Editor's Note: One of our contributing writers undertook a cross-country trip in early June to help her son move to a new state. This provided an opportunity for a first-person account exploring what it's like navigating various commercial real estate settings amid the country's disparate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of changes varied by geography, building type and tenant. Here is what she witnessed during her journey.
We set out on a trip from the Twin Cities to Phoenix last week to help our son move to Arizona. I never thought we would be doing this during a global pandemic.
We flew on a local budget airline out of Minneapolis. Initially, we were told the middle seats would be blocked for reservation in an effort to promote social distancing. However, the airline also said it would sell all flights to capacity.
Our flights were virtually full both ways. So much for nobody sitting in the middle seats! We grumbled and heard some other passengers complain as well.
Additionally, there was no service on board, including complimentary beverages. The airline used back-to-front boarding to give passengers more space while getting on the plane. Masks were required for the crew, but only recommended for passengers.
Arizona reopened much sooner than Minnesota
We quickly found out that Arizona was way ahead of Minnesota in its reopening. Arizona allowed retailers to do in-person business starting May 8, with strict physical distancing. Salons and barbershops were also open. Starting May 11, Arizona restaurants were able to begin offering dine-in service again. Gyms, pools and spas reopened on May 13. Some movie theaters are reopening this week—even as the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state is rising.
Our hotel stay
The U.S. hospitality sector has been drastically impacted by COVID as most business and leisure travel has been halted.
We stayed at a brand-name mid-market hotel in Mesa, and the hotel is where we saw the most extreme changes in response to COVID-19. The lobby door was locked when we arrived (it was 11 a.m. on a Thursday), and the front desk employee had to buzz us in. All staff members wore masks and the front desk had a plexiglass shield. There were social distancing reminders and hand-sanitizing stations in common areas.
We were told there was no housekeeping service or complimentary breakfast due to COVID. The outdoor pool had a limited capacity of 15 people, and the fitness center was limited to two people at a time. We were told the fitness center was cleaned after each use. All room keys were to be dropped off in a basket in the lobby to avoid contact.
There were very few visitors at the hotel. I asked an employee and she said business has been slow, but did start to pick up after Memorial Day.
Renting an apartment during the health crisis
My son did a virtual tour of his new Mesa apartment from the Twin Cities and completed most of the paperwork online. However, he needed to sign the lease in-person and pick up the keys.
When we arrived at the apartment complex, there was a sign on the front door of the management office saying they were limiting capacity to eight people to maintain social distancing. (No employees work masks, however). There were also signs on the complex’s fitness center saying it allowed a maximum occupancy of five people. The occupancy limit for the outdoor “fit zone” was seven people.
Shopping during the pandemic
Unsurprisingly, the retail sector has been hit the hardest by the pandemic as government mandates ordered the closures of non-essential retailers in nearly every state. However, at this point, most states have allowed different degrees of reopening for retail operators.
We set out to shop for furniture. Since furniture stores were considered “essential,” they were never forced to close.
However, in the face of this economic recession, it appears that many consumers aren’t spending on discretionary items. U.S. furniture and home furnishings sales plummeted by 58.7 percent in April.
(At the same time, outdoor furniture sales are on the rise as more people are hunkering down and preparing for a summer at home).
We spoke with one furniture store employee who said business has been slower due to COVID. Another said more consumers were ordering online vs. coming into their store.
Several furniture stores told us that in-store product was limited as some manufacturers closed plants to slow the spread of the virus. For example, LA-Z-BOY temporarily closed its U.S. manufacturing facilities and all company-owned La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries stores to ensure the well-being of its employees and customers.
Several furniture stores had also reduced store hours to allow for extra cleaning.
American Freight Furniture and Mattress in Mesa was one store we visited. It’s a large warehouse-style store where it’s easy to maintain social distancing. During our visit, employees didn’t wear masks and few patrons wore face coverings. The store placed boxes and a rope around the cashier, reminding shoppers it was important to stand behind the rope for their safety, as well as employees’ safety. No plexiglass was installed at this store or any of the furniture stores we visited.
A representative from American Freight Furntiture confirmed that, according to Arizona state guidelines, face masks or desk shields are not required inside retail stores.
Other shopping trips
Other stores we visited in Mesa included Walmart, grocery chain Safeway and Walgreens—all of which were considered essential and have remained open throughout the pandemic. In addition to in-store shopping, they offer curbside pick-up and delivery options. The Walgreens had a drive-through pharmacy.
Each retailer had signs reminding customers to practice social distancing and offered tips on how to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19. Each also had adjusted store hours to give the staff extra time for cleaning and restocking and provide special hours for senior citizens and other at-risk shoppers.
All three retailers installed plexiglass shields to protect cashiers and customers, and Walmart employees were sanitizing shopping carts. Safeway sanitized the conveyor belt at checkout in between customers.
All employees at each store wore masks. We noticed that significantly fewer shoppers were wearing masks in Mesa than in the Twin Cities.
Restaurants have been dealt a heavy blow during the pandemic as national quarantines forced the closures of restaurant dining rooms across the United States.
Restaurant dining rooms in Arizona were one of the first to reopen. We ate at a full-service bar and grill restaurant, which offers dine-in with social distancing, curbside pick-up and contactless delivery. There was also outdoor seating available, but at 100-plus degrees we opted to dine inside.
As we entered the restaurant, a sign directed us to seat ourselves, which was great. That way, everyone was very comfortably spaced out.
We were given a QR code menu as an alternative to disposable menus to reduce high-touch items. This way we could pull up the menu digitally on our phones or other mobile devices. We were informed it was a reduced menu due to COVID.
All wait staff wore masks. High-touch items like salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles and other condiments were not on the table.
We also hit a couple of quick service restaurant chains during our visit, including Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chipotle offered both dine-in and outdoor seating. When entering, there were social distancing line markers telling us where to stand and signs on the tables that some were “closed” to allow for at least six feet of spacing. Tabasco bottles were kept behind the cashier and cutlery was put in the bag instead of near the beverage station. All employees wore masks.
Needless to say, even though much of the state has reopened, there are still drastic changes compared to pre-COVID. Each commercial real estate asset class faces its own unique challenges. The big, looming question is what will they look like after the pandemic ends?