Walgreens closures spur resident protests
Loss of pharmacies reduces access to health care, hits communities of color hardest
In the falling dusk of a chilly January evening, community members gathered in Roxbury last Friday to protest the looming closure of the Walgreens on Warren Street. Amid a chorus of car horns, sign-wielding demonstrators lined up on the median, chanting, “Hell no, Walgreens!”
The pending closure would be the fourth shutdown of a Walgreens pharmacy in Boston’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in about a year, raising questions about the chain’s commitment to health access.
The target date for locking the doors was set for this past Monday — the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — but was postponed for two weeks following community advocacy efforts and outreach from government officials.
“They’re looking at profits over people. We’re trying to flip the equation [to look at] people instead of profits,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor of the nearby Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church.
Community members described the loss of the store as a blow to health care access in the neighborhood. It serves as a prominent source for essentials like prescription medications and vaccines.
“Your needs are the same as ours. All of us who are human beings need to breathe oxygen, we need to eat to survive, we need medicines,” said Patricia Mitchell-Seams, a Dorchester resident. “It needs to be provided for all people.”
The Banner reached out to Walgreens for comment but received no response.
Culpepper sent a letter to Walgreens days before the protest on behalf of the Communities of Color Coalition for Health Equity, asking to postpone the closure of what he called “an anchor Walgreens” until July to give customers time to find another source for their medications.
The pastor called the two-week reprieve a drop in the bucket.
“This has been a statewide community effort to get just two weeks,” he said. “We need six months.”
The closure doesn’t come on its own. At the end of 2022, three other local stores closed, in Nubian Square, Mattapan and Hyde Park.
Advocates worry the closures have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
“It’s unjust. It’s unfair. In some ways it’s discriminatory. If you look at the people that this will have an impact on, the disproportionate impact is on people of color,” Culpepper said. “So, we have no choice except to protest and demand they be held accountable.”
The reverend said the cascade of closures have led customers from other neighborhoods to patronize the Roxbury outlet.
“When they closed Mattapan, folks from Mattapan Walgreens came here. When they closed Dudley, folks from Dudley Walgreens came here,” Culpepper said, referring to Nubian Square by its former name. “When they closed Geneva Avenue, folks from Geneva Avenue started coming here.”
He noted that in two weeks, there may be nowhere convenient to go.
The Warren Street Walgreens also is easily accessible on public transit, said local resident Lisa Jones. The number 23 and 28 buses, both of which are included in the city’s fare-free bus pilot program, stop near the store.
Jones said to get to the next-closest Walgreens, located about a mile away at Columbus Avenue and Washington Street, she would have to take the 44 bus, which she worries comes infrequently, or go out of the way to Nubian Station to transfer buses.
Closures of pharmacies are widespread across the country. In June, Walgreens announced that it planned to close 150 stores nationwide by the end of August 2024, due to lower sales, according to reporting by Boston 25 News.
Other large pharmacy chains have been under similar pressures. At the end of 2021, CVS announced plans to close over 900 stores over three years, according to the Boston Globe. Rite Aid, which filed for bankruptcy in October, announced in October and November plans to shut nearly 150 stores, according to CNN.
On Jan. 12, when Mitchell-Seams called the CVS in Grove Hall — located about a half-mile from the closing Walgreens — she was told that that store is closing too, and she couldn’t order medications for herself and her family.
“If you don’t walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, you don’t know what he’s walking on and stepping on, and you don’t know how he feels or she feels,” Mitchell-Seams said.
As the neighborhood looks toward the pending closures, community members are seeking out other pharmacies to transfer medications to — or switching to home-delivery options for medications.
In the longer term, Culpepper said a group in the area is considering buying the franchise to keep it operating on Warren Street. Clifton A. Braithwaite, a Mattapan resident and former at-large City Council candidate who attended the protest, said he’d like to see a small-business pharmacy fill the niche in the community.
Segun Idowu, Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said the city has a limited ability to force a privately held corporation to renew its lease, even while pushing Walgreens to recognize its role as a community partner serving essential needs in the neighborhood.
“We understand the market conditions. We understand the terms of your lease and that you need to vacate the premises within a certain amount of time,” Idowu said. “At the same time, there is wiggle room to stay open a little longer to make sure that your customers are set up in a in a better position, you know, when this transition takes place.”
Ongoing internal city efforts are looking to address the broader industry issues. Idowu said he’s been talking with people from different chain pharmacy corporations to identify expectations for the state of the industry. In the near future, he said, he hopes to convene a conversation with all the stakeholders.
The city is also monitoring whether the closure of any store will create a “pharmacy desert” and what steps it might take to address such a gap. Idowu said that while the closure of the Warren Street store will have impacts on the immediate community, the loss of the pharmacy will not create a desert in Roxbury, though the city remains watchful.
“What we are keeping an eye on, as these closures persist, is whether or not deserts are going to be created,” he said. “Those are the types of things that we’re trying to be proactive about as well, and will be part of the solutions that we develop.”