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Stores and businesses prepare for potential election-related unrest

While some businesses are running crisis simulations, others can barely afford to protect their stores and are hoping for "a busy day with happy people."
Image: Damaged storefron
Nail salon workers in Brooklyn, N.Y., clean up broken glass Wednesday after demonstrators protested the police shooting of a Black man in Philadelphia. Mary Altaffer / AP

After a spring of lockdowns and a summer of protests, storefront businesses across the country are girding for a potential wave of social unrest related to the election.

Ulta Beauty, whose stores were damaged in protests of George Floyd's death at the hands of police in May, told NBC News that it is boarding up stores, closing early and hiring overnight security guards in certain locations.

“We are hopeful for a peaceful week but are taking proactive measures to ensure safety for guests, our associates and our stores,” the company said.

Nordstrom said it is monitoring for any activity that might threaten employee or store security, and plans to close early on Election Day and reopen as usual the day after, Nov. 4.

In Chicago, several businesses along the Michigan Avenue shopping district have boarded up their windows in preparation for Election Day, Adam Skaf, a spokesperson for the Magnificent Mile Association, told NBC News. The group also partnered with the city to participate in an auxiliary command center on Election Day, when it will share real-time information to businesses.

Walmart, which said this week it would remove all guns and ammunition from its sales floors as a precaution, after seeing some "isolated civil unrest," announced Friday it had reversed that decision.

Leading up to the election, President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that he will refuse to participate in a peaceful transition of power in the event he loses to former Vice President Joe Biden. In a Friday tweet, Trump suggested that the only way Biden could become president would be if the Supreme Court intervened to "make such a ridiculous win possible."

The Biden campaign has signaled that if it wins, “the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”

In the crosshairs of what may be a struggle over the result of the election are the country’s thousands of storefront businesses.

“Many have (and will be) boarding up locations or relying on other safety precautions — normally methods that are reserved for severe weather incidents (hurricanes, floods),” Tom Buiocchi, CEO of the facilities software company ServiceChannel, said in an email. “But now also for the social unrest throughout the summer of 2020 and in preparation for the upcoming national election.”

While there is no total dollar figure yet available for the damage from this year’s protests against police violence, it could rank as the second-costliest civil disorder in the U.S., according to Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 are the costliest, at $775 million, or $1.4 billion in 2020 dollars.

Losses this year stand in the $500 million to $900 million range, Worters said, but "are likely to be much higher, more in the $1 billion-$2 billion range,” she said. “Because the losses were so widespread and have a longer duration than previous riots, it could conceivably have the highest losses from riots.”

Many stores are boarding up locations or relying on other safety precautions normally reserved for severe weather incidents such as hurricanes or floods.

Still, the cost of the riots pales in comparison to this year’s Hurricane Laura and the California wildfires, which each caused $8 billion to $12 billion in damage, Worters said.

Within the last two weeks of October, roughly 310 businesses submitted work orders for preventative boarding up and dozens of businesses requested additional security guards for Election Day, according to ServiceChannel, a software company that connects real estate businesses to local commercial contractors. From May to July, the company saw about $20.4 million in invoices for work orders related to civil unrest, it said.

“Right now, retailers, restaurants, grocery chains, gyms, convenience stores and banks are motivated to reopen and stay open — but as we all know, they must do it safely and with caution,” Tom Buiocchi, president and CEO of ServiceChannel, said in an email.

Some smaller businesses have decided the costs of fastening plywood to their windows is not worth the investment. Ashok Bajaj, the owner of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., told NBC News he is still waiting for an insurance claim for damage to three restaurants during riots related to the Floyd protests in June.

“I’m hopeful that it will be a peaceful election no matter who wins and there will be a peaceful transfer of power,” Bajaj said. “I’m not going to board up the restaurants, and I’m hoping that there will be no riot.”

Companies have become more adept at preparing for disasters, from wildfires to hurricanes to social demonstrations that include looting or property damage, said Matt Hinton, a partner at Control Risks, a specialist risk consultancy.

Some companies have gone through crisis simulations with executive teams to prepare for potential security issues.

“While there is a lot of focus right now on elections-related protests and civil unrest, the reality is retailers have been living in this world since the summer and dealing with it on multiple fronts,” Hinton said.

Some of the firm’s more prepared clients have built intranet pages with safety information for employees, while others have gone through crisis simulations with executive teams to prepare for potential security issues, he added.

Bruce Klores, the owner of the GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar, just west of the White House, said that businesses in the area have slowly put up boards ahead of Election Day. His landlord required all tenants to board their windows on Thursday. He plans to have a full staff while the restaurant continues takeout service and has directed employees to close the restaurant if demonstrations become violent. The staff have all been trained in how to diffuse angry customers — in part because some patrons refuse to wear masks, he said.

“We are sort of mortified we have to have these conversations,” said Klores, who owns the business with his son.

In the six years Klores has run the restaurant, he has never had to prepare for violence, he said. He recalled when marchers on both sides of the abortion rights issue held dueling demonstrations on the same day. Afterward, many of them had a sandwich and a drink on the patio.

“We’re hopeful that [Election Day] is just a busy day with happy people,” he said. “And if it’s not, then we’re unfortunately prepared to deal with the alternative.”