It was announced Monday with no more fanfare than two sentences on the Twitter page of the city’s Department for the Aging.
“Senior Centers can begin offering grab-and-go meals as a low-risk, outdoor activity as early as 5/10. This will serve as an important first step in our phased-in approach to re-opening senior centers.”
But just when the centers can start opening their doors and restoring any normal level of services remains unclear.
Senior centers have been closed since last March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the most susceptible to Covid, even many able-bodied seniors found themselves confined to their homes for safety reasons.
Many of them depended on the centers for a daily meal, activities and socialization. Barry Klitsberg, president of the Queens Interagency Council on Aging, said reopening the centers — albeit safely — is vital.
“My educated guess would be we might see something by July 1, when Mayor de Blasio said he would like to reopen the city,” Klitsberg said [see separate stories in some editions or at qchron.com].
“The centers are behind some essential services like nutrition programs, but there’s ways to work around that,” Klitzberg continued. “The biggest problem seniors are facing now is isolation.”
He said centers could be used as locations for seniors who have not yet been vaccinated against Covid to get their shots.
In an email to the Chronicle, DFTA said reopening senior centers is a work in progress.
“The City’s Health Department has approved the resumption of grab-n-go meals at senior centers as the first low-risk, outdoor activity. This is great news as it provides the pathway to fully reopening senior centers.
“This gradual approach allows senior centers, which have not had congregate meal service in the past year, to successfully on-board staff and build operations. Some centers will be ready to provide grab-n-go meals as early as next week.”
DFTA said the agency absolutely will take the opportunity to have mobile vaccination teams on-site at places that open up to give out their senior meals.
“While there are seniors who have been vaccinated, many have not. The City and the Health Department consider everyone’s safety when it comes to fully re-opening. The Health Department’s guidance, at this time, is that indoor programming will remain closed,” DFTA said.
“We know that older New Yorkers miss the full, indoor activities that centers provided, but their health and safety comes first. We will continue working with the Health Department and senior center providers on the planning of fully re-opening centers once it is safe for older New Yorkers.”
Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside),serves on the Committee on Aging. He said in an email to the Chronicle that the city needs to pick up the pace.
“As the State and City reopen and our senior population has had ample time and resources devoted to vaccination, we support the responsible reopening of senior centers throughout the city,” Vallone said. “Every center has different needs, but they are more than capable of working within a safe capacity that allows for adequate sanitary measures and comfort for our seniors. It’s time that we take advantage of the progress that has been made during this pandemic and allow our seniors to socialize in a safe and friendly way.”
Vallone’s committee chairwoman, Councilwoman Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), and Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) were somewhat less diplomatic.
“It’s disappointing the de Blasio Administration has not given us a timeline for the full reopening of our senior centers,” Johnson said in an email to the Chronicle on Tuesday. “Many New Yorkers rely on these centers for essential services, and are anxious for them to fully reopen. This is an important part of our reopening, and we need answers.”
While Chin on Monday acknowledged on Twitter that the senior meal program is a critical one, she said it is not a substitute for the centers reopening.
“It’s absolutely unfair to keep our seniors from the programming and resources they need,” Chin tweeted. “@NYCMayor needs to unveil a timeline for reopening senior centers as soon as possible.”
The Chronicle reached out to a number of senior centers in Queens and organizations that run them, though most either could not be reached or did not respond to messages.
Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens operates the Howard Beach Senior Center, among others. A spokesperson said in an email that Catholic Charities is working with DFTA on reopening as soon as it can do so.
The centers’ members engaged in virtual activities and receive mail and regular wellness calls. Staffers also are scheduling vaccinations, doctor appointments, benefit re-certifications and meal arrangements.