A little after 11 a.m. on February 27, Lou Cassara stepped up onto a metal folding chair in the middle of the Westhampton Beach Firehouse and asked for quiet before addressing the crowd of people, all age 65 and older.
They were gathered there on a rainy Saturday to receive their second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. With his hand on the shoulder of Tom Glover, a captain with the volunteer department, he implored the people standing before him — all masked and mostly elderly, many using the assistance of canes or walkers, several wearing hats adorned with proof of military service — to thank the firefighters, who placed all the trucks outside and made it possible for Mr. Cassara, the owner of Barth’s Pharmacy, to vaccinate 1,100 people that day.
The same people had visited the fire department roughly a month earlier, with snow falling outside, to receive their first shots, over the course of three days. This time around, Mr. Cassara figured he and the team of pharmacists that work at his various locations across the East End could get the job done in one day, and with the help of the volunteer firefighters and other doctors and nurses — as well as Mr. Cassara’s wife, Mariann, his son Conor, who recently earned his doctorate in pharmacy, and his two other children, Olivia and Aidan — they did just that.
While standing atop the chair, Mr. Cassara said that the night before, he was in the firehouse alone, removing the supply of vaccine from the freezers so they could come down to the correct temperature for use. He marveled at the fact that the members of the department granted him that level of trust.
“It couldn’t have happened without them,” Mr. Cassara said, squeezing Capt. Glover’s shoulders. “They gave me the key to the building, so I could provide the vaccine for you.”
It is, of course, true that, without the involvement of the fire department, the scores of older community members who are now vaccinated would have been left to wait even longer to receive immunity from the virus that has kept them in fear and isolation for nearly a year. But the story of how it all came together begins and ends with Mr. Cassara.
When referring to something that is a crucial and essential but hard-to-achieve pursuit — raising children, for instance — the phrase “it takes a village” usually applies. In order to vaccinate a village worth of people in a day, it takes someone like Mr. Cassara.
A Fork In The Sand
Pharmacology was not the intended career path for Mr. Cassara, 55, when he graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School in 1983. He was supposed to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham and go to dental school, following in the footsteps of his father, Salvatore “Sam” Cassara, a highly sought after maxillofacial surgeon.
Mr. Cassara was intelligent and liked to work with his hands, making it a natural fit. But he was also, by his own definition, “just a dumb guy from Patchogue” (he didn’t use the word “guy”), and a “motorhead,” with a nose for adventure.
Five days after graduating, he crashed the dune buggy he’d built himself out of an old Volkswagen, racing around in the sand in his hometown in the area that is now home to St. Joseph’s College. His injuries left him in traction for 100 days, and put an end to his plans to go south. Instead, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and go into the pharmacy field, ultimately graduated from Drake University in Iowa in 1988.
It wound up being a good fit. Mr. Cassara had the creativity and smarts necessary to be a successful small businessman. He worked for Greg Torns at Park Place Chemists in East Hampton for many years (and took that business over earlier this year after Mr. Torns died), and then operated Village East Pharmacy in Southampton from 1991 to 1997 before selling it to Rite Aid. He went back to Park Place after that, working for Mr. Torns again, before buying Barth’s Pharmacy from Barry Barth in 2004. He now operates Park Place in East Hampton, and has Barth’s locations in East Moriches, Westhampton Beach, East Quogue, Jamesport, and Cutchogue.
Mr. Cassara is tenacious and hard-working, with a seemingly endless supply of energy and a competitive streak to boot. It’s why he has continued to succeed as a small businessman despite the encroachment of chain competitors like CVS, which he fought vigorously, ultimately in vain, to prevent from coming to Westhampton Beach. His pharmacy survived, when many others likely would not, because of another trait that is perhaps his most defining characteristic — he simply cares about other people, and he shows it.
“Our kids, when they were growing up and got their first amoxicillin, he’d let them shake it up in the jar,” Capt. Glover said. “He’s that family guy, who knows everybody.”
Westhampton Beach Village Trustee Brian Tymann, who was on hand Saturday to help the vaccine operation run smoothly, spoke about a time when he was briefly hospitalized with high blood pressure. Mr. Cassara called to check in on him, and gave him a blood pressure cuff to monitor his condition when he was released from the hospital.
It might be considered an old school approach these days, but it’s one Mr. Cassara is clearly sticking to, and it has served him well.
“Being a pharmacist is about taking care of people and solving problems,” he said. “It’s just not about filling z-packs. Back in the day, the pharmacist was the person you went to, because they were the most accessible to the public. You didn’t want to bother the doctor.”
Above And Beyond
Over the course of his career, no problem had ever approached the scope and magnitude of the one Mr. Cassara was facing at the start of this year — finding a way to safely and efficiently vaccinate the most vulnerable members of the community against a deadly pandemic.
When Mr. Cassara first discussed the possibility of offering the vaccine to customers in their stores with his oldest son, Conor — a 2014 Westhampton Beach graduate — they figured they’d be able to manage offering around 40 shots a day in their stores. They’d be doing their small part to help as many of their customers as they could while still keeping a handle on the day to day operations of the stores, and they’d get a financial boost from doing vaccinations as well, no small thing for a mom and pop business trying to stay profitable in a pandemic and economic downturn that has hit retail stores hard. The fact that it became something so much bigger is a point of pride for the younger Dr. Cassara, and doing it in his hometown — right across the street from the CVS — was particularly poignant.
