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Staff photo by Mike Pare / Shoppers walk in and out of one of the entrances at Hamilton Place mall on Tuesday. Mall owner CBL Properties says 75% of stores inside the mall have reopened.

Carolyn Shell said that Tuesday was her first foray inside Hamilton Place mall since the shopping center reopened nearly three weeks ago after shutting down in March due to COVID-19.

But even that visit was a short one as the Hixson woman wanted to make a purchase at bookseller Barnes & Noble. The store was still closed to walk-in business, though it offered curbside pickup for online sales.

Despite closures of the bookstore, JCPenney, Dave & Buster's, Bath & Body Works and other key retailers, shoppers are slowly returning to the mall as more stores reopen with Memorial Day coming up.

CBL Properties, which operates the mall, estimates that about 75% of retailers are back.

"We've seen more openings including the reopening of a number of national retailers," said Stacey Keating, CBL's senior director of public relations and corporate communications.

At Northgate Mall in Hixson, about 50% of the stores have reopened, Keating said. Anchors Belk and Burlington are open, though access isn't available from inside the mall but rather outside.

Also at Northgate, jewelers Zales and Kay were closed Tuesday as well as Victoria's Secret and Rue 21. Chick-fil-A was open at both Northgate and Hamilton Place.

Still, the number of shoppers inside both malls around lunchtime Tuesday was fairly light compared to pre-coronavirus. Roughly half of shoppers were wearing masks.

At American Eagle Outfitters at Hamilton Place, about a dozen shoppers stood in line waiting their turns to enter the popular retailer as the store, like others, practiced social distancing. A store employee handed out masks to those without one.

At the nearby Great American Cookie Co., Janet Jones said business is "very slow" though picking up as Memorial Day approaches.

"People are getting out," said Jones, adding that more shoppers will return as retailers fully open in the shopping center.

Mubasil Nadeem, who was running a cell phone repair kiosk in the mall, said business "is just OK." He wasn't sure when more shoppers will come back.

"I don't know. To predict anything is hard," Nadeem said.

About half of the restaurants inside the food court at Hamilton Place were open Tuesday. About that number of tables and chairs were available for use in the food court, while the rest was closed off.

Shopper Emily Kopp of Chattanooga said Tuesday was also her first trip inside the mall since its reopening.

"My mom didn't want to come here," she said.

A friend, Abbi Watt, also of Chattanooga who was also making her first visit since the mall's reboot, said she thought the center "should be safe now," adding she wasn't worried about being there.

Keating said that all health and safety protocols that CBL put into place after reopening will remain through the Memorial Day holiday.

The future of one of the anchor stores at Hamilton Place, JCPenney, remains uncertain after the company filed for bankruptcy protection over the weekend. JCPenney hasn't announced a detailed list of store closures, but the retailer said it will permanently close nearly 30% of its 846 stores as part of a restructuring plan under the Chapter 11 reorganization. JCPenney said it will close about 192 stores by February, then another 50 in 2022.

The company started reopening some of the stores across the country last week despite the bankruptcy filing.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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Staff photo by Mike Pare / A 'Welcome Back' sign greets people as they enter Dick's Sporting Goods at Hamilton Place mall.
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