The government scrambled on Sunday to fix the problems of its failed pilot reopening of Israeli malls on Friday, which ended in just the kind of crowding health officials fighting the coronavirus had sought to avoid.
While street-front and strip-mall stores have been allowed to reopen as restrictions have been gradually eased, health officials regard enclosed malls as prone to crowding and refused to allow them to resume business. However, under pressure from mall owners, a small number was given permission to reopen on a trial basis on Friday, subject to restrictions.
By all accounts, the pilot failed. Friday happened to be Black Friday, and the malls were crowded with shoppers while long lines formed outside and at store entrances. By the end of the day, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he and coronavirus czar Nachman Ash would reconsider the rules.
Two days after the experiment, it also emerged that many mall operators, including the two biggest ones, Azrieli Group and Melisron (Ofer Malls), calculated the number of shoppers permitted per square meter of floor space by including areas of the malls that were not open to the public under the rules.
For example, at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, which belongs to the Azrieli Group, managers included the 3,500 square meters of the Yes Planet cinema complex, even though movie theaters remain closed. Mall managers also counted fitness clubs and restaurant seating areas. As a result, the areas where the public could go were especially crowded.
In addition, the malls themselves kept track of incoming traffic and reported the figures to the authorities, rather than an independent third party.
On Sunday, the finance and health ministries traded blame for the failures, each saying the responsibility for keeping tabs on the maximum number of shoppers allowed in the malls belonged to the other. “It’s under the purview of the Health Ministry, which wrote the directive,” insisted an Economy and Industry Ministry source.
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Officials from the relevant ministries as well as the National Security Council consulted on Sunday with the managers of the 15 malls taking part in the trial reopening to explore ways to continue the experiment without endangering public health. The two sides were heading in the direction of placing stricter limits on the total number of people allowed in the malls’ public areas, but with bigger stores permitted to allow more than 10 customers at a time inside.
For their part, the mall operators and big retail chains that are their main tenants contended that the crowding that occurred was due to the fact that officials only allowed 15 of Israel’s approximately 180 malls to open in the pilot. They said the 10-person limit on the number of customers in a store, no matter how large its space is, also contributed to the crowding.
“Yes, we did include cinemas and restaurant areas not in use in our calculations, but we still didn’t exceed the maximum number of people allowed,” said one manager at a mall group, who asked not to be identified. “The crowding came because the Health Ministry didn’t let more than 10 people in a store at a time and because there weren’t enough malls opened. In all of Tel Aviv, there wasn’t a single open mall.”
Despite photographs of lines and crowds, mall managers insisted that the number of people entering their facilities was actually lower than permitted, even after taking into account that they were including non-public areas in their calculations.“Our digital tools show that traffic in the malls was tens of percent lower than the maximum set,” said the Malls Forum, a trade group.
Azrieli Group said the rules allowed it to host 22,000 people at the three malls open for the pilot, but that in practice, fewer than 10,000 were in them during the peak shopping hours on Friday. According to the figures in the company’s own financial reports, the ceiling should have been 14,000, but management said that figure didn’t include all the floor space that it was allowed to use in making its calculation. At Ofer Malls, they said the rules had allowed 28,000 people in their three open malls, but that there was never much more than 10,000, even at peak hours on Friday.
The Economy Ministry said that an interministerial team would now be auditing traffic reports submitted by the malls. TheMarker has learned that the reports not only require malls to provide the overall number of people entering but also employees who are not wearing masks and other data.
The Health Ministry said that as of now, its limit of one person per seven square meters of floor space in malls would be based on areas open to shoppers and wouldn’t include parking areas, storerooms and the like.
The market research firm Czamanski Ben Shahar estimates that those non-public areas account for about a fifth of a typical mall’s floor space, so that under the new rule, the number of people permitted inside will be considerably less.
“The relevant area in a mall for the counting purposes is smaller than the space listed in the companies’ financial reports, which was the basis for determining the number of people who could enter them,” said Tamir Ben Shahar, CEO of Czamanski Ben Shahar.
“The figures that the malls reported on the number of people inside them on Friday raise serious questions in light of the pictures that we saw. If they are correct, it’s not clear why there was so much customer traffic,” he said. “In any case, it’s not logical that a mall does its own counting – a neutral body should be doing it.”
Ben Shahar said there were ways of getting an exact account of mall traffic, such as through tracking cellphones, GPS data and cameras that can count the number of people in an image.
“There’s no need to use the ancient system some of the malls use, in which the guard, who’s also checking temperatures and checking bags and masks, and also counts the number of people entering,” he said.