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Plywood put up by businesses to deter looters comes down as city reopens

Workers remove wood panels that covered window displays

Workers remove wood panels that covered window displays at the Macy's Herald Square flagship store in Manhattan on June 12.  Credit: Getty Images/David Dee Delgado

The panicked proprietor of a vegetarian restaurant on Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village kept checking alerts on his phone, pleading with workers to hurry up and finish boarding up his storefront before the imminent protesters came by.

“‘We have 40 minutes! We have 30 minutes! We have 20 minutes!’” recalled one of the workers, Javier Rodríguez, describing the proprietor’s June 2 countdown on the street as the crew measured, cut and screwed in the plywood — on the second day of New York City’s curfew meant to curb looting and other unrest that coincided with outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

At a lumberyard in Bethpage, the plywood stock, already low because of homeowners biding the coronavirus lockdown with home-improvement projects, has dwindled as businesses have bought plywood to protect against looting.

“We haven’t stopped, we’ve been so busy,” said Stephanie Ramos of Family Lumber, on Stewart Avenue.

Across the city, businesses small and large boarded up storefronts, offices, apartment houses. Saks Fifth Avenue fortified plywood covering its flagship store with razor wire, private security guards with dogs and flood lights. Five blocks away, the day before, on June 1, looters smashed their way into a Best Buy on the corner of East 44th Street — just as workers had begun to install plywood

Citywide, looting and theft damage totaled tens of millions of dollars if not more — most big businesses are insured, though not all small ones are — according to Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a prominent business group.

Now, as the city begins the next phase of easing restrictions imposed months ago to stop the spread of coronavirus, the plywood is beginning to come down.

“The fact that the looting and the vandalism stopped after about five days pretty much reassured store owners, retailers and others that the police had things under control. So I think that there is cautious optimism that this was a brief moment in time when the police were distracted by the protest demonstrations but this is not going back to a pattern of lawlessness in the city,” Wylde said. “But they’re still nervous about it.”

Minus a deductible — which can vary — insurance generally covers the bulk of what the industry calls “riot-caused damage,” “civil commotion,” “vandalism” and “malicious mischief”: looting, stolen inventory, structural damage, cleanup, and cash in the register up to the amount listed in the policy, said Michael Barry, a spokesman for the industry-funded Insurance Information Institute.

Premiums could rise in a certain area if insurers determine that risks are higher there, he said.

Across the nation, what the industry calls “civil disorder” following Floyd’s death could prove the costliest since the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the LAPD cops videotaped beating Rodney King, according to data posted online by the institute. That rioting cost $775 million in insured losses, or $1.4 billion in today’s money. The Watts Riots of 1965 — which followed allegations of police brutality during the arrest in California of a black man by a white highway patrolman, exploding a powder keg of outrage that left 34 people dead and hundreds of buildings in ashes — had estimated losses of $44 million, or $357 million today, the data said.

Barry said there isn’t yet an estimate of 2020’s insured losses.

“The adjuster’s going to get out there pretty quickly to assess the damage,” Barry said. “And for the insurers, this is their time to shine. When a policyholder has a loss, this is how they show their value.”

On Saturday at Family Lumber in Bethpage, a call came in from a Garden City business expecting a protest in the village this weekend and seeking plywood panels, each costing about $27, Ramos said. (That figure excludes labor. Earlier in June, for instance, parts and labor to board up a small tax preparer in East Elmhurst, Queens, was about $600 total, according to Rodríguez.)

But, for the Garden City business, it was too late: Later that morning, before someone from that business got to the store, someone else bought all of that plywood, she said.

 And don’t expect the costs to proactively buy or install plywood to be reimbursed.

Barry, the insurance spokesman, said it’s unlikely to be covered — though the costs to secure a looted business might be.

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