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Amid Pandemic, Civil Unrest, Retailers Take It Day by Day

David Moin, Rosemary Feitelberg, Jean E. Palmieri and Kali Hays

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Brick-and-mortar retailers, of the nonessential type, are gradually returning to business around the country, but not without some tough decisions to be made and plenty of health precautions to implement.

Monday marks the commencement of “phase one” of New York City reopening its economy, allowing for construction to restart and retailers to reopen on a limited basis by offering curbside pickups and deliveries. It’s an important milestone, helping the city get back on its feet, encouraging people to reconnect with local merchants and spend some money and enabling many workers to return to the job. It’s also a reflection that the city is making progress in containing the spread of the coronavirus.

Yet on Wednesday, some merchants were barricading their storefronts with plywood to protect their properties and merchandise in the event of more looting. Most did earlier in the week.

They’ll need to decide whether to remove the barricades and reset the windows and selling floors with seasonal merchandise by Monday. In many cases, merchandise was removed from stores, or it’s the same merchandise in the store that’s been around since March when stores temporarily closed due to COVID-19.

The next few days are crucial ones of decision for the retail industry, and more protests are planned this week in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But the national mood improved Wednesday, following Tuesday’s night of peaceful protesting that saw far less violence and looting than the night before, and efforts by the top brass at police departments reaching out to community leaders. New York City imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, which is scheduled to be lifted on Monday, with phase one. That’s worrisome to some retailers, particularly if they remove barricades for phase one.

“Monday is like a soft restart, now the question is will they take down barricades if the curfew is officially ending Sunday,” said a retail source. “I walked up and down the avenue and saw merchants busy putting up plywood. It’s not like at this time people are taking it down. But the curfew last night did make a difference.”

While preparing for phase one, New York City stores must also prepare for the more significant “phase two,” tentatively seen launching in mid-to-late June. That’s when stores can open for shopping inside but with capacity limited to 50 percent of the fire code, and with masks, social distancing, sanitizing and constant cleaning required.

Around certain areas of the country, retailers are continuing to open their brick-and-mortar locations, while in other urban areas, some stores remain temporarily closed due to looting and vandalism. The looting is widely perceived as being conducted by those not associated with the peaceful protesting and, according to media reports, often seemingly by organized gangs.

“We have tremendous faith in our city and state governments including the NYPD to bring the issues of looting under control and are very hopeful that stores can be reopening for curbside pickup and delivery during phase one,” said Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District.

“While phase one is critical for getting the economy working again, it’s the necessary prerequisite for phase two, which gets back the office workers who support our retailers, and buy lunches supporting the restaurants,” as well as delis and bodegas, Bauer added. Dining inside restaurants will be part of “phase three,” or reopening the city’s economy.

Macy’s Herald Square is planning to participate in phase one, “but we’re taking things day by day,” said a spokeswoman. Around the country, “We had approximately 330 stores open prior to any temporary closures and approximately 450 including locations just operating curbside pickup,” the Macy’s spokeswoman said. About 30 Macy’s stores closed or had shortened hours over the weekend due to civil unrest or curfews.

“The safety of our store teams is our top priority. We have made the decision to temporarily close certain store locations as a result of the protests happening across the country,” a Gap spokeswoman told WWD on Wednesday. “We are monitoring the situation closely and are committed to paying our store teams for shifts already scheduled. Where possible, we will look to redeploy our teams to other store locations. Our brands have come together to donate $250,000 to NAACP and EmbraceRace to support the fight against racism in our communities.”

As of last week, Saks Fifth Avenue had 21 of its 41 stores in the U.S. and Canada opened for business, though six were shut due to looting this week. “Like many retailers, certain store locations have been impacted by recent events. We fully support peaceful assembly, and are grateful that all our associates are safe. At this time, we are taking precautions to continue protecting our stores, associates and customers, including temporarily closing impacted locations,” said a spokeswoman.

Asked about participating in NYC’s phase one, she responded, “In light of recent events, we are evaluating our reopening plans, particularly in New York, and awaiting government guidance to help with our decision-making. Our priority is the safety of our customers, associates and communities.”

Brooks Brothers has only opened one of its 229 U.S. stores so far, in Sarasota, Fla. But its six New York City units, which were not looted, are not planning to participate in the phase one reopening on Monday. The Madison Avenue flagship has been boarded up since the looting began, when it sustained some damage by graffiti.

