Westfield mall owner Scentre Group is denying claims from Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments that it failed to properly address a coronavirus scare at one of its Brisbane malls.
Amid a bitter rental stoush, Premier on Friday said Scentre had sat on its hands after two retail staff members at the Carindale mall were allegedly exposed to coronavirus-positive customers about a fortnight ago.
Scentre, in response, was adamant both it and its retail partners had followed correct Qld Health protocols following the incident, and that authorities advised the individuals posed no risk to any customers, retailers or employees.
The two affected stores were nonetheless closed for deep cleaning and Scentre said additional cleaning was later carried out.
Premier Retail chief executive Mark McInnes earlier claimed Scentre was “playing roulette” with the lives of customers and retail employees by keeping its malls open.
Mr McInnes’ salvo came after Premier – which runs Smiggle, Peter Alexander, Just Jeans, Portmans and Dotti – on Thursday announced it will not be paying rent to landlords during a one month shutdown in which its stores will close and 9,000 staff members will be stood down without pay.
The company joined a growing list of retailers to shut up shop and stand down staff without pay as government-imposed quarantine restrictions tighten and force consumers to stay away.
Trade is still permitted at discretionary retailers and shopping centres remain open for now, but more and more businesses have been forced to act as they feel the pinch.
Premier has taken exception to landlords’ insistence that they keep shopping centres open.
“Why are your shopping centres open when the Prime Minister has asked all Australians to stay at home and the Premier of Victoria rightly says no shopping trip is worth risking a life?” Mr McInnes asked in a series of questions to shopping centre owners on Friday.
“Knowing the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 health restrictions on trade, what financial assistance have you offered your retail tenants to keep people employed in the short and long term?”
Scentre says it will “continue to follow the advice of health authorities.”
Mr Lew – who holds a 43 per cent stake in Premier and also owns private chains such as French Connection and Seed – was railing against the level of rent charged by landlords even before the virus outbreak.
Premier has already closed 33 stores during the last 12 months and a total of 134 stores over the last seven years as it demands landlords adjust rental expectations in line with the performance of their own centres.
Just last week he threatened to close more of his stores if mall owners refused to play ball during the COVID-19 outbreak.