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Pharmacists give back amid coronavirus crisis

Donation event in Rockville Centre honors the late Bill Mantell, supports the needy

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When local pharmacy owner Howard Jacobson heard the news in April that his longtime friend and colleague Bill Mantell, an 18-year resident of Rockville Centre, had died of Covid-19 complications, Jacobson vowed to find a way to honor the dedicated pharmacist.

This summer, as the virus continued to rage and the economy suffered, leaving many families struggling to make ends meet, Jacobson decided to launch a two-week-long food drive to benefit local food pantries, which culminated with a collection Sept. 13 outside Ryan Medical Pharmacy in Rockville Centre, where volunteers collected 115 boxes containing more than 7,500 items while being entertained by live music.

Jacobson, who owns Ryan Medical Pharmacy as well as Rockville Centre Pharmacy and West Hempstead Pharmacy, dedicated the event to Mantell, who was exposed to the virus in March, while working at his pharmacy in Jamaica, Queens, and died on April 17, at age 68. Mantell and his wife, Carole, lived in Rockville Centre before moving to East Meadow in 2016.

At the event, Carole read part of a letter she wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo after her husband’s death, describing the dire situation pharmacists faced, being deemed “essential” yet lacking protection from the virus. “Not only did Bill have limited product to sell to patients and customers,” she read, “but also there were few supplies to clean the pharmacy with, and he had zero personal protective equipment to keep himself and his employees safe. Bill went above and beyond for his patients, his family, and his friends.”

Carole told the crowd that she has known Jacobson for many years, and she was grateful to him for holding the event.

“My daughters and I are proud to be part of this food drive to continue Bill’s legacy of helping others,” she said. “I hope this event will shed light on the hardships small businesses are facing during this pandemic.”

More than 30 independent pharmacies on Long Island and in New York City took part in the drive, collecting donations for two weeks before delivering them to Ryan Medical Pharmacy two Sundays ago. Jacobson said he was happy with the turnout, and noted the dedication of others in the business and how so many stepped up despite their own hardships.

“We have so many issues in our business that we can barely survive, but my aim today was to show that, first of all, pharmacists are on the front lines and are providing health care,” Jacobson said. “And number two, my own business, even though we’re on the precipice of survival, we wanted to do this because we know there are people worse off than we are.”

Other area pharmacy owners agreed. “We’re doing it for a good cause — for people we lost in our association,” said Fred Simone, owner of Plainview Family Pharmacy, referring to the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York. “We’re honoring them to the full extent. Whatever we can do, we will do. It’s very difficult for people.”

Paul Schimel, owner of Salem Drugs, in Port Washington, said it was important to him to help his customers and neighbors. “We don’t know every customer that needs food — it could be your next-door neighbor who lost a job and is in need,” Schimel said. “It’s about survival now. A lot of businesses are hurting.”

Jacobson partnered with the nonprofit hunger relief organization RockCANRoll, headquartered in Jericho, for the collection drive, and the donations were divided among three agencies, including the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre.

“There are so many families who have been displaced and don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal, don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids or even where they’re going to lay their heads down,” said Aimee Holtzman, founder of RockCANRoll. “I know the recipients are going to be blown away by this kindness and generosity.”

Holtzman founded the organization in 2005. “We’re usually at rock concerts and events,” she said. “We ask people to bring healthy food for people and pets, and we collect items for local pantries.”

The organization also works with media production companies, picking up unused catered food every day and delivering it to local food programs. “Since March, everything has gone dark,” Holtzman said. “But we moved over 100,000 pounds of food since then, just coordinating donations. We’ve been so reactive since March, and it’s so exhausting. But there’s so much need out there, and it’s not getting any better. When Covid is over, hunger is still going to be there.”