Senior Centers: Left in the Lurch?

As businesses reopen, in-person activities at places for older New Yorkers remain limited

| 24 May 2021 | 10:46

The city took a big step last week in lifting the majority of COVID restrictions on businesses, including limitations on capacity and the mask mandate. But with senior centers still closed while restaurants and gyms are open, older New Yorkers say they are being left in the lurch.

Earlier this month, the city allowed senior centers to restart a program providing on-site grab-and-go meals, but all in-person activities, both indoor and outdoor, remain off limits. Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to provide any details as to when these centers might reopen for in-person programming and events.

In response, elected officials and the older New Yorkers who frequent these centers have started to call on the mayor to make a plan for a safe reopening, especially as seniors have been deprived of community and opportunities for socialization now for nearly 14 months.

“While public health and safety are the highest priority across government, it is undeniable that we have begun to lift restrictions,” Upper East Side Assembly Member Dan Quart wrote in a letter last week to the mayor and Dept. of Aging Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez. “Senior centers, however, remain fully closed, even though seniors have the highest rates of vaccination in New York City. There is no reason senior centers cannot reopen with sensible restrictions in place, including vaccination or negative COVID test requirements, masking and social distancing.”

High Rates of Vaccination

In calling out the mayor, Quart joined the likes of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who for weeks has been urging de Blasio to reopen senior centers. On his birthday this month, Brewer teased de Blasio, reminding him that he would now be eligible to join the city’s senior centers and urged him to reopen the programs.

Both Brewer and Quart argue that seniors have the highest rates of vaccination in the city, which is confirmed by the latest city data. According to that data, 68 percent of New Yorkers between the ages of 65 and 74 are fully vaccinated; 62 percent of those between the ages of 75 and 84; and 48 percent of folks 85 and older are fully vaccinated.

City officials, however, are not persuaded by those numbers.

“No one wants to see senior centers reopened more than we do, but the safety and health of older New Yorkers must always come first,” a spokesperson for the Dept. of Aging said in a statement. “While some seniors have received the vaccine, 38% of older New Yorkers ages 75-84 have not been fully vaccinated. We will continue to follow the science and work with public health officials to chart a path forward to fully reopening senior centers in a phased approach and safe manner.”

Len Lubinsky, who heads the member-run advisory board for the Himan Brown 60+ program at 92Y, said what he misses most about visiting the senior center is chatting and getting to know whatever members might be hanging around on any given day.

“I miss the sort of informal conversations that we get from being able to visit the lounge, getting to know people and sustain friendships,” said Lubinsky.

Lubinsky, 79, and his wife, Marian, 75, joined Himan Brown when they moved to New York in 2008. The senior center played a big role in the two finding community in the city. Before the pandemic, Marian frequented exercise classes and art history courses while Len got involved in discussions on world events. The two have continued with the virtual programming 92Y has put on through the pandemic, but Lubinsky said it doesn’t offer the same kind of connection as it would in-person.

“It was interesting and useful to me,” Lubinsky said of the discussion in the memoir and personal essay writing classes he’s been taking. “But it’s more personal when it’s in-person.”

Lubinsky said he’s heard from other members of the program who are ready to get back, especially with the isolation many have faced in the last 14 months.

From an informal email survey he conducted, Lubinsky said about 50 percent of those he’d heard from felt comfortable returning in-person so long as others attending were fully vaccinated. Additionally, Lubinsky has been encouraging his peers to let local officials know that they are ready to get back to their Himan Brown community.

“So far, I think it’s been helpful.”

“There is no reason senior centers cannot reopen with sensible restrictions in place, including vaccination or negative COVID test requirements, masking and social distancing.” Assembly Member Dan Quart