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First came a pandemic. Then, looting. Small businesses pick up the pieces as their debt mounts.

“I did feel violated, but what do you do? You clean up the glass and open the door and try to keep serving the community,” said one small-business owner.
The Express Food Market  in Chicago owned by Yemeni immigrant Salih Mothana.
Salih Mothana has run Express Food Market in the South Side area of Chicago for over 20 years. He is one of scores of small-business owners trying to pick up the pieces after damage sustained during social justice protests over the killing of George Floyd.Courtesy Salih Mothana

Salih Mothana came home so quietly after he surveyed the damage to his small grocery store in Chicago that his family had no idea their business had been destroyed. Looters had raided the family store after a night of peaceful protests against police brutality ended with pockets of destruction last weekend.

“I understand why it happened, and it’s OK,” Mothana, a Yemeni immigrant, said in Arabic as his daughter translated. “It’s not like I have to blame someone for this. I understand why this happened. If it sends out the message, it doesn’t matter to us.”

Mothana, who has run Express Food Market on the South Side of Chicago for over 20 years, is one of scores of small-business owners across the country who are now trying to pick up the pieces after social justice protests over the killing of George Floyd.

The damage inside  Salih Mothana's Express Food Market in Chicago on June 1, 2020.
The damage inside Salih Mothana's Express Food Market in Chicago on June 1, 2020.Courtesy Salih Mothana

Some of the peaceful protests ended in violence, with groups of looters breaking into retail chains and small businesses, leaving local stores such as Mothana’s with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Yet in a surprising twist that underscores how the killing of George Floyd has united people in the struggle for racial equality, many owners have expressed solidarity with the protesters, even while their stores have been robbed and their livelihoods left in shambles.

”Small businesses shouldn’t have to pay for the anger that is being caused right now,” said Anthony Galindo, who co-owns a phone repair business in Los Angeles called Broken We Can Fix It that was burglarized over the weekend. “We all support the cause and the protest. We’re just collateral damage from the rioting.”

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Galindo’s business had already been suffering under the coronavirus, he told NBC News. Sales dropped to zero as California rolled out stay-at-home orders to curb infections. The store had only been open on reduced hours for a few days before it was burglarized. The business is only covered for damage to customer phones, not damage to the business, he said. It’s raising $35,000 to cover the cost of stolen inventory and damage.

“I want my kids to see their daddy go back to work,” he said. “I hope everything ends peacefully and I pray this all ends as quickly as possible.”

An empty display at Broken We Can Fix It, a phone repair shop in Los Angeles.
An empty display at Broken We Can Fix It, a phone repair shop in Los Angeles.Courtesy Anthony Galindo

From 50 to 60 percent of small businesses have insurance that would cover damages as a result of a burglary, according to Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.

Businesses are not required to have insurance to cover property damage, but, “If you are renting your building, your landlord may require you to have some coverage to protect them from liability, or if you have a mortgage on that building then the mortgage lender would require you to have it,” she said.

Business insurance is similar to auto or health insurance where a business owner can buy coverage plans specific to their needs or business, she said. An average claim for a restaurant would be different than that for a dry cleaner, for instance. Some businesses buy general property insurance, which generally includes damages caused by riots, loss of income in the event a business is too damaged to operate, or even what is called "civil authority," where a business owner is unable to reach their store because of damage in the area, said Worters.

It’s unclear what losses small businesses have reported from the protests. For context, the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles resulted in $775 million in damage, or $1.42 billion today, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965 resulted in $44 million in damages, or $357 million in current dollar value.

Tracy Singleton, who runs an organic restaurant in Minneapolis called Birchwood Café, has been handing over all donations to cover the damage to her business to local groups supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The café was destroyed, with broken glass everywhere, Singleton said. She is covered for part of the cost of the damages through business insurance, she told NBC News.

“We’re having this uprising of people who have been ignored and not listened to and not heard for too long,” she said. “I did feel violated, but what do you do? You clean up the glass and open the door and try to keep serving the community.”

“I did feel violated, but what do you do? You clean up the glass and open the door and try to keep serving the community.”

Birchwood Café, which has been open for about 25 years, had already been pummeled by the coronavirus. Singleton laid off 54 people in March and brought back some part-time workers after the business received a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the government.

“There is no insurance for loss of sales because of justice uprisings because people are afraid to drive and come to our neighborhood,” she said. “I’m not giving up. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Maybe some magic unicorn with a big bag of money on its back.”

However, not all business owners sympathize with the protests that left businesses damaged.

“I will not stand and cower in the face of evil and destruction, and no one should,” said Ruth Domber, who had to close her optical retail boutique, 10/10 Optics, in Manhattan, after a night of looting earlier this week by "thugs going around and destroying local businesses."

Domber has since reopened after staff and supporters came to fix the damage to her store.

Mothana, though, said he has lost his entire source of family income. Any savings he had he uses toward new inventory. He estimates the store has about $400,000 in damages — and the insurance only covers about half.

“In my time here [in the United States], I have learned what my values are,” he said. “I try to understand as much as I can and I’m very empathetic with the protesters and believe that should be the focus.”

“No one expected this to happen,” said Asalh Ghasim, Mothana’s daughter. “We just have to move on because life just goes on.”