With Phase Three of reopening underway in Western New York, some are calling to Governor Cuomo to include indoor shopping centers including malls to the list of businesses eligible to resume their services. The plea to reopen malls was presented outside Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga.
Joined outside the large suburban shopping mall were State Assemblymember Monica Wallace, a representative of State Senator Tim Kennedy's office, Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski, Cheektowaga Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer Kristina Groff and owners of several businesses located inside Walden Galleria.
The more than 200 businesses located inside, according to Assemblymember Wallace, employ more than 4,200 people at a payroll of approximately $60 million.
"The Walden Galleria is a significant tax driver for our community, especially the Town of Cheektowaga," she said. "Last year alone, the Walden Galleria contributed $45 million in taxes - state, local and school taxes - to our local economy. It is a huge tax driver."
But it remained closed Tuesday morning. The Cuomo administration cites crowd concerns as the state slowly reopens businesses closed in March due to the pandemic. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, during a visit to Niagara Falls last week, explained that the administration has heard the concerns of affected business owners but backed the governor's concerns for large gatherings.
"You go to malls because you're looking for crowds. That's why you establish a place in a mall, because there'll be a lot of people walking through, congregating, socializing," Hochul said during the June 11 visit. "Those are activities that, at this very moment, we don't believe are safe in the State of New York."
But business owners and business advocates say Walden Galleria and other malls can and will operate with safety in mind.
"We understand the magnitude of undertaking a statewide reopening such as this, and appreciate the incredible work of our state and local leaders and dedication to safe social distancing practices of the community that resulted in a significant decline in cases we see today. However, we do feel that the Walden Galleria and other indoor shopping centers are able to open for business and do so safely," said Groff.
While representatives of Syracuse-based Pyramid Management Group were not present, the owner of Walden Galleria has crafted, according to Wallace, a 20-point safety plan. Marlene Gigliotti, owner of mall tenant Euphoria Salon and Spa, said her safety measures include mandatory wearing of masks and plastic shields, regular temperature checks and operating at 50 percent capacity. She explained there's plenty enough space inside her business to keep customers and staff at safe distances.
"And for our front desk, the same thing. We have our measurements out, so if someone's coming in to purchase retail, there's the six feet apart for that, "Gigliotti said. "We're going cashless so there's less transferring or touching money or handling things that someone else is going to handle. We're pretty confident we've got this, and everyone should feel really comfortable."
Numerous store owners took turns complaining that while they've been forced to remain closed as mall tenants, large chain retailers have been allowed to operate, where customers are often times in close proximity. Nathan Mroz, founder and owner of The BFLO Store, says his business has been lucky to operate three locations with outdoor entrances but its two most stable locations are located within malls.
As Mroz put it, every day more businesses are going bankrupt, and every day stores cannot reopen it becomes more likely some will never reopen at all.
"Folks, this is the state that says they want the federal government to bail them out, and yet they're not getting that sales tax revenue," he said. "There have the peak unemployment numbers like we've never seen, but they want bailouts. If they want bailouts, folks, we're going to need bailouts ourselves. We are still liable for all rents.
"We have over 50 employees, myself, that are not able to come back to work because malls like the Walden Galleria are not able to open at this time due to these regulations."
Wallace was asked about the governor's emergency powers, which were approved by the Legislature at the onset of the pandemic, and when the Legislature may know when to say 'enough.'
"The Legislature has the authority to go back and take them away. So when we feel that the governor is overstepping or not doing the right thing, we have the ability to do that right away," she replied.
As for whether the governor could be convinced to reconsider and allow malls to reopen, Wallace expressed hope it could happen by the end of this week.
"I believe it should happen this week," she said. "I believe it should have already been as part of Phase Three and I think the decision needs to be made to reconsider that."