Shopping in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Los Angeles

Kali Hays
·6 min read

If you were to wake up today from a yearlong sleep, get up, and decide to go out and do some shopping in Los Angeles, it would probably take a minute to catch on that something is different.

Malls and popular shopping drags in the city, a verified hotbed of COVID-19 infections since late November, appear little changed due to the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Yes, there are people in masks, and the occasional line to get into a store due to capacity restrictions, but other than that, nonessential shopping in the fair-weather city is carrying on.

More from WWD

“It’s pretty quiet during the week,” an employee of a Nordstrom store in L.A. admitted. “But the weekends have been busier. People are shopping.”

While the employee said the store still has to deal with the occasional person who refuses to wear a mask inside, as is required by city and state mandate, most people are wearing the most basic and effective tool against spreading the virus when in public. “I’m very thankful for that,” she said.

Given the statistics around the virus in L.A., one of the country’s most densely populated cities and the one with the highest case-counts in the country for many weeks now, it’s a wonder people are out shopping at all, masks or no. Los Angeles County is recording around 10,000 new confirmed cases of the virus every day. Area hospitals have been at capacity for weeks and operating without any available ICU beds given the onslaught of seriously ill COVID-19 patients. Almost 14,000 people have died in L.A. alone from the virus during the course of the pandemic and more than one million people have fallen ill. Those identifying as Latino make up close to half of all recorded cases thus far.

And such outbreaks have not spared workers in retail or related manufacturing and warehouse jobs. Being operational at least since May, retail and related warehouse operations have been seeing waves of infections among employees, despite the industry’s largest trade group, the National Retail Federation, contending surprisingly that “there is no data or science to connect COVID-19 spread to the workplace.” The NRF has taken that stance in filing a lawsuit against rules imposed on businesses by California’s Occupational Health and Safety agency, in order to better manage workplace outbreaks.

According to up-to-date data from L.A. County’s Public Health Department, based on the new rules, the likes of Amazon, Apple, Costco, Fashion Nova, Forever 21, J.C. Penney, Josie Maran Cosmetics, Kohl’s, L.A. Apparel, Louis Vuitton Manufacturing, Michel Kors, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Reformation, Revolve and Target have reported employee outbreaks of the virus. Some are more widespread than others.

Fashion Nova appears to have one of the highest numbers of ill workers among fashion brands, with the public health department’s tally showing 246 cases, up from 204 a week ago. But Amazon’s workers, from six distribution centers in the L.A. area, have 328 cases of the virus, with another five cases at an Amazon Books store in the Los Cerritos Mall. Costco has even more, however, with 451 worker cases between 10 area warehouses. Target has even more than that, with 572 cases between 17 stores. There are 42 ill workers between two Nordstrom stores; an Apple store has 15, and L.A. Apparel now has 35 cases, after being shut down over the summer due to some 300 workers becoming ill. Reformation, under its corporate name LYMI Inc., has 21 cases; a Michael Kors distribution center has 88 cases; a J.C. Penney store has 27 cases; Revolve has 28 cases; the Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills has 13 cases, and between two Louis Vuitton factories, there are 29 cases.

L.A. has been under a voluntary lockdown order since before Thanksgiving, with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti repeatedly urging people to “stay at home whenever possible” and to only go out for essential errands, like groceries and medical visits. Yet the least essential of shopping, while not bringing in the crowds, is still busy considering the circumstances. On the decision to re-close restaurants but leave retail open, the mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.

Although retail foot traffic has been affected by the pandemic, it’s actually faring much better than most other sectors of the consumer economy, having been allowed to remain open since May, uninterrupted and with few impediments outside of indoor capacity restrictions. Retail foot traffic nationally is down about one-third compared to a year ago, according to data from Zenreach. Meanwhile, visits to restaurants, again operating as takeout only in most of Southern California given weeks of record case numbers, are down 75 percent.

And despite the NRF’s contention that the rules are “burdensome” to retailers, last weekend scores of people wandered Westfield’s Century City Mall, carrying bags from Nordstrom, Zara and Adidas. A young female employee posted outside of Zara’s store there was tasked with enforcing customer mask wearing. She said so far that day there had been no problems. Just then, a woman in a mask attempted to enter with her two children, who were bare-faced, and she stopped them. The mandate is that any child over two years old needs to be in a mask. The woman tried to negotiate her way inside the store, despite her children clearly being over the age of two as the employee calmly if exasperatedly explained the rules.

It was even busier at Santa Monica Place, where people waited in line to get inside Uniqlo and the Louis Vuitton accessories store, and carried bags from Nike, Coach and Bloomingdale’s. The department store is closing its Santa Monica location and running a sale.

Even the Melrose Trading Post, a Sunday flea market that is a magnet for L.A. hipsters looking for vintage jeans and crystals, was as busy as ever. Despite the market claiming it’s reduced occupancy and is enforcing social distancing, its parking lot was full, an attendant said, and inside, no social distancing among patrons appeared to be enforced.

In Beverly Hills, there was a line of at least 20 people waiting to get inside the Louis Vuitton store on Rodeo Drive. About 10 people stood waiting to be allowed entry to Gucci as at least a dozen customers were already inside. A lone woman was waiting patiently to be let into Goyard, which keeps its door locked and is operating on a one-customer-at-a-time basis. Groups of tourists were wandering the sidewalks in the famed shopping area. Some in masks and some not, although stores in the area are requiring one for entry.

As for why they were shopping in-person instead of online, the consensus among those waiting in line at Louis Vuitton seemed to be that, when one is looking to spend thousands of dollars, one wants the service that comes along with that expenditure. And not to have to wait to receive such expensive items.

“Why would I want to wait,” one man in line said, “if I don’t have to?” Others in line nodded in silent agreement.

Sign up for WWD's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.