2019 IN REVIEW

Can smaller pharmacies survive? And bridge is free

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As summer rolled around, Albany was busy debating and passing bills, while here at home, it became all about what kind of businesses we wanted to have where.

We watched tolls disappear on the Henry Hudson Bridge while hookah shops popped up near popular private schools.

Here’s a look at what happened in the much warmer parts of 2019.

 

Making some room for everyone

There seems to be plenty of room for some of the big names in pharmacies, like those of Walgreens and Rite Aid. But what about the mom-and-pop pharmacies that were at one time the place to get your prescription filled?

Vincent Mazzamuto and Adam Agovino took over Sedgwick Pharmacy in 2004, but faced a real danger in closing in recent years because of the pharmacy itself.

“While most businesses purchase inventory and recoup those costs when they sell to customers, the prescription drug system is very different,” Mazzamuto said. “Pharmacies have no say in what patients pay for drugs.”

Instead, it’s something that is instead handled by pharmacy benefit managers, the middlemen who negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. It has created reimbursements so low that some independent pharmacies, like the one on 3887 Sedgwick Ave., are finding it difficult to keep the doors open.

Staying afloat was also the concern of some community pre-kindergarten schools that were more or less being left out of the city’s Pre-K for All program.

Well, at least when it came to earning pay similar to what teachers from city-based programs receive.

That threatened some facilities like Riverdale Nursery School and Family Center on Waldo Avenue, which couldn’t justify the cost, but still needed the program in order to compete with the city.

“We actually had to decide this year whether we would remain open, and we decided to try for another year,” said nursery director Susan Smelin. “But that’s going to be a year-by-year decision.”

 

MTA cash is no good here

The decision was made last April, but the benefits of that decision will be felt quite soon this year.

We’re talking about waiving the toll on the Henry Hudson Bridge for drivers who live in the Bronx. It was part of a deal Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz brokered with his colleagues, offered in exchange for his support on congestion pricing for lower Manhattan.

“The Henry Hudson Bridge has been one of the most complained about issues I’ve gotten over the years,” Dinowitz said. “People feel this very short bridge had a ridiculously large toll. And there are people in Riverdale, in particular, who still remember when it used to cost just 10 cents.”

Now the bridge costs $2.80 with a New York E-ZPass. But later this spring, anyone from the Bronx who pays it with their E-ZPass will have it almost automatically reimbursed.

And the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn’t stop there. It also decided to get rid of cash on the express buses. Not that riding a BxM1 or BxM2 would also be free — just that you could no longer pay with cash.

It came just in time for the MTA to raise express bus fares to $6.75.

“When they proposed raising the fare, they began talking about eliminating coins,” said Vittorio Bugatti, the leader of a local express bus advocacy group. “Their reasoning was that roughly 1 percent of express bus riders use coins.”

But now it’s 0 percent, as the only way to get on an express bus these days is with a fully charged MetroCard.

 

Yes to vaccines, no to hookah

Dinowitz saved Bronx drivers some money crossing certain bridges out of the borough, but decided to save a much larger group by the time May rolled around.

The Assemblyman took a key role in pushing legislation that would no longer allow parents to claim a religious exemption when it came to vaccination. It’s a position that continues to haunt the lawmaker with protesters to this day.

Dinowitz had introduced the bill earlier in the year, but it wasn’t until some Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Long Island suffered measles outbreaks that the Assemblyman renewed his push on the legislation.

“I believe that parents who deliberately choose not to vaccinate their children are acting recklessly and irresponsibly,” Dinowitz said. “Nobody else’s life should be endangered because you believe in what is nonsense.”

SAR High School proactively took a stand against those who don’t vaccinate, and also against having hookah stores near its campus.

Fantasy Hookah opened at 5923 Riverdale Ave., almost overnight in late April, only to be shut down just a week or so later. Its opening raised some eyebrows with parents, who feared that it made such tobacco products too easily accessible to impressionable young people.

The store’s owner, Juan Luis De Pena disagreed, however.

“It’s not something that’s going to hurt anybody by being here because it’s not harming the community,” De Pena said, through a translator. “We don’t sell to anyone underage. You’ve got to be 21 and over to even come into the store. We’re not going to sell to minors.”

The store’s demise, however, ended up having nothing to do with those fears. Instead, De Pena had subleased a store, which his particular landlord didn’t have permission to do from the owner — SAR.

 

Room to grow … or not?

What’s a good business to have in Kingsbridge? Many things, it seems, except a substance abuse treatment center.

Former state Sen. Jeffrey Klein returned to the public eye locally — at least briefly — as someone lobbying for Ekawa Holistic Medicine, which wanted to open the center at 5622 Broadway.

Because the center was expected to deal heavily with opioid abusers, many neighbors rose up against the facility, ultimately causing the plans to collapse in May.

“Ekawa would love to provide hope and a future for the suffering, but it can not work with a community that continues to live in the past and refuses to acknowledge the reality of addiction,” company chief executive Joseph Francis D’Amore said in a statement.

A business some neighbors would like to have? A Trader Joe’s. Emails started circulating in late spring pushing for the supermarket chain to consider any place locally, even the existing Key Foods grocery store at 5661 Riverdale Ave.

Having a Trader Joe’s could make sense, supporters surmised. Its sister chain, Aldi, already has three stores in the Bronx, including one at 5322 Broadway.

But at least for now, those dreams are dashed.

“We’re always looking for new locations that would be a great fit, and are currently working to open stores in a number of new locations,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said.

But at least as far as Riverdale was concerned, there’s nothing in the works. Either in 2019, or 2020.

 

Mostly positive from Biaggi

The honeymoon for state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi abruptly ended by summer when the new lawmaker decided to make some changes in her front office.

Her chief of staff, Andrew Mutnick, decided to return to his job as a pediatrician. And then after that, Mutnick’s deputy Christian Amato was let go — and he wasn’t happy.

“I was fired,” Amato said. “I wasn’t given any reasoning.”

The firing brought up some other criticisms in the community about her office, but Biaggi took it in stride, continuing to move forward, not commenting on what happened with the staff.

Even Amato struggled to criticize his former boss.

I “still wholeheartedly believe in Alessandra and believe in her as a progressive leader,” he said. “I hope she delivers for our district like she promised.”

Biaggi did ultimately have a solid first session on in the senate, proposing 61 bills as of the end of June, with more than a dozen passing the senate.

Some of the bills that were awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature by the time the final gavel fell included a requirement for charter schools to offer students feminine hygiene products for free, access for law enforcement to gun license applications, and expansion of the statute of limitations for rape cases, while broadening other sexual crimes.

“It was one of the most magnificent and exhilarating and frustrating and challenging and powerful experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Biaggi said. “I would say in full confidence, about 95 percent of the proposed laws that I campaigned on passed. That is tremendously, insanely amazing. I’m back on my heels.”