With Gov. Larry Hogan ordering malls to shutter Thursday, the walls of self-isolation to slow the spread of the new coronavirus closed in even further.
Tara Reid has always considered herself an introvert, but now finds herself nostalgic for each simple and sequentially lost pleasure of just days ago — a restaurant meal, a concert and, now, shopping.
“I feel social distance has become emotional distance as well,” said Reid, 46, who lives in Columbia. “We are a lot more social creatures than we realize until something like this happens.”
Daily, either Hogan has directed, or businesses on their own have decided, to shutter places where people tend to congregate and provide easy transmission pathways for the coronavirus. In addition to closing the malls Thursday, Hogan further shrank the size of gatherings to no more than 10.
The measures came as the state reported at least 107 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning, resulting in one death so far.
Shutting the malls became increasingly inevitable as at least three in the state ― including the sprawling Arundel Mills ― had previously closed, as had anchor and specialty stores across the country.
A Johns Hopkins epidemiologist said that reducing the opportunities for people to interact with others who may carry the virus will help decrease its transmission. But, said Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, every closing comes with consequences — from unemployment to diminished “social cohesion” to questions of sustainability should the shutdowns continue for months rather than weeks.
“We’ve never done this before. This is a huge social experiment,” said Nuzzo, an epidemiologist. “I do have worries how long we can do this.”
“It gives people a chance to adjust to this very radical change in life,” she said.
The governor did not specify a timeline when malls would reopen. Shopping centers that are not enclosed, such as Hunt Valley Towne Center, remain open.
“There isn’t a physical barrier,” said Michelle J. Schiffer, an executive with Greenberg Gibbons, which manages the Baltimore County center.
But Schiffer said most of the apparel stores have closed, following directives from their national headquarters, while gyms and restaurants, except for takeout, also have closed under the state orders. The Wegmans grocery store remains open.
In Howard County, officials declared a state of emergency Sunday and closed The Mall in Columbia.
The mall always has been the planned community’s main street, and newer development has given its location more of a downtown feel. Reid moved to a nearby apartment specifically to be able to walk to the mall and other nearby venues.
Now, though, “it’s like a ghost town,” she said.
She’s feeling the isolation particularly keenly, given that she’s been idled from her work assisting midwives and as a doula for new mothers now that there are new restrictions on the number of people who can see hospital patients.
“I get it,” she said of the cutbacks and closures. "I’m not sure we were prepared for such a shutdown.
“This is sort of a post-9/11 feeling,” Reid said. “No one knows what to do or think. It’s eerie.”
That streets are emptier and people more dispersed makes Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman think the message is getting through that social distancing is critical to preventing the transmission of the coronavirus.
“The sooner we slow down the spread, the better chance we have of controlling it and responding to the illness that we’ll see,” said Kalyanaraman, Anne Arundel County’s health officer.
Closing the malls checks another large gathering place off the list, he said.
“What’s left really are the places where you can get the basics,” Kalyanaraman said — the Walmarts, the grocery stores and pharmacies.
He is glad to see that even those retailers in some cases are adjusting to limit the spread of the virus, such as setting aside special hours for older shoppers.
For the malls, the shutdown comes at a time when some are struggling already, having seen much of their traffic shift to big-box retailers and online. An indefinite shutdown won’t help.
Still, says one professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, don’t count out the shopping center just yet.
“It’s been an essential part of the American retail landscape for about a century,” said Jie Zhang, a professor of marketing.
Shoppers still like to buy jewelry, apparel, cosmetics and other “products that we want but we don’t need" in the real rather than online world, she said.
“They want to touch and feel it,” Zhang said. “You’re out, you’re with your girlfriends, and you buy it.”
But of course, she said, should people be denied trips to the mall for months and not buy any apparel during that time, they could then realize they were just fine without new clothes.
While malls had until 5 p.m. Thursday, others had previously shuttered.
In Hanover, the Simon Property Group closed its Arundel Mills mall Tuesday evening, “after extensive discussions with federal, state and local officials,” according to a notice on the mall’s website. The 1,630,000-square-foot Arundel Mills and the vast majority of the center’s stores will be closed until at least March 29. The mall’s website shows several businesses that remain open, though the information may be out-of-date: Maryland Live! Casino and Hotel is listed as “open,” despite a previous emergency order by Hogan specifically closing the state’s casinos.
Westfield Annapolis also closed temporarily although no reopen date was listed in the announcement.
“Some retailers may still be open so that ‘essential’ retail remains in operation for customers. While we will endeavor to reflect these store hours on this website, please confirm their hours directly,” according to Westfield’s notice.
The economic impact of retail closures could be sizable, said Andy Bauer, regional executive for the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. About 12 percent of Maryland’s employment works in retail, and they make about 7 percent of all wages, he said.
He does not anticipate the mall closures will send shoppers swarming to the freestanding stores on main streets or in open-air shopping centers.
“No matter where they’re located, they’re seeing less traffic,” Bauer said. “I’ve been spending days talking to businesses, and there’s less economic activity across the board.
“People have heard the message: We have to reduce the spread of the coronavirus,” he said.
While retail numbers will plunge for the month, Bauer foresees a quick and robust recovery once testing is more widely available and can show whether the social distancing measures are successful.
“When you talk to businesses,” he said, “everybody has the expectation after we’ve actually gone through all this for activity to rebound sharply.”