How Do Businesses Like Pulse and Walmart Recover After a Mass Shooter Destroys Everything?

It's a slow road back, but more brands are learning the way

The site of the shuttered Pulse Nightclub
'Nobody as a small-business owner has enough insurance for this kind of tragedy,' says Barbara Poma, shown at the site of the shuttered Pulse Nightclub. OnePulse Foundation
Headshot of Robert Klara

Barbara Poma still recalls with vivid clarity the phone call that no business owner wants to get. Poma was away from her Orlando, Fla., home that day, June 12, 2016, and well into a mother-daughter group trip in Mexico to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation. Her cell phone rang a few minutes after 1 a.m. That made it 2 a.m. in Orlando, where Poma owned a popular LGBT nightclub called Pulse.

The call came from a manager who was standing in the parking lot, winded and terrified. There was a man inside the club, the manager told her, and he was shooting.

“Once it clicked in my brain what he was saying to me, I literally collapsed and was carried back to my room by the other mothers who were with me,” Poma recalls. “And we literally got on our knees and started praying [for] no loss of life.”

Unfortunately for Poma, those prayers would go unanswered. Omar Mateen, the gunman who’d pledged allegiance to various Islamic fundamentalist groups before entering the club with an assault rifle, killed 49 people that night—48 patrons and one of Poma’s employees named KJ. Until Stephen Paddock would open fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas a year later, the Pulse tragedy was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

At that moment, Poma’s role underwent dizzying bifurcation. Not only was she grief stricken—a victim of what had happened—she was still the owner of a business. Pulse had been a social hub for central Florida’s gay community for a decade. Its revenues had not only helped support Poma’s own family, but the families of 45 employees. In an instant, all of it was imperiled.

“Businesses have insurance,” Poma says, “but I can assure you that nobody, as a small-business owner, has enough insurance for this kind of tragedy.”

What do businesses do after a shooting?

Owing to the obvious human toll of mass shootings, media coverage—and with it, the public’s focus—tends to center, justifiably enough, on the victims. After that, the discussion invariably broadens to questions of societal causes, mental illness and the politicized issues surrounding gun control.

What’s far less explored is the question of what becomes of the business itself. How should the owners respond? What happens to the employees? Which factors determine whether a company reopens after a shooting or suffers permanent damage because of it?

Workplace violence is still a statistical rarity, though it’s becoming less of one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10% of homicides happen in places of employment, and those incidents are rising sharply. The BLS recorded 83 cases of workplace homicide in 2015, a number that had risen to 500 just a year later. In 2018, the latest year for which government data is available, 453 people were murdered in places of business, 351 of them having been shot.

Though school shootings tend to linger longer in the public memory, the fact is that more mass shootings take place in businesses (37%) than schools (25%), according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. The notoriety of many of these incidents has made them famous: the 1984 shooting at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif. (21 fatalities), the 2012 Century 16 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. (12 fatalities), and, most recently, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019 that claimed the lives of 22 people. These incidents made national news, but hundreds of other shootings befall businesses across the country that don’t make it much past the local media.

Fear of these events has helped create an entire preparedness industry. As of 2016, upwards of 80% of businesses were looking to implement some form of active-shooter procedures and employee training. But while prevention is obviously the best medicine, far fewer resources are available for business owners or managers who’ve already endured violence.

The tasks and challenges facing a business that’s just suffered a shooting are myriad and range from actions that must be taken within minutes of the event to decisions that are invariably made months later—from taking care of employees in the hours after an incident to cleaning up the crime scene to the decision of whether to reopen. Each determination is critical, and how thoughtfully a manager or owner approaches them can mean the difference between a business that recovers and one that does not.

“I’ve seen organizations several months after a shooting and there’s a black cloud hanging over the company,” says Sem Security Management founder Richard Sem, who has consulted with scores of corporations that have suffered episodes of workplace violence and over 30 that have dealt with mass shootings, specifically. “If it’s not managed properly, it can have a dramatic effect on productivity, morale and retention—on your reputation and, ultimately, your ability to do business.”

