But after weeks of strictly enforced lockdown and more than one million people in the UAE tested for coronavirus, according to the government, a phased, cautious reopening of Emirati malls began on April 28.
With new limits on trading hours and visitor numbers, Dubai Mall is back in business. But keeping people safe in one of the world’s busiest indoor spaces is an ongoing task.
The easing of restrictions took place “following direction and leadership from the UAE government and all concerned authorities,” said a spokesman for Emaar, the property firm that owns Dubai Mall.
A raft of safety measures has been introduced with the reopening of Dubai Mall, including a cap of 30% capacity for both visitor and staff numbers to ensure that social distancing guidelines can be maintained.
While the mall would normally accommodate around 250,000 visitors a day, the upper limit now is 70,000. Reopening has been timed to coincide with the traditionally quiet weeks of Ramadan.
Much of the site remains closed, including entertainment attractions and prayer rooms. Each store that is open must clearly indicate a capacity limit, determined by its size. Masks are now mandatory for shoppers.
Mall operators are also using advanced technology to minimize risks.
“We have implemented high-spec thermal scanners and footfall cameras at all entry points across the mall,” the spokesman said. This system tests the health of visitors as well as enforcing capacity limits.
Around the world, malls are beginning to reopen as countries attempt to revive economies struggling under lockdown measures.
In China, malls have been open for more than a month in some cases but are reportedly struggling to lure consumers back.
Elsewhere in the UAE, the neighboring emirates of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi have cautiously allowed malls to reopen. Measures at Abu Dhabi’s largest mall include testing staff for coronavirus every two hours.
Some of the businesses at Dubai Mall face an uphill struggle to rebuild from the setbacks imposed by the pandemic.
“The year started very promisingly with January the best month in our 12-year history,” said Martin van Almsick, general manager of Al Nassma Chocolate. “April was then practically without any re-orders.”
Retailers must also find ways to sell their product without interpersonal contact. Al Nassma usually offers customers chocolate samples but now this is off-limits and staff offer hand sanitizer instead.
Jardins de Parfums has a similar problem. The perfume retailer would usually provide “blotters” so shoppers can try different scents. That social element is no longer possible, forcing management to rethink their business model.
“For a concept like ours, that thrives on creating an experience for the customer in person, we have had to translate those efforts and emotions into something digital,” says export and education manager Noor Amer.
The coronavirus pandemic may have bought much of normal life to a standstill in the blink of an eye. But returning to normality is likely to be a slower process.