WASHINGTON – Alex Provenzano, who owns a salon in downtown Washington, D.C., installed his door and window coverings Wednesday, not knowing whether next week's election would prompt a replay of the protests earlier this year in which some businesses were damaged.
"When the protests broke out in May, the entire street was vandalized," said Provenzano, who owns AP Salon just off McPherson Square, a block north of the White House. "I decided then that we had to board up."
He said the plywood remained in place until July, but with the contentious election looming, Provenzano pulled the boards out of storage and re-covered the windows and front door.
"I’m usually a very positive person; I hope for the best," he said. "But the people are very stressed out, and there is a lot of uncertainty in the country right now. It’s pretty scary."
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Large swaths of downtown Washington, within blocks of the White House, resembled a coastal community girding for a powerful hurricane. Hotels, office buildings, coffee shops and restaurants were sheathed in plywood, with some of the makeshift barriers stretching nearly entire blocks.
Officials say they're not aware of credible threats of violence on or after Election Day, but businesses, drawing from the lessons of last summer when protests erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, are bracing for possible violence, looting and vandalism.
An anxious country
Across the country, Americans are increasingly worried about the possibility of violence over the high-stakes presidential election, which analysts say could be marred in chaos as an anxious country waits days or weeks for the results. Three of 4 voters say they're worried about possible violence, while only 1 in 4 say they're "very confident" the country will see a peaceful transfer of power if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll finds.
Stoking the anxiety is the president himself. Trump has relentlessly claimed, without evidence, that massive voter fraud involving mail-in ballots is underway. Meanwhile, local election officials are bracing for voter intimidation tactics.
In Chicago, the police department has canceled November days off for police officers in charge of managing protests, Police Superintendent David Brown said.
"Everything is uncertain. We don't have any specific credible threats at this time, although we are well aware of what happened with the Michigan governor, Virginia governor and the militias planning to do something on Election Day," Brown said, referring to members of an anti-government group accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
In New York City, there have been no specific and credible threats targeting the election, according to the police department. But preparations have included crowd control re-training for street officers in the event of protests and having "hundreds" ready to respond to election-related demonstrations.
“It’s no secret that this election is more contentious than in years past,” Terence Monahan, the New York Police Department's chief of department, said last week while outlining election security plans.
In Portland, Oregon, where demonstrators and federal officers clashed during nightly protests outside the city's downtown federal courthouse, business owners wondered if they should close or board up their properties, Police Chief Chuck Lovell said in a letter last week.
"While we do not have any current intelligence to suggest violence, we know there is a lot of uncertainty and tension in our community during this time," Lovell said, adding that the department will beef up staffing on and after Election Day.
Downtown ghost towns?
In Chicago, dozens of businesses along the Magnificent Mile shopping strip and throughout the downtown Loop area did not remove temporary barriers that were installed over the summer, when the city saw two incidents of late-night lootings.
Restaurants and luxury retailers are operating through windows covered in plywood or other barriers, and shoppers pass through entryway cut-outs. City officials have been holding workshops in recent months to prepare for possible civil unrest after Election Day.
"The city is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to planning for this event," Rich Guidice, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said in a press conference this month. "We have been performing drills and holding workshops to be ready to respond to any situation or possible event that should occur in this city before, on or after Election Day."
USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Ahead of Election Day, 3 of 4 voters worry about violence in a divided nation
In Washington, D.C., officials are not recommending that businesses board up their buildings, but they have set up a website for people to report suspicious voting activities to police. Businesses are also encouraged to install security cameras and to keep important documents, such as insurance paperwork and lease agreements, secure.
The DowntownDC Business Improvement District said businesses, especially those that were hit the hardest over the summer, are taking precautionary measures ahead of the election. The group said it is aware of at least 12 properties around the White House and in the Chinatown area that are being boarded up.
"The DowntownDC BID encourages each business take precautions such as securing outdoor furniture and signage that can be used as projectile," the group said in a statement, adding that staffers will remove bike racks, newsstands, unbolted trash cans, loose piles of bricks or rocks, construction materials and other items that can be used to harm people.
On K Street, the owners of A-1 Wines & Liquor were fitting their front windows and door for plywood covers Thursday.
Nitish Thiruchuri, the store manager, said they were acting early after learning a hard lesson earlier this year when some of the protests turned ugly.
"The windows were broken, a lot of the stuff was taken," Thiruchuri said, motioning to the shelves of liquor, wine and beer.
He estimated the damage at between $200,000 and $300,000, forcing the business to close for three months.
"There was nothing we could do," he said. "Now, we are being a little more cautious."
Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C., said while some businesses are boarding up their properties, others are choosing not to. Some businesses, she said, have been boarded up since summer and have not been able to repair or replace their glass windows.
Provenzano, the salon owner, said his plywood would remain in place through the inauguration, regardless of who is elected. He has not decided if he will be open.
"I don’t want to put my people or customers at risk," he said. "I’m going to play it by ear."
Shain Jenkins, manager of Compton Lumber and Hardware near downtown Seattle, said demand for plywood has surged by nearly 40% in just the past two weeks as "rumblings" about a new round of protests are being discussed.
"Business is definitely up, but it’s not the kind of business you really look forward to," Jenkins said.
Mae Pease, manager of the Oregon's Finest dispensary in Portland, said they're installing metal gates so that looters or burglars can't get in even if glass windows are broken. The business has been broken into three times since May, Pease said.
Half of their windows are still boarded up after the most recent break-in, and they're debating whether to cover the rest.
For now, Pease said, "It's really quiet outside. It's pretty dead. … For me, I think it's the calm before the storm. We'll see what next week brings."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fearing election violence, DC, Chicago, NYC boarding up and beefing up