High attendance at malls could help spread COVID-19: expert

WINNIPEG — Capacity limits at malls are coming into question in Manitoba as the province slowly starts to reopen.

When modified Code Red health orders came into effect Jan. 23, the province said retail stores were allowed to be open at 25 per cent capacity.

While some businesses now require lineups with staff counting how many people are going into the store, it isn’t entirely clear what capacity limits are for malls.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, the acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, said on Tuesday that capacity limits for malls are 25 per cent.

A spokesperson for the province said the government doesn’t provide specifics to malls and retail stores to count people, “given the vast array of differing infrastructure for each site,” saying it is the business’s responsibility to follow the capacity limits.

“We are aware of high attendance at shopping centres and will continue to work with retail stores and malls to educate on the orders and capacity limits and conduct enforcement where needed,” the spokesperson said in an email to CTV News.

“Enforcement teams are working with and monitoring malls, as well as businesses within malls, to ensure they follow the current public health orders.”

With a potentially high number of people heading to malls, one epidemiologist is concerned they could be places where the virus spreads.

Cynthia Carr, the founder of EPI Research, said she isn’t worried about people going in, doing their shopping and then leaving, as she feels people are moving around enough during that time.

The part that concerns her the most is those who stand in lines inside the mall for an extended period of time.

“That thinking process that if I’m not in the actual store, I am not at risk,” said Carr. “We have to remember that, if you are indoors and you are standing closer than two metres for 15 minutes or more, you are a potential close contact of another person.”

She said people can’t forget what they have learned during the pandemic and must be vigilant at all times.

When it comes to how malls handle people coming inside, she feels there has been a misconception that the government is also responsible for constantly monitoring the people.

She said it is the mall’s responsibility to ensure that the entire building stays under the capacity limit.

“The malls understand there is a capacity that must be maintained, but I haven’t seen a lineup outside of a mall, and I haven’t seen like a counter, like you would see at Costco, or a process for trying to get a handle on how many people are in the mall.”

In an emailed statement to CTV News, Cadillac Fairview, which runs Polo Park Mall, said it continues to follow the guidelines put forward by the province.

“To help our customers and our retailers adapt to provincial occupancy guidelines, we have introduced a range of tools and services including a capacity indicator available on our website where guests can access real-time capacity information at our centres.”

A spokesperson for Primaris, which runs Kildonan Place and Grant Park, said Kildonan Place has a capacity limit of 650 people, while Grant Park has a 500-person limit. They said those limits work out to less than 25 per cent capacity for the total area of the malls.

CTV News reached out to Polo Park Mall but didn’t receive a response.

Carr said now is the time for Manitobans to be vigilant, especially with the province considering loosening restrictions even more and the continued threat of new COVID variants entering the province.

“If you go to any place, whether it’s a big-box store, a grocery store, or a mall, remember what you have learned that it is indoor spread. Indoors is by far the highest risk of spread,” she said. “The reality is with every opportunity we are given, we still have to use our own common sense and what we have learned to make good decisions.”

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