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NYC Senior Centers Stuck in Post-COVID Reopening Limbo: ‘It’s Mayhem’

Mayor Bill de Blasio visits the Lenox Hill Innovative Senior Center in Manhattan, July 20, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits the Lenox Hill Innovative Senior Center in Manhattan, July 20, 2019.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Senior center providers are in the dark on when the de Blasio administration will allow them to fully reopen, even as the city pushes for a major revamp of how the lifelines for older New Yorkers operate.

The Department for the Aging (DFTA), which oversees the city’s senior centers, gave operators permission to provide grab-and-go meals starting on May 3.

But just 28 of the city’s 249 centers have so far launched that free food service, with most opting to still rely on the city’s home delivery program put in place last year when the pandemic hit.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fully reopen New York City on July 1, but senior center providers say they’ve gotten zero word on whether that will also include their facilities, said Allison Nickerson, executive director of LiveOnNY, an umbrella group for senior service providers.

Meanwhile, most restrictions on city gyms, movie theaters, museums, restaurants and more have been lifted since mid-May.

“And yet still, senior center providers have no idea what’s happening. It’s mayhem,” Nickerson said.

“There are no operational details and it’s making people crazy,” she added.

‘Things to Work Through’

On Friday, de Blasio said an announcement on senior centers would be coming soon but cautioned “we’ve got a few things to work through.”

“We’d like to get our seniors back to senior centers,” de Blasio said during his weekly call-in to Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show. “We know it means a lot to them. It’s a big part of their life. It’s a big part of their day to be with their friends, a lot of good services they get.”

DFTA officials say they are waiting for the city Department of Health to sign off on the reopening of centers to protect a vulnerable population.

Health Department officials have declined to detail what safety metrics they are waiting to hit before letting seniors return to in-person meals and socializing.

Barring seniors who can’t show proof of vaccination would be prohibited by law, according to DFTA officials.

Elderly Bronx residents sat outside a closed senior center as temperatures soared into the 80s, May 27, 2021.
Elderly Bronx residents sat outside a closed senior center as temperatures soared into the 80s, May 27, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

As for the grab-and-go meal program, it has been slow to get off the ground because some organizations are waiting for their budget to be approved or for DFTA nutritionists to sign off on menus, Nickerson said.

Additional centers are planning to begin offering that meal pickup service in the coming days, Dina Montes, a DFTA spokesperson, said.

As they scramble to get the service running, senior center operators are also going through the tedious process of compiling detailed responses to DFTA’s request for proposals for the operation of senior centers as part of the five-year “Community Care Plan” for older New Yorkers.

De Blasio and DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez are seeking to put in place their vision for how senior centers, to be renamed older adult centers, operate in the future before the mayor leaves office Dec. 31.

The new plan has one primary goal: to “broaden and deepen” services provided to seniors so they can “avoid institutional care until medically necessary.”

Under the initiative, senior centers would boost programming, increase transportation options for areas with minimal public transit, and market their services “to attract under-represented groups and more members and participants overall.” Some 25 new centers also would be added.

“We are seeing a lot of big program announcements coming at the end of administration that definitely are concerning,” said Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), which represents 44 neighborhood settlement houses that reach 765,000 New Yorkers.

‘Path to Innovation’

Her organization was one of the 75 senior service providers that signed a letter to the mayor urging him to suspend and revamp the so-called request for proposals. The deadline for submissions is June 10 and the contracts are expected to initially last from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2024.

The groups acknowledged that changes are needed to improve services and that there are “promising concepts” in the bid solicitation “that will start us on that path to innovation.”

“However, these changes must be made responsibly, and providers need the time and capacity to prepare adequate responses,” the letter said, also arguing for “several structural changes.”

Seniors eat lunch at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Open Door Senior Center, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where attendance has dropped since the coronavirus outbreak.
Seniors eat lunch at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Open Door Senior Center, in Manhattan’s Chinatown shortly before facilities around the city were shuttered last year.
Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

Montes indicated that DFTA has no plans to postpone the $689 million plan. She noted other city agencies, like the Department of Education and Human Resources Administration, have issued similar solicitations during the pandemic.

“RFPs are a standard process that contractors undergo when doing business with the city,” she said, using an acronym for “request for proposals.”

The plan has already been delayed. The original May 27 deadline was pushed off until June 10.

In addition to boosting services and the number of centers, the city wants to enhance digital programming so seniors would not always have to visit centers.

“There’s definitely a need for senior centers...to not only have classes inside a building but offering people opportunities to just engage with each other,” said Nancy Giunta, an associate professor who focuses on aging and gerontology at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

‘They are So Upset’

Senior providers say it’s hard to map out what they’ll need in the future until the centers reopen and their post-COVID needs are assessed. Moran said they are also frustrated the city didn’t apparently seek input from many seniors themselves before issuing the request for proposals.

Montes said, “DFTA has also held sessions with stakeholders, advocates, and providers in the past year regarding senior center operations” and created a task force to discuss the plans.

Another major concern is how the new centers will be financed. DFTA declined to detail how much of the plan relies on stimulus funding.

“Will there be enough city tax levy to make sure that budgets just don’t have to be cut? It’s not clear,” said Moran, who called for built-in funding increases to cover costs expected to rise when seniors begin returning for meals in person.

“It’s pretty basic, other agencies do it, we would like that,” Nickerson said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joins a press conference in Foley Square calling for greater police accountability June 2, 2020.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In April, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer called on older New Yorkers to gather outside the Goddard Riverside senior center to urge de Blasio to reopen such facilities across the city.

“I expected two people — 40 showed up,” Brewer recalled of the April 21 event.

When the news conference ended, the head of the senior center set up some chairs outside for folks to sit and talk.

“The seniors want to come back,” Brewer said. “They are calling me all day. They are so upset. They cry.”

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