“Like everyone, we are eager to see businesses start to reopen, especially in our home city,” said a company spokesman. “We are currently monitoring the situation closely and are adjusting our reopening strategy daily. We will begin to open stores this month prioritizing the health and safety of our associates and customers above all else.”

Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans, whose Union Square store in Manhattan was among those looted, said: “It’s hard to swing open your doors when they’re covered in plywood.”

Even so, the merchant, who also sits on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reopening committee, said he is expecting to participate quietly in the reopening on Monday, “but we won’t make any noise.”

His other unit in Scarsdale, N.Y., has been open for curbside pickup since that region was allowed to reopen, “so we’re used to it already. But the priority is for our country to hear the protests and for New York to heal. Whether Rothmans sells a few things is not important,” he said.

Paul Stuart, whose Madison Avenue flagship also escaped physical damage by looters but is boarded up, intends to open for curbside pickup on Monday. The retailer, which has two stores in Chicago, has been operating that way in that city for several weeks, so will employ those same strategies for New York City. Paulette Garafalo, chief executive officer of Paul Stuart, said, “We just want everyone to be safe and are looking forward to getting back to business as soon as possible.”

With more than 300 CVS Pharmacy stores with varying degrees of property damage, including more than 12 in New York City, CVS will be reopening its damaged stores “as soon as repairs are made and when it is safe to do so,” a spokeswoman said.

With a number of its stores temporarily closed due to the recent protests and in adherence with guidance from local officials and partners, an H&M spokesman said that number fluctuates based on local events. In terms of reopening stores in relation to the pandemic, the retailer is following local health and government officials’ recommendations to ensure a safe environment for staff and customers.

“To stand with and support the black community,” H&M has donated $500,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Color of Change and the ACLU. The company further educates its colleagues about implicit bias and plans to develop stronger relationships with historic black colleges and universities.

In Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Calif., early curfews are still in place for businesses through Thursday (at least for now). A majority of Los Angeles retail businesses are boarded up, either preemptively or because of damage sustained after peaceful protesting on Saturday and Sunday was taken over by vandalism at night. Shopping areas hit the hardest that remain closed include essentially the whole of the Fairfax/Grove area, as well as Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood and Robertson Boulevard.

Protests in L.A. are expected to continue on a daily basis, although nighttime vandalism seems to have markedly decreased since Monday night.

Nevertheless, closures have started to extend to shopping centers in the San Fernando Valley area of L.A., where malls like the Galleria and Westfield Fashion Square are closed. Shopping centers in Orange County, including South Coast Plaza, are also closed due to unrest. A majority of retailers in Southern California had planned to resume in-store shopping this week after the state allowed it to do so after months of forced closures as an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

A Nike spokesman declined to specify when Nike stores will reopen. The company said in a statement, “Nike supports free and peaceful protests and we do not condone violence. We are closely following the protests occurring across the country.”

Back in NYC, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, having surveyed property damage in different neighborhoods, said, “Right now they are just focused on staying safe until they open.” She said retailers want to all open because there will be more people on the street and less chance of destruction by looters.

Within the borders of the Garment District Alliance BID, there were windows broken, overturned planters and graffiti problem Monday night. In an e-mail sent Tuesday, the GDA noted it’s monitoring the evolving situation and is in touch with city officials. Businesses were advised they “should exercise caution while considering the necessity of opening at this time.…We are hopeful that the situation will de-escalate and we can resume plans for the phase one reopening, as well as all of the phases over the course of the summer.”

In his daily media briefing on Wednesday, de Blasio said the city “took a step forward” toward “moving to a better time” after an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and a ban on vehicular traffic below 96th Street resulted in a drop in looting of retail stores. Although he acknowledged “we still have work to do,” the attacks on property dropped in areas that had been particularly hard-hit the day before, including Midtown Manhattan and the Bronx. Arrests dropped from more than 700 on Monday to fewer than 200 on Tuesday.

“We hope to lift the curfew just as we start phase one,” de Blasio said, adding that the June 8 restart is a “hugely important moment” for the city and its residents to “get our lives back.”

De Blasio said although he was sorry for what retailers have had to endure, he believes those that sustained damage should have enough time to clean up during daylight hours to prepare for curbside pickup on Monday.

In his daily briefing Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a toned-down approach after criticizing de Blasio and the NYPD on Tuesday by saying they failed to do their jobs and allowed looters to run rampant.

“New York City last night was much better,” he said. “The police officers had the resources to do their job. Let’s remember what we did last night and keep that going.”

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