The two-way radio at the guest services booth at Market Mall crackles to life just before noon on Monday with a single message.
“The students are coming.”
Mall security and management make their way from the mall’s interior corridors to the food court area. As they arrive, a stream of teens — some masked and most not — begin flowing in from the east and west entrances to the mall. Within minutes, the food court is a squawking, jostling mass of bodies.
Some of the mall regulars are not amused.
“They’re going to get sick and they’re going to give it to us. I don’t think they’re all playing by the rules,” said Valerie Smith.
“Maybe the teachers are telling them that they have to wear [masks] at school and their parents are telling them that they have to wear them, but when they get with their friends, they just don’t bother.”
The kids are from Walter Murray and Holy Cross high schools, both within easy walking distance of the east-side shopping centre.
The neighbourhood is also home to thousands of seniors who live in the high rise complexes that ring the mall. They come for coffee, to shop and for appointments.
Smith, 70, said she didn’t need to have kids in school to know when classes started again.
“I came to meet my friend and there was at least 100 kids all milling around the food court. And maybe 10 of them had masks,” she said.
The mall has always been a convenient spot for teens to congregate, but the pandemic protocols for both the separate and public systems seem to be driving even more kids to the shopping centre at lunch than usual.
Both systems encourage students to either eat at their desks or return home at lunch. The mall is emerging as an unofficial third option.
Mall officials are not eager to discuss what’s happening. They declined repeated interview requests and forbade photos during the rush.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it cannot speak to specific situations.
The seniors were not so reticent.
Leslie Vell came into town from Tessier, Sask., about 60 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon, for an appointment. His eyes widened over his mask when asked for his thoughts on the throng in the food court.
“We’re from the country and we’re not used to that,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s right.”
Jean Valenzuela said the number of students wearing masks is offset by how many are grouped together in close quarters.
“I went there, and came out right away. Too many people in the food court.”
The rush lasts about 40 minutes. The majority of the teens line-up for takeout and then head back outside with their food.
CBC Saskatchewan wants to tell more stories about how the pandemic is touching the province’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations. How has COVID-19 affected you? Share your story with our online questionnaire.