As concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread, Paula Rodenas wondered if the seniors who take her creative writing workshop at the Merrick Senior Center would even show up. The class is held once a week, on Wednesdays, from 1 to 3 p.m., but despite the outbreak, on March 11, “Most of them came,” she said.
“They’re very enthusiastic about the class,” Rodenas, of Merrick, said. “They hate to miss it.”
With the total number of confirmed cases in Nassau County reaching more than 130 by press time Tuesday, government officials were urging the public to take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. Frequent hand-washing, self-quarantining and social distancing were among the recommendations to keep the disease from spreading and affecting more vulnerable populations, including older adults and those with underlying medical conditions.
On the same day as Rodenas’s weekly writing workshop, Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald Clavin announced the formation of a task force to institute strategies to address coronavirus. The announcement came from outside the Merrick Senior Center.
Part of the task force’s agenda is to enhance communication and education initiatives to keep the public informed. For example, Hempstead’s medical director, Dr. David Neubert, has led informational presentations at each of the town’s 14 senior centers. “We’re making sure that everyone has the proper information they need to keep themselves safe, their families safe and to continue to go about their lives,” Neubert said.
Seniors speak out
Neubert visited Rodenas’s group after the news conference to answer their questions. Rodenas, who is 85, said she appreciated that Neubert was there to “separate fact from imagination.” “Other people were happy that he came because they hadn’t really talked to any doctors,” she said.
Rodenas admitted, however, that the public health crisis was “a definite concern.” “My father lost his younger brother to the flu in 1918, and this sort of reminds me of that,” she said. “It’s a different kind of virus, but [it] sounds as if we’re getting into the same kind of thing.”
Merokean Theresa Cheek, whose mother, Terry, 86, frequently visits the Merrick Senior Center, said while she takes the matter “very seriously,” she believes there is a piece of the puzzle people are not paying attention to.
“If you look at the total number of cases worldwide, and the percentage of people that have died from it, it’s a very small percentage,” she said. “Probably every one of us will know someone or have a close friend or relative that this disease affects. I just feel that the media should be focusing more on the positive aspects ... as opposed to the doom and gloom.”
Francine Goldstein, who calls herself a “young senior” at 74, talked about the impact the pandemic has had on daily life. While she lives in Merrick, she and her husband, Lenny, prefer the Stop & Shop in — “it’s bigger and usually very well-stocked.” But on a recent visit, the Goldsteins found “shelves that were totally empty.”
“There were so many aisles where there was nothing,” she said. “There was almost no toilet paper and very little milk.”
As a petitioner for the Democratic party, Goldstein is charged with collecting signatures for the upcoming congressional, state Assembly and state Senate races. Petitioning began in late February, but the pandemic has “complicated” the process, she said, adding that it was difficult to get signatures amid a public health crisis. “It’s hard enough when you’re knocking doors normally,” she added.
Last weekend Governor Cuomo signed an executive order that slashed the petitioning threshold to 30 percent and required candidates to stop petitioning. Goldstein commended the governor’s leadership here, as well as his request to have private labs move forward with coronavirus testing.
“You try to be as careful as you can be, but you also want to enjoy your life too,” she added. “There’d be less panic and fear if the scientists would do the talking.”
Town task force
Since its creation, the town’s task force has held daily meetings “to address precautionary measures aimed at preventing the spread of illnesses among employees and members of the public,” Clavin said.
Its preventive measures include:
— Increasing the number of hand-sanitizing stations in town facilities.
— Stepped-up cleaning efforts in heavily trafficked areas, such as the Building Department, the town clerk and tax receiver’s offices and the lobby of Town Hall.
— Distributing fliers with safety tips.
— Special efforts to protect older adults in the town.
The town implemented additional steam-cleaning at each of its 14 senior centers, and additional cleaning of senior transport buses. Many of Hempstead’s senior centers are connected to its housing authority, Neubert explained, so the facilities serve as de facto community centers for those populations. At the senior centers, older adults can interact with other seniors, have a meal or engage in activities.
“Looking at Italy, which is on complete lockdown, seniors are suffering from depression and loneliness since they’re not getting the normal services,” Neubert said.
Other municipalities in Nassau had temporarily closed their senior centers or suspended senior activities in response to the outbreak since people aged 60 and over are at a higher risk of contracting the virus. And after County Executive Laura Curran declared a state of emergency last Friday, the town complied.
The following town facilities were closed “out of an abundance of caution” effective March 13, according to a press release:
— All 14 Town of Hempstead Senior Centers.
— Echo Park Pool in West Hempstead.
— Newbridge Indoor Ice Rink Arena in Bellmore.
The town has also postponed all physical fitness, youth and cultural arts classes, as well as swimming lessons and lifeguard training at Echo Park. The release noted that the measures would be “re-evaluated” on March 20.
The “next wave” of Neubert’s presentations, he said, will be rolled out at local community centers. Additionally, the town has commissioned a series of Facebook Town Halls to offer residents interactive question-and-answer sessions with Neubert and other task force members. A session will be held on Friday, March 20, at 2 p.m. on the Town of Hempstead’s Facebook page at facebook.com/hempsteadtown.
“Part of the process is educating people,” Clavin said. “A lot of people have legitimate concerns, legitimate questions, and our team is out there answering them, and we will continue to do that in the next couple of weeks as things progress.”