it reopened to customers at 11 a.m.
On Wednesday, both the Northshore Mall and the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers welcomed back customers after they and other Simon malls nationwide were closed on March 19 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, the mall and its manager have taken Herculean steps in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and encourage social distancing. This includes putting down foot-long strips of gaffers tape set six feet apart on the floor throughout the sprawling nearly 1.7 million square-foot mall at 210 Andover St.
These distancing marks, signage with CDC guidelines and foaming hand sanitizer stations are now part of the new normal of malls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are constantly working together (with the city) to make sure we comply with the state mandates," said Mall Manager Mark Whiting, who said the mall's focus over the past several weeks was "not just meeting the state mandate but exceeding it."
Under its "exposure control policy," the mall will require employees who are sick to stay home, wear masks at work and undergo daily temperature checks. Tenants are being asked to do the same for their employees. Common areas will be regularly disinfected and security officers will offer masks to shoppers or employees without them.
"We have taken very strong steps to communicate what our expectations are for social distancing throughout the center," said Whiting, who said he appreciates the collaborative effort on behalf of Peabody police, fire, health and building inspector officials. This includes close consultation with Health Director Sharon Cameron and Mayor Ted Bettencourt's office.
"I applaud Mark Whiting and his team for their efforts to protect the health and safety of their customers and employees," Bettencourt said. "For so many Peabody residents and shoppers throughout the region, this is a happy occasion and another positive step towards the normalcy we crave.”
Initially, when the malls were closed back in March, Simon planned to reopen them on March 29. However, Massachusetts was hard hit by the pandemic and retail stores were deemed "nonessential."
The Northshore Mall's closure stretched for more than 80 days.
On Saturday, Gov. Charlie Baker gave the green light for retailers to reopen Monday with reduced occupancy limits. State guidelines call for 8 persons per 1,000 square feet or 40% of a store's maximum occupancy. It's unlikely the mall will exceed these limits since this puts its reduced capacity at a maximum of nearly 14,000 people.
Some noticeable and subtle precautions include the stroller vending machine being off limits, the removal of the mall's comfy couches and lounge chairs, and the elimination of 300 seats in the Food Court, which is now take-out only.
Some Food Court restaurants are going through a new streamlined process with the city to offer outdoor seating, Whiting said.
The mall has reduced the number of entrances down to two so that security can keep track of the number of guests and employees coming and going.
Barriers have been put up to divide those entering from those leaving. The entrances being used for now are located adjacent to the Food Court between Bancroft & Co. and Cheesecake Factory and the lower level adjacent to Brooks Brothers and The North Face.
"I hope that consumers in our region feel we are a strong and important part of the economy as far as retail and restaurant choices," Whiting said.
The Northshore Mall is seen as an economic engine, while also being Peabody's largest taxpayer and employer, with 3,500 people who routinely work there.
Just the main shopping center property of nearly 70 acres contributes $6.87 million in property taxes to Peabody's coffers, and this does not include anchor stores of Macy's and J.C. Penney, Shaw's Supermarket, East Boston Savings, Lahey Medical Center, the Barnes and Noble bookstore, or the former Sears Auto Center, which is now a Tesla service center.
It's not known when the mall's anchor tenants might reopen. A statement from a spokesperson for Chicago-based Macy's said they did not have any information at this time.
"Our local Macy’s stores will reopen implementing health and safety standards aligned with CDC guidelines, local orders and mall partner policies," the statement said.
New Northshore Mall and Liberty Tree Mall hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m to 7 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.