Just as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, Rich Ost got a call from the alarm company he uses to secure his pharmacy on Lehigh Avenue in Kensington. Someone was breaking in.
From his home, Ost checked the video feed at the store, which he’s run for the last 37 years. About 10 people had broken through his security gates and entered through the front door.
When Ost called 911, he said, police told him they weren’t able to respond promptly — hundreds of people had broken into stores across the city, including scores in a shopping complex in Port Richmond. A police dispatcher advised Ost to stay away from the pharmacy for his own safety.
“It’s great advice,” he said Thursday, “but it’s the last thing you want to hear as a business owner.” Ost and his wife sat up all night, watching people come in and out of his pharmacy on the video feed. By morning, about 80% of his inventory was gone.
Ost’s Philadelphia Pharmacy was one of more than 80 that were looted into Wednesday morning amid unrest scattered across the city. As protesters marched in West Philadelphia over the police killing of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., people unconnected to the protests broke into and vandalized about 200 stores around the city, officials said.
Larger chain pharmacies were also affected; several CVS stores in the city closed due to “damages sustained over the past few nights” and will reopen after repairs are completed, a spokesperson for the company said. The company planned to close Philadelphia stores at 7 p.m. Thursday as a precaution but said it had not made a decision to permanently close any stores.
For small independent pharmacies like Ost’s, the thefts were another blow in an already difficult year. The coronavirus pandemic has increased demand for medicine, but low reimbursements for those drugs mean Ost and others are operating on razor-thin margins.
“A situation like this requires such a heavy cash flow,” said Ben Nahum, the pharmacist at Patriot Pharmacy on Indiana Avenue, which was also looted on Tuesday night. He said larger chain pharmacies in his neighborhood closed due to the unrest, but he felt he would be letting his community down if he didn’t stay open.
Beyond the pandemic, more than a third of the 475 pharmacies in Philadelphia weathered thefts and vandalism during unrest over the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd in May. This week, some were looted for the second time in four months.
Pharmacies are often targeted for robberies because of the narcotics they stock like opioids and benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, which can fetch high prices on the street.
Ost said the first people who broke into his pharmacy early Wednesday went “straight for the narcotics.” But because so much was eventually taken, Ost and others said, it’s difficult to tell whether people who broke in were searching for specific drugs. Nahum said everything from HIV to diabetes to cholesterol medicines were stolen from his store.
Mel Brodsky, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Retail Druggists, said many of his members — all owners of community pharmacies — are “frustrated and aggravated” by the thefts.
“They went through this in May, and now they got hit again. Some of them are really thinking what they should do,” he said. “A lot of them are thinking of selling out.”
He said that some pharmacy owners had sat in their stores with guns to warn away anyone who tried to break in this week.
Steven Scott Bradley, chairman of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, said Wednesday that it was difficult for many customers to get their medication because of closures due to break-ins. “Many people can’t afford to drive across town to get what they need,” he said.
Even without the pressures of a pandemic and ongoing unrest, neighborhoods like Kensington, one of the city’s poorest, are at a particular risk of losing pharmacies. A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at pharmacy closures between 2009 and 2015 found that pharmacies in urban, low-income areas were most likely to close.
Ost and other pharmacy owners scrambled to reopen after break-ins and directed customers to other pharmacies where they could get their prescriptions filled. He had been encouraged by customers who called his store this week, offering support.
“We got calls yesterday from so many people that heard about what happened, customers, telling us, ‘Please don’t give up on our neighborhood,'" he said. They were more concerned for the pharmacy and employees' welfare than their own need to get their prescriptions filled, said Amanda Ocasio, who has worked at the pharmacy for five years.
Many of the customers at the pharmacy are locals who have frequented the business for years.
“I was sitting out on the porch wondering what was going on,” Michael Hogue, 56, said of the looting. “It’s all over the place.”
Despite the pharmacy’s loss of a quarter million dollars and a store in shambles, orders were steadily filled Thursday, Ost said, though not at the volume they were before the looting. Inventory was expected to be fully restocked by tomorrow.
Hogue had still managed to get his prescription on time.