A peaking pandemic thins out the Black Friday crowd at the malls

The morning Black Friday shopping crowd at King of Prussia Mall was much sparser than in past years. (Courtesy of Kenneth Cooper Sr.)

The morning Black Friday shopping crowd at King of Prussia Mall was much sparser than in past years. (Courtesy of Kenneth Cooper Sr.)

Black Friday is usually one of the biggest shopping days of the year. And while it still may reign supreme or close to it in 2020, this year has been far from ordinary — the scene at some suburban Philadelphia shopping malls showed just how much.

Friday morning at King of Prussia, one of the largest malls by sheer size in the United States, the swarm of people and full parking lots that have been a day-after-Thanksgiving tradition just weren’t there. Yes, there were shoppers, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed being in the middle of an in-person retail crowd this weekend as a higher-risk holiday activity. This pandemic season, it was far from a crowd, though.

A lonely escalator reflects there were fewer shoppers at King of Prussia Mall on Black Friday this year. (Courtesy of Kenneth Cooper Sr.)

“The second wave has scared me a lot more than the first one, so I was a little nervous coming, but we social-distanced from everyone and wore masks,” said Emily Senkow, a King of Prussia Mall shopper.

For some, those precautions were enough to take advantage of the day’s deals.

“I just want to enjoy my time with my friends and go shopping,” Mia Cathcart said. “We were maintaining our social distancing, so it’s not too scary about it, and it’s still masks up all the time.”

Coronavirus restrictions prompted many retailers to facilitate organized lines outside their stores, and workers allowed only a certain number of people into the businesses at a time.

A social distancing marker at Willow Grove Park mall. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“They usually have a waiting list that you have to check in to with a QR code,” Cathcart said. “And then, you have to maintain 6 feet from everyone while you’re waiting in line for the store.”

Despite explicit instructions, one shopper said there were, of course, a few rule breakers. “There were a couple people in there not wearing like masks and stuff,” said Malia Ganley.

Across Montgomery County at Willow Grove Park mall, the scene was much the same. Many stores had signs encouraging online shopping and in-store pick-up. There were hand-sanitizer stations at nearly every corner, stickers encouraging social distancing, and signs listing stores’ maximum shopper capacity.

Shoppers generally enjoyed the quieter atmosphere.

“It’s been kind of pleasant. I like it. It’s not too crowded, and it’s just been OK,” Naimah Crandall said.

Crandall was Christmas shopping for her family. Though the pandemic did not deter her from showing up at the mall, she is still trying to stay vigilant, she said.

“I’m actually just trying to stay safe,” Crandall said. “It’s the new normal.”

That new normal at Willow Grove Park typically involves hand sanitizer and a mask as a bare minimum for store entry. Though one patron said he was not a fan of it, he added that he follows the rules to keep other people in the mall safe.

Bryan Dubeck (left) was among the Black Friday shoppers at Willow Grove Park in Abington Township. Those out at the malls in the Pennsylvania suburbs seemed to be younger, and there were noticeably fewer families with very young children. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“For me personally, I could do without it. I’ll roll the dice and take my chances, but for the sake of other people, I just deal with it,” Bryan Dubeck said.

Stores like Aldo and Gap offered Black Friday discounts of 70% and 50% off everything, respectively.

“I just wanted to get deals. They were OK. There’s a few good ones,” said Andrea Rivera, a King of Prussia Mall shopper.

Despite the downturn at brick-and-mortar shopping centers across America, Adobe Analytics is predicting a record-breaking Cyber Monday as many shoppers look online for holiday deals.

At Willow Grove Park mall at the other end of Montgomery County, Santa drew a few Black Friday visitors. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

And the malls offer attractions beyond the deals for smaller patrons — like the ones who come for Santa Claus.

This year, to sit on St. Nick’s lap at the Willow Grove Park mall, a mask and a reservation are required.

Around noon Friday, Santa’s lap was largely empty.

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