Ülemiste shopping center chief Guido Pärnits says the government's decision to close malls in Estonia from Friday as part of its coronavirus emergency measures is ill-advised and unfair.
Speaking to morning ETV talk show "Terevisioon", Pärnits said that the public is already relatively intimidated as the pandemic spreads, and is not congregating en masse in shopping malls.
"The shopping centers have actually come to see few visitors, and are maintaining the contacts (the minimum distance of two meters – ed.). Social distancing is already in place, because there are simply not many people," Pärnits said.
Pärnits also said that the Estonian Association of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EVEA), which should help and support small entrepreneurs, was not doing so and in fact harming the situation by spreading a myth that it was the stores, tenants of shopping malls, who wanted them closed, as they would still have to pay ground rent while no customers were coming in.
"It was in favor of that decision [of shopping mall closures], and its reasoning had recently begun to propagate the myth of [shopping mall] landlords being one of the heathen capitalists, for whom it is beneficial that a shopping center should not be closed, there is no force majeure situation and they can ask for full rents at a time when there is actually no turnover and no visitors," Pärnits said.
"I've talked to most operators, and there's no such situation," he went on.
Pärnits added owners of the shopping centers are ready to help tenants in every way with rent discounts, zero rents and turnover-based rents.
"I don't know where this idea came from; it came up in a paper, and most likely the EVEA chair was fooled and that's why he was in favor of the fact that stores actually want the centers to close. The vast majority of stores don't want that."
The government's current measures are also incomplete and that if closures are going to be made, they should be done across the board, as has been the case in Lithuania.
Pärnits pointed out that most large building materials stores, home goods stores and similar stores are still open, but offer a greater likelihood of people coming into close contact with each other, in his opinion.
"Those who would otherwise be in a shopping mall where they can keep a distance are pushed into a 10,000-square-meter home improvement store where they get the same things, but the risk of not keeping a distance is much higher," he said.
"This measure could be deemed somewhat unfair and does not serve its purpose, because people are still left with the option of going somewhere if they wish. Just another location, and not a mall."
Pärnits said he was nonetheless proud of the Estonian people for keeping contacts very low through self-regulation. Whereas before the schools were closed , it was feared huge gatherings of young people would congregate in the shopping malls – the Ülemiste Center even hired security guards anticipating this - this did not materialize at Ülemiste, or other malls such as T1 and Rocca al Mare, Pärnits said.
Pärnits also said that no thought had been given to how the shopping centers will be reopened once the ban is lifted.
"When you turn off a machine, turn off the button, the electricity, it won't work, then when you turn it on, there will be a huge loss of material."
Pärnits also said the entire business chain, including banks, must be held accountable. However, this aspect is currently lacking, he said.
On Tuesday evening, the government decided to close shopping centers from Friday, March 27. Grocery stores, pharmacies, telecoms outlets, bank offices, parcel terminals, and shops selling or renting medical devices will however remain open.
Editor: Andrew Whyte