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Visitors flock to reopened Westfield UTC mall

The mall officially reopened with temporary modified business hours.
Renee and Paul Bre shop with their children Phillip and Bell at Geppetto’s Toys at Westfield UTC mall on La Jolla Village Drive.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On its first open Saturday since a 10-week shutdown began because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Westfield UTC mall was bustling with signs of life May 30.

The mall at 4545 La Jolla Village Drive is one of several Westfield locations to reopen its doors over the weekend, including the Mission Valley, North County and Plaza Bonita malls. But many eyes were on UTC, a location that has reimagined the mall experience with retail showrooms, social events and upscale dining. Its modern concepts were meant to reverse the creeping decay facing many American shopping malls — and perhaps it’s working.

Unlike Fashion Valley mall and Grossmont Center in La Mesa, which saw a quiet reopening, Westfield UTC was hopping.

“Many of the stores are still closed and still [people] are coming,” said Denise Acar, who works at the mall kiosk Everything 4 Cell. “Next weekend, it might even be back to usual.”

Shoppers, nearly all of them adorned with masks, strolled in the sunshine of the outdoor mall, gathered at fountains, walked their dogs and chased toddlers around the retail plaza. Customers lined up outside popular spots such as The Apple Store and Pottery Barn, standing on circular mats marking six feet of distance between shoppers. People basked in the common areas, occasionally lifting their face coverings to take sips of coffee as they talked.

As San Diego County moves further into allowing business reopenings as coronavirus restrictions ease, owners and customers in La Jolla are adapting to a modified business as usual.

Faye Longmaker and Amy Talmadge, friends and longtime co-workers at Qualcomm, sat six feet apart under a shade tree, each in a homemade fabric mask. Before the pandemic, the duo had a tradition of taking a weekend art class together, followed by breakfast at the Corner Bakery Cafe. Now they each work from home. No chatting in the hallways. No weekend art classes.

“Zoom just isn’t the same,” Longmaker said. “We haven’t seen each other since the shutdown began. But since the mall was open today, we decided to meet at the Corner Bakery to catch up.”

Brian Miller, owner of Geppetto’s Toys at Westfield UTC, said foot traffic on the first day of the reopening May 29 was modest but heavier than at some of his other mall locations around San Diego County. Geppetto’s has nine locations overall, including at 7850 Girard Ave. in La Jolla.

“It’s definitely not the volume we were used to pre-COVID, but I think it will ramp up,” Miller said.

Miller said outdoor shopping malls likely will fare better than indoor malls.

“There are so many outdoor spaces in UTC that capacity is not going to be an issue here,” Miller said. “There’s more air, and there’s a perception that it’s healthier than an enclosed mall setting.”

For Chrissy Colombino, a Tucson, Ariz., resident who was visiting her son in San Diego, shopping at UTC was a relief.

“We have outdoor malls and indoor malls in Tucson,” Colombino said. “But it’s just too hot for outdoor malls there, and I’m not quite ready to visit an indoor mall.”

Colombino said she felt comfortable shopping at Westfield UTC, as all the shoppers were masked and observing physical distancing rules.

With houses of worship being given state guidelines to reopen in-person services following a weeks-long closure due to coronavirus-related restrictions, several in La Jolla are planning to do so.

Maddie O’Shea, a recent graduate of UC Davis, said she wasn’t sure so many people should be out shopping. She was furloughed from her job in March and never got to return. Now she has to pay rent and needs to find work, so she spent her Saturday applying to restaurants and handing out resumés. She was surprised to see the mall so busy on opening weekend.

“As much as we want to return to normalcy, I don’t think it’s in our hands,” O’Shea said.

A directory of open and closed stores at Westfield UTC can be found at westfield.com/utc/stores. Current mall hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.

La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.