Long COVID queue pits Johnston pharmacy vs. deli next door

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Business has been booming at the Atwood Pharmacy.

Lines have stretched out the doors since the week of Christmas, leading to traffic tie-ups and congestion along an already busy stretch of state highway.

Providing appointment-free walk-in vaccinations, booster shots and COVID-19 testing, the pharmacy’s services have been in high demand.

The business next door, however, has been struggling to keep its doors open.

“It’s the crippling of my business,” said chef Jeff Paquette, owner of Heaven on Earth Catering and Schroder’s Deli.

The deli and the pharmacy share an address — 1302 Atwood Ave. (units 1 and 2) — and a landlord. They share a parking lot and a roof.

They have vastly different clientele, however, and Paquette is hoping for some relief.

“I don’t know how long this is going to continue,” Paquette said. “We’re going to struggle to make the next rent payment if something doesn’t happen. I’ve already lost half my staff. We had to cut hours ... I’m losing $1,500 per day.”

Fewer and fewer testing options are available for Ocean State residents. Backlogs on state-run virus testing appointment websites have patients waiting days, and in some cases more than a week, for COVID testing.

Attempting to help alleviate the logjam, Dr. Zahan Akbar, pharmacist and owner of Atwood Pharmacy, introduced walk-in appointments for tests and shots.

“Since opening in Johnston six months ago, we have gotten to meet many of you from the community and are very grateful for your ongoing support,” Akbar said in a statement posted online early this week. “Today, we continue to put ourselves at risk like all healthcare workers by making ourselves available to the community’s healthcare needs, which in the past few weeks has been a very high demand for testing. We have been trying our best to provide testing services that our patients are desperately searching for when they are not able to find an appointment anywhere else for days.”

Lines of cars, bumper-to-bumper, have been forming outside the pharmacy. Lines of patients, awaiting shots and tests, have been stretching out the pharmacy’s doors, into the parking lot.

“Given the increased traffic, we are continuing to do our best to be accommodating to our neighbors and community by having ongoing discussions with the town and the Johnston Police Department,” Akbar wrote. “We are currently paying out of pocket ($95/hour) to have the police department oversee and direct traffic in order to accommodate our neighbors and the surrounding community which as you can imagine has been financially challenging. We have also limited our testing hours.”

Johnston Police have been trying to help keep order at the site.

“As of last Thursday, we started to deploy a detail officer to assist with traffic congestion due to the pharmacy providing vaccination and testing for COVID-19,” Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza said Monday. “The officer is being deployed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a daily basis, which seems to be the peak times for vaccination and testing. The officer will be out there again tomorrow and we will reassess the need after that.”

Paquette distributed a press release when his deli and catering business was preparing to open its doors in September.

“With more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closing nationally last year and restaurant owners still reporting that finding staff is their biggest COVID-19 challenge, Chef Jeffrey Paquette says he is fortunate to celebrate the official grand opening … of on Earth Catering and Schroder’s Deli.”

A Pawtucket native, Paquette said he fought hard to keep his former business, the Paquette Family Restaurant in East Providence, open during the pandemic, but ultimately lost the battle.

He “worked with others to take on the role of brother’s keeper with his ‘Soup and Smile Saturdays’ program that produced hundreds of quarts of free soup to families in need across the state,” according to the press release.

Despite exhaustive efforts, the restaurant closed in July, “primarily because of that labor shortage,” Paquette said in September, although his “catering business has successfully continued to thrive.”

“The food service industry was the nation’s second largest private sector employer and pumped more than $2 trillion into the economy until the pandemic hit,” said Paquette, now an East Providence resident. “I could have chosen to become bitter, but I instead chose to move forward and invest into an industry that I still believe in.”

That leap of faith paid off at first. Then, the Delta variant swept the nation; followed by the latest Omicron variant. Slowly, and then quickly, the surging flow of patient traffic in search of shots and virus tests next door have smothered the deli’s parking availability and access to Paquette’s newest endeavor.

“There’s 200 to 300 people coming there daily,” he said Wednesday. “All our spots are being taken. All our customers can’t get in. We had huge issues on (December) 23rd and 24th; and again on New Year’s Eve. We’ve lost 65 percent of our business.”

Ocean State residents have been scrambling to find testing options, especially over the holidays. Atwood Pharmacy has cooperated with the Johnston and Cranston school districts, in an effort to provide fast, reliable testing for students, faculty and local families.

However, the response has been overwhelming.

“We have been operating without appointments for vaccines or testing since we opened since we are a small business and were able to accommodate our patients and only recently have had such high traffic due to the increased demand for testing across the state and the country with a significant rise in cases,” Akbar said. “We did not expect this and will continue to search for solutions and be willing to make changes with the needs of the community such as considering switching to an appointment system if necessary. Some changes we will make this week include stopping drive-thru testing altogether as it is contributing to a lot of the traffic as well as further limiting our hours. We were keeping drive-thru testing as an option especially for patients who are symptomatic and those with special needs or young children. This has been a very difficult and trying time for all but we will continue to work with you to help keep the community healthy and safe.”

Paquette said he appreciates Akbar’s efforts, and the pharmacy’s public health mission, but he wants to see more government involvment.

“It’s put a huge damper on the business,” Paquette said Wednesday. “I’ve lost one restaurant in East Providence. We opened here thinking it would be a new start, but we’re ready to close the doors. By the end of this — they’re projecting another two weeks — our losses will be over $50,000.”

Paquette said he has documented several car crashes outside the businesses, caused by backed-up pharmacy traffic.

“They need to execute it better,” he said. “Or the state should come over here. They need to come up with something.”

Jester Lippert, Cranston native and manager of the Atwood Pharmacy, said patients have been coming from far and near, and the ongoing surge shows no sign of waning.

“It’s busy, obviously,” he said Monday as the line stretched onto the sidewalk outside. “I would love to help everybody.”

Lippert said the Atwood Pharmacy tested more than 4,000 patients for the virus in December. By Monday, they had run out of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and were awaiting a new shipment.

“I appreciate what they’re doing, but it seems like it’s not just Johnston people coming here,” Paquette said. “The whole state is coming here.”

Vincent Palumbo stood behind his brother-in-law Frederick Cardente’s wheelchair Monday, waiting in line for a vaccine booster shot.

“This is so screwed up,” Palumbo said of the entire “virus situation.”

First, the pair waited in line outside the pharmacy, and then again inside. After checking in at the counter, they found a spot in the back of the store where they could wait, relatively social distanced, until it was Cardente’s turn for a shot.

They had both managed to avoid the virus so far this holiday season, but they worried the close quarter-contact while waiting for a booster may turn counterproductive.

“I just want to get him his booster,” Palumbo said. “This is all so stupid. There needs to be a better way.”

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  • StefYoga

    I was thinking about this from a marketing perspective. If I were the deli owner, I'd work it out with the pharmacy owner to offer bounce back, or "bounce in" coupons to the deli. You're waiting outside in line or maybe you don't feel well. What do you want...a nice quart of hot soup to take home. Maybe a pre-made casserole you can heat up when you get home and have dinner for yourself/family. There's a way to make lemonade out of lemons here. Captive audience in that parking lot. I"m sure they are hungry and thirsty. A little promotion goes a long way toward growing a healthy business.

    Tuesday, January 11 Report this