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Small Northwest Side shops’ return following pandemic shutdowns is slowed by recent unrest

The lights are slowly blinking on in the small storefronts that stretch down Fullerton Avenue west of Kimball Avenue.

But in this modest microcosm of The City That Works, lined with mom-and-pop restaurants and independent clothing shops, many storefronts remained shuttered Wednesday. Other shops planned to close long before sundown, with owners anxious about the safety of their staffs and the viability of their businesses.

Armando Pantoja said his Festa Pizzeria restaurant, 3525 W. Fullerton Ave., was attacked Sunday evening by would-be looters who demanded free pizza and threw chairs around before they dispersed.

A nearby pawnshop and a liquor store were targeted by burglars who broke windows Sunday, he and other neighborhood business owners said. And so he has been closing early, forgoing the busy evening hours.

“I lost more business with the protests than the virus,” said Pantoja, who said he has owned Festa for almost 18 years.

The small restaurant was open but dim Wednesday morning, with plywood covering the windows. “Through the pandemic, we were OK, but this new thing — you can’t be safe,” he said.

After a furlough of more than two months, haircutter Yolanda Hernandez said she was relieved to be back at her chair at Darlene’s Unisex, 3442 W. Fullerton. But Hernandez said she was closing the shop in the early afternoon Wednesday because of the violence that scarred nearby businesses Sunday evening.

"I feel afraid of what is going on," Hernandez said. "I feel safe from the virus, but it's scary seeing all these people running around and taking stuff from businesses that are working hard."

Down the street at El Taconazo El Tio, 3529 W. Fullerton, server Rocio Arceo glanced up anxiously when a helicopter circled in the sky overheard. Her father, who has co-owned the restaurant with his brother for four years, never shut the restaurant’s doors — until scattered violence on the street Sunday, Arceo said.

“My dad, he is the type of guy, he don’t close ever — not Christmas Day, not when it’s freezing outside,” Arceo said.

But on Monday, she said, “We took a family decision for the safety of everyone and our drivers. We are definitely on edge. I understand where the protesters are coming from, but they are destroying small businesses in their own neighborhood, and I am not with that. For us, we’re scared that we might be attacked.”

Tomas Rodriguez, co-owner of Cafeteria Marcela’s at 3503 W. Fullerton, said he has been closing at 3 p.m. to protect his staff. “We are the type of restaurant where the same people come every day — they know us and we know their orders,” Rodriguez said. “Now we do everything to go. Everybody is nervous and nobody wants to go out.”

Layers of plywood covered the front of Ramon Velasco’s R V Tire Shop at 3554 W. Fullerton on Wednesday, but Velasco was still guiding customers through a back entrance. He said he has been steadily patching flats and sanding rims.

“We are protecting this business so it will soon be operating as usual,” Velasco said. “The city should open everything up, because the worst thing that can happen is hunger.”

Bradley Treusdell, co-owner of The Little Pickle restaurant, 3703 W. Fullerton, said he decided not to board up his restaurant’s picture windows.

“I certainly empathize with the anger and the frustration people have been dealing with, and can’t blame anyone,” he said. “Even if something did happen, they’re windows. They’re replaceable.”

Ald. Felix Cardona Jr., whose 31st Ward includes part of the stretch of Fullerton, said 26 businesses in his ward were looted Sunday, and so he urged the smaller stores in the area to start closing before sundown.

“We do need these small businesses, which are the anchor of this neighborhood, to be open," Cardona said. "But I asked them to close early to be safe. I expressed to them that it is only temporary. I want my small businesses to get going.”

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