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Boarded-up stores are another sign of election anxiety

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Businesses across the country are bracing for the possibility of violence in an already volatile year.

By Alissa Wilkinson

Boards went up over windows around the country over the past week as businesses anticipated the potential for election-related unrest. Media outlets reported plywood going up in cities from coast to coast: Retailers in New York CityChicagoDetroitDenverLong BeachSan FranciscoCharlestonIndianapolisDearbornBostonSacramentoLas VegasSt. LouisLos AngelesPortlandDallas, and Washington, DC, all took part.

It was an echo of images from the spring, when some of New York’s upscale stores boarded their windows as shelter-in-place orders were issued in an effort to stave off the coronavirus pandemic. And those images reappeared in the early summer when nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers sometimes turned violent, prompting business owners to protect property. Some of the businesses that experienced destruction of property months ago are now bracing themselves again.

It is hard to quantify these reports directly, beyond the images on social media. But the industries that provide the boards are booming. Shain Jenkins, the manager of a hardware store near Seattle, told USA Today that plywood demand had surged nearly 40 percent.

The possibility for violence was also echoed in Walmart’s move on October 29 to remove ammunition and firearms from its displays in American stores due to “civil unrest.” The move seemed designed to discourage would-be violent actors from buying firearms. But the company reversed course on October 30, saying that the unrest had remained “isolated” and they would replace the displays.

Business owners’ nervousness about the election is unsurprising given the events of 2020 and the national mood. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll published on October 28 found that three out of four voters were worried to some degree that there could be violence on Election Day. Should former vice president Joe Biden win the election, only one in four said they were “very confident” in a peaceful transfer of power.

The perception is not unmerited, especially considering President Trump’s heightened rhetoric, repeated refusal to confirm that he would participate in a peaceful transfer of power, and his call for an “army” of poll watchers. And experts have sounded the alarm, saying that the country’s polarization carries with it a higher than usual risk of violence, depending on the election results — although the overall risk may be low.

But store preparations go beyond boarded-up windows. The New York Times reported on October 30 that in a videoconference held by the National Retail Federation (NRF), the world’s largest retail trade association, 120 representatives from 60 retail brands learned how to de-escalate customer tensions, including election-related situations. The NRF has hired security consultants to help its members predict which cities may be most volatile on Election Day and prepare accordingly.

Boarding-up windows once would have seemed extreme on an Election Day eve, but now it seems reasonable, especially nearing the end of a year of heightened conflict and politicization. Perhaps the best evidence of this comes in the fact that the NRF de-escalation training was originally developed to help retail employees deal with belligerent customers who refused to honor store policy and wear a mask. So whether the precautions are necessary or simply the product of an extraordinarily jumpy year and toxic political climate, they’re far from surprising.

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