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U.S. storefronts put up plywood to prep for Election Day. Could it be the new normal?

In Berlin, boarded-up shops are an annual occurrence. Will they be commonplace in the U.S., too?

U.S. storefronts put up plywood to prep for Election Day. Could it be the new normal?
Businesses preparing for Election Day 2020 in downtown Washington, D.C. [Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images]
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In the days and hours leading up to Election Day, as Americans braced for a potentially long and contested vote counting process, storefronts across the country were being wrapped in sheets of plywood.

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Installed as a precaution in the event of unrest following the election results, the plywood barricades and protections appear like a dystopian symbol of a nation in crisis. Images posted online show workers drilling and hanging wood over store and office windows in downtown areas across the country, from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. The plywood is especially widespread in Washington, D.C., with the windows of stores throughout the downtown area completely covered.

For some businesses, the plywood contingency plan is a repeat of precautions taken earlier this year, when protests and unrest filled city streets around the U.S. after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Originally an ad hoc response to the surges of protest activity, the re-installation of window coverings ahead of Election Day has a tinge of lessons learned, and could be an indication that these types of protections will become a regular, perhaps even normal, item in business’ equipment closets. Just look to Berlin.

Every year, on April 30, stores, businesses and banks in the German capital pull out barricades from the storerooms and mount them over their windows in preparation for the often raucous and sometimes violent night that precedes May 1. A public holiday in Germany known to much of the world as Labor Day, May 1 has a special resonance in Berlin, the once-divided city that still retains some attachment to its half-communist past. The holiday’s marches and demonstrations have become notorious for their tendency to result in broken windows and fires.

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Boarded up businesses in New York on June 3rd, 2020. [Photo: robertcicchetti/iStock]

Businesses know to be ready with their own protection, whenever it’s needed. Reusable, and sometimes specifically designed to attach to the facades of stores, these custom-made barricades have become common on everything from small-scale bodegas to chain grocery stores to bank branches.

Commerzbank, with locations across Germany, has long used these kinds of barriers, according to a spokesperson. “Like many other banks and shops, we have taken protective measures on buildings and branches where there could be rioting and property damage, especially due to demonstrations,” spokesperson Gisela Hawickhorst writes via email. “We started with this many years ago, and the protective measures have proven themselves.”

In Berlin, the bank Berliner-Sparkasse has also outfitted its locations around the city with reusable barricades and window protections. “In the past windows were damaged during demonstrations like on May 1. We take these measures to minimize the costs for repair and protect our branches,” a spokesperson writes. “We really hope that there won’t be riots after the [U.S.] elections!”

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Research on the likelihood of violence after the election suggests that some of these fears are overblown, and the protections businesses are installing are mostly reactionary. But in a year of racial and political tensions stretched even further by a pandemic that’s been both deadly and economically devastating, many businesses worry that Election Day will be the latest flashpoint. The president himself has been stoking unrest and sometimes praising violence around the election.

Businesses in the U.S. are preparing accordingly, but the practice in many cities is still novel. Much of what is being put into place appears to be more of a temporary solution–sheets of 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood drilled into place over large street-facing windows and then discarded when no longer needed. It might not be long before some businesses follow the Berlin model and stop considering these protections as disposable one-offs.

They wouldn’t be the first. Non-scalable fencing has recently been erected around the White House. It’s apparently the same fencing that went up in early June during protests over police brutality and systemic racism. An ominous precedent, the White House itself may be setting the standard for how the country invests in longer-term protection for unrest to come.