Retail reopening off to slow start in Greater Lansing

Meridian Mall announces reopening tomorrow morning

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THURSDAY, May 28 — Retail stores across Michigan have the governor’s green light to reopen their doors, albeit with new restrictions, this week. But many of them, including most across Greater Lansing, have yet to restart business as usual.

Under an executive order signed last Thursday, retailers statewide — even those that don’t sell “essential” goods like groceries — have been able to reopen since Tuesday, provided that no more than 10 customers are allowed inside at once, regardless of the size of their buildings.

Still, local residents shouldn’t expect businesses to fling open their doors on Day One, local officials have said. And for the most part, they haven’t in Greater Lansing. Big box stores that could theoretically open in Frandor and the Eastwood Towne Center remained closed to the public.

Most smaller, mom-and-pop businesses across downtown Lansing, Old Town, REO Town and those surrounding East Lansing weren’t quite ready to reopen sales floors this week either.

“Every business is going to be a little different,” said Steve Japinga, a vice president at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of the smaller retail businesses are still making sure that they have PPE available, signage posted and protocols in place to protect everybody.”

Retailers didn’t have much time to prepare for reopening either. Whitmer’s order on reopening retail was announced last Thursday, giving businesses just five days — including the Holiday weekend — to bring back laid-off staff, roll out social distancing protocol and get back to work.

For context, construction crews had two weeks to prep before they got back to work this month.

“They’re still trying to do the right thing. They’re making sure this is done safely,” Japinga added.

Homegoods, World Market, TJ Maxx, Carter’s, OshKosh B’Gosh, Party City, Ulta Beauty, Hallmark, Pier 1, Lane Bryant, American Eagle, J. Jill, Express, Bath and Body Works, Apple, Victoria’s Secret, Yankee Candle, Gap, Old Navy, DSW — all closed for in-person sales locally.

Locally owned shops like Great Lakes Arts & Gifts, Absolute Gallery, Mother & Earth Baby Boutique, Katalyst and dozens of other local shops also have stopped in-person shopping.

Kathy Holcomb, the owner of Absolute Gallery in Old Town, has only reopened by appointment. Customers can call ahead to shop the sales floor, but the store is otherwise closed for walk-ins.

“So far, I’ve been reluctant to turn on the open sign, so to speak, because I wasn’t quite sure how this would all be interpreted,” Holcomb said. “I know some other businesses around here just don’t feel safe right now — especially with trying on clothing stores and dressing rooms.”

Due to recent customer demand, Holcomb is considering opening up her gallery this weekend.

“People are eager to get back to normal and start supporting their small businesses again, probably because, for the most part, so many have been closed for so long,” Holcomb added.

Retailers across Michigan have been able to operate curbside sales since the lockdown took effect. And while many are maintaining that model into June, others have jumped back into business. Sweet Custom Jewelry in Old Town has an open sign on its door. 

“Right now, we’re just open by appointment,” Sweet said. “We’ve been eager, just sort of waiting for the governor to give us the OK. We’ve had a lot of appointments set up this week, a lot of wedding bands and engagement rings. It looks like people are still planning on getting married.”

Sweet said curbside sales — mainly for insurance purposes — weren’t the best model for jewelry stores. And most of her customers like to look around at the whole counter, she said.

Other larger retailers are also making plans to allow a limited number of customers back inside their storefronts. The Meridian Mall, for example, is planning to reopen tomorrow with rules that prohibit groups of more than 10 forming in common areas and capacity restrictions in each store.

A press release notes plans to reopen stores at 11 a.m. tomorrow while events remain canceled and play areas, seating areas, drinking fountains and the food court stay shuttered.

A spokeswoman for the Lansing Mall said there are no immediate plans to announce a broader reopening there aside from a few curbside pickup options that have been available for weeks.

At least one local retailer did not wait for permission to reopen. Bradly Rakowski, owner of Bradly’s Home and Garden in Old Town, said he started selling food and other “essential” products to loophole his way into reopening on May 16, a full 10 days before stores like his would’ve otherwise been able to reopen under Whitmer’s revised orders.

“So many businesses are going to close this year and I wasn’t going to be one of them,” he said. “We found a loophole just like places like Home Depot and all these other millionaires out there soaking up the federal funding. I’m just trying to keep my business alive. I needed to do it.”

Rakowski’s staff wear masks, social distancing signage is scattered across the store, and aisles have been rearranged to allow for more space between employees and customers. It’s not often that more than 10 people are inside Bradly’s anyway, so the new limitations won’t be a problem.

“We’ve done everything we can as a business. We have gloves available for anybody that wants them. We have Apple Pay so nobody has to touch anything. We’re constantly cleaning things. I don’t know what more we can do to make this store more safe right now,” Rakowski added.

Whitmer’s order specifies that retail businesses can only open “by appointment,” which the Michigan Retailers Association has since interpreted to mean that businesses can allow walk-up shopping, with outdoor lines that can be formed should stores reach their 10-person capacities.

That means all boutique stores and others dedicated exclusively to selling things like clothing, cosmetics, records, party supplies, candles and much more are essentially back in business.

But it seems most are treading cautiously amid a new landscape of socially distant shopping.

“It’s not so much about whether some of these businesses are allowed to reopen, but whether they can feel safe enough to reopen in a manner that protects their employees and their customers,” said Meegan Holland, a vice president at the Michigan Retailers Association.

Holland said reopening poses a learning curve that requires time for businesses to prepare. But still, some may be uncertain about whether reopening is worth it, both from a safety and financial perspective. It could be months before foot traffic ever returns to normal, she said.

“With all the politics involved, this is making people uneasy and confused as to what to believe about the virus,” Rakowski added. “If you just use common sense, wear a mask, put away your guns and wash your damn hands, we’ll all be fine. Just be smart and use common sense.”

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