5/17/2021
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Pharmacies feel especially vulnerable to criminal opportunists


Saturday April 17, 2021
By Kavita Kumar

Weary of riots and recent break-ins, pharmacists feel extra vulnerable


Saida Mohamed, top, owner of Lake Cedar Pharmacy, was again the target of looters this week.
DAVID JOLES • STAR TRIBUNE

The windows of Elias Usso's pharmacy on Lake Street are boarded up again — the colorful murals and inspirational quotes that went up after last spring's riots covering up the shattered glass from his latest break-in earlier this week in what Minneapolis officials are calling a "crime spree" following the police killing of Daunte Wright.

But that didn't keep him from administering hundreds of vaccines later in the week. As he hopped from one person to the next in the lobby of Seward Pharmacy, Usso tried to remain upbeat as he alternated speaking in Somali, Oromo and English, but the fatigue and strain from the last week was evident in his voice.

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"It's the mental torture that we go through," he said. "That's immense. The emotional toll it takes on you when you go to bed every night, wondering, am I going to get a phone call from the alarm company?"

More than 140 businesses were damaged in Minneapolis from Sunday to Tuesday in what a city official described as "residual impacts" from the shooting of Wright in Brooklyn Center on Sunday.

"These were not related to the unrest and the protests in Brooklyn Center," said Erik Hansen, director of economic policy and development for Minneapolis. "These were an opportunity to attack businesses."

Dozens of businesses in Brooklyn Center were also vandalized and looted.

The damage was less widespread than during the unrest last spring following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Then more than 1,500 businesses across the Twin Cities were damaged, including about 150 that were set on fire.

One of them was Usso's pharmacy, and it took him more than three months to reopen. This past week, the physical damage wasn't as bad. He pointed to a broken door, damaged shutter and shelves of prescriptions drugs that were cleaned out.

Usso and other small business owners remain on edge heading into the final stretch of the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer charged in Floyd's death. The jury is expected to begin deliberations next week. Many who felt abandoned by the city and police last spring are pleading for them to better protect businesses this time if further unrest erupts.

Around 1 a.m. Monday, Usso said he called 911 several times after security alarms went off in his pharmacy. He said a dispatcher told him they had police in the area responding to a break-in at the Target store across the street. By the time police arrived at his pharmacy about an hour later, he said, looters were long gone with armfuls of prescription drugs.

"They were focusing on Target — not us," he said. "I feel so helpless. We've done everything we can to protect ourselves. But nobody is protecting us."

Police and the National Guard started patrols this week in major business districts along Lake Street, Hennepin Avenue and W. Broadway following the crime spree. They will step up their presence even more next week in anticipation of a verdict in the Chauvin trial, city officials said.

On Thursday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey acknowledged at a news conference that this is a tense time for the city and business owners and said safety and security are among the city's top priorities.

"The community is dependent on these institutions, be they pharmacies or grocery stores, banks or barber shops," he said. "These are community assets that need to be retained for the long haul. Destroying these livelihoods and neighborhood resources will be cutting into the very fabric of who we are as a society."

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that police are responding "in a timely manner to keep those businesses safe."

Businesses hit this week included cellphone stores, gas stations, pharmacies, liquor stores and tobacco shops, Hansen said. And many of them, he added, are run by immigrants or entrepreneurs of color.

Pharmacies were also a big target last spring, with a couple dozen of them suffering significant damage, some of which were closed for weeks or months. Walgreens still has three temporary mobile pharmacies set up in the parking lots of three Minneapolis stores that are being rebuilt. One pharmacy that was looted twice last spring, Banadir Pharmacy off Lake Street, recently closed.

Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minneapolis Board of Pharmacy, said about 15 pharmacies in Minneapolis and the northern suburbs were temporarily closed this week, but most did not have significant damage and were able to reopen within a day or two.

He added that pharmacies are being targeted for the controlled substances they sell.

"It's for the opiates, stimulants, drugs related to Valium, drugs used for people who have sleep disorders which can also be abused," he said. "Last year, there were hundreds of thousands of doses of controlled substances that were stolen."


Saida Mohamed, owner and pharmacist at Lake Cedar Pharmacy, was again the target of looters this week during civil unrest — the second time her business has been looted in the last year and seen Thursday in Minneapolis. Mohamed, who has owned her business for 10 years, said she is fatigued and traumatized and questions whether she can survive another attack. Here, Mohamed stood for a portrait inside her business. DAVID JOLES - STAR TRIBUNE   

It will be a week or two before he gets reports from pharmacies about how many drugs were stolen this week.

Pharmacies were also a big target last spring, with a couple dozen of them suffering significant damage, some of which were closed for weeks or months. Walgreens still has three temporary mobile pharmacies set up in the parking lots of three Minneapolis stores that are being rebuilt. One pharmacy that was looted twice last spring, Banadir Pharmacy off Lake Street, recently closed.

Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minneapolis Board of Pharmacy, said about 15 pharmacies in Minneapolis and the northern suburbs were temporarily closed this week, but most did not have significant damage and were able to reopen within a day or two.

He added that pharmacies are being targeted for the controlled substances they sell.

"It's for the opiates, stimulants, drugs related to Valium, drugs used for people who have sleep disorders which can also be abused," he said. "Last year, there were hundreds of thousands of doses of controlled substances that were stolen."

It will be a week or two before he gets reports from pharmacies about how many drugs were stolen this week.

In preparation for a verdict in the Chauvin trial, Wiberg said the pharmacy board is having conversations with the Drug Enforcement Administration about ways to protect some of those prescription drugs in the event of further unrest. He declined to provide specifics.

After Lake Cedar Pharmacy on Franklin Avenue was looted during the unrest last spring, owner Saida Mohamed had a metal frame installed behind the windows and door. But early Monday morning, burglars arrived with hammers and machetes. "It took them awhile, but they eventually got in," she said.

She said she tried calling the police when the security alarms starting going off, but she couldn't get through. She left her number, but she said she never got a call.

"We're feeling frustrated," Mohamed said. "We think it's because of who we are. No one cares."

She opened her business a decade ago when she said there weren't any other pharmacies in that neighborhood. Most of her customers are East African immigrants. She spent the last couple weeks visiting people's homes and making phone calls to get them signed up for vaccines at area clinics before Ramadan.

Mohamed is not sure if her business can survive this latest breach. Insurance paid less than half of the $35,000 to $40,000 in damages and losses her business sustained back in May. She covered the rest. She's hasn't yet tabulated how much inventory she lost this week.

Since the break-ins, neighbors have been keeping watch on the block at night.

"We're tired of getting broken into. We're tired of being looted," she said. "We're doing nothing to break the law, but I feel like we're being punished for somebody else's crime."



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