By Rosemary Feitelberg
with contributions from Kali Hays
 on October 23, 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland.

With the American presidential election less than two weeks away and millions in the U.S. divided over politics, racial inequities, climate change, and economic chasms between the wealthy and the unemployed, retailers and city officials are taking precautions and safeguarding properties in advance of Election Day.

Preparedness is at the root of many of the discussions and protocols that are being put in place to try to prevent any personal injury or property damage in the event of any civic unrest in major cities around Election Day. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle — two cities that erupted with violence and upheaval following the killing of George Floyd while under the custody of Minneapolis police officers — law enforcement officials are helping to keep business owners informed.

John Elder, the Minneapolis Police Department’s director of police information, said, “We are aware of current and future possible flash points that present challenges on both a local and national level. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners, locally, regionally and federally in order to properly respond to situations as they unfold.

”Additionally, we are keeping lines of communication open with the communities we serve and are working with everyone we can to ensure First Amendment rights are preserved, and [that we are] providing a safe environment for all,” Elder said. “We continue to plan for the worst and hope for the best!”

Following the upheaval last spring, the Chicago police department and city officials created a public-private partnership that is coordinated by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. In recent months that group has been briefing business organizations such as the Magnificent Mile Association on a weekly basis about plans for a long-term strategy to keep city residents safe and businesses protected in the event of civil unrest.

The city’s efforts included the creation of Chicago Police’s Critical Incident Response team. One way that MMA members are being informed is being notified when the team’s multiple rapid deployment drills are taking place. Noting a Trump Tower is in the district, an MMA spokesman said, “It’s putting politics aside and keeping our business community safe and secure no matter what happens.”

In New York City, some retailers are being reminded by their local Business Improvement Districts to remove all merchandise from street view, leave the lights on at night, lock all doors and repair any faulty video cameras. However basic this advice might seem, some stores in NoHo had merchandise stolen and/or property damaged due to some of these oversights in late May and early June, according to the NoHo BID’s leader Cordelia Persen.

Referring to the civic unrest earlier this year in New York, she said, “It had nothing to do with the protesters. The stuff that happened in May and June was robbery, high-stakes robbery, taking advantage of a bad situation. That’s what people are worried about in the future.”

New York

New York City.  Juli M. - stock.adobe.com

She added, “Everybody has the fear that there’s not going to be a result [from the election] for a very long time. That could easily lead to a lot of unrest so we’re just playing it safe. It’s only so stores do what they have to do so that they’re prepared.”

Although stores in the neighborhood are not being told to board up their windows, they are being informed that they can, and that there could be incidents, Persen said. Her district has about 150 street-level businesses. While the major retailers seem to have bounced back from last spring’s looting, some owners of smaller stores are still traumatized, according to Persen. “The big retailers are talking more strategically. They got hit all over the city. They’re making decisions about what they do in every neighborhood, depending on the neighborhood.”

Persen and her team share such information as how executives at luggage retailer Away opted to remove all merchandise from its store rather than board up windows, when there was concern about further civic unrest.

Located just below Union Square Park, right near Washington Square Park and above Foley Square, NoHo is in the direct route for most marches in the city, according to Persen. “That puts a lot of activity on our streets, and we want people to know that activity might happen,” Persen said, adding that repairing broken glass storefronts is not always easy.

“There is a lot of tension. Our job is to inform our neighborhood. A BID is about keeping it clean and safe. This is about safe. We speak to the police. We tell them what we hear. We help businesses talk to each other and make decisions,” she said.

With an assortment of designer boutiques such as Ralph Lauren, Valentino, Gabriela Hearst, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Giorgio Armani, Altuzarra and Tory Burch among its tenants, Madison Avenue is known for its high-end merchandise. Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue BID, said Wednesday, “We have tremendous faith in the NYPD in safeguarding the city, and we have not heard of any specific threat to Madison Avenue retailers.”

In recent months law enforcement officials, retailers and other businesses in Portland, Ore., have grown accustomed to near-nightly demonstrations that have at times led to property damage and violence. Last month’s wildfires in Oregon temporarily halted the protests, after 104 consecutive nights of demonstrations downtown. Organized to address issues such as immigration, capitalist oppression and racism, the protests in Portland have since resumed. Rioters toppled two statues of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt on the eve of Columbus Day. Many retailers have kept the plywood up on their store windows downtown, which was “still a ghost town“ over the weekend, according to one sporting goods executive who looped through the neighborhood.

Portland Police Bureau Captain Tina Jones said the PPB cannot provide “specific advice on whether or not businesses should board up or close.” She said, “We are providing guidance on how to monitor events and get information, so business owners can make the best decisions to keep their employees and businesses safe. We are working in coordination with various local business liaisons to make sure they are informed.”

