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City That Once Guided a Nation Now Shows Its Cracks

Ashley Daily Stegall hated how the plywood looked covering the smashed windows at her parents’ jewelry store in Peoria, Ill. So she asked a local artist to paint flowers on the boards. “The goal is to make people happy,” said Ms. Stegall.

For Janet Davis, the reality of what happened in Peoria cannot be easily painted over. She erected plywood to protect her clothing store from looting that followed peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd. A month later, Ms. Davis still hasn’t fully reopened because she worries more violence is ahead.

Big retailers are struggling, too. The Dollar General, near a large subsidized housing development, dumped all of its food last week because the vandalized store is likely to stay closed six more weeks for repairs. “They are throwing out food in a food desert,” said Denise Moore, a City Council member.

A city of about 111,000 in the central part of the state, Peoria has historically been a bellwether for the Midwest and, at times, the nation. It is a place where marketers tested products, politicians honed their slogans and rock stars kicked off tours. “Will it play in Peoria?” the saying went.

But it has been many years since companies like Pampers and Folgers coffee debuted products in Peoria before rolling them out nationally.

Some residents and local leaders say Peoria is now emblematic for a different reason. It is a city where many Black residents, who make up about 27 percent of the population, and white residents experience starkly different economic realities, leading to years of frustration and despair.

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

On May 30, there were peaceful protests throughout the city. But the next night, Peoria experienced a burst of looting, vandalism and violence when, the police and residents say, a group of young people drove through the city, ransacking beauty stores, breaking into a guns and ammunition store, and even cutting the locks at the city zoo to let the donkeys out.

One month later, business owners are still struggling to make repairs and reopen, while also debating the roots of the looting and how to respond. Many residents say the vandalism was a random spasm of rage and opportunism. But others say some of the looting was deliberate, targeting large chains and certain other retailers while sparing many Black-owned businesses.

Chama St. Louis, a former president of Peoria’s Black Chamber of Commerce who is running for mayor, said she believed at least some of the looting was meant to send a message, and she bailed out four people who were arrested in connection with the unrest. But in doing so, Ms. St. Louis, 35, found herself at odds with both white and Black leaders in Peoria, who denounced the vandalism and theft as simply crimes, not political acts.

Ms. St. Louis said the people she had bailed out targeted “corporate businesses and businesses that leech off the community.”

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

“But I understand why this was being done,” she said. “It should have been part of a bigger conversation about how communities of color have been treated in Peoria. Instead they are focused on denouncing the behavior, not on why this happened.”

Ms. Moore, who is the first Black woman elected to the City Council, said there was a more troubling reason Black businesses seemed spared from the looting.

“There just aren’t enough Black-owned businesses in Peoria,” she said. “That is the bigger issue.”

Peoria’s South Side has one of the poorest ZIP codes in Illinois, and one publication has, for several years, named the city among the worst places to live if you are Black. The median household income for Black residents of Peoria is $41,200, compared with $60,300 for white residents, according to census data. White residents are twice as likely to hold a college degree as Black residents are.

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

And yet Peoria, which boasts a revived riverfront, a minor-league baseball stadium and a new drive-in movie theater, was also cited by Business Insider as one of the best cities to live in after the pandemic. Caterpillar, the construction equipment company, still has a large presence in the city.

“At the same time that it is being lauded as an all-American city it is being named, again and again, as one of the worst places to be Black,” said Terrion Williamson, a professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, who grew up on the South Side. “Perhaps what it is to be ‘quintessentially American’ is to be necessarily hostile to Black life.”

Before the looting occurred, it seemed to be well telegraphed and widely expected among many in Peoria. In court documents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said some of the looters had used Facebook to rally and coordinate people to converge on certain retailers and a mall.

In all, 27 businesses were burglarized, 14 other properties were damaged, and there were several reports of arson, according to the F.B.I.

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

One of those businesses was Kelly Beauty Supply, which boasts “the largest selection of wigs in Peoria.”

Kelly Park, 44, opened the shop three years ago, thinking a smaller city like Peoria would be less competitive than Chicago, where she and her husband had settled after immigrating from South Korea in their 20s.

In a shopping plaza, next to a Walmart, Kelly Beauty Supply focuses on items for Black women, offering hair extensions and nail products. The store had been closed since late March because of the pandemic and had no income for about two months.

The store was set to open on June 1, but the night before, one of Ms. Park’s former employees texted her: There was talk in local Facebook circles, the person said, that looters were going to hit the beauty shop.

Early that morning, Ms. Park got a call from her alarm company that the store had been vandalized. When her husband arrived at the store, the police had already left. Inside, the display counters had been wrecked and some of the most expensive hair extensions had been stolen, Ms. Park said. The Walmart had also been vandalized.

The worst part was watching the security camera footage from that night. Ms. Park said she recognized some of the people who had broken into the store, because they were among her customers.

“There were some familiar faces,” she said. “It is too much stress thinking about it. I just try to focus on the kind people.”

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times
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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

Ms. Park said she planned to donate more money for college scholarships for local students. But in two years, when their lease is up, she said, they will most likely move their business out of Peoria.

