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'Ready to roll': Malls slowly reopen and hope shoppers will return

Malls remain closed to shoppers, but stores and restaurants are offering takeout and curbside pickup as they try to draw back their customers.

The state shut down enclosed shopping malls in March in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19. Restaurants were allowed to remain open for takeout and delivery and stores with external entrances could fulfill orders placed online and by phone.

As coronavirus safety restrictions are slowly loosened in this region, more retailers at the Walden Galleria and the region's other malls are setting up for curbside pickup and planning for the day when shoppers are allowed back inside.

Malls and mall tenants, already battered by a shift in habits toward online purchases, say they hope the Covid-19 outbreak isn't the final blow to the traditional enclosed shopping center.

"We are ready to roll," said Russ Fulton, general manager at the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence. "I'm not letting this coronavirus thing bring us down."

Amid a raft of coronavirus measures, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered malls to shut down as of 8 p.m. March 19, although many national retailers already had closed their doors.

Stores with external entrances could stay open, though customers couldn't come inside, and restaurants also could provide meals to go.

At the Galleria in Cheektowaga, for example, Best Buy and Dick's Sporting Goods have offered curbside pickup all along, while Macy's is reopening under this format on Tuesday.

Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, which do not have external access, also will be open for customers to pickup pre-orders. Restaurants including the Cheesecake Factory and Five Guys also are participating.

Galleria marketing manager Alex Corbelli said the mall is responding to "pent-up demand" by putting in place "Curbside@Walden."

"We and our tenants appreciate the state’s willingness to move on with phased re-openings in a manner that protects the health and safety of everyone," Corbelli said in an email. "We look forward to a full re-opening when we are able to do so, and will cooperate with state officials throughout the process."

Curbside pickup available at Walden Galleria

At the Boulevard Mall in Amherst, Dick's remained open for curbside pickup and Macy's reopened this week under the same circumstances, said Amanda Baumler, the general manager.

The TGI Friday's, Bonefish Grill and Chili's on the site also are open for takeout.

In the Town of Niagara, several retailers at the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls are offering curbside pickup, according to the mall's website, including Kirkland's, Shoe Dept. Encore and the Uniform Outlet. And Applebee's is serving takeout.

The McKinley Mall in Hamburg said some of its restaurants and essential stores are open for curbside pickup, though its website identifies only Best Buy as providing this feature. Mall representatives did not respond to a request for further comment.

The Eastern Hills Mall has the highest proportion of locally owned tenants among Buffalo Niagara malls. Most of those shops and restaurants have remained shuttered the past two months, but a few have tried to stay open during the pandemic.

Duff's Famous Wings owner Greg Duell hung a banner from the mall's roof announcing the restaurant is still serving up pizza and wings. Posts on the restaurant's active Facebook page touted specials including a "quarantini."

"Greg's probably the best example of never missing a beat since the day we closed," said Fulton, the general manager.

Duell, in a heartfelt video message set to Sandra Day's "Rise Up," praised his employees and said the first couple of days after everything hit were very difficult.

"Friday of that week, it was like Buffalo came out to save us, and it was very emotional," he said.

Jenn's Exotic Pets also still sells pet food and supplies. And Raff and Friends remains open for curbside pickup. Owner Kim Nelson had opened an interactive playland inside the store shortly before the coronavirus closures, Fulton said.

It has a mini-Duff's, Fulton said, "So kids go inside there and pretend they're making wings."

The phase one reopening of the region also means construction can restart on several projects at the mall, Fulton said. This includes an expansion of Bison Billiards and the addition of Chrusciki Bakery, Simply Pierogi, a banquet space and a Sto Lat bar in a portion of the former Sears store.

"They are full swing," Fulton said.

Standalone retailers can reopen to socially distanced shoppers in the second phase of the state's gradual reopening process.

But Fulton said he doesn't know if enclosed shopping malls are included in the second phase, as retailers, or in a later phase.

A spokeswoman for Empire State Development did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, the Eastern Hills Mall has hosted food trucks in recent weeks and was the site of a car parade for children from Sweet Charlotte's in Clarence that moved Fulton to tears.

It's all part of an effort to stay on the mind of the public.

"We don't want to become not a household name," Fulton said.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

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