Clutching bags from designer boutiques in their gloved hands, customers are back at Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest shopping havens that has reopened under strict safeguards against coronavirus, including fever checks and face masks. At a main entrance where customers hand over their sports cars and luxury SUVs for valet parking, employees greet them with black T-shirts reading "Welcome back". Smiling as they point an infrared thermometer "temperature gun" at visitors’ foreheads, they check for the fever that is a telltale symptom of COVID-19 infection.
Dubai Mall is a key attraction of the city state that has built its wealth and world renown on mega-projects and a diversified economy to become a tourism and shopping hub, as well as for finance and real estate. With more than 1,300 stores arrayed around a vast lake and overlooked by the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, Dubai Mall attracts some 80 million visitors a year and its reopening last week was a symbolic step as the country emerges from lockdown.
After a month-long closure, crowds have been far thinner, as expatriates in jeans and Emiratis in traditional white Gulf robes roam the bright alleys that showcase everything from chic to bling. Among them was Jamal, a 21-year-old Emirati student who before the coronavirus crisis would come every weekend with his friends. Holding two red bags from a famous French jewellery brand in his hands, he was delighted to be back and reassured by the security measures in place.
"This shows there is progress in the fight against the virus and that life will soon return to normal," said the young man, his neatly-trimmed beard partially obscured by a blue surgical mask.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), of which Dubai is a member, has registered more than 11,000 cases of coronavirus and nearly 100 deaths, and the easing of restrictions has started even though the daily number of new infections is on the rise.
Masks and thermal cameras
For weeks, only the mall’s grocery stores and pharmacies carried on working, but the UAE has now allowed malls, restaurants and even hair salons to reopen under social distancing rules.
Thermal cameras fixed to the ceiling around Dubai Mall record temperatures of passers-by. Children aged between three and 12, and people of over 60 or in higher risk groups for the respiratory disease are not allowed in. Protective masks are compulsory - with staff sporting them both in ready-to-wear stores as well as high-end European designer boutiques. The mall’s cinema, skating rink and large fountains, which in normal times attract thousands of tourists packed in for evening shows, remain closed. The mall is operating at 30 percent of capacity to ensure social distancing, and each shop displays the maximum number of people allowed in at a time - from five to several dozen depending on size.
"We have introduced technology to control the number of people entering, and receive reports every hour," said Najla Boujellal who works for the mall’s owners Emaar. She said they hope to gradually increase to the normal flow of 250,000 visitors per day.
Tourism is a lifeblood for Dubai’s economy, and in 2019 it welcomed over 16 million foreign visitors, aiming for 20 million this year before the coronavirus epidemic crippled global travel. Dubai’s tourism chief, Hilal al-Marri, said this week in an interview with Bloomberg TV that the emirate could reopen to international tourism "in July", after having halted arrivals in March.