“The fact that we could plant a vaccine clinic in Westhampton Beach, when nobody else could, is huge,” he said. He pointed out that many of the people who received shots on Saturday were old enough to remember and have been customers of the original Barth’s Pharmacy, which first opened its doors in the village in the 1940s.
“This is really about a small business making a huge impact, and it shows the power of what a community can do,” he said. He credited not only the teamwork between the fire department and the pharmacy, but the ingenuity and “brilliant business mind” of his father for making it happen.
His father has a specific kind of determined energy that manifests itself in a variety of ways. He talks quickly, sometimes leaping from one seemingly unrelated topic to another, bringing it all together just as you’re catching up. He’s the kind of person who dispenses with formalities, likely because they’re a waste of precious time, which is at the same time jarring and endearing. He will slap you on the arm (a bit harder than you might expect) when he wants to emphasize a point; he loves using colorful language, but will ask permission before letting loose. He is also the kind of guy who owns a small bulldozer, just “for fun,” spending his downtime doing outdoor home improvement projects for friends or helping customers unearth their cars from the snow.
It was clear on Saturday that he was in his element, funneling all the characteristics of his vibrant personality into providing the most sought-after commodity a pharmacist can offer right now to as many people as possible.
“His goal is to take care of his hometown, and know that he got everybody vaccinated,” Capt. Glover said.
“He doesn’t know how to go light or easy, or do things bare minimum,” Mr. Tymann said. “His attitude is like, ‘Why would I not do more when I can?’ This vaccine effort was the pinnacle of him taking things to the maximum.”
Making it all come together required not only the cooperation of the fire department and their generosity in providing the physical space, allowing Mr. Cassara to turn their facility into a pharmacy for the days he administered vaccines there. It was also a huge logistical challenge that required a lot of time spent on the phone and online by Mr. Cassara and his staff in pulling it all together.
Mr. Cassara was able to combine all the individual pin numbers for his stores — which are required to register with the state to receive vaccine doses — and place the large order for the Moderna vaccine, which was then refrigerated at the firehouse and defrosted the night before they were administered.
Mr. Cassara said the firehouse was the perfect location, because of its superior generators, which would provide peace of mind that a power outage wouldn’t result in a spoiling of the batches. The firehouse also provided the kind of shelter from the elements that a mass vaccination site under a tent outdoors would not provide, and there was plenty of room to allow for social distancing, not just in the lines snaking around to the folding tables and chairs where the vaccines were set up, but also in a designated area where people were required to sit and wait for 15 minutes after receiving their shot to make sure they did not have any adverse after-effects.
“[Mr. Cassara] doesn’t have the staff to do that all himself, but the local firefighters stepped up and filled in the void,” Capt. Glover said. “Everything just came together, and Lou made it work.”
Gratitude And Relief
The people who lined up for their shots on Saturday expressed relief and deep gratitude to both Mr. Cassara and the fire department for pulling it all together. Many of them were longtime Barth’s customers, but plenty had simply heard about the operation from others. That was the case for Flo and Bob Noll of Southampton. They spoke while sitting in the waiting area with their daughter, Cel Gravano, who took them to the firehouse and said she had been spending weeks trying to secure appointments for them online to no avail.
“We are so grateful,” she said. “We wanted them to get the shot so we could have some kind of normalcy.”
Ms. Noll spoke about what they had missed out on over the last year; visits with grandchildren, and a great-grandchild who was born in November; happy hour with friends at Sunday’s on the Bay in Hampton Bays; even simple things like frequent trips to the grocery store.
Joan Sellers, who attends Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hampton Bays, with Ms. Gravano, was standing alongside them as well. She said that when she got the call from Barth’s several weeks ago that they had a vaccine time for her, she shook with happiness.
“You don’t realize how much tension you have until then,” she said. “I got goosebumps, and I’m not an emotional person, particularly.”
Ms. Sellers had also given up a lot in the last year. She did not return to her job as a lunch monitor at the East Quogue School, for fear of contracting the virus, and was cut off from the usual social connections and pursuits she was involved in at church. She was also unable to visit her family in Iowa over the summer, missing out on a wedding, and could not go on a trip to Florida in February to see her sister.
Those missed opportunities and moments are something people can’t get back, but an easing of that pain was clear on the faces of people as shots plunged into their arms. They smiled, laughed, and sighed with relief. Muriel Corcoran said she was thrilled that she was able to receive her second shot on Sunday, and expressed gratitude that her husband, who is disabled, was administered a shot in his car.
“They are just wonderful,” Ms. Corcoran, a Barth’s customer, said of the pharmacy, with high praise for Conor Cassara, in particular. She had missed out on a trip to France, and a cruise to celebrate her brother’s 50th anniversary was canceled, but she had a wide smile on her face on Sunday.
“I know a lot of people that died from this, so I’m just really grateful to Barth’s,” she said.
Mr. Cassara and his staff received that feedback all day on Saturday, which made all the work it took to set it up worth it. And Mr. Cassara isn’t finished; as long as he’s able to take stock of vaccine doses, and can find willing partners like the Westhampton Beach Fire Department, he said he’s willing to keep up the work of vaccinating the community at a high level.
“The big takeaway is that my staff really stepped up. No one wanted to strangle me too badly, and no one has quit,” he said, laughing. “My wife really stepped up, and my kids. My wife said to me many times, ‘We can’t stop on this. These people need us.’
“It’s unbelievable the way they look at you with stars in their eyes,” he added. “You’re not even human if that doesn’t affect you.”