JOHNSON CREEK — Open for the first time since March 19, Johnson Creek Premium Outlets welcomed a small flurry of shoppers on Friday.
One day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ extended “Safer at Home” order – which would otherwise have expired May 26 — a number of the stores in the mall reopened, to a general air of excitement and optimism.
All was not “business as usual,” however, as cashiers wore face masks, employees busily cleaned between customers and managers tried to ensure that shoppers followed recommended social-distancing guidelines.
The mall as a whole, as well as individual stores, all had an extensive list of enhanced cleaning and social distancing protocols they were required to follow, in keeping with the outlet center’s new comprehensive COVID-19 Exposure Control Policy, developed in conjunction with a team of experts in the fields of epidemiology and environmental health and safety, said Tera Greenland, general manager at Johnson Creek Premium Outlets.
Only some of the stores actually were open on Friday, with large areas of the parking lots empty, but those shops that did open saw a pretty brisk business.
Employees from Bath and Body Works shared excited greetings with returning customers, saying everyone was glad to be back.
“We have been here the last couple of days prepping,” said Lanaya Wolff, store manager. “We are really excited to be back. The mall made the announcement by Facebook and email and our company let its Loyalty Club members know.”
Wolff said that Bath and Body Works is actually considered essential because the store sells soap and sanitizer.
“It’s definitely a different way of operating for us,” said Wolff, who was helping keep watch at the door to make sure only a limited number of customers were inside the store at the same time.
Store associate Katie Rzeznik said that it is really different wearing a mask, but she and her coworkers are “very excited to get back to work.”
“Welcome back,” a returning customer said as she waited to be given the OK to enter the store. “I’d hug you, but I have to stay 6 feet away.”
Customers, who came from a wide region of southern Wisconsin, took varying degrees of precautions.
“I think it’s OK, as long as stores have rules and people follow them,” said Melissa Wierenga of Waupun.
She and her son Max, 16, both wore sewn cloth face masks to do essential shopping as they prepared for a move from Waupun to Lake Mills.
“I wish they’d say you had to wear a mask, though,” Wierenga said. “I’d like to see everybody wearing masks. We’re trying to keep the right distance, but it’s hard.”
Shopper Thomas Mitchell of Lake Mills said he was glad stores were opening back up, and thought it was a good idea overall. Although he did not wear a mask, he said he was using hand sanitizer on a regular basis and trying to take reasonable precautions.
“I heard it stays in the air and on objects for several hours,” he said of the coronavirus. “I’m definitely sanitizing my hands more.”
Bryan Chairez of Watertown, a college student, went unmasked, but tried to maintain distance as he shopped for sportswear.
“It’s nice to finally come out and do something normal,” Chairez said.
Dan Schubert of Ashippun brought his son Chase, to shop for shoes since the 3-year-old was outgrowing the ones at home. Chase wore a child-sized surgical mask while his dad wore the tightly-tied face-covering the Ashippun man says he wears 10 hours a day for work.
“I don’t really like being around people, but Chase needs new shoes — he’s growing like a tree,” Dan said. “I keep telling him to stop, but he doesn’t listen,” the man joked.
“It does make me nervous that a lot of people aren’t wearing masks,” the Ashippun man said. “I also have a 1-year-old and a 7-year-old at home and I don’t want them to get sick.
“My wife’s a nurse, and she keeps me pretty well appraised on what to believe and what not to believe,” he said. “But I don’t think people are taking it very seriously. I saw people out at the bar last night. Why? That’s not a necessity.”
Sandy Werowinski of Wales said she thought it was good idea to reopen the state’s businesses, saying, “We need to get back out there. Things have been closed way too long.”
Sharing a widely held view, she stated that if COVID-19 had not gone worldwide, it would have just been considered a bad flu and none of these extraordinary measures would have been taken.
“This is going to be with us for a while, but we can’t just live in fear,” Werowinski said.
Jill Ludington of Iron Ridge turned the state’s reopening into a kind of shopping holiday.
“I drove here from the Milwaukee area,” she said, noting that she already had done some shopping in Waukesha, and she thought she’d go on to hit Lake Mills after finishing up in Johnson Creek.
“My sister lives in Madison, so this is our halfway point for meeting,” Ludington said of the mall.
Though the overall mood at the mall was positive, there were some who didn’t take such an optimistic view.
A female employee who was preparing to work but had not yet arrived at her workplace, expressed some doubts about the wisdom of the reopening, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Frankly, I don’t want to be back to work,” she said. “I am here because I need the paycheck.
“The situation is not getting better. Really, nothing’s changed, and I have family members at increased risk,” she added. “I am afraid of them getting sick — but I have to pay the bills.”
The mall’s general manger, Tera Greenland, said Johnson Creek Premium Outlets would be taking extraordinary measures to keep shoppers safe. She noted that the ‘Safer-at-Home’ mandate was causing considerable hardship for businesses and employees and she was glad to see the mall be able to reopen, for the sake of those businesses and individuals and also the charities to which the mall contributes.
Some of the health and safety measures being taken by the mall include enhanced sanitization and disinfecting, especially in high-touch areas; shopper safeguards that include making available protective masks and sanitizing wipes; hand sanitizing stations throughout the property, informational signs, pre-emptive employee health screenings, personal protective equipment for employees, and promotion and enforcement of social-distancing practices.
“Reopening provides a much-needed economic boost to the local community impacted by COVID-19,” Greenland said.
“Johnson Creek Premium Outlets is an important economic engine for the local community, providing more than 570 jobs and contributing $4.3 million of sales tax and $665,000 in property tax revenue to the State. These tax receipts fund essential services in communities, including education and infrastructure as well as health and safety services,” she said.