TownMall of Westminster — subject to changes in ownership, the fading fortunes of retail and constant rumors over the past few years — is now subject to Gov. Larry Hogan’s COVID-19 mandate. The mall, like all others in Maryland, shuttered its doors at 5 p.m. March 19, and it is not clear when it might reopen — and how many tenants will reopen with it.
“My biggest concern is, how many of these small businesses that are closing for this won’t be here to open up in a couple of weeks?” said Bryan Combs, owner of The Westminster Barbershop in the TownMall. “Any small business right now is kind of day-to-day, and when something like this happens it’s hard to say what will happen on the other end.”
At a Thursday morning news conference, Hogan announced new efforts to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, known as COVID-19, including limiting gatherings to 10 people and ordering all enclosed shopping malls in the state to close at 5 p.m.
As of Thursday afternoon, the coronavirus had resulted in 157 of deaths in the United States, including one in Maryland, out of about 11,274 people who have tested positive for the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. John Wah is a practicing physician as well as one of the owners of Battleground in the mall. He said that while Battleground is closed, he worries more about many of the other businesses housed in the mall.
“I can image how disruptive this can be for people if this is their sole business. It’s definitely disruptive for us, but luckily for us, the three of us have other areas as to make money,” he said. “That’s not the case for a lot of people in the mall. They are not making an income and all their bills are continuing to collect.”
Rather than a blanket closure of malls, Wah said he wished the government had considered allowing each business to create a sort of limited schedule for servicing clients.
“In my office right now we are staggering patients so they are not waiting in the waiting room. They wait in their car and get called into the office solo,” he said. “I think a lot of other businesses could have done something like that.”
That might have been in the cards without the governor’s order, according to Fred Meno, president and CEO of asset management and asset services for the Woodmont Company, which manages TownMall.
“Often with malls, we follow the anchor tenants and adjust our hours in a situation like this according to their hours,” he said in a phone interview around 3:15 p.m. Thursday. “In this case we have the government authority mandating the closure of all retail and entertainment establishments and we will be closing at 5 p.m.”
It may be there would have been no customers to patronize those anchor tenants even if the mall had been able to remain open with modified hours.
“The mall is a ghost town. It’s been a ghost town since Monday,” Combs said. “The small businesses, which is mostly what the mall is comprised of these days, we understand it’s necessary. It’s important for the safety of everyone.”
Wah also understands the necessity, but worries that it’s hard to know what actions are sufficient to mitigate spread of the disease, and what actions might be going too far and unnecessarily harming local businesses.
“People need to at least understand they are not doing this for no reason, and if it is helpful, you’ll never know it,” he said, since success means little spread of COVID-19 cases and actions like closing malls could seem like an overreaction.
Either way, a long-term closure could be devastating for some businesses, even if it stops the spread of the virus.
“As we speak, Battleground is closed. It’s not making any revenue and our monthly expenses are the same. If they stick around with this, a good percentage of the businesses in the mall right now, they might not be there,” he said. “There have to be a lot of business in the mall right now just panicking.”
According to Meno, Woodmont is not making any blanket decisions about lease payment or utility relief, it is something the company is willing to speak to tenants about in an effort to keep tenants in place.
“I think it’s probably safe to say the local mom and pop type tenants are a little bit more hand-to-mouth than the larger national retailers,” he said. “We will address each individually as those requests are made, understanding each tenant has a different story and balance sheet.”
In the meantime, businesses will do what they can.
Combs has temporarily found other locations outside the mall to cut hair and is still taking appointments. He’ll try to make other arrangements should more establishments be ordered closed by the government.
“I am open for business and appointments, it just may be outside under a tree, I don’t know,” he said. “Wherever we can do business, we will.”
Battleground, meanwhile, may try to offer some from of online gaming tournament at some point, Wah said. Not as a money-maker, but as a way to bring the community together, without physically bringing them together.
“That may just be goodwill for community so people have something to look forward to,” he said. “To get the community back up and running and get a little sunshine in this period.”