CHESAPEAKE, Va. — When shoppers have been massacred in the aisles or workers gunned down in the break room, how soon is too soon to reopen a store? How much carnage on a nightclub’s dance floor is too much to ever restart the music? What can new drywall and carpeting do to exorcise the horror of mass murder from an office building or high school?
As shootings devastate one setting after another around the country, the people who run or own them face a grim calculation they don’t (yet) teach in management school: When, whether and how to resume business in places of mass death.
“They have some big decisions to make,” said Chesapeake Mayor Rick West, standing outside the Walmart where six people were shot dead by a night supervisor the night before Thanksgiving. His community joined the ranks of mass killing settings four days after five were killed in a Colorado Springs nightclub.
In city after city, institutions have struggled to balance commerce and grief, respect and resilience, weighing the sometimes-conflicting views of survivors, victims’ families, displaced workers and local officials.
“What I’ve learned is that every community does it differently,” said Barbara Poma, the owner of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where a domestic terrorist attack killed 49 people one June night in 2016. “You have to do a lot of listening.”
Poma decided not to reopen the LGBTQ hot spot, instead devoting the location and her subsequent career to a memorial and planned educational museum.
Other mass killing sites — including Colorado’s Columbine High School (13 victims in 1999) and Buffalo’s Tops Market (10 victims in May) resumed operations after top-to-bottom renovations. The El Paso Walmart reopened three months after 23 people were shot to death there in the summer of 2019. The city of Virginia Beach spent more than $500,000 to clean part of its municipal center after a rampage left 13 dead inside of Building 2.
In all cases, some saw reopening as imperative, others as insensitive. In Chesapeake, feelings are strong in both directions.
“They need to close the store permanently, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Billy Pillar-Gibson, who shopped regularly at that Walmart and was close enough to hear the gunshots as he walked his dog that night. His cousin, Kellie Pyle, was among those killed in the employee break room. That, in Pillar-Gibson’s view, makes the space forever off-limits. “That’s where people died.”
A Sam’s Club that shares a parking lot with the Walmart has temporarily waived membership fees for shoppers from next door. Some had returned to the complex for the first time on a recent weekday, noting the crime scene tape and the inflated Santas still bobbing in the breeze by Walmart’s dark front doors.
Presalee Collins, 68, said he wouldn’t hesitate to shop there again.
“I just don’t see what would be served by closing it,” the retired shipyard worker said. “It’s happening everywhere.”
Lydia Catacora, 55, is not so sure.
Catacora said it was intimidating to even walk past the area where one victim was gunned down in the parking lot. She noted the armed guard on duty at Sam’s Club, something she hadn’t seen before, and wondered what new security would be present at a reopened Walmart, what level of remodeling would make her feel comfortable shopping in a space so tainted by bloodshed.
“Maybe they should gut it and start over,” she said. “Or just leave it closed. There are other Walmarts, after all.”
In fact, there are three other Walmarts in Chesapeake, which has led some to question whether the “murder Walmart” as one shopper dubbed it, would return. The company declined a request for comment on their plans, noting only that Chesapeake Supercenter #1841 will remain closed for the “foreseeable future,” that it will consult with idled workers on the decision and continue to pay them in the meantime.
Atrocities create numerous constituencies, and business owners find themselves considering the wishes of survivors, displaced workers, grieving families, customers and local officials.
“We want people to have their say,” said Nic Grzecka, the co-owner of Club Q, the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs where a gunman killed five customers and staff and wounded 17 others last month before being subdued by patrons.
“It was everybody’s space,” Grzecka said, before catching himself. “It is everybody’s space. I’ve got to stop saying ‘was.’ ”
Grzecka wants to rebuild, mostly because there are few similar havens for the nearby gay community. “We don’t want to let one person’s hate end what Club Q has been for 20 years.”
But he doesn’t know what the club’s comeback will look like or where it will be. He and his partners made a point of buying the land years ago so no anti-gay landlord could kick them out, he said, and moving would be expensive. But so would a complete rebuild.
“There are no playbooks for this,” he said.
In fact, now there are. Within hours of the Walmart shooting, West, Chesapeake’s mayor, was emailed a copy of a “Mass Shooting Playbook” by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. It draws on the experience of mayors around the country to guide local leaders through the first 24 hours and then weeks of response and recovery.
“I found it very helpful,” West said. “And how incredibly sad that such a document exists.”
The guide, produced by the nonprofit Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University, comes from a growing cadre of experts, consultants and advisers that has emerged to offer help, both paid and pro bono, as mass shootings have joined snowstorms and hurricanes on the list of disasters cities should prepare for.
