Bay Area businesses reckon with vandalism, looting on top of pandemic shutdowns


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Come hell or high water, owner Adolfo Gomez plans to re-open
Mezcal restaurant in downtown San Jose on Tuesday.

The family-run Oaxacan eatery at 25 W. San Fernando Street was
set to open last week after the long shutdowns ordered under the
COVID-19 pandemic — until looters broke into the building during
a spasm of Bay Area mayhem May 29, following a growing national
movement that had seen peaceful protests over the deaths of George
Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

Gomez said his restaurant lost $14,000 in alcohol and suffered
thousands more in property damage after a group ransacked the
restaurant in just five minutes. He said he planned to reinstall
windows and doors on Monday.

“No matter what, I am opening Tuesday,” Gomez said. “I
can’t be closed any longer.”

More than a week after the start of the Bay Area’s protests
— including some that turned chaotic amid aggressive police
response — some small businesses damaged by looting and vandalism
are trying to regroup just as California leaders had begun
loosening restrictions in response to the global pandemic.

Already reeling from a statewide lockdown since mid-March, some
Bay Area business owners lamented the experience of feeling as if
they have been kicked while already down.

“Our business was obliterated by the protests,” said George
Lahlough, who co-owns specialty bars in downtown San Jose. He said
his businesses had just begun serving again under new takeout
rules. “We hardly did (any business) Thursday, Friday and
Saturday. A lot of folks don’t want to come downtown right
now.”

Protests
began locally on May 28
with peaceful demonstrations in Oakland
and other East Bay communities. The next day, marchers in Oakland
and San Jose
blocked roadways and freeways
, and police deployed tear gas and
rubber bullets. Some people lit small fires or broke windows.

Looting and vandalism were reported in
San Francisco, Walnut Creek and other cities
in the following
days, even as the peaceful protests grew in size.

Since then, thousands have turned out for demonstrations in
cities such as Redwood City, San Mateo, Fremont and Pleasanton,
none known for being political hotbeds. Some police departments
have de-escalated their responses, even as city and county
officials imposed, then quickly lifted, curfews to try to curtail
nighttime vandalism.

But the future is daunting for businesses hit by those early
waves of chaotic unrest, some of those impacted say. Broken windows
have been replaced with plywood boards, in some cases covered in
murals and graffiti calling for justice.

Stanley Pas, the owner of West Coast Leather, a high-end
specialty leather store in San Francisco’s iconic Union Square,

had reopened last month
to limited customers and with a plan to
develop an online business. Within two weeks, Pas lost almost all
of his inventory.

As a reporter watched nearby last month, some looters broke down
the store’s window, climbed over it and ran out with armloads of
leather goods. Passersby noticed the opening and ran inside while
on the lookout for the occasional police cruiser patrolling the
area.

“We’re devastated. The entire store was damaged, and all the
inventory was taken — the front, the middle and part of the back,
including just breaking anything that could be broken inside,”
Pas said.

The company opened in 1967 as North Beach Leather and has
operated since 2003 under its current name. Pas said he believes he
has the only non-chain store in Union Square.

The losses, which he estimates had a retail value in the
millions, were nearly total. Insurance will help, he said, but he
doesn’t expect it to cover all of the losses he suffered.

Pas said he has trouble watching security videos of dozens of
people at a time streaming through a broken front window, some
snatching whole rows of jackets worth an average of $1,000 each.
Others carefully selected items as if they were shopping, Pas said.
He already has found one stolen jacket for sale by a young woman in
Half Moon Bay, Pas said. The $2,500 jacket was on sale for $1,000,
the security tag still attached.

Pas said he hopes San Francisco can lead the way in creating a
more peaceful, united future.

“I feel like the people who are protesting have a right to do
that,” he said. “But I don’t feel like the people who are
breaking into stores are the same people.”

San Jose business owners Gomez and Lahlough shared Pas’
sentiment about those who damaged their stores. Gomez said a video
appeared to show the ransackers were teenagers and that a protester
entered the restaurant to admonish the kids to stop.

Oakland’s Chinatown — where vandals
targeted small, locally-owned businesses
in the first weekend
of violence — has weathered challenge after challenge, said Trinh
Banh, co-founder of the food-business assistance group Good Good
Eatz.

“It’s almost like a triple wave,” Banh said.

Chinatown merchants were among the first to lose business due to
the coronavirus outbreak, as xenophobia drove some customers away
from the area long before shelter-at-home orders did.

While major damage hasn’t been reported in days, many
businesses remain boarded up. Every window of the New Oakland
Pharmacy, which had its medications looted on the night of May 29,
was covered this weekend.

But signs on the plywood boards reassure its customers: “We
are open normal hours.”

Lahlough, 36, said the global pandemic had destroyed 90 percent
of his business, allowing him to re-hire only 13 of his 104
employees.

Then came the protests near San Jose City Hall.

Lahlough, a San Jose State and Archbishop Mitty High alumnus,
said on the evening of May 29, authorities moved a crowd to about a
block away from his vintage arcade bar on East Santa Clara Street.
About 6:30 p.m. Lahlough said he decided to close the bar and began
issuing refunds to customers who had called in orders.

“We just started a level of comfort with the takeout
program,” Lahlough said of the easing of coronavirus
restrictions. “Then that all goes to hell. Last weekend we were
doing 100-plus customers. This weekend we had 15.”

Gomez said he decided against curbside pickups because he
didn’t think enough customers would venture downtown to get food.
That’s likely to change this week, when Mezcal begins a drop-off
service until authorities allow in-dining experiences.

The next three months will be telling, Gomez said; Mezcal has
lost 20 percent of business with an expectation to lose another 20
percent before the restaurant might rebound.

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“Whoever survives the next three months are the ones who will
survive,” Gomez said. “The hardest part is to gain the
confidence to come and dine. The fear of being infected is huge.”

Gomez said he opened Mezcal in 2008, in the midst of the Great
Recession. He described the first three years as a nightmare but he
said the family preserved. Two years ago, they paid off the loan
they took out tstart the restaurant.

Gomez said the hardships from the past will serve the family
well as it digs in to rebuild.

Pas said Sunday that he decided to speak about looting at West
Coast Leather because he wants people to know what happened.

“I’m trying to recover from a pandemic disaster,” Pas
said. “This is another disaster. How do people recover from
this?”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Bay Area businesses reckon with vandalism, looting on top of
pandemic shutdowns