Most older residents are vaccinated in Miami-Dade, but many meal centers still closed

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With shredded chicken, avocado and roasted pumpkin on a plate before her, Mafalda Peña sat down with a neighbor Tuesday to resume a daily routine declared illegal 14 months ago by Miami-Dade County’s first emergency coronavirus order.

“I’ve missed seeing my friends,” Peña said in Spanish from her table in the dining room at the Carroll Manor senior apartments in Coconut Grove. It was the dining room’s first week in operation after Miami-Dade ordered all senior meal centers closed in March 2020. “I’ve missed asking my friends how they are doing.”

Peña’s late-morning lunch captured the slow reversal of COVID-19’s first major countywide disruption in Miami-Dade. Then-Mayor Carlos Gimenez forced senior centers to close under Order 01, which he signed March 16, 2020.

The closure order remained in place until about seven weeks ago, when the current mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, lifted Gimenez’s decree as part of a retirement of most county COVID rules. At the time, more than 70% of Miami-Dade’s seniors had received at least one vaccine dose.

While senior comedores were allowed to reopen, most haven’t. Carroll Manor is one of 15 operated by the nonprofit Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers, which reopened four on Monday and plans to open another four by June 14.

People familiar with the county’s network of government-funded senior cafeterias and dining rooms say Little Havana is the only operator they’re aware of that has resumed meal service, with most still relying on home delivery to clients under programs launched in March 2020.

“A few have opened for activities, but not meals,” said Max Rothman, head of Miami-Dade’s Alliance for Aging, which administers state and federal funds for senior programs and runs a helpline (305-670-4357) for finding elder-care services.

Rothman said he’s ready for senior meal centers to start operating again, provided they follow county and federal COVID-19 guidelines. “I think it’s time,” he said.

On Thursday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez visited the Antonio Maceo senior center at the city park by the same name. It’s also run by the Little Havana network. “For us to get to this moment is monumental,” Suarez said.

Before the pandemic, an average of 6,500 seniors would gather daily in free cafeterias across Miami-Dade, according to Alliance for Aging statistics. Little Havana’s network provided about 1,300 meals at all of its comedores on a typical day, and Miami-Dade’s county centers served about 2,100 people before the COVID-19 closures hit. In all, centers served 1.7 million meals been March 2019 and February 2020.

In an April memo, Levine Cava said the cafeterias overseen by the county don’t plan to resume operations until June, while Miami-Dade continues spending about $2 million a week on an emergency meal-delivery program for seniors launched by Gimenez at the start of the pandemic.

“I really can’t tell you why it is taking them so long,” said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who has been pressing Levine Cava to reopen the centers after so many older residents had been vaccinated. “They should have been doing that a long time ago.”

In the Little Havana network, the two centers at Smathers Plaza and Robert King High will remain closed for renovations.

Another three — Council Towers South in Miami Beach, and Palermo Lakes and Stanley Axelrod UTD in Miami — won’t reopen until September based on a schedule set by the buildings’ operator, Elderly Housing and Development Operations Corp., according to Little Havana operations director Betty Ruano-Bond.

When are senior centers reopening for meals?

Executives at EHDOC weren’t available for comment Thursday. Raquel Regalado, the county commissioner whose district includes the Stanley Axelrod tower, said she was discouraged at the lack of urgency in reopening senior centers.

“At this point, people have just gotten used to this and it’s a lot easier to deal with seniors this way” by relying on meal delivery and keeping facilities closed, Regalado said. “But it’s not good for their mental health. We need these senior centers to reopen.”

Miami-Dade reopened eight of its 19 senior centers for limited activities, but none serve meals, said Annika Holder, director of the county’s Community Action and Human Services Department. “At this time, all meals are provided via weekly home delivery,” she said.

For the last 14 months, food-delivery firms under contract with Miami-Dade delivered nearly 24 million meals to seniors in the county who requested the service after the pandemic began.

New enrollments for the historic nutrition effort ended in July, and the county expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover nearly 90% of the costs — which recently topped $215 million.

How long will senior meal delivery last in Miami-Dade?

Miami-Dade is using federal COVID-19 relief dollars and Meals on Wheels funding to cover the rest.

While well off the peak of 98,000 meals a day hit in May 2020, vendors are still delivering nearly 42,000 meals each day at a cost of about $320,000 every 24 hours, according to Community Action data.

“It was important to keep seniors safe,” Gimenez, now a Republican member of Congress, said this week in a text message. “Glad they are reopening, but sad it took over a year to do it.”

Dining room coordinator Barbara Hernandez, right, serves meals to residents of Carroll Manor Senior Center on May 25, 2021. This is the first week of senior centers reopening their cafeterias. Many senior centers have not opened, but the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers has reopened four, including Carroll Manor, and plans to open four more by June 14.
Dining room coordinator Barbara Hernandez, right, serves meals to residents of Carroll Manor Senior Center on May 25, 2021. This is the first week of senior centers reopening their cafeterias. Many senior centers have not opened, but the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers has reopened four, including Carroll Manor, and plans to open four more by June 14.

When Gimenez ordered senior meal centers to close in March 2020, Little Havana shifted its government food dollars to frozen meals for its own delivery program.

Before reopening centers, staff asked clients if they wanted to stick with home meals or return to in-person dining at the cafeterias.

Once a Little Havana senior signs up for the dining-room program, their home meals would stop. At Carroll Manor, 101 clients were receiving home meals. Of those, 100 said they wanted to start eating at the cafeteria, Ruano-Bond said.

“They have been isolated for way too long,” she said Tuesday as the Carroll Manor dining room filled up before 11:30 a.m. “They need this. We have a lot of people who don’t come for the meal — they come to socialize.”

She said 97% of Little Havana’s Carroll Manor clients have been vaccinated. In the dining room Tuesday at lunchtime, masks were optional, the domino table available and all seating was open.

From left, Gregoria Reyes, 100, talks to Esther Ayllon, 88, in the dining room at Carroll Manor Senior Center in Miami on May 25, 2021. This is the first week of some senior centers reopening their cafeterias.
From left, Gregoria Reyes, 100, talks to Esther Ayllon, 88, in the dining room at Carroll Manor Senior Center in Miami on May 25, 2021. This is the first week of some senior centers reopening their cafeterias.

Peña, who declined to give her age, and her lunch companion, Luz Albarracin, 70, both were vaccinated in February, they said. Tuesday’s lunch was their second meal with neighbors since the pandemic began, though Bingo Night returned about two weeks ago.

“We need the socializing,” Albarracin said in Spanish. “It’s therapy for us.”

Gregoria Reyes, 100, said she declined Little Havana’s frozen-meal delivery during the pandemic. Seated at a Carroll Manor table with a neighbor, Reyes said she’s thrilled to have the dining room open again.

“The meals are delicious,” she said in Spanish. “And now I don’t have to cook or clean.”

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