Workers And Shoppers Question Why The Mall Is Still Open

Orland Square Mall
At Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Monday afternoon, employees far outnumbered shoppers. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
Orland Square Mall
At Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Monday afternoon, employees far outnumbered shoppers. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Workers And Shoppers Question Why The Mall Is Still Open

Orland Square Mall in southwest suburban Orland Park was deserted Monday, with employees far outnumbering shoppers.

“That’s why I came. I figured it would be really empty, and I was right,” said 89-year-old Frank Henry, who comes to the mall a few times a week to walk. He finished his lap around the stores and was reading a magazine in the food court, where he had a vast section all to himself.

He wasn’t particularly worried about the growing coronavirus outbreak.

“They say they want everybody to stay five feet apart, right? That’s no problem around here,” said Henry.

While Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has ordered bars and restaurants to halt dine-in service, and both the state and federal governments have issued warnings telling people to avoid crowds and public places, area shopping malls remain open. At Orland Square, that’s led a surprising number of employees and even some shoppers to question why malls remain open, including theirs.

Midday Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Minnesota’s governor ordered restaurants and bars in the state to close dine-in service, the Mall of America announced it would shut down through at least March 31.

“We respect Gov. Walz’s leadership and decision to further enhance community mitigation to stop people from gathering and potentially spreading the disease,” read the Mall of America’s post on Twitter.

But across the Chicago area, malls remain open, even as a growing number of major retailers decide to close to fight the spread of coronavirus. At Orland Square, anchor stores Macy’s and JCPenny were open yesterday, while a handful of stores were closed, including Apple, Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister.

That was confusing to shopper Vicky Lindsey, who came to the mall with her mom and two kids.

“If you shut down (one) place and not the place next door, that doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Lindsey. “Shut it all down for the two weeks, and then start it back up again. Because if there’s a store open, somebody’s gonna shop — like me.”

Orland Park Mall sign
Signs at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park tell shoppers the mall has stepped up cleaning efforts to keep shoppers safe. Mall owners would not answer WBEZ’s questions about whether they should close to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
Today, the lights will be off at even more retailers at Orland Square.

“Yep, we’re gonna be down between two to four weeks with no pay,” said Robert Hernandez, the manager at Sbarro in the food court. He was telling employees to apply for unemployment and use their vacation and sick leave. He said he hadn’t broken $100 after three hours of business.

Hernandez has wondered what a lot of employees are wondering: Why hasn’t the mall just closed?

“I mean honestly, I would think it would be an appropriate thing for the mall to close, because this is an area of traffic where people come through. If they’re shutting down local businesses, you know.” Hernandez said he wondered about public health impacts. “You don’t know — anybody working in the mall could be contaminated,” he said.

Upstairs, the employees at a Pandora’s jewelry store were overjoyed that their corporate office was shutting them down for two weeks, with full pay for workers.

Employees said they’ve been uncomfortable being in such close proximity to customers, who expect to touch the charm bracelets and other jewelry for sale. For the past several days, employees said they’ve been sanitizing every item touched by a customer.

But some said they feel they’re not out of danger when it comes to their health because they work second jobs, also in customer service, that haven’t been halted.

“It’s hard to think that the spread [of coronavirus] will stop with just some things closing, because other things aren’t. Everything should be on lockdown, we think. What’s the point of closing one thing and keeping other stores open?” said May Bergeson.

Janitors at Orland Square said they felt caught between a rock and a hard place — forced to choose between their health and paying the rent. They’re worried about the risks of continuing to work and clean in a public gathering place in the time of COVID-19. But they depend on their income. Janitors said they’d been directed not to talk to the media.

And some mall tenants have been begging Orland Square management to close the mall.

Mike Balota is the owner of the Slim Chickens franchise in the food court. He’s not making any money because no one is at the mall. But unless the mall closes, he’s going to owe the full month’s rent, nearly $13,000, Balota said.

He said he’s been to the management office at the mall. “I told them, ‘The mall is almost empty. Why don’t you work with us? Let us close. Because now I’m paying employees, I’m paying electricity. I’m wasting the food. Nobody is buying it.’”

He said mall management told him he could close if he wanted to, but the decision was up to him. Balota thinks the mall is staying open to be able to charge all tenants the full month’s rent.

Murphy Liang, owner of Kung Fu Sushi
Murphy Liang, owner of Kung Fu Sushi, works behind an empty refrigerator case. He did not prepare any sushi ahead of time. He had just a handful of customers Monday. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
Orland Square Mall is owned by Simon Properties Group, which owns more than 100 malls across the country and at least four in the Chicago area, including Woodfield, Gurnee Mills and outlet malls in Aurora and Michigan City, Indiana.

Simon Properties Group did not return multiple phone calls or emails from WBEZ. Orland Square’s onsite mall manager would not comment. Late Monday the mall announced it’s reducing hours due to coronavirus but will remain open 7 days a week. Other malls in the area, including Oakbrook Center, also announced reduced hours yesterday.

President Trump yesterday afternoon tweeted out “the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.” Among the things people should avoid: social gatherings in groups of more than 10, “eating or drinking at … food courts” and “discretionary … shopping trips.”

At Orland Square Mall, traffic seemed to pick up some in the evening, with area high school students out of school for the next two weeks. “YOLO,” said one 14-year-old. “You only live once.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.