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Outside In: Mayor Orders Senior Centers Open Amid Confusion

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

The city’s 249 senior centers will completely reopen in two weeks and outdoor activities will resume immediately, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.

The announcement — via Twitter — came the morning after a story by THE CITY detailing criticism over de Blasio’s’s failure to unshutter the facilities, which serve as lifelines for thousands of older New Yorkers.

The mayor’s turnaround caught some senior center operators off guard, according to Allison Nickerson, executive director of LiveOnNY, an umbrella group for senior service providers.

“I’m hearing from members that their phones are ringing off the hook wanting to show up for programs,” Nickerson said. “The provider said he has no idea what is happening.”

Later in the day, the Department for the Aging (DFTA) issued providers a reopening checklist and interim guidance. Employees and seniors must wear masks and spaces will have to be reconfigured to limit capacity to 25% of the certificate of occupancy, according to the new rules. Seniors should also keep six feet apart from one another.

“NYC’s seniors built our city, they’ve fought for our city, they’re vaccinated, protected and ready to move forward,” de Blasio tweeted after the announcement.

On Monday, Nickerson told THE CITY that DFTA’s lack of “operational detail” was “mayhem” and “making people crazy.”

New Plan for Older New Yorkers

The reopening plan comes as the mayor and DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez are trying to establish their vision for how senior centers, to be renamed older adult centers, operate in the future before the mayor leaves office Dec. 31, THE CITY reported Monday.

They also want to revamp so-called naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) so they can collaborate to provide more services for older people.

Senior center providers will now be forced to submit their applications to the so-called request for proposals four days before the centers open.

DFTA has no plans to extend the application deadline past June 10, according to department spokesperson Dina Montes.

De Blasio’s office for weeks maintained that officials were waiting for the city Department of Health to sign off on the reopening of centers to protect a vulnerable population.

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

Advocates for seniors noted that most restrictions on city gyms, movie theaters, museums, restaurants and more had been lifted since mid-May.

Cortés-Vázquez said seniors — meaning anyone 60 or older — will not be obligated to get vaccinated before entering the centers.

Restricting access to senior centers to just vaccinated older adults is prohibited under the Older Americans Act, which requires providing equal access to any individual eligible to attend.

Grab-and-Go is Slow

On May 3, DFTA gave operators permission to provide grab-and-go meals. But that program has been slow to take off due to bureaucratic red-tape and lack of communication from DFTA, according to multiple senior service providers.

More than 100 senior centers have been approved, but some want more time to prepare, according to Montes. Currently, 47 centers offer the service and the number is expected to increase in the coming days, she added.

Seniors catch some shade on a hot summer day outside a Bed-Stuy adult center, July 21, 2020.
Seniors catch some shade on a hot summer day outside a Bed-Stuy adult center, July 21, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As for the broader five-year senior center overhaul, the city wants to create a network of supportive services for seniors provided through collaborations and the coordination of services so that they are not working in silos.

The plan also calls for more programming, increased transportation options for areas with inadequate public transit, and a marketing budget for centers “to attract under-represented groups and more members and participants overall.”

In years two through five, the community care plan will expand in-home care, home delivered meals, and case management services to meet the growing number of older adults. Some 25 new centers, or NORCs, also would be added.

Footing the Bill

Senior center providers acknowledge changes must be made to address the growing needs of the city’s elderly population. But they are worried that funds for the added services will dry up once federal stimulus money runs out.

The de Blasio administration has declined to detail how the estimated $689 million plan will be funded.

Senior center providers are also calling for built-in funding increases to cover costs that are expected to rise when members begin returning for meals in person.

On Tuesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hailed the city’s decision to reopen the centers. She previously held two news conferences urging de Blasio to open them back up.

“How excited am I to #OpenOurSeniorCenters? This much,” she tweeted with a photo of her arms spread wide.

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