JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — These days, when Janesville Mall General Manager Julie Cubbage walks the mall’s concourse, she’s alone with the echoes of her own footfalls against shining tile.
In the half-dark of the 650,000-square-foot mall that’s been almost completely shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic, Cubbage’s only daily companions are the faceless mannequins standing sentinel behind caged-off entries to the mall’s idled shops.
The mannequins’ attire is early spring fashion left untouched since March 17. That’s the day the mall shuttered to the public under Gov. Tony Evers’ orders to protect public health in a pandemic that now has run weeks and will continue to run its course for untold weeks or months.
(On May 11, Evers allowed nearly all nonessential businesses to reopen as long as they serve no more than five customers at a time, partially lifting the restriction that has kept them closed for weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.)
Cubbage said the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s corresponding business shutdowns and public gathering bans have the mall and other idled retailers facing perhaps their biggest-ever existential threat.
“My biggest fear is we will have stores that simply won’t reopen later this year. This pandemic has just been devastating to a lot of retailers. We were already in a retail apocalypse, so to speak, with the shift to online shopping. This pandemic is not helping with that,” Cubbage told The Janesville Gazette.
Is anybody in there?
Cubbage is among a skeleton staff who returns to the idled mall day after day. She wears a cloth face mask and rubber gloves while walking the concourse. Canned music plays from ceiling speakers to a crowd of no one.
“It’s really kind of creepy to hear your own breathing echo off the walls and to see no people, just mannequins,” Cubbage said.
The retail sector, which supports about 14,000 jobs in Rock County, has undergone a shakeup of layoffs and furloughs because of state-mandated temporary closures. Some retailers are allowed to continue as “essential” businesses, absorbing an overflow in consumer demand.
Increased demand and logistical strain tied to the pandemic has spurred some retailers to begin aggressively hiring. Some local hotspots right now include Blain’s Farm & Fleet and Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, according to recent online job listings.
Right now, the mall’s stores don’t face hiring pressure or temporary shortfalls in inventory.
While some mall stores have a few staff taking inventory and servicing online sales, many of the mall’s stores have been idled more than 40 days.
One recent morning, Dick’s sporting goods, one of the mall’s anchor stores, had a lone customer standing on the sidewalk outside the store, apparently waiting for a curbside pickup. It was the only outward evidence of any action at the mall.
According to a set of state-required layoff notices, athletic shoe chain Finish Line announced April 14 it was furloughing more than 130 employees at several of its Wisconsin stores — including all 11 employees that run the Finish Line store at the Janesville Mall.
The furloughs are tied to the pandemic and the state’s shutdown, and they’ll run however long the state requires shopping malls to remain closed, Finish line said in its notices.
Some analysts believe it could be well into summer before many states begin to significantly remove business restrictions.
Ups and downs
For years, Cubbage said, she’s watched the mall industry struggle to disprove analysts who’ve declared brick-and-mortar retail a dead industry. A pandemic now is bleeding money from mall retailers and malls themselves, more so every day as malls are forced into a void of mandated isolation.
“It’s hard to get rent when retailers don’t have any sales. They don’t want to pay their rent because they don’t have any sales,” Cubbage said. “It’s a vicious cycle that every mall is going through right now.”
The Janesville Mall has battled for years to redefine itself as a retail venue after it lost three major anchor stores since the end of the Great Recession. The mall in the last four years has added a few large chain stores as anchors. And more recently, it’s drawn a growing number of independent, mom-and-pop retailers ranging from fresh food shops to barber shops.
The most recent brightening in prospects for the 50-year-old mall came earlier this year when the city announced it was negotiating with the mall’s ownership, RockStep Capital, on a deal to bring a multi-million-dollar indoor sports complex and the junior hockey franchise Janesville Jets to the site now occupied by the defunct Sears store.
But recently, a group of private backers for the sports complex asked the city to shelve planning on the project, likely until next year. The backers say private fundraising for the $30 million project has flatlined during the COVID pandemic.
Cubbage said she couldn’t comment on the impact of COVID-19 on the mall’s bid for the sports complex. RockStep Capital officials did not respond to Gazette requests for comment on what a delay to the sports complex project could mean to the mall.
Working through it
During a walk through the mall, Cubbage pointed out one new mall tenant, Five Star Barber Shop, which she said opened on the north end of the concourse just before the pandemic hit.
It’s one of the small, independent, local businesses Cubbage said the mall is trying to help get government small-business rescue loans to bridge the COVID-19 shutdown. But many of the loan programs are tailored to businesses that are firmly established or have been in operation for at least a few years, she said.
Chain bookstore Books-A-Million was one of the few shops at the mall that showed any signs of life. Store Manager Judy Robinson and another employee worked behind the bookstore’s pull-down security gate, packing unsold books to return to publishers for credit.
Robinson said she’s had limited interaction with merchants at neighboring stores because when they come in they are cordoned off inside their stores, just like her.
“It almost feels as if you’re working before or after store hours, until you realize like six hours have gone by and there’s not another soul you’ve seen besides your coworker,” Robinson said.
“It’s very eerie.”
Books-A-Million’s storefront displays were still loaded with Easter-themed plush dolls. Robinson assumes she’ll go straight from a spring motif to a “summertime reading” theme if her store reopens in time.
Cubbage said the mall, like all others in Wisconsin, awaits a decision by the state that would spell out terms of an economic restart and how that might apply to indoor shopping malls. She said the pace at which individual mall stores might reopen could depend largely on how the state handles businesses such as malls, which are designed to draw large-scale shopping crowds.
Cubbage believes some mall stores might operate with plastic barriers between customers and checkout clerks, among other social distancing measures, for months or even permanently.
“We’ve thought for years we’d entered a new era of retail, but I wonder what we will see now,” Cubbage said. “This is a very different time, and I don’t think some things are ever going to go back to being how they were ever again.”