By Brad Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – The Domain mall in Austin, Texas, is open for business – unlike most of its 100 upscale shops – as the state entered its first work week of eased pandemic restrictions in the hopes of rekindling the economy.
A dozen or so people were strolling about the sprawling open-air shopping center Monday afternoon, with three seated on the patio of a Tex-Mex restaurant. Only one shopper wore a mask, and the loudest noises were from songbirds perched in the live oak trees along the deserted pedestrian thoroughfares.
“I’ve seen one customer today – they didn’t buy anything,” said Taylor Jund, who was keeping watch over an empty Chaser clothing store. “There’s absolutely no one coming around here.”
While protests across the United States demand state governments allow business to reopen and people to get back to work, the vast majority of Americans balk at relaxing stay-at-home orders too quickly, according to Reuters/Ipsos opinion polling.
Texas, Georgia, and other southern states are leading the way in letting stay at home orders expire and gradually allowing people to go about their business. But the early days of the opening in Texas show that many residents might want to stay home anyway.
“The cases of coronavirus aren’t really going down, so I suspect people aren’t comfortable going to malls or getting back to normal life,” David Tamayo said while sitting on a shaded bench with his girlfriend at The Domain, where he said they came to relax outdoors.
Restaurants, retail stores, and malls in Texas are now allowed to open at 25% capacity in most areas. Stores in rural counties with five or fewer cases can operate at 50%. A second phase is planned for May 18 if infection rates decline.
On Monday, Texas reported that it had 884 deaths from COVID-19 and 32,332 cases total, though it has among the lowest per capita testing rate of any state.
With temperatures in the 90s, Texans flocked to parks, beaches and rivers over the weekend. Beachgoers packed the shore in the resort town of Galveston, though police said most people seemed to be practicing social distancing.
A large gathering of youth at a lake outside Lubbock, in West Texas, prompted authorities to say on Sunday they were closing the beach there back down.
Still, in most spots in the state – which is larger than France – there has been plenty of room for outdoor recreation and social distancing.
Christy Armstrong, who works for a food distribution company, made the rounds with her restaurant clients across the Houston area on Monday. During a stop at Arnaldo Richards’ Picos Mexican restaurant in central Houston, she saw a handful of customers sitting at a bar, separated from one another by Plexiglas barriers.
“It’s sad to know that this is the first Monday we’ve reopened, and a lot of the places are still very empty,” Armstrong said. “I’m a little shocked it’s so dead out.”
But patience, and even closing down again if there are coronavirus flare-ups, should be foremost on business owners’ minds, said Laura Hoffman, president of Austin’s Chamber of Commerce.
She said the most important thing for businesses was to figure out how to safely reopen and for the Chamber to help them do that, sharing lessons learned at places that have stayed open all along, such as grocery stores.
“We have to look at this pandemic as a long-term condition,” she said. “We must strike the balance between keeping people healthy and reopening.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin; Additional reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Gerry Doyle)