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As malls close, it's the end of shopping as we know it – at least for now

And you thought malls were empty before the coronavirus outbreak.

Though malls were not required to close until 8 p.m. Thursday per Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's orders, most of the stores inside them had already been shuttered well before then.

The governor announced the order Wednesday, as an attempt to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. By then or soon after, a slew of national retailers closed their doors across the country, including Gap, Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works. One mall store after another followed suit until just a handful of stores remained open Thursday afternoon.

Joseph Puma, 50, from Town of Tonawanda visited Boulevard Mall out of curiosity Thursday, wanting to see what the mall would look like in these unprecedented times. What he found was "surreal."

"It was very odd. Like walking through an abandoned building or something in a movie," he said.

Even though mall stores with exterior entrances are allowed to remain open after the mall closures go into place, many of them had already closed ahead of the state's mandate. That includes Dick's Sporting Goods, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, and Macy's.

The few people hoping to hit the shopping centers before they closed Thursday night were met mostly with closed doors and drawn gates.

Darius Smith of Buffalo was supposed to be in North Carolina on vacation from his job as a mental health counselor this week but opted to stay home once the crisis hit. Looking for some retail therapy, he was disappointed to find nearly every store shuttered at Walden Galleria Thursday afternoon.

"They said they were gonna be open 'til 8. How they gonna do that to me?" said Smith, 30. "We have to have somewhere to go. My whole 30 years, I've never seen anything like this."

Asked if he was worried about being exposed to the virus at the public shopping center, Smith said no.

"Ain't nobody here!" he said.

Most shoppers in the malls Thursday appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. That age group has been accused of being too cavalier about the dangers of Covid-19.

Nick Christie, 22, of Cheektowaga, and Tyler Enser, 28, of Hamburg, were both off work Thursday and were at Walden Galleria looking for something to eat. They tried to enter through Dick's Sporting Goods only to find it locked.

Christie said he didn't take the threat seriously and was unapologetic about it.

"Nah, I don't care about that," he said, minutes before spitting on the pavement in the Galleria's parking lot.

Enser was also unbothered, believing the threat is overblown.

"I saw something that said every election year there's a virus scare, and there's an election year coming up," he said.

The Made in America store at Walden Galleria was one of the few stores remaining open, though it was tucked away in a less-traveled corridor under the movie theater, surrounded by shuttered stores. The store hadn't seen a single customer Wednesday, and just one of them Thursday.

It was so quiet, in fact, that its shelves were still loaded with retail's most scarce and coveted product: toilet paper.

Store manager Kim Streer was preparing to close the doors at 5 p.m. She was supposed to leave for a cruise to the Caribbean Saturday, which she canceled because of the pandemic, but she was still looking forward to spending time at home once the mall closed. Her husband is employed with the Thruway Authority, so her family still has a regular paycheck coming in, and she is excited to clean out her closets and spend time with her kids.

"I'm ready," she said.

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