South Coast Plaza closes for 2 weeks after store employee tests positive for COVID-19

Shoppers wear face masks as they walk through the mostly empty South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa on Monday, before the mall announced it was shutting down for two weeks because of COVID-19 concerns.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Midway through the business day Monday, a South Coast Plaza employee briskly walked through the giant mall passing out notices: The iconic Costa Mesa shopping emporium would be closing for two weeks, effective at 7 p.m. Monday, after a store employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday night.

“Our understanding that closures of public gathering places in Orange County are important for a chance to meaningfully stem this pandemic is the reason we took this action,” mall spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing said in a statement. “Although [the employee testing positive] is not the reason for the center’s closure, it reinforced the need for us to take action.”

The center — a major force in the local economy, bringing many international visitors to Costa Mesa every year — plans to reopen March 31, according to the notice.


“There is now laboratory evidence that COVID-19 is likely spreading in the Orange County community at large, and thus there is less reason to track the places or people visited by any one victim of COVID-19. The focus is now on the community spread of the virus,” the notice said.

The Orange County Health Care Agency has increased to 22 the number of cases in the county of the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. Of those, 13 were determined to be travel-related, four due to contact with a known case, four that were “community-acquired” — not related to travel or contact with a known case — and one that is under investigation. The county has had no deaths related to the disease, according to the agency.

A couple of shoppers stroll through a mostly empty South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Many South Coast Plaza stores shuttered within a half-hour of receiving the closure news. Employees packed up boxes of paperwork to cart home. Confused shoppers wandered out of the mall.

As social distancing deepens in an effort to stem the worldwide outbreak of the virus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, many local restaurants and retail stores are seeing precipitous drops in business.

March 17, 2020

Earlier Monday, plentiful parking spaces outside the usually bustling South Coast Plaza gave an indication of the mostly empty mall, where hours had been reduced over the weekend.

Of the few shoppers meandering through the plaza, several wore face masks while others kept ample distance from other people. Two boys clambered aboard the colorful carousel — they were the lone riders.

Two colleagues greeted each other by bumping elbows. An eerie quiet settled in.

An employee at South Coast Plaza disinfects the handrails of an escalator on Monday, hours before the mall's shutdown Monday night.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“Normally we’re not this slow; there’s always people at least browsing,” said Nadia Xiqui, a worker at the virtually empty Forever 21 store. On typical weekends, she said, it’s particularly difficult to find parking. “Now it’s just dead. Literally dead.”

At Bath & Body Works, a store manager who declined to give her name said at least 15 people lined up outside the door Monday morning to wait for hand sanitizers. A shipment of 29 boxes was wiped out within two hours, she said.

“Other stores are completely not busy; it’s just the stores that have the goods that are in the demand,” the manager said. “On Sunday when we were working, we thought, ‘This looks like a Tuesday afternoon.’ ”

Now, Tuesday afternoon will be even emptier.

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5:51 p.m. March 16, 2020: This article was originally published at 5:04 p.m. and has been updated with additional information.