The first few hours

Poma had no training on how to manage a crisis. But in the hours after the shooting at Pulse, her instincts told her to focus on locating people and determining whether they were safe.

“I began doing a roll call of employees immediately,” she remembers. “All throughout the night, as I spoke with one manager, I would say, ‘Who can you account for?’ And then I would call one of those people and I’d say, ‘Who can you account for?’ We started going through that all morning long.”

Poma caught the first flight back to Orlando and held a staff meeting, “which was very difficult because those who were working that evening may have [left] their phones or keys inside the building,” she says. “So it was really quite a state of chaos as far as trying to assemble them.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Pulse shooting, surviving customers and employees alike were deeply traumatized.
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Chaos aside, Poma behaved exactly as she should have, according to experts including Sem. “If a company can really fall down,” he says, “it’s on how they communicate—how they show sympathy and concern.”

David Schuld, senior managing associate of emergency management consulting firm Hagerty, adds that employers who take responsibility for their employees after a shooting will also be prepared for the next challenge: the families of those employees. “When people are arriving at the [site of the incident], they usually can’t find their loved ones through a cellphone call,” he says. “How are you providing them with those immediate services?”

Crime scene cleanup

The length of time the police will stay on a crime scene varies. Ned Peppers, the Dayton, Ohio, bar where a gunman killed nine people in August 2019, opened its doors again 48 hours later. But in El Paso, police built a chain-link fence around the Walmart and the investigation continued for 12 straight days. However long it takes for the yellow tape to come down, owners who take custody of their properties face the daunting task of cleaning them up.

Usually, that means specialists like Mike Gardner are going to pay a visit.

Gardner owns Bio-Decon1, a crime-scene remediation service. Though scarcely existing a generation ago, companies like his have proliferated in recent years. (The industry even has a trade group called the American Bio Recovery Association.) Gardner is the first to admit that he is in a business most people would rather not talk about. Of his work, he says, “It’s gory; it’s morbid. Nobody thinks about it because it’s gross.”

Since those fleeing often dropped their phones inside the club—which FBI agents had to break into during the shooting—Poma could not reach many of her own employees.
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Business owners do have to think about it, of course, though Gardner’s seen a few of them do their best not to. Some, he relates, leave cleanup duty to their own janitorial staff—a foolish idea, given the biohazards involved. Bioremediation services don’t come cheap. Companies typically charge between $100 and $150 an hour for their work, and since cleanups can take as long as several days, it can result in a large bill. When a disgruntled employee opened fire inside a Virginia Beach municipal building in May 2019, the city reportedly spent half a million dollars on cleaning up the facility.

But Gardner points out that no business can afford to reopen until they’re certain all traces of a violent crime have been removed.

“In a shooting—in extreme, violent crimes—[bodily] matter can go around corners and down hallways,” he says. “There’s no saying a piece of matter isn’t sitting on someone’s desk or [in] a manager’s area or [in the] meat and vegetables. All these places have to be investigated. That’s where professionalism comes into play.”

The question of coverage

Who pays that crime-scene cleanup bill? Many would presume that the immediate aftermath of a shooting is exactly the point at which a company’s insurance steps in. In fact, this is exactly when, in nearly all cases, it does not.

Most general liability policies operate on a duty-to-defend principle, meaning a claimant has to sue the company before the insurer will release funds. This barrier frequently makes it impossible for companies to respond with adequate money—say, to cover funeral expenses or help victims pay medical bills—in the days after an incident. It is also why the cellphone in the pocket of Paul Marshall has been ringing lately.

Four years ago, Marshall, managing director at underwriting firm McGowan Program Administrators, began offering active-shooter insurance to businesses, policies that begin to cover expenses immediately after a violent episode, irrespective of whether victims decide to sue. Marshall wrote 120 such policies in September alone and “it’s increasing every month,” he says. Marshall declines to name his clients, but he says one of them is an upscale restaurant chain that recently bought $100 million in coverage from him.

