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Amid Pandemic And Protests, American Businesses Grapple With The Future


What happens now after a devastating pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment, police brutality sparking days of civil unrest? Many people are wondering about a new kind of future, among them, people who run America's businesses - large and small. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It all seemed surreal.

ELIAS USSO: We live in the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed.

SELYUKH: Elias Usso and his wife, Mawerdi Hamid, walked to that intersection two blocks from their Minneapolis home to pay tribute as soon as they heard.

MAWERDI HAMID: The shock that it happened in our backyard and that it could happen to any one of us.

SELYUKH: Usso spends the workday in his pharmacist coat perched on a chair behind the counter of Seward Pharmacy - his independent, small business on historic Lake Street. After work, the couple joined the small protest basically in their backyard. That night, they watched in real time as looters shattered massive glass panels of their corner store.

HAMID: All of a sudden, Elias started getting notifications on his phone from his security company.

USSO: We were just watching it from the app. People go into the pharmacy - and taking every drug possible. They keep looting everything there.

SELYUKH: The owners don't blame the protesters. They say some people are taking advantage to profit, sow chaos and distract from peaceful demonstrations. Like so many others, the Lake Street stores were already struggling through months of very slow business during the coronavirus shutdowns. In fact, the pandemic had an outsize impact on minority-owned businesses, like Pang Foua Xiong's eyelash extensions salon across the river in St. Paul.

PANG FOUA XIONG: It's been confusing, frustrating, challenging because I also have six kids.

SELYUKH: When the pandemic hit, she was in the process of searching for a new space big enough to serve also as community for local entrepreneurs. But now the location she wanted in a neighborhood where she grew up is reeling from nighttime looting. And she is strained for funds because she couldn't get much coronavirus aid without a physical space.

FOUA XIONG: I was already in this really weird limbo (laughter). A lot of these city grants - I just actually got notice today that I didn't get approved for that. And yes, so I'm - sorry. I'm just - I'm rethinking, is this something that I want to continue?

SELYUKH: Economists have warned that many businesses will not make it, especially if there's a new crush of coronavirus cases. But many owners have been putting their situation in the context of the protests, the civil unrest against racial injustice, which they say is bigger than any property or merchandise loss.

Foua Xiong says she's determined to build a business in her childhood neighborhood, though maybe next time with a big plan B for a major crisis. For now, she's organizing her first food drive of hot meals to neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

Usso's Lake Street community has mobilized to raise donations for rebuilding but also to keep providing people who live there with food, medications and basic supplies.

USSO: We're not going to give up. We'll come back. If I don't give that service, nobody will.

SELYUKH: Even corporations, like Target, CVS and Walmart, that shuttered stores after looting have walked the line to empathize with the protest in public statements, decrying racism and discrimination. Some are taking this moment to examine their role in bridging today's divides.


KEN FRAZIER: Leaders in the business community can be a unifying force.

SELYUKH: That's Ken Frazier, who runs pharma giant Merck, speaking on CNBC this week. He's 1 of only 4 black CEOs in the Fortune 500. He used the interview to call on companies to go beyond platitudes and statements, to chip away at economic inequality through things like broader access to better education and stronger training or apprenticeship programs. And he got personal.


FRAZIER: You know, I get to sit on CNBC and have this conversation with you because of one fundamental reason. And that was when I was growing up in the inner city of Philadelphia, the social engineers at the time when Dr. King was leading the protests in the 1960s decided to take a few inner city black kids, make them ride 90 minutes to different schools to get a rigorous education.

SELYUKH: He says those opportunity gaps - they still exist. And only unified efforts to bridge them will work. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.