There are no boards covering the windows of Kevin Ni's sushi restaurant on Nicollet Mall. Not for now, at least.
While some of his downtown Minneapolis business neighbors are considering tacking protective plywood to their storefronts and sending staff home in anticipation of protests when former police officer Derek Chauvin stands trial for murder and manslaughter, Ni is planning to stay open as long as he safely can: "Hopefully there won't be riots again. I'm hoping people will calm down and do what they've got to do without damaging others. … To board up a business is actually making downtown like a ghost town. We don't want to paint that picture."
As one of the most significant police brutality trials in American history is scheduled to start soon, months after George Floyd's death, pandemic-squeezed business owners and building managers are torn between putting on a show of confidence by staying open or boarding up in case riots erupt.
Amid conflicting advice from city and neighborhood leaders, many are wondering whether authorities will make good on their promise to quell violence quickly, unlike last summer.
Ni, who owns Sushi Train, said rocks sailed through his window while employees were still at work in August after a man killed himself outside the U.S. Bancorp Center and crowds vandalized shops, mistakenly believing police were at fault.
Far worse than shattered glass, Ni said, is the psychological harm employees suffered after a year of reduced hours and income.
"Income is the biggest issue for everybody right now," he said. "They will much rather make some money and then also stay safe at the same time."
The stage for protest is being set near government buildings now surrounded with fencing and wire.
Chef David Fhima is still debating what to do. His restaurant, Fhima's Minneapolis in City Center, sustained heavy damage last May when rioters broke through its glass doors.
"The cautious part of me wants to board things up and limit hours … but honestly at 50% [COVID capacity] and with downtown being so deserted, how many more limitations can I add?" he asked. "The optimistic part of me, which is who I am in the first place, trusts that we have learned our lessons, that we can protest and have our voices be heard while respecting private property."
Fhima, who helps run a charity kitchen out of an empty space in City Center that prepares and delivers meals to people in need, plans to keep his restaurant open as usual for now.
The staff at City Center, a retail and office complex stretching from Hennepin Avenue to the Nicollet Mall, kept the plywood they used last year and plan to barricade windows and doors by mid- to late March, said building manager Jim Durda.
Along with other downtown commercial buildings, City Center will add more private security and likely reduce skyway hours during the trial, he said.
Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District, encouraged business owners to have faith in authorities.
"Downtown will continue to fully function during this period, and that's largely a result of a really thorough preparation," he said.
At the same time, the city's Community Planning and Economic Development department is warning business owners to take emergency precautions and make sure insurance policies are up to date.
"You might want to consider adding physical barriers, such as boarding or permanent security gates," Economic Policy and Development Director Erik Hansen said at a recent news conference.
Jas Singh, who owns Greenway Liquors in Loring Park, boarded up his windows about two weeks ago when someone shattered one. Greenway Liquors, on the edge of the downtown area, has experienced intermittent looting since COVID-19 reached Minnesota last March, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Singh said he might as well leave his boards up through the trial, but he has no plans to close.
"Last time they did nothing when there were people stealing, you know," he said. "Let's see if police will do something this time."
Police will act faster to arrest rioters, "the root of our failures last year … which we're all still ashamed by and still recovering from," Minneapolis Police Lt. Mark Klukow promised a recent meeting of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association.
Klukow and First Precinct Inspector Bill Peterson told the association that the trial's closing arguments will be law enforcement's cue to stand guard in the city. Officers from surrounding agencies, including National Guard in Humvees and police teams on bikes, will materialize in the places struck most heavily last summer.
Additional surveillance downtown includes an interlinking radio channel for private security teams posted in about 65 buildings, and a communication center housed in the First Precinct police station, which coordinates public and private camera systems.
While some roads will be closed during the trial, police could also ask Metro Transit to stop trains and buses and close skyways to restrict the movement of people, Peterson said.
The city's armoring has drawn criticism.
"The city is very clearly demonstrating that they value property over people," said Kim Wooster, a protest medic with the community group 612 MASH. "Yet again they're willing to employ the National Guard, requesting additional funding for outside police forces to augment [Minneapolis police], and all of it to protect buildings and property, and it's utterly ridiculous. … If they were truly concerned about the safety of the citizens and its people, they would have been pouring funding over the last nine months into truly resolving the systemic issues that led to the murder of Mr. Floyd."
Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association Board Chairwoman Pamela McCrae said she thinks a misperception of danger has gotten out of hand.
"We've had protests on our streets, but we do all the time for different things, whether it's gay rights, whether it's immigrant rights," she said. "There are people that protest a lot. … It's very innocent expressions of what they believe."
St. Stephen's Human Services and House of Charity, which serves downtown's homeless population, will equip staff with walkie-talkies and essential-worker identification in case the city implements a curfew.
"Whenever possible, we ask people to stay inside during unrest. At the same time, we don't want to discourage them from their right to gather and protest," Executive Director Deborah Moses said.
St. Stephen's spray-painted "Housing for Our Community" on the plywood that fortified their building last summer. Moses hasn't yet decided if they'll do the same for the trial. "I don't know if we're feeling too confident now," she said.