“PPB will be releasing critical information about events and public safety information on Twitter @PortlandPolice and via press releases throughout the election season,” Jones said.

James Middaugh, a spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, said Thursday that PPB plans to present to the Portland Business Alliance Friday. “Essentially, they are asking businesses to empty and secure their dumpsters and garbage cans, and that they remove and secure sidewalk signage like A-boards and outdoor furniture. They also are asking active construction sites to secure or remove excess or not yet-used building materials.”

Seattle

The city of Seattle.  RG - stock.adobe.com

Some retailers in Seattle, another city in the Northwest that has weathered many nights of demonstrations, although not to the levels seen in Portland, have sought guidance from the Downtown Seattle Association. Seattle expects to have a net loss of 20,000 to 60,000 jobs in the downtown region by the end of this year, based on estimates by CoStar and Oxford Economics. Area businesses have been impacted by continued work-from-home measures and declining office real estate rates. There are 11 million square feet of office space available downtown and vacancy rates there are expected to top out at 9.4 percent by the end of next year.

Downtown Seattle Association is in touch with the Seattle Police Department and the group regularly sends “e-lerts” to businesses and property owners when the potential exists for large demonstrations, according to the DSA’s James Sido. Those messages include logistical information, specifics that the DSA has been able to gather, links to official social media channels to follow and safety and security recommendations.

“Local retailers have already had to overcome so many hurdles in the past eight months. We hope there’s not another one to contend with in early November,” Sido said.

The Seattle Police Department has not taken any stance on the matter or issued an official statement, according to a spokesman. One of the city’s better-known homegrown businesses, Nordstrom, has “teams monitoring the situation in order to be prepared for any activities that might take place across the U.S. on Nov. 3, and potentially in the days following,” according to a Nordstrom spokeswoman.

“We’re taking steps to help keep our customers and employees safe and our stores secure. We’ll also be closing each of our U.S. stores early, at 5 p.m. local time, to help ensure our customers and store employees can get home easily and make it to the polls if they still need to. We plan to reopen our stores as normal on Nov. 4,” the Nordstrom spokeswoman said. That will apply to Nordstrom’s 94 full-priced stores, 241 Nordstrom Rack locations, five Nordstrom Local service hubs and its two Last Chance clearance stores in the U.S.

With 410 full-priced stores in the U.S., Talbots has identified some stores where it will increase security before Nov. 3, and even after the election. “For example, we plan on increasing security at our Boylston Street store [in Boston] as well as our two New York City locations,” a Talbots spokeswoman said. “We also be watching closely to see how events unfold and will put appropriate measures in place, if needed. Landlords and center operators are also taking extra precautions, adding security where and when it is needed as well.”

Black Lives Mater protests in Seattle.

Black Lives Mater protests in Seattle.  AP Photo/Eric Draper, File

A spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department noted that area businesses are able to make their own decisions about safeguards. “We do not provide that sort of direction. That’s an independent business decision,” he said. “We have dashboards and such that show crime numbers and trends so that people are able to see what violent crimes are in their areas and how many are happening now, versus last year or five years ago. We provide a lot of factual data to people to help them make their decisions.”

Having experienced significant property damage in select stores due to looting earlier this year in some locations, including in its home city of Minneapolis, Target is taking a safety-first approach for its nearly 1,900 stores in the U.S. A Target spokeswoman said, “We take precautions to foster a safe environment in our stores, because our top priority is the safety of our team members and guests. We make decisions about the operations of our stores on a case-by-case basis, as we have when protests have occurred in our communities before.”

A Gap Inc. spokeswoman said its number-one priority is the safety and well-being of its teams, customers and communities. “We have contingency plans set in place for any issues.”

H&M is “closely monitoring the situation,” with the safety of its staff and customers being its “utmost priority,” a company spokeswoman said.

In Chicago, the MMA spokesman said, “It’s really a situation where we are standing by, should any actionable intelligence surface whether that’s tomorrow or on Nov. 3 about protests or demonstrations that are arising downtown or around the Magnificent Mile.”

In Los Angeles, representatives from several luxury stores such as Gucci, as well as major mall retailers like The Grove and The Beverly Center, could not be reached for comment on their plans for Election Day security measures, if any. A spokesperson for Louis Vuitton declined comment. But retail sources in L.A. admitted that local authorities have been advising high-end and notable retailers, like those on and around Rodeo Drive and Melrose Avenue, to at least be prepared to close on Election Day, depending on the level of public reaction to the election events and results, if not do so preemptively.

Representatives from Nike, Columbia Sportswear, CVS Health and Dollar General did not acknowledge requests for comment.

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