EDMONTON — New COVID-19 measures go into effect Sunday in Alberta and shoppers appear to be taking advantage of the last days of looser retail rules by hitting up centres such as West Edmonton Mall.
The retail behemoth, one of the biggest in the world, covers the equivalent of 48 city blocks. On Wednesday, it was quieter inside than what retail workers are used to this time of year, but still busy.
A steady stream of people window-shopped and strolled along while keeping distance. Stickers with arrows plastered on the floor funnel customers in the right direction. Almost every store has signs reminding customers to practice physical distancing.
On Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced tighter public-health measures to try to control the virus that has been spreading wildly for weeks. They include the closure of casinos, gyms, hair salons and indoor service at restaurants and bars.
The restrictions also require retail stores to reduce their capacity even further to 15 per cent from 25.
Kim Goralchuk heard about the new limit and decided to rush to the mall during her lunch break to pick up some items from Asian grocery market T and T.
"(I'm) just buying some last-minute stuff and bubble tea," Goralchuk said. "I know that T and T is going to be busy, so I want to go now before they tighten things up even more and I have to line up outside."
The mall’s takeout food area was about one-quarter full as people, masks sitting under their chins, grabbed a bite for lunch. Most followed the arrows on the ground, but there were several who walked against the flow.
The water park and ice rink were also open, but there were only a few people at either.
Lisa-Marie House decided to go for a swim with her son at the indoor pool.
“Being a mother of a two-year-old ... it’s worrying," said House, who added she had a lot of trouble keeping her toddler entertained during last spring's lockdown.
"That’s why we came out today, trying to enjoy the last couple of days before it’s shut down.”
West Edmonton Mall said in an email that it's working closely with Alberta Health Services and the province on all restrictions and guidelines, including capacity.
"At this time, all mall entrances will remain open as we have procedures in place to ensure that all capacity restrictions are in place and enforced."
A store manager at one of the more than 800 shops in the mall said she was expecting it to get busy on Friday and Saturday. She also said she has to lay off several of her 20 employees by Sunday because of the reduced capacity limit.
Last month in Calgary, the Chinook shopping centre reported a case of COVID-19 in the mall. Police were also called to the mall on Black Friday to break up fights between teens.
Cadillac Fairview, the company that owns and operates Chinook Centre, did not provide an interview or statement to The Canadian Press.
Despite the confirmed case at the Calgary mall, shopping is "extremely low risk" when it comes to the spread of COVID-19," said John Graham of the Retail Council of Canada.
"Retail restrictions are more about disrupting the normal movement of citizens and keeping more Albertans home."
Graham said Manitoba's move to restrict in-store shopping to essential goods has only driven shoppers online and away from smaller retailers that need the business.
"If you are a furniture store, a jewelry store or a mattress store, then you need the ability for customers to come in to continue to buy your products, so allowing some people to flow through the doors is extremely helpful to keep those businesses going."
Dr. James Talbot, a professor of public health at the University of Alberta, said imposing 15 per cent capacity inside malls, not just shops, is a good start.
"What we really don't want to see is over-crowded malls and lineups with people not obeying social distancing."
But he noted that malls and stores do not have to wait until Sunday to implement the new measures.
"Just because the government isn't going to start punishing people until Sunday, doesn't mean that we shouldn't exercise our common sense and do the right thing now."
Alberta had been the only province without a sweeping mask rule, although many communities were already mandating face coverings.
Talbot stressed people in communities where mask bylaws were not passed should still wear one in indoor public places and not wait until the weekend.
"When there is exponential growth (in COVID-19 cases), every day counts," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Fakiha Baig and Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press