Manila‘s malls set air conditioners to warm and switched off free wifi to stop people lingering as many of them cautiously reopened on Saturday, after a two-month lockdown that brought the sprawling hubs of community life to a halt.
Just a trickle of customers showed up at the huge commercial centres in the Philippine capital, which usually attract millions of people each day and often contain churches, restaurants, gyms and event spaces.
“This is good for me, this is good for our economy,” said Yuki Alvie Merano, 31, among the first in line to enter one mall, joking that shopping was “therapeutic”.
Measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus included walk-in booths filled with clouds of disinfectant, distanced queues, temperature checks and mandatory masks.
Only a selection of shops were allowed to open, including those selling clothing, books and electronics — but salons, cinemas and eat-in restaurants remained closed.
In mid-March a strict lockdown was imposed that did not even allow most of the city’s 12 million residents outdoors for exercise, although short trips to buy food were allowed.
These restrictions on movement were loosened on Saturday to give a boost to an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 800 people in the Philippines.
While authorities have begun to ease lockdown restrictions in the capital, confinement measures vary in severity in other parts of the country.
– Crowd fears –
Shopper Alex Bajarias, 23, who had bought all his groceries online during the lockdown, told AFP he was unnerved by some people still standing so close to each other.
“There’s not many people on the first day but I feel that as people get to know that more stores are open, there will be a rush for sure, which will make it even more scary,” he said.
Because of this, he would not be back to the mall “in a long time”.
Filipinos have been allowed to return to work at half capacity in many industries, after news that the nation’s economy shrank 0.2 percent in January-March this year — the first contraction in over two decades.
Malls are essential economic engines but are typically crowded, sparking fears that their opening will cause a spike in infections from the 12,000 currently recorded.
Mall operators said they had turned up the air conditioning by three degrees to 26 Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit) to dissuade people from sticking around too long.
Retail workers were happy to be back earning money, despite worries over potential exposure to the contagion.
“We’re scared too, but going hungry without a paycheck would be more terrifying,” said shoe-store employee Kristine Grape, 28.
However, the thin crowds left employees wondering when, and if, shoppers would be back.
“It looks like people are not too excited to come back. Maybe all their money is gone,” Grape added.