WESLEY CHAPEL — The lights were on and the gang was all there: Mickey Mouse. Minnie. Pluto. Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
Three-year-old Maddox Evans pulled his legs into the seat of his stroller for a boost as he craned his neck to peer through the glass storefront of the Tampa Premium Outlet’s Disney Store. There were rows of tiny T-shirts, mounds of stuffed animals and shiny plastic superheroes standing at attention inside plastic boxes.
But something was missing. People.
“Oh no,” Maddox’s mother cried out, stroking his wavy brown hair. “I’m sorry, buddy. I just knew this was going to happen.”
“They’re closed?" he asked. "But we’re here. How could they be closed?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis granted permission for stores to reopen Monday, under phase one of a three-phase return from coronavirus restrictions. But few of the outlet stores here jumped at the chance — just 13 of the 110, the security team said. A wider reopening was expected starting Tuesday.
“I thought we could walk around, get out of the house, and I guess we were just looking for something —anything, anything at all,” said Maddox’s mother, Laura Evans of Riverview. “We can’t even go to church. I mean, we were doing pretty good with it at first but the longer it goes on, the last week or so, it’s gotten really hard.”
After closing 47 days ago, Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group reopened Tampa Premium Outlets, St. Petersburg’s Tyrone Square and 13 other shopping plazas across the state. Businesses deemed non-essential under state guidelines were allowed to reopen Monday under certain restrictions, including limiting shoppers to just 25 percent of capacity.
Westfield malls in the Tampa Bay area, which include Westfield Brandon, Westfield Countryside in Clearwater and Westfield Citrus Park in Tampa, will open on May 15, and WestShore Plaza in Tampa on Friday. Both operations plan a modified schedule of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Wandering the outdoor corridors at the sprawling Tampa Prime Outlets felt disorienting for eager shoppers like Milla Cabral and Sydney Bridenstine, both 14, of Dade City. The best friends were in search of clothes for a 3-day sojourn to St. Augustine next week and found T-shirts from retailer Salt Life.
For the past two months, the girls have only been allowed to hang out with each other, they said. Otherwise, they’ve lived their lives through Zoom calls with teachers and Facetime chats with friends.
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“I wasn’t nervous to go shopping at all, but it does feel kinda weird being out and walking around with other people,” Milla said.
Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg reopened Monday, too, but most stores remained closed, to the dismay of friends Andrea Nommik and Nicki Marsden. The two arrived shortly after opening time at 11 a.m. to get “our retail fix," Nommick said. They brought their own masks, hand sanitizers and wipes.
“We were desperate to go shopping again and we’re quite disappointed, actually, because there’s hardly any stores open,” said Nommik, 61, who splits her time between Dunedin and Michigan and is hosting visiting Michigander Marsden. “There’s like five stores open.”
The real total was closer to about 18 of the mall’s 140 stores and restaurants, according to a count by a Tampa Bay Times reporter who walked through Monday. Many owners and corporate officers have clearly decided to wait.
Nommik said they were eager to shop at the mall’s “big ones” — anchor stores Dillards, JCPenny and Macy’s. No such luck Monday.
Inside the mall, patrons walked past dark and shuttered storefronts. Some wore masks. Many did not. Bright pink signs with white arrows encouraged patrons to walk in the same direction and stay six feet apart. Sparse foot traffic began to pick up a bit as the noon hour approached.
“The mall is open but not really,” a woman wearing a blue mask quipped as she scanned the options.
Only a few eateries at the food court were serving. Nearly all the employees behind the counters were wearing masks. Many of the tables and chairs were stacked off to the side, the remaining ones spaced about six feet apart.
Near an entrance, strollers shaped like fire trucks, usually available for shoppers with kids, remained parked in their corral, off limits. In a nearby men’s bathroom, blue tape blocked off every other urinal and sink. The Dyson hand driers didn’t blow.
Veronique Moussier was glad to be back behind the counter at Le Macaron, the macaron and French pastry store she owns. As soon as she opened the doors, customers came in to browse among flavors like red velvet, Colombian coffee and gingerbread.
“We are pretty excited, pretty happy,” Moussier said from behind a blue mask. “The only thing is that we are still worried about our health, so we wear masks. We’re going to do a lot of sanitizing the whole day.”
She had five employees before the mall closed. One was too nervous to come back and only two are currently working because of the mall’s restricted hours — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“I’m really glad for them,” Moussier said.
Nick Smith, owner of eTrikeCo, was also excited to open Monday. The store sells electric bikes and tricycles, the sort of product that became popular during the pandemic as a way to enjoy the outdoors. Smith tried to shift sales online, but that can’t match the volume of potential customers who walk by at Tyrone Square.
“It’s been hard as a small business owner not having access to the store," said Smith, 39. "I just needed to open things up so we could get back to business. So far, it’s been great because we’ve had some foot traffic, and people are just anxious and eager to get out of their houses.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct opening date for the Westfield malls in the Tampa Bay area.
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