With the Covid-19 pandemic spreading its tentacles across Mumbai once again, the shopping malls in the financial capital are the ones who are bearing the brunt. The random rapid antigen testing (RAT), ordered by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has forced patrons to stay away from city malls and they are all reeling under a sudden drop in footfalls.

All malls—including the prominent ones such as Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel, R City Mall in Ghatkopar, Infinity Mall in Andheri, Oberoi Mall at Goregaon, Phoenix Mall at Kurla, Atria Mall in Worli, and CR-2 Mall in Nariman Point—have seen a quick drop in number of people visiting. Some are wearing a deserted look.

It is not the spread of the pandemic per se, but the rule to undergo compulsory antigen testing is what is keeping people away. As per the new rule that has come into effect from March 22, visitors have to furnish a negative Covid-19 test report, and in the absence of it, they will have to get a rapid antigen test done at the entrance to the mall. BMC has made tests mandatory for those randomly chosen, and clarified that those who refuse to undergo the test would have to face action under the Epidemic Act, 1897.

BMC has asked each mall to conduct at least 400 tests a day. Each visitor will be charged ₹250 for testing. This has forced many reluctant souls to walk out, refusing to undergo the test. At most of the malls, BMC has extended help to the management.

“There is a counter outside Palladium mall in Lower Parel. Visitors are being picked at random and asked to get tested. It is true that there is a sudden drop in the number of visitors,” says a regular at the mall.

In the neighbourhood, Atria Mall wears a deserted look.

“Very few people are coming to the mall,” says another patron.

The Shopping Centres Association of India (SCAI) has written a letter to the BMC commissioner urging him to lower the number of random antigen tests. It has also asked the civic body to bear the cost of testing. "The move (by BMC) to stop people from stepping out will affect the recovery reported by retailers and shopping centers after the strict lockdown measures last year,” said SCAI in a statement.

“Not to forget the damage it will do to those employed by the industry—if shoppers don’t come to malls out of the fear of getting tested, and having to pay for the tests, it will eventually lead to a complete shutdown of the industry, leading to massive loss of jobs,” it said.

“Further, it is surprising to note that while charges for antigen tests carried out at all other places cited in the circular shall be borne by the municipal corporation, citizens visiting malls will be forced to pay the charges. It is our well-considered view that this will be detrimental to the very values of Mumbai which has continued to treat everyone as equal. We believe the present notification is against the very right of citizens to be treated as equals,” the statement further read.

Reportedly, BMC officials have been given the target of carrying out 47,800 tests daily at places such as shopping malls, railway stations, bus depots, markets, and tourist spots. At 27 malls in the city, the target is to conduct 10,800 tests daily. Many believe the target is a difficult one to fulfill.

A senior official from Phoenix Mall at Kurla pointed out that the SCAI had already made a representation to the authorities, and their stance was explained clearly.

“It is unfortunate that those who are visiting the mall will have to pay for the test. It is like you are paying ₹250 for entry. Also, if one person from a family visiting the mall [is] picked up randomly for the antigen test,the entire family will be forced to wait for at least 20-25 minute for the result,” says another mall official.

Rima Kirtikar, chief marketing officer, Viviana Mall in Thane, points out that even if the footfall has dropped, per-customer spend has gone up by 20%. “Maybe they would have reduced the frequency of visiting the mall, but definitely they are buying more goods, probably for a longer period. Or probably, one person is doing the purchase for the whole family,” she says.

Though the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) usually follows up with BMC rules, it has not implemented the latest one in the city of lakes. “We had met the mayor as well as the TMC commissioner and briefed them on how we have employed stringent safety measures at the mall. We have in fact diligently implemented all the measures that TMC had suggested earlier. These include providing sanitation facilities, guards keeping a tab on people not wearing masks and also people visiting restaurants and cinemas beyond the stipulated numbers, and adhering to the 11o'clock deadline for the shutdown,” she adds.

After the pandemic crippled the sector in the first two quarters of 2020-21, most shopping malls had seen a recovery towards the end of 2020. “By December, footfalls in our mall had come back to 80% of the pre-Covid-19 levels. Similarly, revenues, barring those from Fun City and cinemas, had recovered to nearly 90%. But the second wave of Covid-19 has now impacted the footfalls,” says Kirtikar.

Maharashtra has reported a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases in the last two-three weeks, surpassing its previous highest one-day spike on Wednesday (March 24), with 31,855 more people testing positive, propelling the state’s total tally to over 25 lakh. At present, there are 2.5 lakh active cases in the state. With Mumbai recording 5,190 fresh cases on Wednesday (March 24), it remains a major Covid-19 hotspot in the state. The city has so far reported 11,610 deaths while the toll in the state stands at 53,684. The number of fresh cases in Maharashtra accounts for 60% of total fresh cases across the country.

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