On Monday, Northeast Florida nonessential retailers reopened for the first time since last month when Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry ordered them closed.
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Times-Union/jacksonville.com.
The lights were on, but there was no one home at many of the biggest stores in Jacksonville shopping hubs that reopened Monday for the first time since March.
Anchors like Belk and JCPenney sat quiet at The Avenues mall while only some of the smaller retailers welcomed back customers to a building that was still mostly dormant.
"It’s sunny. Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s smiling," said Gunilla Craven, who was glad to be walking the area with husband Larry.
COMPLETE COVERAGE | Coronavirus in Florida
Although the coronavirus disrupted life in Jacksonville, "we’ve been very lucky," Craven said. "This hasn’t been like in other parts of the country, like South Florida, or New York, or Chicago."
Stores in The Avenues are just some of hundreds of retail businesses across the First Coast reopening for the first time since Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry ordered nonessential businesses to close last month.
Starting Monday, Northeast Florida retailers were given the go ahead to open at 25 percent capacity. The reopenings have to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing.
Personal care businesses — like salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors — as well as gyms and movie theaters remain closed.
In Ponte Vedra, Cathy Maddux stood inside her women’s clothing store A’Propos Boutique Monday morning, elated. It was the first time the shop owner would report to work since March 15.
The seven-week period of unemployment — because of closures from the coronavirus pandemic — was Maddux’s first time not working since she was 15 years old.
"It’s so exciting to be back," Maddux said. "This has been a nightmare for small businesses."
Maddux has four full-time employees that want to return to work, but she says "finances" will dictate when she can bring them back. For now, she’s going to operate the boutique by herself until business allows the employees to return.
The openings led to a small resurgence in neighborhoods that until now resembled ghost towns for the most.
On Main Street in Springfield, businesses like Bark and 8103 Clothing greeted customers for the first time since April.
In Five Points, shops including the antique stores, 5 Points Vintage and Fans and Stoves greeted customers eagerly. The store owners asked customers to wear masks upon entering.
Businesses at the Sawgrass Shopping Center flipped to their OPEN signs. But things weren’t completely back to normal, yet, with nerves over the spread of the coronavirus looming.
On weekdays, Metro Diner is typically a high-volume breakfast and lunch spot in the shopping plaza with spikes on the weekend, Google data shows.
Sage Cree, the manager of Metro Diner, said six customers visited the diner within its first two hours of opening.
"Hopefully, the community can help us out and get back to normal as quick as we can," Cree said. "I’ve never seen anything like this. I think it’s going to take two months to get back to where things were."
Still, not every business was ready to reopen just because it’s allowed.
Clothing stories like Tenley Dietrich in Avondale and Momni in Murray Hill announced individual, one-on-one shopping appointment availablity, where customers could visit one at a time — as long as they’re wearing a mask.
At The Avenues, reopening dates varied store-by-store. Some talked about reopening Wednesday or later, others, not at all.
"We are not opening," said a sign outside Journey’s shoe store. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
Some places apparently hadn’t thought about opening in quite a while. A sign at JCPenney said "we plan to reopen our doors April 2," while dueling signs at the inactive Forever 21 discussed new hours or just said the store was closed.
The uncertainty sank in on Cheryl Devlin while she walked through the mall looking for a birthday present, thinking about her 20-minute drive there and her 10-minute (unsuccessful) hunt for a mask.
"Somebody should have said that these major department stores were not opening," Devlin said.
Things weren’t much more active at the St. Johns Town Center, where people headed to Nordstrom and Dillard’s found the doors locked, too.
All of Simon Properties in Northeast Florida, including The Avenues, St. Johns Town Center and St. Augustine Premium Outlets, were part of the reopening. The properties announced "enhanced sanitization and disinfecting" high-traffic areas, available masks, wipes and temperature testing, hand sanitizing stations and signs promoting CDC guidelines.
"We ... recognize that individuals and families in our communities are suffering significant hardship as a result of both COVID-19 and the economic shutdown," Simon Properties president John Rulli said. "We believe that reopening our properties will not only help people get back to work during these challenging times, but also enable us to use our properties to further support charitable initiatives."
Michael Mundy, manager of the Pandora jewelry store inside The Avenues, spent the day before scrubbing down the business and measuring where employees could stand without breaking the 6-foot separation standard for social distancing.
"They seem to be responding to this pretty well," Mundy said as he regulated the number of people allowed inside his store at a time to meet safety guidelines. About 10 customers visited in the first hour.
He had been texting his staff since they were furloughed in March and had a conference call to talk through reopening once Simon Properties said Friday the building’s doors would be unlocked again. Masked employees had a mental script of places to stand to be handy but safe while customers looked through display cases.
Town Center stores that were open generally had someone controlling the door, keeping the occupancy below one-quarter capacity and keeping a list of who would be allowed in next. The waiting line outside the Louis Vuitton store had four groups of people waiting to get in, but Mary Allen decided it was worth waiting so she could try to find an item that was out of stock for purchase online.
It was out of stock at the store, too, and Allen said she’d like to get back to a pre-pandemic routines where shopping was easy.
"We’re ready to have some normalcy," Allen said.
At the La-Z-Boy Home Furnishings store near Town’s Center’s edge, some customers had been scheduling online appointments to look over the store’s inventory, said Jourdain Medina, who was cleaning the place regularly now that a sign out front loudly announced "WE ARE OPEN."
Employees carried masks they put on when they approached customers and they followed a routine of wiping down surfaces to meet CDC guidelines.
Back at the Sawgrass Shopping Plaza, Pedego Electric Bikes shop owner Glenn McIntosh said things are slowly rebounding.
"More people are out and less fearful, that’d be a good way to say it," he said. "It’s not as busy as it was Saturday, but definitely up from last Monday."
McIntosh added, "It’s just a bizarre time. Nobody was on the road, nobody in the parking spots ... People got used to the idea that this coronavirus could kill you, so it’s going to be slow coming out of this and getting back to normal."
Emily Bloch: (904) 359-4083