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As pandemic restrictions on indoor shopping ease, mall owners sue to stop another shutdown

ARCADIA, CA - OCTOBER 07, 2020 - Shoppers walk past a "Sanitize on the Go," station to keep shoppers safe from coronavirus at the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall in Arcadia on October 7, 2020. This is the first day customers return to indoor shopping after Los Angeles County eases restrictions and have reopened the malls and the individual stores. Such stores have been closed for weeks, but reopened Wednesday at 25% capacity. Westfield Santa Anita has placed Covid-related signage with one-way traffic, 6 feet distancing when waiting to get into individual stores, hand sanitizing stations and mask are required before entering the mall. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Shoppers walk past a “Sanitize on the Go,” station at the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall in Arcadia. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Indoor shopping centers opened Wednesday as Los Angeles County officials eased pandemic-related restrictions on businesses, but one of the biggest mall operators in the region is suing to stop the county from shutting down centers again.

The owners of Westfield-branded malls, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the county in late September that called for the county to lift prohibitions it called “unlawful and unjustifiable” in part because they are targeted at indoor centers, which were then mostly closed.

Although the county gave the green light to indoor mall stores operating with limits on the number of customers who can be inside, Westfield is suing in federal court to stop officials from repeatedly opening and closing stores to blunt the impact of the pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has likened such openings and closings of businesses to a dimmer switch that the state can raise or lower in relation to the transmission of COVID-19. When fewer new cases are diagnosed, restrictions on occupancy of stores, restaurants and other businesses will be loosened. If more people get sick, restrictions will retighten.

En Route Institute book store opens as customers return to indoor shopping at Westfield Santa Anita.
Frank Capurro opens the En Route Institute bookstore as customers return to indoor shopping at the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall in Arcadia on Oct. 7. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County has lagged behind other parts of California in reopening businesses because of its continued high numbers of new cases and deaths. But on Wednesday, “nonessential” stores in indoor shopping centers reopened with limited capacity for the first time since July.

Westfield and the owner of Del Amo Fashion Center, a regional indoor mall in Torrance, have both filed lawsuits intended to stop the county from effectively shutting down their shopping centers as a coronavirus prevention measure. Merchants including a sports apparel seller and a children’s clothing boutique operator have joined the lawsuits.

The county has not commented on the litigation, but its public information office said in a statement last month that the county “has been intensely committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents through an unprecedented crisis using science and data and responding in real time to a deadly and previously unknown virus that has tragically claimed thousands of lives and upended life for millions of people.”

County officials continue “to assess the data, the science and the state guidelines to safely guide the reopening” of local businesses, the statement said.

Jean-Marie Tritant, president of U.S. operations, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield
Jean-Marie Tritant, president of U.S. operations, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield)

In an interview with The Times, Jean-Marie Tritant, president of U.S. operations for Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, discussed his company’s litigation and efforts to conduct business prudently during the pandemic. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your company has been in discussions with state and local officials since the early days of the pandemic about how to operate safely in a dangerous time. What