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Senior Centers Planning to Reopen in Belmont County

Photo by Robert A. DeFrank – Belmont County Senior Services Director Dwayne Pielech, from left, speaks Monday to Commissioners J.P. Dutton and Josh Meyer about how senior center operations will change after reopening.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Belmont County’s senior centers are planning to reopen after months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Senior Services Director Dwayne Pielech said strict rules will be in place.

Pielech said as of Monday, the state is allowing agencies including senior centers to reopen, but under specific guidelines. Pielech said he and his staff have participated in state webinars about options.

“We have 10 senior centers in Belmont County. We are committed to reopening our centers,” he said. “(The rules) are very vigorous.”

The centers will not open all at once. Pielech said officials hope to begin openings in late October, but this will be dependent on many factors.

“Before we can establish an opening date…we have to hear from the state of Ohio, when they’re going to make the tests available, then they’ll actually schedule the date of the test,” he said. “It’s probably going to take a good three weeks or more to get all this together.”

All staff and seniors will have to be tested prior to entering a center,” he said. “We will work through the state’s program, which will be a monthly test site.”

When senior services announces the first group of centers will open, the seniors wishing to participate in those centers will be brought to a neutral site in Belmont County.

“We’ll have to test the seniors prior to opening the centers, and when we test the seniors they’ll be required to provide their medical card,” he said. The state should have the results back in two to three days.

“Once we get clearance, then we can start opening the centers for that next month,” he said.

Another issue to consider is transportation. Since the state requires people to keep a distance of 6 feet from each other.

“So if we have a van that has three or four seats on it we predict based on (Ohio Department of Transportation) rules, that we can handle two seniors,” he said. “If you have 10 seniors, that means five vans transporting. … And we are not permitted to come to the center any earlier than 10 minutes before it opens.”

According to center directors, the percentage of seniors who have transportation needs is as high as 40 percent to 60 percent, since many have issues with vision and other needs.

Once a center is open, social distancing, face coverings and other precautions will be strictly enforced. Seniors will be interviewed one at a time. The staff will be tested every two weeks.

Pielech said the centers likely will begin with resuming community meals and socialization with the seniors spread out, but other activities such as playing cards and bingo will have to be carefully considered for safety.

“We’ll implement additional activities as the weeks go. We have to sanitize all the facilities. Once they’re sanitized, we have to control the environment,” Pielech said.

He said five of the 10 senior centers are located in community centers, which often include activities such as birthday parties and bridal showers.

“We have to make sure (the centers) aren’t contaminated from outside. There’ a lot of protocols,” he said.

Some options Pielech is considering include opening different centers on different days. His office will submit the final plan to the state.

Staff members are also talking to seniors on social media and explaining the wait. Since March, employees have been making “reassurance calls” to the county’s seniors.

“They do hundreds of calls weekly around the county. They talk to the seniors, and it’s a way for us to keep in touch with the seniors,” Pielech said, adding many seniors do not have family nearby.

Kay Driscoll, director of the Barnesville Senior Center, and Denise Starr, director of the St. Clairsville center, said many of the seniors have been disheartened by the long closure of the centers and are eagerly anticipating their reopening.

“We miss our seniors and they miss us,” Starr said.

They added they expect to remind seniors to take care and abide by the rules, since many have underlying health conditions.

Commissioner J.P. Dutton said senior centers are an invaluable part of the county and a safe reopening has been a priority.

“It’s something we’ve been closely evaluating for quite some time. We finally have some directive from the state,” he said.

“A gathering for seniors is a very important thing,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said, commending the work of the senior services staff.

“I’m sure many of the seniors are anxious to get back to the centers,” Commissioner Jerry Echemann said, adding there is no telling how long the pandemic and its attendant regulations will last. “For a lot of the older people, this is their main chance for social interaction.”

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