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Social Distancing And Mask-Wearing Are Hit Or Miss At Kansas City Area Malls

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Most people are obeying social distancing rules as they return to typical mall activities, like this food court at Independence Center.

Now that masks are mandated in public places for almost everyone in metro Kansas City, recently reopened malls are facing the challenge of how to enforce the requirements. Enforcement provisions of the mandates are vague and leave much to the discretion of officials and shop owners.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a statewide executive order this week.

It was received with mixed emotions by patrons of Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kansas.

Laura Ziegler
Octavia Crist (center) had her mask on most of the time she was shopping with her nieces but said she resents the governor for imposing a government regulation. She won't come back to shops that require masks.

Octavia Crist, a middle-aged health care worker, brought her two teenage nieces to Oak Park Mall for an afternoon of shopping. They’d worn their masks inside “for the safety of others,” Crist said, but stripped them off before going outside.

It’s the last time she’ll be here, or anyplace else that requires her to wear a mask.

“I’m not happy (with the Governor) because we have the right to wear or not to wear a mask,” she says. “It was a horrible experience shopping with them on, hot and hard to breath. I will stay in rather than wear it.”

Laura Ziegler
Rana Akduman works at a jewelery kiosk in the mall. She worries because she sees many people not wearing masks or paying attention to social distancing rules.

Rana Akduman, 32, left New York at the end of March to escape the COVID-19 hot spot. She is helping a friend who sells jewelry in the mall. Pointing to a small unmasked group waiting at a food vendor, she says she’s concerned people in Kansas are not taking the virus seriously.

“Not enough,” she says. “Not careful. Sometimes I see customers touch like this, no masks, and getting very close, and not staying away from groups.”

Laura Ziegler
For Trea McGowin, wearing a mask a the mall is not big deal. As an essential worker, he's been wearing it every day since the pandemic started.

The mandate to wear masks has already been in place a week in Kansas City, Missouri, where Trea McGowin lives. The 28-year-old foster care case manager has been working through the pandemic and lives alone. He’s used to the pandemic restrictions but says it’s still a strange time.

“Six months ago if you’d told me I’d be wearing a mask, I’d be like, what’s going on?” he says. “Now, it’s just a new era.”

Laura Ziegler
The corridors of Ward Parkway Mall are relatively quiet in anticipation of the holiday weekend, save for anchor stores Target and Trader Joe's.

Ward Parkway Center is home to Trader Joe's and Target, both essential businesses that remained open during the shutdown.

At Target, one of the mall's anchor stores, the parking lot is almost full on a Thursday afternoon.

But inside the mall, what is typically a stream of shoppers making their way into Target is a trickle.

Business won’t be at holiday weekend levels, says customer service representative Brian Reyes. Lines will be shorter. Cashiers will be wiping down every station between buyers.

“We are requiring everyone to wear masks,” he says. “The Starbucks is open but we still are not offering any seating areas.”

Garry Gribble’s Running Sports in the center of the mall has seen a steady increase since its reopening on May 6, according to employee Marcus Johnson. He says May was busier than usual.

“There’s been a good amount of people coming back,” Johnson says, “Obviously, we’re a running store, and people are trying to get more active after being locked down so long.”

Some of the early restrictions laid out by Ward Parkway Mall's management, such as the prohibition on "mall walking," have been lifted.

Loraine Bennetts, 79, and her son John, 38, are delighted.

Bennetts, who has Parkinson’s Disease, is walking with her son to get some activity on a hot, sticky day. She comfortable in public here because Ward Parkway tends not to have large crowds but she still won’t go into a restaurant or shop. She sees too many people without masks and ignoring other safety precautions.

“I don’t say anything but I glare,” she says. “Don’t get me started.”

Laura Ziegler
John Wilson has been shopping since stores reopened. He feels safe, always wears a mask, sanitizes and keeps a distance from everyone else. He's not worried about being in a mall, even as it gets crowded again.

John Wilson, 52, is shopping at Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse. In front of a line of shoppers at the checkout, he says he doesn’t have any reservations about going into stores. He feels most are wearing masks. He sees stores taking safety precautions. But he still won't take advantage of all the mall's ammenities.

“I wouldn’t go to a food court or restaurant, but I will do carry out,” he says.

He still keeps hand sanitizer and bleach wipes in his car.

Laura Ziegler
Common seating is spread out but it's difficult to enforce social distancing. Orders leave discretion up to managers and officials.

Independence Center opened on May 15, also with reduced hours. Independence Center management, like that at Ward Parkway, did not return requests for clarification of their policies.

According to the website, most shops have reopened, some by appointment only.

Seating areas appear to be placed at a safe distance but not everyone seems to be obeying the rule to separate by six feet.

Food shops here are open and look to be heavily patronized. Customers are spaced out by markings on the floor to keep them at a safe social distance while in line.

Laura Ziegler
Some shops are asking people not to come in without a mask. A security guard has them to hand out but many will come to this kiosk in Independence Center and purchase one.

Not far from the one of the malls main entrances is a kiosk selling masks, displayed like accessories in a department store and ranging in price from $5 to $20.

It’s owned by one of the retailers and has been up for about a month, says Khalil Haissi, who is manning the booth.

Business was slow before the mandatory mask order last week, says Haissi, but now that shoppers are not allowed in stores without one, he’s getting more customers.

“A lot of people see me and say 'This is a dumb idea, you are making money off this,'” he says. “But when they get stopped by the security guard before going into a shop, they will come back and buy one.”

Laura Ziegler
Kileh and Haley Pennington, cousins from Grain Valley, Missouri, came to Independence Center with their other cousin, William Peterson, to get out of the house. They say they're careful about sanitizing after using the public games.

Down the escalator in the play area, three young people are hunched close together over a video game. When I first see them, they are not wearing masks.

It turns out the three are cousins from Grain Valley and Oak Grove, Missouri,and came together.

It’s just the second time Kilah Pennington, 16, Haley Pennington, 18, and William Peterson, 15, have been to the mall.

“We hardly ever get to see each other, so we just wanted to hang out,” says Haley. Everything in their small communities is still shut down.

They say they are almost always diligent about obeying the precautions, staying away from other people, and wearing masks. They sanitize a lot. The pandemic has scared them.

The Pennington cousins both work at an area pancake house that reopened in late April. They worry the work puts them in close contact with the public.

“It’s been very slow and people get mad over social distancing, “ says Haley. “Whenever they get mad they yell at us for wearing our masks; they think we’re scared (we'll) get sick from them.”

“People are always saying like, ‘Fake news, it’s not real,’ and all those kinds of things,” adds her cousin Kilah.

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