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.”

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Author: Leonardo Castañeda, Nico Savidge, Elliott Almond