Mourners created a shrine outside the temporary fence that enclosed the El Paso Walmart. The police investigation lasted 12 days.
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But active-shooter insurance is a new product, and most companies don’t have it. Some employers might assume that when it comes to lost wages and the medical bills of employees, workers compensation insurance will cover it. But that’s a mistaken assumption. The laws in most states restrict the definition of “traumatized” to those who’ve suffered physical harm, Marshall explains, when psychological harm is the more common injury.

“If you’re a bank teller and your partner gets shot in front of you and you’re trying to stop the bleeding and they die in your arms, chances are you can’t go to work the next day,” he says. “It’s important to be sensitive to that.”

No doubt, many employers would want to be sensitive, but how many can afford to pay multiple staffers who need time off?  What about employees who’d like to return to work but have no store to return to? The question of employee welfare looms large in the aftermath of a shooting, and though there may not always be a duty for an employer to look after their financial health, there is often an expectation on the part of the public that they do.

One of the first things Poma did after the Pulse shooting was set up an LLC to function as an employee-recovery fund. The company administered the donations that were coming in from the public as well as the money that Poma began raising herself. As the owner of several Orlando restaurants, Poma was a successful entrepreneur, but not so successful that she could meet payroll out of her own pocket.

“Anybody knows in our business that [employees] live check to check, night to night,” she says. “These people went to zero income—in a day. So, I really wanted to take care of my staff.”

Larger companies have turned to other methods. After a mentally disturbed gunman entered a Waffle House in Nashville, Tenn., on April 22, 2018, shooting and killing four people with an AR-15, the chain donated 100% of its sales from that restaurant for a month’s time to the victims and their families. Walmart, which has 18 locations in the El Paso metro area, found shifts in other stores for 93% of its displaced employees. It also earmarked $400,000 for local organizations such as the El Paso Community Foundation to help provide assistance to those affected.

Should they stay or should they go?

Apart from determining when employees can return to work, there is a larger question: Where? The decision of how long to stay closed and whether to reopen, if at all, is one of the most complex ones that businesses face. It’s a decision Ross Spencer has been involved with personally. (Spencer is a pseudonym, and identifying details about the business have been withheld at his request.)

Spencer was a college student when an employee who’d just been fired from his family’s small manufacturing firm took out a gun and began shooting. Spencer’s father and several managers were among those killed. That left the teenager and his mother with the choice of what to do with the business. Originally, Spencer says, his father had planned to turn the company over to him. “The business was the fourth child in our family, and he really couldn’t imagine giving the reins to anyone else,” he says.

But after the shooting, Spencer found himself leaning toward letting the place go.

“It might have been easier in some respects to say, ‘That’s it. Nothing more we can do here,’” he says.

Ultimately, however, he, his mother and a few of the company’s officials decided to reopen the shop and keep it going. It was as much to honor his father and the other victims, he says, as it was to do right by the workers. “[We] were responsible for the livelihoods of those 25 people that remained,” Spencer says.

After the shooting closed El Paso store No. 2201, Walmart found shifts for 93% of displaced employees at nearby stores.
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Preserving the jobs of employees is just one of the factors that governs the decision of whether to reopen or shut down. Another is the feeling that if a business closes, it somehow means the company has given in to the shooter. After the 2018 incident at Waffle House, for instance, a company spokesperson insisted that the assailant “would have won had this Waffle House closed.”

One factor that influences whether a business reopens is the financial health of the parent company. For 103 days, Walmart went without sales from its El Paso store No. 2201—one of the busiest supercenters in the company’s system—but Walmart also reported over $514 billion in revenue last year. David M. Studdert, a Stanford Law School professor who studies violent crime, observes that one incident “is not going to sink a Walmart, but for a small- or medium-sized business in a town that relies on the goodwill of the community, this would be a business-ending event.”

