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A new dilemma: Make money or save lives?

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There’s an old joke about the time a gun-toting robber confronted the notoriously frugal Jack Benny on the street, demanding “your money or your life.” When Benny failed to respond, the robber, noticeably exasperated, questioned his silence. Responded Benny: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

That’s pretty much the dilemma facing the chain drug store business these days. Simply put, the quandary is this: Does the industry go back to work in an effort to salvage a moribund economy, or do chain drug employees remain at home in an effort to put the brakes on a pandemic that is wiping out a significant number of our ­citizens?

The dilemma is more easily stated than it is answered. There’s little question that the self-imposed quarantine has saved lives and, if kept in place, will continue to do so. On the other hand, the U.S. economy has suffered losses that have put its future in serious jeopardy. Even now, people who are paid to ask and answer such questions are wondering if it is not already too late to return the economy to the ecstatic state it so recently enjoyed.

The argument is equally strong on both sides. The American president who memorably stated that “the business of America is business” obviously had a point. Give people a living wage, the old argument goes, and you’ve given them just about all they could hope to expect in this difficult world.

On the other hand is the equally viable proposition that death is the ultimate arbiter, the final irony at a time when even Jack Benny was ultimately forced to give up his money to save his life.

Complicating the equation has been the recent decision by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores to cancel its signature event, the Annual Meeting. In other, more rational, times meeting-goers would have only recently returned from a week in the Florida or Arizona sun, extolling the goals accomplished in meetings that portend a real or imagined future. Adding another layer to this conundrum, NACDS’ Total Store Expo, an event that is second only to the Annual Meeting in terms of significance, remains, in the minds of many, on hold. Should it be forced by circumstances to meet the same fate as the Annual Meeting, the industry would be the loser.

Surprisingly, or not so, the forced curtailing of these two events presents the biggest argument for reopening the doors of America’s chain drug stores. If indeed the business of America is business, the business of the chain drug store, as important as any American retail outlet, is serving the American consumer. Moreover, no level of online business can possibly replace the person-to-person relationship of customer and staffer, the impossible-to-duplicate customer experience of purchasing that sought-after health and beauty care item or the equally gratifying staffer experience of delivering that item.

Yet suppose, just suppose, that the staff member at Walgreens or CVS or Rite Aid or Lewis Drug or Kinney Drug who just yesterday sold her favorite and sorely missed customer that elusive tube of toothpaste suddenly, as the new day dawns, doesn’t feel quite right. And yes, the test that has by now become routinely available confirms the worst. And the future, so rewarding a few days ago, is suddenly restricted to the local hospital. And then … Who knows?

The intent here, obviously, is to discuss this dilemma. It is not to even suggest a possible solution. That solution has thus far evaded the thinking of some of the brightest minds in this country. And unlike the case in previous conundrums, there is no correct solution. One man’s path out of this morass could easily be another man’s path to the cemetery.

That’s the hard truth. But the harder truth is that it won’t get any easier as the days, weeks and months go by, and the death toll, even now beyond the comprehension of most Americans, continues to climb to levels never before experienced in this, our last and best hope for democracy.


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