By JAY REEVES and KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s largest shopping mall reopened for the first time in weeks on Tuesday and demonstrators protested in favor of further accelerating the state’s economy, even as cases of the coronavirus continue to rise.
Shoppers returning to the Riverchase Galleria in suburban Birmingham found most of its roughly 150 stores still closed and many people wearing face masks.
Chairs were missing in the mostly empty food court because of state rules, but only a couple restaurants were open for lunch anyway. Some stores were empty save for an employee or two, but there were lines at a jewelry kiosk and an athletic shoe store where a worker raised and lowered a metal gate to let one customer enter at a time.
Friends Valerie Courington and Terra Henderson drove about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the mall from Jasper to shop for bathing suits for an upcoming trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, and were surprised to see so many shops closed.
“We drove all the way there and there’s only one big store open,” said Henderson. “It’s a whole different world.”
But opening the doors was another step in reviving an economy hit hard by precautions against COVID-19, and shoe cleaner Justin Hafeez said he had three customers within the first 90 minutes of reopening, or about a third of his usual business on a normal day.
“It’s not that bad,” said Hafeez, who was happy to be back at work after a mall shutdown announced six weeks ago.
While some stores had posted signs saying they would remain closed to protect the health of employees and customers, others planned to open later in the day or week. New state rules enacted last week allowed retailers to open with precautions to guard against the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, in Montgomery, about 60 people attended a rally outside the Capitol to express frustration with the continuing state-ordered closures of businesses that had previously been categorized as nonessential, such as hair salons and gyms.
One woman carried a sign reading, “We don’t buy the lie,” and a man shouted “Freedom!” and “Read our Constitution.”
Carrying a sign that said “All jobs are essential,” Barbara Gentle said she was on hand to support her daughter, whose Gentle Touch Salon and Spa is shut down near Huntsville and is barely making enough in retail sales to pay the light bill.
“She has got a huge note to pay, and no revenue coming in. It’s her livelihood,” said Gentle, who operated the business for 40 years before her daughter took it over.
During the rally, F-16s from the Alabama National Guard flew overhead in a tribute to health care workers. An air refueling tanker based in Birmingham did similar flybys.
COVID-19 is still on the rise, with at least 8,200 confirmed cases in Alabama and 310 deaths linked to the new coronavirus.
The illness is killing black people in disproportionate numbers, with statistics showing about 44% of the state’s fatalities are African Americans, who comprise only 27% of the state’s population.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.