That’s especially true when it comes to restaurants, says Howard Cannon, who has been an expert witness in court cases involving foodservice establishments for 32 years and testified in cases involving shootings in restaurants. “Margins are very tight in this industry,” he notes. “If you lose 10-15% of your sales, that is the difference of profit and loss.”

In cases where a company reopens the premises where a shooting took place, it’s common to remodel the store first—not only to remove the obvious signs of violence like bullet holes, but simply to expunge the physical characteristics that employees and customers may associate with the tragedy. “The idea,” says Marshall, “is to make it palatable so your employees want to come back.”

Walmart corporate reportedly solicited feedback from its employees before deciding to remodel its El Paso store and ultimately changed everything from the merchandise arrangement to the layout to the flooring. Sometimes, the changes are more thematic than physical. When Cinemark decided to reopen the Century 16 in Aurora, it renamed the place the Century Aurora. Theater 9, where the shootings took place, became Theater I.

Cinemark reopened the Century 16 after the 2012 shooting but renamed it the Century Aurora.
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Customers and troublemakers

It’s a fact of life in the information age that many of these businesses will have to deal with some level of ghoulish tourism once they choose to reopen. Says veteran crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall, “What you don’t want, and what you’re going to get, is gawkers coming in.” (Between June 2018 and May 2019 alone, 2,400 unauthorized people turned up at Columbine High School, site of the 1999 student shooting spree that left 13 dead. Last year, the school district debated a proposal to raze the school for this reason.)

In a sense, however, a company can consider itself lucky if the curious are only there to gawk. The aftermath of violence sometimes draws grandstanders out to make a political statement, such as the 20-year-old man who, a week after the shooting at the El Paso Walmart, walked into his local Walmart in Missouri wearing tactical gear and carrying a loaded rifle. “I wanted to know if Walmart honored the Second Amendment,” he later told police. Employees evacuated customers from the store, and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon later issued a statement “respectfully requesting that customers no longer openly carry firearms into our stores.”

And while a company might sink a great deal of time and money into reopening a store, it also happens that the stigma of a shooting can cause customers to not only avoid the scene of a crime, but the brand in general. This was the fate of a company called Brown’s Chicken.

On the night of January 8, 1993, two assailants in Palatine, Ill., walked into Brown’s, a popular family chain that had 100 locations around the state. While the pair had come to rob the cash drawer, they also pushed seven employees into the walk-in refrigerator and murdered them. In the two and a half years after the shooting, systemwide sales plummeted by 35%, and 60 Brown’s locations closed.

Customers were spooked, not just by the location where the killings took place (which was shuttered in any event) but by the chain’s name. It was simply easier to go and eat elsewhere. “After dark, you could shoot a cannon through all our stores,” owner Frank Portillo told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2009. “No one came.” (Portillo later sold Brown’s Chicken to a group of investors, and the chain has 20 locations today.)

Shootings have come to represent such a significant potential loss to restaurants that some that haven’t suffered any violence at all have begun to warn shareholders of what would happen if they did. On Page 27 of its 2018 annual report, for example, The Cheesecake Factory advised investors that “active shooter situations … could unfavorably impact our restaurant sales.” That same year, Del Taco similarly advised its shareholders in its annual report that a shooting situation “may result in negative changes to economic conditions likely resulting in decreased consumer spending.”

There’s a reporter waiting outside

With all of the financial and operational problems facing a business in such a crisis, dealing with the media is probably not at the top of most priority lists. But since stories on TV and the web do shape public opinion, experts advise companies not to ignore reporters.

But communicating with the press and doing a good job of it are different things. Cannon says companies usually make one of two mistakes when it comes to making statements to the press. “They either don’t say anything at all, which to me shows callousness, or they immediately try to say, ‘It’s not my fault,’ which again shows callousness,” he says.

For these and other reasons, businesses often hire a crisis communication firm to deal with the media. Yet even with professional assistance, Dezenhall explains, it’s a touch-and-go situation.

