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Running a mall is “still a struggle” nearly a year into the pandemic

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A person pushes a stroller past an American Eagle Outfitters at a mall.

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Consumer spending rose 2.4% in January, gaining for the first time in three months. Personal income rose too, as Americans received stimulus payments from the government.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Alana Ferko, manager of the Butte Plaza Mall in Montana, about how business has been recently. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: How are you?

Alana Ferko: You know, I am well. That’s the best I can tell you.

Ryssdal: Wow, well you’re usually pretty good, so “well” is a step down I think.

Ferko: I saw a thing on Facebook today, it said, “I’m halfway between losing my mind and finding my soul.” February is kind of like, it’s a tougher month on me because it is colder, it’s a little depressing. And circumstances, you know, I know things are getting better, so that is hopeful. So I will snap out of it.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I hear you, and look, we’re all hoping for the best. It’s been like four or five months now since we’ve talked to you. How has it been at the Butte Plaza Mall?

Ferko: You know, our stores are getting back to better. We try not to say normal because we don’t know what that’s going to be. We’re still trying to figure out the best routine. Our store hours are extending a little bit. Our theater is starting to get some fresher movies. So, you know, things are better.

Ryssdal: What’s the state of play with a couple of regulars there? First of all, I want to know about the mall walkers. Last time we talked to you, you had told them to not come anymore. Are they back? Are you gonna let them back? What’s the deal with them?

Ferko: You know, we did suspend walking, and we had to do it. There’s just too many health risks involved. But I believe March 13 is the one-year anniversary of the shutdown here locally. I’m hoping close to then to get them back in the mall and maybe restrict their walking hours, just have them walk in the morning. And locally right now — so we’ve got a population of around 33,000 here in Butte, Montana, and around 3,278 Butte residents are fully vaccinated.

Ryssdal: Yeah. You have a new governor there. He has lifted the mask mandate. Are you having a fight with people trying to come into the mall? I mean, I imagine as a private enterprise, you guys are allowed to require whatever you want, but are your customers agreeable?

Ferko: It’s still a struggle, almost daily. We do have it posted on our doors. And actually, our local health department is still enforcing a mask mandate. But it’s a struggle.

Ryssdal: I might have asked you this last time, and honestly, I can’t remember and I apologize. How much of your time — which is supposed to be spent managing this mall and ensuring your tenants and your customers are, you know, carrying out the business of the day — how much of your time is spent monitoring and managing this pandemic and masks and distancing and all of that?

Ferko: Actually, a lot of my stores or my businesses will call me to problem solve for them if there’s an argument, and I always show up with a mask or two. We just want to make it a safe environment for everyone. But my priority has got to be the health and safety of the businesses. Some people just want to see how far they can go, so they will be difficult. But most are reasonable, and those who are not, you know, we’ll just take a walk to the doors. And some people choose to leave, and that’s OK. That is their choice.

Ryssdal: So here we are in February, I imagine probably in Butte it’s going to be, I don’t know, like eight more weeks, 10 more weeks until you guys get springtime. Are you going to make it through the end of the long, cold winter?

Ferko: We are going to make it, we are. I’ve got to tell you, we can get through anything with this beautiful blue sky above us. I’m very much looking forward to springtime.

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