Articles

Local Businesses Hit by COVID-19, Smacked by Riots Have Some Recourses

By Keith Morelli

Dirk Libaers

TAMPA (June 5, 2020) -- On the verge of emerging from the COVID-19-caused lockdown in which businesses large and small were forced to shut their doors and take a massive revenue hit, some near USF were brutally victimized by looters and vandals during the civil unrest that swept through Tampa over the last weekend of May.

As the prospect of getting out from under the lockdown of non-essential businesses neared, this was a devastating blow as rioters torched, vandalized, broke into and looted some small businesses along Fowler Avenue.

That prospect of getting back to normal looks bleaker than ever, said Dirk Libaers, a professor of entrepreneurship with USF’s Muma College of Business and assistant director of the USF Center for Entrepreneurship.

“This is a double whammy for small businesses,” he said. “Many businesses were already struggling with slashed revenue and dismal earning prospects under the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and now the unrest and the damage it leaves to some small businesses in its wake makes things even worse.”

Champs, Saigon Bay Vietnamese Restaurant and other small businesses in a strip shopping center across from the University Mall were severely damaged or destroyed by fire or looted.

For some, Libaers said, support from the community will help revitalize the dreams of the small-business owners. A GoFundMe account, for example, was set up on behalf of the owners of Saigon Bay Vietnamese Restaurant. The account pulled in nearly $100,000 by the end of the week.

“The support in the GoFundMe is mind-blowing and we are grateful for the community,” Ricky Son, son of the restaurants owners, said on the GoFundMe page. “This whole experience has been a rollercoaster. As a young man, it has made me realize that even through bad situations, good can prevail and make us all stronger.”

Police said more than 40 businesses were either damaged or looted during the riots.

Little Greek Grill, located on Fowler Avenue just west of USF, also was looted. Nick Vojnovic, owner of Little Greek Grill and a USF alumnus, said he agrees with the message of the demonstrators, but that the message was lost on a few who used the protests for their personal gain.

Though the restaurant had been shuttered to eat-in patrons during the shutdown, selling only take-out orders and ingredients for meals, Vojnovic continued to donate food to the homeless in the area and gave hot meals to USF students facing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Feed-A-Bull food pantry.

The total damage to Little Greek amounted to about $10,000 for repairs and replacements and insurance is only covering half, Vojnovic told the USF Oracle in a story printed this week.

Libaers said businesses can take precautions but even with those, there isn’t much owners can do if vandals set their sights on a particular establishment. He said installing security cameras that cover a wide area in and around the premises can help law enforcement after-the-fact.

“And make sure the security cameras’ feeds are reliable,” he said, “and focus on the faces of perpetrators.”

And there’s insurance, he said.

“Make sure that the business and property insurance cover losses related to civil disturbances,” he said. “That said, property and business insurance in general is like a consumer car insurance. Basic liability is required by many landlords, protecting business owners in the case of lawsuits from customers who are injured while visiting the store, for example.

“But it is up to the small-business owner to decide how much insurance coverage to carry for coverage of equipment, furniture, interior design, etc. in the case of fire, theft or a pretty unlikely event like a civil disturbance like the ones we witnessed here.

“And many small business owners like to cut expenses on insurance coverage because they are already running on tight cash flows.”

Protecting small businesses from vandalism and looting comes at a cost, he said.

“But just like precautions taken for the pandemic (extreme cleanliness, PPE etc.), this might unfortunately be something business owners need to consider going forward,” Libaers said. “And it will increase the cost of doing business, costs that eventually will be passed on to customers.”