For business owners, one source of aid is a loose network of those who have lived through the experience and make a point of coming to help stunned newcomers.
“We call it the fraternity and sorority that no one wants to be a part of,” said Pulse owner Poma, who traveled to Colorado Springs after that mass killing to offer support and guidance.
Mass killings in the U.S.
The bleak trend of tragedies is also expanding the portfolios of crisis management firms. Allan Koenig, a partner at Dallas-based LDWW, has helped dozens of institutions deal with workplace violence, some after the fact and, increasingly, some in advance.
He recently provided a medium-sized manufacturer with a just-in-case response kit that includes pre-written, pre-lawyered press releases ready to be topped with a date and a body count, statements for social media and locations to park the media satellite trucks.
“It’s a very strange niche,” said Koenig. “It went from being a fringe part of the practice to a pillar of the practice.”
After the first wave of crisis fades, consultants help owners turn to longer-term considerations, including whether, when and how to resume operations. Especially for smaller enterprises, the surrounding issues can be staggering: ongoing financial and counseling support for workers, insurance and liability tangles, the collapse of revenue, a brand tainted by blood.
Case study: In March of 2009, a man looking for his estranged wife shot and killed eight people — including two residents in wheelchairs — at Pinelake Nursing Home in Carthage, N.C. The facility’s owners considered shuttering it forever, said Rick French, founder of French West Vaughan, a Raleigh PR firm that advised the company.
But the pressure to stay open was immense. Dozens of elderly residents, many with dementia, would have had to be moved to out-of-town facilities. Jobs for the traumatized staff would evaporate.
“This was an extremely difficult decision,” French said. “But it turned out they were an essential need in the community.”
French said that checked one of the boxes that any business has to consider in the aftermath of a massacre: Is it essential? Will anyone want to work there? Will the customers come back?
“If you can’t answer yes to any one of those, the business might not be viable anymore,” French said.
Plenty of LGBTQ activists cited Pulse’s role as a gathering spot as they beseeched Poma to reopen the club. But her decision became clear to her almost instantly after the FBI escorted her into the building for the first time, four weeks and two days after the massacre. The gory devastation was absolute and transformative. Never again could she imagine flashing lights and thumping dance music filling what had become “sacred space.”
“Pulse was gone. The spirit was gone,” she said. “It no longer belonged to me. It belonged to them, the 49.”
It remains unchanged to this day. Outside, an interim memorial has drawn more than 500,000 visitors. The OnePulse Foundation that Poma started and ran until recently is raising money for a permanent memorial, nearby museum and scholarship program.
Poma backed away from announced plans to reopen Pulse in another location. “I don’t think I have it in me to open another club,” she said.
A day after the gunmen killed 10 people at the Buffalo Tops Market, the grocery chain’s president, John Persons, got a message from executives at Kroger. The executives at the grocery giant, which has endured shootings in more than one of its stores, including 10 fatalities in a King Soopers market in Boulder, Colo., in 2021, offered to counsel — and console — the Buffalo team.
“They were incredibly compassionate,” Persons said. “We said it in the conference call, ‘In tragedy there are no competitors.’ ”
Their advice helped Tops navigate the coming controversy. Activists called on the company not to reopen out of respect for the African Americans killed by an alleged white supremacist. An online petition circulated. But other local leaders pleaded for the store — the only full-service grocery store in the neighborhood — to come back on line.
It would have taken nearly three years to build in a different location, Persons said, so they launched the biggest crash restoration in Tops history. Crews gutted the store, destroying more than a million dollars in inventory that was too bloodstained to donate, and relocated builders and materials from three other projects in the region. Working double shifts, they completed a seven-month rehab in eight weeks.
The new store opened in July with upgraded fixtures, more exits and brighter parking lot lighting. A waterfall feature lines one wall and all of the victims are honored by name on an exterior mural.
“Two months is too soon to reopen these wounds,” read the sign of a protester at the opening.
A few employees have yet to return, although they are on the payroll and Persons said their jobs would be there when they are ready. A local advocacy group is still offering to escort returning shoppers through the aisles.
But most staffers and shoppers seem to have made peace with the same-not-same location of the tragedy.
“After it happened, I thought, ‘Just shut it down.’ I didn’t even want the name Tops in the neighborhood,” Mark Talley said.
But Talley has since devoted himself to social justice in the neighborhood, founding the group Agents for Advocacy, and he has changed his mind about seeing the return of the store.
“I decided that would be accepting defeat,” he said. “We can’t let an outsider come in here and make us cave.”
And so Talley still enters the store when he has to. But he averts his eyes from the names on the mural outside, one of which belongs to his mother. Geraldine Talley was gunned down while buying cold cuts. She was 62.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.