“I feel very tired,” said Ms. Park, who has been battling cancer during the pandemic.

Ms. Davis, who runs the clothing store, also received a tip from friends monitoring Facebook that her business, Janet’s Just for You, was a target. The daughter of a Peoria police detective, and a leader in the Black community, Ms. Davis, 63, went on a local radio station to plead for the looting to stop.

“They say they are about Black Lives Matter, but if you break into my business, you are taking a Black life,” said Ms. Davis, who opened her shop 28 years ago.

Although her store was spared, she blames the mayhem on young people outside Peoria, who “hyped up” local residents.

Ms. Davis has no plans to reopen to the general public soon. Taking down the plywood costs money, and she’s not sure how good business would be.

“I am selling designer clothing,” she said. “I want people to feel good, not wondering whether they should run or duck when they are in my store.”

Travis Mohlenbrink reopened four of his seven restaurants in June for outdoor and partial indoor dining. None of them were damaged by the looting. Late last month, though, the windows in five of his catering vans were smashed, the first time his business had ever been vandalized.

“I hope there are enough people who have been made aware of the issues and the dialogue can continue,” Mr. Mohlenbrink said. “I am an optimist in general. But the realist side of me is scared about our future. A lot of things have to change.”

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

Ms. Stegall is feeling more hopeful. Her family’s store, Bremer Jewelry, was hit twice by looters. First, they smashed the front windows but couldn’t get past a metal security gate. On the next try, people attempted to pry the back door open with a crowbar.

“They did this because there was jewelry in the store and they wanted it,” she said. “It was not personal.”

The day after the looting, Ms. Stegall, 31, invited the police and City Council members to pray for harmony in the store’s parking lot. She said the group had included Black and white residents reading from the Bible.

Ms. Stegall, who runs the marketing side of the business, asked local artists to come up with an idea for a mural to cover the plywood. One artist wanted to convey a political message, but Ms. Stegall rejected that idea.

“This is about turning the other cheek and reminding people that not everything is horrible,” she said.

“We have customers from every walk of life and from every race and income level who come here to celebrate a wedding or an engagement or a special occasion,” Ms. Stegall added. “And we are a family of 30 employees, all with different opinions. We don’t feel the need to express one opinion publicly.”

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

Young’s Popcorn Heaven, a Black-owned business, was also spared damage. But JoAnn Young, 66, who opened the shop with her husband, Greg, after she retired as a card dealer at a local casino, said she worried that big chains that were damaged, like Walmart, would raise their prices to pay for the repairs.

“They will pass those costs along to consumers, and prices are already going higher because of the coronavirus,” she said.

Last week, the Dollar General store was dumping even packaged food in trash bins because of liability and health concerns in case any of it had been damaged when vandals broke in, Ms. Moore said. She worries that nearby residents now have to travel more than a mile for affordable food.

“Yes, you have a right to be angry,” she said. “But you are hurting the people who can least afford it.”

A Dollar General spokeswoman said the company anticipated that the store would reopen within the next four to six weeks, adding in a statement that “as part of the repair process, we are discarding all remaining products in the store, including foods, since we cannot fully validate the integrity and quality of these products were not compromised.”

Ms. St. Louis, the mayoral candidate, said looting at places like Walmart and Dollar General may have been the only way to get the city’s attention, after years of warning about widening inequality and racism.

“You can’t just talk about the how and what,” she said. “You have to dig into why this behavior happened.”

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Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

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Retail Sales Rebounded in May, but the Road Back Is Long

Retail sales rebounded sharply in May as thousands of stores and restaurants reopened after lockdowns were lifted and federal stimulus checks and tax refunds fueled a burst of spending, a sign that the United States economy is lurching back to life.

But while the 17.7 percent rise in sales reported on Tuesday is the largest monthly surge on record, the underlying data presents a more complicated picture and shows just how arduous an economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be.

The May numbers followed two months of record declines, and overall sales were still down 8 percent from February. Some categories, like clothing, were down as much as 63 percent from a year earlier. And many of the stores and restaurants that welcomed back customers last month did so with fewer employees, reflecting a permanently altered retail landscape and an ominous sign for the labor market.

“I think a lot of it is lockdown fatigue,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global. “I would caution not to be fooled by this large gain. We still have a long way to go in repairing the economy.”

May’s retail sales figures became the latest data point fueling the debate in Washington and on Wall Street about whether a broad reopening of businesses will cause the economy to snap back quickly or if additional stimulus measures are needed.

President Trump immediately seized on the positive monthly figures as evidence that a recovery was taking hold. “Looks like a BIG DAY FOR THE STOCK MARKET, AND JOBS!” he wrote on Twitter minutes after the Commerce Department released the numbers.

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Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

But Jerome H. Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, sounded a more cautionary note around the broader health of the economy on Tuesday. Mr. Powell told the Senate Banking Committee that even as some parts of the economy were seeing a modest rebound, “levels of output and employment remain far below their pre-pandemic levels, and significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery.”

“Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely,” he said. “The longer the downturn lasts, the greater the potential for longer-term damage from permanent job loss and business closures.”

