As the coronavirus pandemic persists, Georgetown restaurateurs and retailers have met the twin challenges of the District’s Phase One reopening and property damage during the recent protests with a variety of responses — from sadness and anger to resilience and determination, along with support for the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for an end to police brutality.
“The spirit of Georgetown merchants is incredible, and they are cleaning up, rebuilding and making plans to reopen as soon as they are able,” said Joe Sternlieb, CEO of the Georgetown Business Improvement District. “Despite the fact that the vast majority of protests in D.C. over the murder of George Floyd have been peaceful, large groups of young people, mostly unaffiliated with the BLM protests, vandalized 57 Georgetown businesses.” Of those establishments, 42 were looted, according to Sternlieb. The BID’s most recent announcement stated that 184 Georgetown businesses were boarded up.
“As we were just gearing up for the reopening, the tragic event of George Floyd happened, leading to protests in the nation, including our neighborhood. And, sadly, looting began,” said Emel Bayrak, owner of Café Georgetown. Nevertheless, she has had valuable conversations about racial injustice with many protesters who have stopped by the café, giving her “a deeper understanding of the injustices happening in our country.” She and her staff are “preparing actionable steps” to address these issues.
At the Officina Popup at Via Umbria, the manager (who asked to remain anonymous) recalled that some guests “were shocked when they saw everything in the neighborhood boarded up.” However, he feels “hopeful,” since the “protests got less violent” over time. He aid he generally supports the protests. Undamaged by looting or vandalism, the Italian-themed market has begun allowing small groups of shoppers to browse inside.
At neighborhood landmark Martin’s Tavern, also undamaged, outdoor patio dining has resumed, with six elegant tables (allowing for social distancing), newly painted iron railings and hanging flower baskets. Farther up Wisconsin Avenue, Thomas Sweet suffered a broken window, but is serving its small-batch ice cream. Outdoor tables are available, though indoor seating has not yet reopened.
Offering patio service on its walled terrace, with nine tables spaciously separated by potted plants, Boulangerie Christophe has reopened for brunch and lunch. Throughout the protests, the café has “kept an open door” instead of boarding up, according to barrista Thea Simpson, who speaks French with her customers. “Our doors are open to everybody,” she said. “We do believe that Black Lives Matter. It’s a quintessential idea that our owners and managerial staff hold.” Simpson, who has attended downtown BLM protests “almost every day,” as have other staff members, added: “We understand that the looters and the rioters are different and separate from the message” of the protests.
For Krista Johnson, owner of Ella-Rue, a high-end consignment shop for designer women’s wear, the looting was both disastrous and appalling, especially since her P Street shop had been closed for three months due to the coronavirus lockdown. Now it’s in ruins.
“The looting of Georgetown was the final hit we did not foresee,” she said. “I am all for peaceful protest and love that in America we [have that right]. And what happened to George Floyd was a tragedy.” Despite her frustrations with the government restrictions and the ineffective response to the lootings and vandalism, she appreciates the support from “good neighbors and clients,” who send “uplifting messages” and “encourage us to keep going.”
Across the street from Ella-Rue, Carolyn Wasylczuk, co-owner of Just Paper & Tea, said that viewing all the destruction in the neighborhood was “so sad.” Support from neighbors and clients during the shutdown has buoyed her spirits, however. When asked whether she supports the BLM protests, she declared “Oh my God, absolutely!” She and her husband, who have owned the business together for over 30 years, were “excited” to attend the downtown BLM rallies, she stated, though they only stayed briefly because they are “at a risky age” for the coronavirus.
While she agrees with the racial equality message of Black Lives Matter, Zola Tungalag, manager of Lucas Tailor & Cleaners on Wisconsin Avenue, is infuriated by the lootings and vandalism that took place. “I agree with these people, but it’s very hard to have broken businesses. People are having a hard time with COVID19. Businesses are shut down already and this makes it even worse. It was very scary.”
David Berkebile, who has owned Georgetown Tobacco for 56 years, described the challenges he has faced in recent days as “life-changing.” While he believes the “damage and loss due to a few bad actors” could have been prevented, he appreciates the apology recently issued by D.C. police representatives and the steps taken by the mayor to bring the crises under control. He asserted that “social and legal justice for Black, Brown and minority [groups] must become a part of our national fabric.”
“Does it suck that 99 percent of Georgetown is practically closed right now? Yes,” said Derek Rice, manager of Good Stuff Eatery on M Street. “But I think there are deeper causes to all of this. I don’t think my being a person of color affects my reactions to the protests as much as just seeing all the injustices going on in our country. So I commend everybody for what they’re doing to bring about change and I just hope people stay safe.”