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Business is strong, mall manager says, but virus still stirs worries

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Back-to-school shopping is wrapping up, at a time when consumer confidence is at a six-month low. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Alana Ferko, manager of the Butte Plaza Mall in Montana, about how shopping has been recently.

Ryssdal and Ferko have been talking since 2014 about life at the mall. Several department stores have left in recent years, but Ferko’s regular “mall walkers,” who come in for exercise, remain a bright spot. More recently, Ferko has had a difficult time with customers who don’t want to follow the site’s mask guidelines. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alana Ferko: Hi Kai, how are you? I hope healthy and sassy.

Kai Ryssdal: Healthy and sassy, that’s the way people describe me. How are you? You’re always usually good, except that I remember last time you kind of maybe weren’t so good, right? You were a little glum.

Alana Ferko: You know, and I’m trying to keep myself out of that. But, um, I do have COVID concerns. I still have concerns from my community. But yeah, I try to do my best every day to stay as positive as I can. But I do have worries.

Ryssdal: Tell me about them. First of all, I mean, you’re OK, right? Are you healthy and safe?

Ferko: You know, I am. I am vaccinated. But every day, it is stressful for people who, and I don’t know why they feel so emboldened to share with me that they are not vaccinated when they’re out in the mall. But that does stress me out a little bit. We need to keep our people healthy so that we can stay open. If somebody does get sick or is exposed to COVID, then there’s the whole terror of half the people around you being quarantined. And that’s tough because you lose 10 days to two weeks of work. That’s frustrating.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, I’m sure it is. What about the business of the Butte Plaza Mall? I mean, are people coming in to do back-to-school shopping? What’s the department store situation? Do you still not have an anchor store? What’s going on there?

Ferko: I still do not have an anchor store. But it has been an amazing season. The tourists have been great. Back-to-school shopping has been really strong. I was just visiting with the farmers market in uptown Butte, and they’re thinking that they want to carry that forth for a winter market. But, not something you can do outside. So maybe we’re going to be the home of their winter market. There just seems to be a strong sense of community. Maybe COVID brought that to light, maybe a lot of us were just caught up in the convenience and not realizing that we have neighbors that provide some of the things that we’ve been relying on the, on the big-box stores for. We’ll see. I’m worried about COVID. If we have to, we will follow any of the recommendations of the local health department in limiting the amount of people in the mall, limiting gatherings, that kind of a thing. Just so that we can, we can be as safe as we can right now.

Ryssdal: You sound … I can’t decide which one it is. You sound either scared or really tired.

Ferko: Excuse me. I think I’m both. I’m really tired, Kai. I’m tired. I am. I apologize. I’m weary. I am. I’m just full of worry. And I’m tired.

Ryssdal: Yeah. It’s been a long haul. Especially —

Ferko: I am an extrovert. I love people. But I’m struggling to like some of them.

Ryssdal: Yeah. I did not mean to get you down. Especially because you are always a little upbeat note on the program. But it can’t be that way, when it’s not. And so it won’t be, and that’s OK.

Ferko: No. I am pretty raw. And I’ll just share something personal. I lost my, my 20-year work husband in April to COVID. COVID is very real to me. It is very real to me. And I’ve seen too many people sick. And they don’t have to be.

Ryssdal: No, they don’t. Alana, you take good care.

Ferko: Yes. I’m sorry to be a downer. My apologies.

Ryssdal: No. Absolutely not. You just be you. OK?

Ferko: Thank you. I appreciate that. And thank you for you being you. I appreciate that.

Ryssdal: Well, we’ve been talking to each other for a long time now. We’ve been talking to each other for a long time.

Ferko: We have. Yes.

Ryssdal: Maybe I’ll get up there. Montana’s a beautiful place. Maybe I can walk with your people once I get up there.

Ferko: We’ll have a special walking time for you.

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