The mixed signals about the economy fueled volatile trading on Wall Street. Stocks rallied in the morning after the retail numbers were released. But many of those gains soon evaporated, as investors processed the economy’s murky longer-term outlook. By early afternoon, the market had sprung back, with the S&P 500 ending the day up 1.9 percent.

The increase in total retail sales followed a 14.7 percent drop in April, the largest monthly decline in nearly three decades of record-keeping, and an 8.3 percent decline in March.

Economists had expected a rebound from April, when widespread business closures drove retail sales to their lowest level since 2013, though the gain was greater than some had expected.




Monthly Retail Sales

$500 billion

-7.9%

 

450

RECESSIONS

-21.8%

400

Change from

Feb. 2020 level

350

2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

2020

Monthly retail and food sales

$500 billion

-7.9%

 

450

RECESSIONS

-21.8%

400

Change from

Feb. 2020 level

350

’06

’08

’10

’12

’14

’16

’18

’20


Seasonally adjusted

Source: Commerce Department

By The New York Times

After more than a month of quarantine, May brought a tentative restart of brick-and-mortar retailing across most of the country, with major chains like Macy’s and Gap reopening hundreds of stores. Some restaurants that had either closed or shifted their business to delivery and curbside pickup also reopened for in-person dining.

Driving some of the sales gains were warm weather, a sense of relief after weeks cooped up at home and optimism from some that the worst of the pandemic could be over. But they were also lifted by stimulus money — totaling $1,200 per recipient, plus $500 per child — that will run out in the coming months, with no indications that Congress intends to pass another round of assistance.

A jump in spending on motor vehicles and at restaurants and bars accounted for just over half of the overall gain in sales. Sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores, which were hit especially hard by the closures, rose 188 percent in May, while spending at furniture and home furnishing stores jumped 90 percent. Still, clothing sales were down 63 percent from a year earlier, while furniture was down 22 percent.




Change in May

retail sales from:

Last

month

Last

year

Clothing

+188%

–63

%

Furniture/furnishings

–22

+90

Sporting goods/

hobbies/musical

instruments/books

+5%

+88

Electronics/appliances

+51

–30

Motor vehicles/parts

+44

–4

Food service/

drink places

+29

–39

Total retail sales

+18

–6

Miscellaneous

+14

–23

Gas stations

+13

–31

Building materials/

garden supplies

+11

+16

Nonstore retailers

+9

+31

General merch.

+6

n.c.

Food/drink stores

+2

+15

Health/personal care

n.c.

–10

Change in May

retail sales from:

Last month

Last year

Clothing

+

188

%

63

%

Furniture/furnishings

+

90

22

Sporting goods/hobbies/

musical instruments/books

+

88

+5

%

Electronics/appliances

+

51

30

Motor vehicles/parts

+

44

4

Food service/drink places

+

29

39

Total retail sales

+

18

6

Miscellaneous

+

14

23

Gas stations

+

13

31

Building materials/

garden supplies

+

11

+16

Nonstore retailers

+

9

+31

General merchandise

6

+

n.c.

Food/drink stores

+

2

+15

Health/personal care

n.c.

10


Note: Data are the percentage change to May 2020 from April 2020 and May 2019, and are based on seasonally adjusted figures.

Source: Commerce Department

By The New York Times

No matter how fleeting, the rebound in May was a welcome boost, especially for small businesses like the Bookstore of Gloucester, an independent bookseller in Gloucester, Mass.

The store carries a selection of best sellers, books on race and books on the city’s maritime history. Even though it was selling only through curbside pickup and mailing out orders, sales were not much lower than in May last year.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Nicole Dahlmer, an employee.

She attributed the relatively robust sales to a loyal customer base and to longer waits at large booksellers like Amazon during the pandemic.

“The real test is if tourism holds up this summer,” said Ms. Dahlmer, who usually is paid to work in the store but has been working on a volunteer basis to help out the owner during the pandemic. She said she expected to return to a paid position soon.

Aneta Markowska, the chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies, said that while she had anticipated a jump in retail sales in May, it was off “a pretty low hurdle.” The bigger question was the sustainability of any improvement, since spending was bolstered by tax refunds and government stimulus efforts.

“By the time we get into July, those tax refunds will probably be largely spent,” Ms. Markowska said, “and then you’re back to, hey, what’s the underlying employment growth? Because that’s going to have to be the key driver of spending going forward.”

The positive numbers in May also mask some of the intense strain on businesses.

While his White Electric Coffee shop in Providence, R.I., was closed, Tom Toupin sold a special “Stay at Home” brew online, donating 20 percent of the sales to the state’s Covid-19 relief fund.

In preparing to reopen this month, Mr. Toupin spent about $1,000 on a device that enables contactless payments and reconfigured the front counter and register to create more distance between employees and customers.

But in the first few days after reopening, the shop had about 60 customers a day, down from a typical 350. Mr. Toupin has had to waste food because he was not sure how many customers would come, he said. Five people are working in the shop now, down from the usual team of a dozen.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 16, 2020

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.