Mar. 18—In a move no doubt eagerly awaited for more than a year now, the seven senior citizen centers scattered across four counties in Southwest Missouri will open their doors on Monday, May 3.
"We're so excited," said Tammy Virgin, director of the Joplin Senior Center, who learned about the opening date on Tuesday. "We're all going to be very happy to be able to open (the center) back up and to see everyone more often, that's for sure. They're my family."
The decision to open the centers was based on declining regional COVID-19 cases paired with increasing numbers of both available vaccination clinics and residents getting inoculated, said Brittany Caine, nutrition program director for the Area Agency on Aging, Region X. The organization, based in Joplin, operates the centers located in Jasper, Newton, McDonald and Barton counties.
Each center — in Joplin, Webb City, Carl Junction, Carthage, Neosho, Lamar and Noel — will initially hold what are being called "soft openings," Caine said. Specific activities will be held only on specific days of the week. The features and their specific days of the week:
—Mondays and Fridays will cater to playing games of pool, though pool tournaments are still suspended for now.
—Tuesdays and Thursdays will cater to serving hot meals and playing rounds of bingo, which is one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the centers.
—Wednesdays will cater to cards, games and exercise classes.
Seniors hoping to visit the center on one or more of those days will be asked to call and reserve a spot at a center, Caine said, because there will be limits on how many people can be inside the buildings at any given time. Mask-wearing and social distancing will also be required. As of now, no decision has been made on how many people will be allowed inside the centers; those decisions will be made between now and May 3.
"This is an ever-changing situation, so we want to make sure we still have some precautions in place so we can keep not only our staff as safe as we possibly can but also our patrons," Caine said. "We figured the best way we could do that would be to have these (popular) activities broken up over certain days, so we don't have consistently large groups of people inside the centers."
Should COVID-19 case trends suddenly reverse, the seven centers can quickly shut down, as they did a year ago this month, she said.
"We are still keeping an eye on things, and we're hoping this doesn't happen, but should cases go up again, we will probably close again."
Virgin remembers the exact day the seven centers closed — March 13, 2020.
"Oh, yes, I remember that day well — I announced it to our crowd at 3:30 in the afternoon," she said. At the time, the coronavirus pandemic had just been declared a national emergency, though COVID-19 cases had yet to appear anywhere in Southwest Missouri.
"Initially we were going to open back up by April 1," she said. "And then after April, it was going to be (June). And then it was 'until further notice.' The health and safety of the folks was more important to us than staying open."
Area seniors have been more than patient over the past 12 months, she said, "And they understand the whole health and safety and making sure everyone is protected aspect of this, but they just want to get back into their little stomping grounds here, and we can't wait to see them."
Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.