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Market Street Protests Escalate Uncertainty

By Betsy Price 

Chelsea Tavern was the only restaurant open on Wilmington’s Market Street Sunday after a night of violence Saturday, and owner Joe Van Horn was rapidly serving takeout food and drink as he talked about what happened and what might happen next.

Van Horn had stood holding a lead pipe outside his restaurant until 12:30 a.m. Sunday, trying to protect it from protesters angry about George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis policeman. 

A peaceful march had passed earlier in the afternoon, but an angry evening crowd destroyed the glass fronts and entrances to Merchant Bar and La Fia down the street, looting the alcohol and more. They also broke the windows at Bardea, but were prevented from entering there.

Van Horn said he could hear people in the crowd threatening to smash into his place, but also hear others in the crowd — some of whom he recognized as members of his usual late night crowd — yelling, “Don’t go near Chelsea!”

On Sunday, Van Horn wasn’t sure what the violence meant for the future of the dining and retail shops on Market. 

“What do you think.” he asked.

Restaurant owners and the city were planning a big reopening the week of June 1. Gov. John Carney had issued an executive order allowing restaurants to reopen Monday at 30 percent of their capacity, with some restrictions, such as diners were required to have reservations.

Market Street restaurants were going to be allowed to move tables out into parking spots, special spaces were going to be set aside as pickup locations for food and retail goods, and there was talk of closing the street down briefly one night to give diners the most palatable experience possible.

Van Horn said only two of the nearly 60 people who had made reservations for Monday had canceled as of 1 p.m. Sunday. He doesn’t believe the others will, partly because he knows many as regulars.

“I think he should feel good about that,” said Martin Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions, a nonprofit that markets and promotes Wilmington.

Scott Stein, owner of Bardea, said he had received floods of support, including from the peaceful demonstrators who returned to help him clean up, saying this was not the message they wanted to send.

“We’re getting more phone calls, more support,” Stein said. “People are making more reservations. We have the whole community behind us.”

Van Horn said it was hard to focus forward when there was another protest scheduled Sunday night. 

“I don’t think anything is going back to normal,” Van Horn said.

“I think certainly what happens tonight would be a contributing factor” that helps determine the city’s opening plans, Hageman said Sunday afternoon. 

“It’s just premature to be able to say” how the violence will affect everybody’s plans, Hageman said. “Today it was a day for cleaning, city public works, Downtown Visions, property owners. Tomorrow we’ll begin speaking with restaurateurs and retailers, and when I have that information, I’ll share it with the mayor’s office. The mayor will make a determination about the plan.”

One of Van Horn’s lunch customers Sunday told him that someone was looting the optical store on Market as the customer walked by on his way to pick up his food.

“Cops were saying they are picking their battles right now,” Van Horn said.

Stein and the kitchen staff were in the building handling a particularly busy takeout night Saturday when the violence started.

When the afternoon marchers had passed, Stein and his staff had gone out to stand in front of the restaurant and support them.

“I stand with them in full support,” he said. “It was very peaceful and we were happy to participate with it … We felt proud to stand in protest, but at 6 p.m. there was another protest that came through and it kind of lost control.”

Members of the crowd started throwing things. One man took a bat to Bardea’s windows.

“We got our business totally surrounded,” Stein said. “We were lucky. The cops came in time. I don’t know what would have happened if everybody came in.”

He was relieved no one was hurt. “You can replace glass,” he said.

Bardea had planned to re-open Wednesday night, and Stein was particularly happy about the city’s plans to allow restaurants to expand out, which would give them a chance to serve more people and make more money after being closed for more than two months.

“We’re going to take it day by day,” Stein said. “We’re going to do everything that God has given my two hands and Antimo’s (his brother, co-owner and chef) the opportunity to do to open Wednesday.”

Stein understands why people are angry about Floyd’s death from a cop kneeling on his neck.

“I hope people can peacefully express their emotions,” Stein said. “I just hope it can be done in a safe manner. I hope that for society. We’ve been through a lot this year.”

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