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Editorial: Keep Hawaii shops open by following rules

                                Oahu’s malls and retail centers have been shuttered since late March. Pictured is Windward Mall in Kaneohe on Tuesday.


    Oahu’s malls and retail centers have been shuttered since late March. Pictured is Windward Mall in Kaneohe on Tuesday.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought the longstanding leisure vibe at shopping malls and retail centers to an abrupt halt.

For the sake of Oahu’s economic health, it’s encouraging to see several reopenings slated for today. But in the interest of public health, these hubs — designed as gathering places with social closeness — must implement and enforce physical distancing strategies.

For now, the new normal means limited browsing in retail shops. Out of the question are popular pastimes for groups of friends or families, such as lingering over fare served up in bustling food courts and restaurants, or enjoying entertainment venues, including movie theaters and common areas with stages for performing arts events.

This first step in restarting the state’s economy affects everyone, and it’s important to avoid a stumble that could stall progress toward the next phase. Helping to smooth the way forward is the nonprofit Retail Merchants of Hawaii, which is proposing some uniformity in protocols for business operations.

Based on the National Retail Federation’s advisory — developed in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations — the statewide association’s guidance stems from three objectives: protecting our community; ushering in a safe retail reopening; and establishing clear expectations for business employees and customers.

Much of the guidance is similar to what’s currently routine in many grocery stores. Mall customers can expect tight limits on store occupancy, one-way foot-traffic flow and mask-wearing requirements. “Contactless” shopping options, such as online purchases, with store pickup or delivery, is rightly encouraged as a means to shield against spreading the virus.

Also with that aim, retailers are advised to consider suspending or modifying return and exchange policies. Further, the guidance suggests that shops opting to keep fitting rooms open should steam and segregate tried-on items for a safe period before putting them back on the sales floor.

These recommendations could be a heavier lift for retailers, especially if customer traffic is lighter. Some will get a much-needed assist from the U.S. Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program’s forgivable loans and the city’s just-established $25 million Small Business Relief Recovery Fund.

Funding for the city program, which offers grants up to $10,000 to businesses with a commercial address and no more than 30 employees or $1 million in annual revenue, comes from the city’s share of the $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Sensibly, the grant money can be used for operating expenses and to modify shops with safeguards, such as wider aisles and plexiglass protections. Given that the largest portion of Hawaii’s business sector is made up of operations with fewer than 100 employees, helping them make financial ends meet should rate as a priority.

Oahu’s malls and retail centers have been shuttered since late March. For now, they cannot be uncontrolled crowd-magnets. Customers can do their part by shopping with a heightened sense of self-awareness. Following store rules and keeping track of times, dates and places visited could be helpful later in tracking possible sources of contagion.

To help Hawaii maintain its status as one of the states with the fewest cases, retailers and the rest of us must proceed with caution, patiently complying with the new protocols.

Health authorities warn that as U.S. states begin to restart their economies, it could take weeks before it becomes clear whether reopenings have prompted spikes in COVID-19 cases, which, in turn, could result in another abrupt shutdown. We should do everything we can to avoid that outcome.

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