Concerns of malls becoming superspreader 'test tube' arise, but no bylaw infractions so far
'On the weekends, it’s been madness,' says a 25-year-old who works at Lime Ridge Mall
Alexander Argento is used to seeing busy crowds in malls during the holiday season, but he didn't expect to see shoppers fill Lime Ridge Mall in the middle of Hamilton's second wave of COVID-19.
"On the weekends, it's been madness," said the 25-year-old who works at a clothing store in the mall.
"You feel pretty helpless as a retail employee because you're grateful to have the job during a pandemic, but at the same time, you know there's not much you can do."
Argento is among other employees in the mall who say they are seeing high volumes of customers shopping during the holiday season. Customers keep coming despite Hamilton being one step away from a total lockdown, and calls from public health to only leave your home if it is necessary.
While restaurants, arenas and other facilities have rigid limits on the number of people inside the building, malls don't have the same rules. The province only requires malls to have a safety plan ready upon request and to have no more than 10 patrons in the food court. Individual stores have limits on how many people can be inside, but local malls have also extended hours for the holiday season.
Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9) first raised the issue during a Nov. 16 board of health meeting after hearing about crowded malls full of maskless customers.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Clark said he was still waiting for more answers about how public health can keep malls safe.
"The province should be looking at the malls and understanding exactly what's going on and put restrictions in place, or remind people and the mall owners it's their obligation," he said.
"I'm just worried about it becoming a super spread test tube."
Argento said he has seen as many as one in five people in the mall improperly wearing masks. He also said his store has been at full capacity more often.
Clark added he doesn't agree with malls extending their hours and thinks if masking is an issue, it may be time to reconsider the exemption.
"If everyone wore a mask, if everyone was social distancing, if we're washing our hands frequently then we really do minimize the opportunity for the virus to get inside us," he said.
'It's a little nerve wracking seeing all the people'
CBC News visited Lime Ridge Mall that Thursday, and on Saturday at noon.
On both days, nearly everyone in the mall wore a mask. Only a handful of people wore masks improperly and some pulled down their masks as they ate while walking through the mall.
Thursday was tame, but Saturday was busy. On Saturday, a security guard periodically stood at the front entrance to ensure patrons were wearing masks. Other entrances didn't always have someone waiting. Lime Ridge also has hand sanitizer and signs with screening questions at each entrance, but most customers paid no attention to them as they entered. The food court is also closed off.
At least 30 people stood in line to buy products from Bath and Body Works on the first floor.
Arlene Ahtt, who lives in the city, was in that line. She said if she knew how busy the mall was, she would have stayed home.
"It's a little nerve wracking seeing all the people."
The first floor of the mall was full of families and people of all ages. Most people were roughly six feet apart and following stickers on the floor around the mall that encourage one-way travel and distancing.
Drew Logan, a 21-year-old from Burlington who was shopping with his partner, said he was avoiding the ground floor.
"The first floor is a bit too crowded … we don't particularly feel safe."
Angie Fung was shopping two stores down. She said she felt the mall wasn't dangerous and said it was decently organized.
"I'd just like to see a little bit more of the direction [stickers]."
Some people in the mall came from other regions.
JP Cultrera came from Markham and arrived with his girlfriend who lives in Oakville. Markham is in the York region, which is also in the red zone like Hamilton.
He said he felt comfortable in the mall. They didn't shop online, Cultrera said, because his girlfriend was buying makeup and needed to see it in-person.
All the customers CBC News spoke with at the mall offered a similar rationale for not shopping online — but they also acknowledged they weren't buying essential items.
"To a certain extent, it feels necessary to brave the hazards. There's only so much shopping you can do online," Logan said.
As someone who's working in the mall, Argento wishes more people would shop online or opt for curbside pickups.
"It's a great opportunity to not have to go into the mall or at least mitigate your risk of not actually having to catch COVID in a retail environment," he said.
"You can still drive in your car, go to the curb, pick it up and it's the same price … there are alternatives rather than packing yourself into a mall."
Bylaw officers 'pleased' after visit at mall
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said bylaw officers haven't found any issues at Lime Ridge.
"We, like you, only saw one or two people who did not have a mask on properly. They weren't observing anything that violated the physical distancing rule, whether it was lining up or whatever it might be," she said in an interview on Monday.
"They were pleased with that and so that's a good thing but I think we all still need to be very mindful of 'just go out when we need to go out.'"
In response to the concerns raised about the safety of malls, Cadillac Fairview wrote in a statement that warding off COVID-19 is a "community effort."
"Based on feedback we've received from guests, employees and retailers, we are in the process of creating new creative ways to emphasize mask usage and directional flow in the property to continue to ensure a safe and comfortable shopping experience for all visitors," the company wrote.
"It's a new environment for everyone, and while the vast majority of our visitors are complying with our safety precautions with virtually no resistance, we realize it may take some time to get everyone there."