WESTFIELD — The doors are open again at the Westfield Senior Center, but not everything, or everyone, has come back.
Just 12 seniors visited the Noble Street facility on Monday morning, Aug. 9, Executive Director Tina Gorman told the Westfield Council on Aging at a meeting that afternoon. That’s partly because meal service is suspended this week, and senior classes and clubs haven’t yet made the transition back indoors. But Gorman said many seniors are telling her they aren’t ready to come back, and senior center directors in towns that have reopened their meal sites already are reporting that attendance is “very small, some of them ridiculously small.”
When preparing the August calendar and “Voice of Experience” newsletter — written before the COVID-19 delta variant led to the return of mask mandates and social distancing — Gorman committed the Senior Center to in-person lunches in late August, four days a week, with curbside meal pickup only on Wednesdays. That schedule will proceed as planned, even if attendance drops. Gorman said it would have been too confusing to change the meal schedule after it was printed and distributed.
But she already knows that next month, she will reverse the current procedure. Curbside meal pickup will again be the norm, now four days a week, with in-person meals only on Thursdays.
Social distancing isn’t the only reason for the change, Gorman said. She said during the past week, several seniors reached out to say they were disappointed that there would be only one day with curbside pickup when meals begin again on Aug. 16. Gorman said she learned that there are still many seniors not ready to return to in-person dining.
There are also seniors who never attended congregate dining in the past, perhaps because of limited mobility or because they needed close attention from a caregiver, but have been able to pick up curbside meals, or have meals picked up for them.
“We are very cognizant of this group [that] we didn’t know before existed,” Gorman said.
She said so far, she’s only plotted a meal schedule for September. She will take future months one at a time.
COVID-19 restrictions also mean changes — and lower participation numbers — for several returning Senior Center activities, Gorman said. After walking through the facility, city Health Director Joseph Rouse set reduced occupancy limits for each of the rooms. The games room, for example, can now hold only 18 people at a time.
The senior billiards league, which would ordinarily include more than three dozen players and expects this year to have 25-30 members, will have to hold its first meeting of the year this Thursday in the Great Room. Gorman said she will ask the league to split into two groups, a Tuesday league and a Thursday league, to keep the numbers within the room’s new capacity.
In some rooms, the capacity will change based on the activity. The fitness room will have a maximum occupancy of 14 most of the time, but Rouse agreed to allow 16 occupants during the chair yoga class, since the participants are not moving around.
Gorman said bingo could test the limits of the largest space in the Senior Center, the Great Room. That room, also the site of indoor meals, can only hold 40 people under the social distancing rules. Gorman said the Senior Center will ask bingo players to sign up ahead of time, to make sure they don’t exceed the capacity. She said bingo will probably return to a weekly schedule in September.
Reaction to the new rules has been widely varied, Gorman reported. She said some seniors have berated her for being too cautious. Others have said it’s dangerous to have any in-person services. Gorman said it hasn’t been easy to balance changing public health guidance with the need to provide seniors with services and social interaction.
“I had to go with what we were getting from the state, but also the comfort level of the staff,” Gorman said. “I just keep telling people, you have to stay flexible.”
She said all of her staff have been wearing masks, although she does not require it. Gorman said she encourages face coverings for all Senior Center visitors, and requires them for any unvaccinated people. Staff do not check for proof of vaccination.