Store owners count on safe spaces to bring back shoppers, diners amid pandemic

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 11) — Malls are now focused on assuring customers that their stores are safe as they look to bring them back to shop and dine in person.

"The feedback that we've been getting is that they (shoppers) already miss going back to the malls," Jennylle Tupaz, president of Ayala Malls, told CNN Philippines' The Exchange on Friday. "They are eager to do so as soon as the pandemic is under control."

Malls were forced to shut when lockdowns were enforced mid-March as the government sought to contain COVID-19 infections, except for essential stores like groceries, pharmacies, banks, and restaurants offering takeout and delivery meals.

The COVID-19 task force eventually allowed malls to reopen for shoppers in May, but they are far from recovering sales and profits.

Even the Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) knew it was a tall order, as the general fear of catching the virus has kept people planted at home.

"The priority for retailers is to prove to consumers that we have created a safe shopping environment for them," PRA chairman Paul Santos said.

"Among the concerns during this pandemic is their fear about losing their sources of income and the safety of going out to shop.." he said. "We can certainly control — or to a great extent, influence — how safe shoppers can do their shopping in our stores."

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For Tupaz and the Ayala Malls chain, the past months have been spent on retrofitting mall spaces to factor in social distancing and other health protocols.

Chairs and tables at restaurants are spaced out, foot traffic along corridors and nooks are policed, while more diners now prefer al fresco or open-air dining to reduce the risk of infection.

"What we are seeing in the mall is a gradual increase in foot traffic, which we anticipate to improve as we go further into the Christmas season," Tupaz added, noting that Ayala has resorted to toned-down decor to bring some cheer in their usually packed and busy properties.

Masks and face shields are required prior to entry, alongside temperature checks, hand sanitizers, foot baths, and the filling up of health declaration and contact tracing forms.

The Ayala Group has also rolled out virtual shopping assistant services to keep sales up.

For PRA, member stores are now trying to jump to e-commerce, while stressing the need to access low-cost loans to help businesses rebuild and reopen.

President Rodrigo Duterte's economic team has called on the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to allow more industries to reopen to usher in faster economic recovery and get more Filipinos back to their jobs.