Governor Mike DeWine approved a Sept. 21 reopening date for senior citizen centers across the state, but the attached COVID-19 restrictions have left the Fulton County Senior Center overwhelmed and closed indefinitely.
Despite the state’s green light, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners decided to keep the center, at 240 Clinton St. in Wauseon, shuttered to the public until all of the state’s coronavirus rules can be met. The center’s satellite locations in Archbold, Swanton, Fayette, and Delta will also remain shut.
“We hate keeping the senior center closed,” Jon Rupp, Fulton County Commissioner, said in a statement. “We miss having our facilities open and active, and anxiously await the return of our seniors, but priority will always be providing the best experience for them.”
DeWine announced that senior centers may reopen if they follow health guidelines issued by Lance Himes, interim director of the Ohio Department of Health, that include but are not limited to:
• Implementing COVID-19 testing to all participants and staff;
• Pre-screening all participants and staff for COVID-19 via telephone before visiting a facility;
• Screening all participants prior to or immediately entering the facility;
• Not admitting any individual without a mask into the designated entry point;
• Maintaining a daily log that tracks attendance of each participant;
• Maintaining social distancing;
• Taking appointments and signing up participants prior to scheduled activities;
• Assessing existing capacity limits and identifying participants best suited to return to the facility.
Unfortunately, the Fulton County Senior Center can’t meet all of the guidelines, and won’t open until it can, Rupp said. He said the county’s priority is the health and safety of the center’s staff and the 3,000 to 3,500 senior citizens it currently serves.
“Knowing at this time we can’t meet some of the mandated guidelines without some additional clarifications from the State Department of Aging and the potential risks that are at stake because of COVID-19 tells us we can’t offer that best experience for our seniors,” Rupp’s statement read. “Therefore, we will remain closed at this time.”
DeWine announced on March 20 that all Ohio senior citizen centers would close due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since that announcement, the Fulton County Senior Center has remained closed to the public while still maintaining its meal service. A total of 11,000 meals were delivered in August to seniors through home deliveries and drive-through services.
Senior Center Director Sheri Rychener said prior to the shutdown the Wauseon facility was welcoming about 150 senior citizens each day, and about 30 at the satellite locations, which are open two to three days each week. She said staff at the Wauseon center continue to report for work, and contact seniors daily by phone to conduct wellness checks.
“Most of them are just appreciative that we are reaching out to them,” Rychener said. “They are anxious to get together but there is some fear in that as well. If nothing else, the six-foot distance is going to be challenging.”
She said all of the state’s requirements for reopening, such as full testing for all staff members and participants and screening visitors at the building entrance and by telephone each day, are daunting and simply unmanageable at present.
Rychener said the isolation and lack of fellowship the seniors must feel during the center’s closing is worrisome for her and her staff. “This has been a home to them, and they have their friends here, their socialization and relationships are here,” she said. “And so, when they’re not able to participate it impacts the community as a whole, really. It’s their place. And we’re missing them quite a bit as well.”
She said trying to accommodate all of the state’s restrictions is a major challenge, and will keep the senior center closed for an unknown period of time.
“It’s going to depend on the guidelines and the restrictions and if any of those can be amended along the way,” Rychener said. “We have hopes, at some point, to begin some small group activity.”
She added that revamping the center’s system to accommodate the pandemic “has been extremely hard on our staff as well. I’m just thankful for the support and understanding that the community has expressed to us. We definitely love our seniors and can’t wait to be back together.”
Kenneth Bell visited the senior center five days each week. He now spends his days reading the Bible and Christian novels, praying, and watching his beloved Cleveland Indians on television.
“You bet your life I miss the senior center,” the 82-year-old said. “I sing in the choir, we play Bingo, we eat together and visit together…If I didn’t have the people from the senior center to talk to…it would be awfully lonely being at home all the time.”
He and some other regular visitors to the center keep in touch by phone, “and I always sing a song to them. It makes their day better,” he said.
But Bell knows it’s too risky to congregate during the pandemic. “It’s not safe out there for the older people to be in a big group anymore,” he said.
Rupp said the county commissioners continue to monitor the reopening guidelines for changes. Additional information is available or questions can be answered by calling 419-337-9255.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.