May 3, 2020

Major Shopping Center that Seems Evacuated
Sign that Texas Not Ready to Reopen Already

Barton Creek Square - an indoor shopping center that's normally flowing with a river of people on Sunday afternoons in the spring - was open for business this wekend with nowhere to shop for anyone who's not in the market for high-dollar sneakers.


The largest and most popular mall in the state Capital City looked more like the set for a Twilight Zone remake than a hub of commerce - its long and expansive corridors desolate and deserted but exceptionally cool and partially lit after being darkened for more than a month in the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.

But the retail emporium that features a magnificent view of the downtown Austin skyline from the parking lot was a sign of life and light in a tunnel of uncertainy in a Texas reopening that turned out to be more symbolic than visible.

Governor Greg Abbott had given restaurants, movie theaters, retailer and mall the green light to open on Friday when Texans were given permission to get out of the homes where he'd ordered them to stay early last month.

The only places in Texas that truly came back to life, however, were the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico where thousands of people converged including no shortage of young adults and teenagers who cast social distancing to the salty ocean breeze and partied in packs instead. One of the revelers who didn't go to the coast spent some time in jail back on the mainland after pushing a park ranger into the water at a Lake Austin hangout after he tried to get a group of celebrants to space out in accordance with government guidelines.

Abbott and all of his constituents who are taking the pandemic seriously will be hoping that the beach bashes won't be the source of a spinoff wave of COVID-19 when the sunburned crews disperse from seaside resorts from Galveston to South Padre Island and return to the Texas big cities and small towns.

The governor had pinned the timing of the restart on virus rates that had appeared to be on the decline before shooting back up with daily increases in confirmed cases for five days in a row until Sunday. But the number of positive tests in Texas surpassed the four-digit mark for the fourth consecutive day with 1,026 new cases on Sunday when at least 31,548 had been infected by noon in a state that's recorded 867 deaths.

Crowding wasn't a problem at the ghost town known as Barton Creek mall, however, with hardly anyone there to invade a stranger's space and the majority of those who were there wandering through the empty halls with faces hidden behind masks. All of the major stores like Nordstrom, Dillards and JCPenny were dark and locked down at the Austin shopping center with the exception of Macy's that was closed with the lights on for mask-sporting employees who were wiping in down in preparation for a Monday opening under the new normal rules.

While Abbott had told mall owners that the food courts would have to wait, the Marble Slab Creamery and Charleys Philly Steaks apparently didn't get the memo and were selling their prodcuts at Barton Creek today. But the mall's biggest restaurant - the Cheesecake Factory - declined the opportunity to start serving diners at tables again while choosing instead to sale food for takeout only.

The largest stores that were open on Sunday at the Austin mall were two or three that specialize in Air Jordans, tennis shoes and other footware for sports or casual fashion. While a couple of gift shops and several places that sell clothes were open today, about one out of 15 or 20 smaller stores remained closed as a result of concerns about safety or an Abbott-imposed occupancy cap of 25 percent or both.

With about 10 percent or less of more than 180 stores doing business on Sunday, It's hard to imagine how the Simon Property Group that owns the Austin mall could have not been losing money on reopening weekend in light of the considerable sums it was spending on air conditioning, security and other overhead costs.

But Barton Creek Square was a lighthouse in the storm nonetheless because it gave people something to do besides walking the neighborhood and watching TV in a state that could be hunkered down for months if the politicians follow the advice of the experts.

Scenes from a Mall


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