A business that’s been victimized by violence actually has a head start in the court of public opinion because “everyone intuitively understands that a business where a horrible thing has happened has no selfish interest in wanting that to happen,” Dezenhall says. “Nobody really wants the business to go down because they are, in a sense, a victim, too.”

Yet, at the same time, it’s very hard for a company to say anything that will placate as much of the public as it wants to, and this is especially true, he says, when it comes to apologizing. “Corporate apologies have turned into a Monty Python skit and an extension of outrage culture,” Dezenhall says. “People demand them even when a company didn’t do anything wrong. When a company doesn’t apologize, there is outrage. When a company apologizes, it is always declared a misfire. It’s the living definition of a no-win situation where the best you can do is pick your least bad option, which is usually to say something sensitive and wait for the next news cycle to kick in.”

The lasting effects

Even when a business recovers its financial health after a violent incident, the effects can linger for months if not years. As Hagerty’s director of preparedness programs Kyle McPhee characterizes it, “There is a tendency for companies to focus on immediate response, the initial minutes following a shooting. But what we say is it’s a much larger process.”

Since the 2016 shooting at Pulse, Poma’s efforts have focused on raising funds for a permanent memorial and, as this rendering shows, a museum.
OnePulse Foundation

Because employees who’ve had any proximity to a violent episode are nearly always traumatized to some degree, and since the trauma can manifest itself in the long term, employers essentially inherit an accentuated responsibility to help employees manage it long after they return to work.

Frequently, that means relying on the Emergency Assistance Plan that usually attaches to benefits packages. In 2016, for instance, employees of Excel Industries were deeply traumatized long after three people were shot and killed and 14 injured inside the Hesston, Kan., lawnmower plant. After the factory reopened, Excel’s management not only contracted to put counselors on-site, it cleared its workers to walk off the line to talk to them anytime. Many did so, even months after the shooting.

But companies that choose to simply farm out their concern to EAP counselors can wind up paying a price for the shortcut. Contracted counselors, Sem says, “do not replace management coming around, listening to people and talking to them. I was at one facility [that] threw a lot of EAP counselors at the problem and management went on with its business. That really festered and caused a lot of anger. Every employee was looking for another job because of ‘how little management cares about us.'”

Indeed, if there’s any template for what a business should do in the wake of a shooting, it’s doing whatever it can to convince both the public and its own employees that it cares about what happened. In the instance of huge, publicly traded corporations, those sentiments will always be a hard sell. “Nobody really believes that corporations are deeply concerned,” says Dezenhall, who also advises corporations to refrain from using the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” a sentiment so predictable and hackneyed that the Drive-By Truckers have a song parodying it.

Nonetheless, a loss of life all but demands a suitable testament, which is why so many companies choose to build memorials to victims.  If the money is there, this can happen rather quickly. Walmart, for example, unveiled a 30-foot memorial called the Grand Candela just nine days after reopening the El Paso store.

In other cases, as Barbara Poma can attest, memorials take longer. In the three years since the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Poma has created 49 college scholarships, each named for one of the victims. Administered through the OnePulse Foundation, a nonprofit funded through public and private donations, the scholarships complement plans for a permanent memorial on the site—a temporary one stands there now—in addition to a museum nearby. Together, the structures are expected to cost $45 million.

Not all family members of the victims support the plan—“We care more about our survivors than educating tourists,” says the website No Pulse Museum—and that opposition weighs on Poma. “I wanted every family and every survivor to find some sort of hope, and then healing, in this,” she says. But even Poma’s critics would have a hard time arguing that she doesn’t care deeply about those affected by the violence that shook her business—one that, in light of the anguish over what took place there, she decided not to reopen. “Right now,” she says, “my entire focus and energy is on this effort,” an effort she works on seven days a week.

“My husband has taken over our other life, our previous life,” she adds. “I call it my ‘before Pulse life.'”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.