Vern Durocher picked up a plate of chicken, chickpea and sweet potato harissa with coconut rice, salad and fresh fruit and carried it back to his table in the community gathering space at the Pike Market Senior Center, a spacious area on the fourth floor under the usually bustling Pike Place Market.
Along with breakfast served at 8:20 a.m. daily, lunch at the senior center is one of two meals Durocher, 68, relies on for his daily nutrition.
Durocher sleeps at the Seattle City Hall Shelter at night and arrives each morning at the Pike Market Senior Center & Food Bank, where nearly all of the 1,500 members have low or very low incomes, said deputy director Mason Lowe.
“It’s one place I feel safe,” Durocher said Thursday afternoon. “It’s clean. It’s well run, and I get fed.”
As officials seek to control the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, facilities that primarily serve people over the age of 60 — who public health leaders say are particularly vulnerable — are taking special caution.
The virus poses a special challenge for senior centers in Seattle like Pike Market that provide older adults an opportunity to socialize, access the internet and participate in activities like exercise and craft making — as well as offer what could be their only guaranteed meal of the day.
“It’s really hard to strike the right balance,” Lowe said. “We can tell people to stay home if you’re not feeling well, but for homeless older adults, that’s not really an option. You might be asking them to go somewhere that’s less safe or just outside.”
On Wednesday, Public Health – Seattle & King County recommended that people age 60 and older “should stay home and away from large groups of people as much as possible.”
“We are determined to protect those who are most vulnerable — our older residents, those with compromised immune systems, and others,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a news conference.
Lowe said the center has not canceled any events yet, but “it’s definitely something we are monitoring.”
Ahead of lunch Thursday, wellness engagement coordinator Zoë Freeman reminded members to wash their hands thoroughly, with soap and water. A steady stream of people then walked to the sink to wash before eating.
Across the city, senior centers are taking extra precaution to protect members.
The Senior Center of West Seattle is closing for all “non-essential programs” beginning Friday. “We do not have a reopen date at this time due to unusual circumstances,” said Executive Director Lyle Evans. The center will continue to serve sack lunches, distribute prepared bags of food, and provide tax help appointments “until further notice.”
At the Ballard NW Senior Center, staff are sanitizing all surfaces two times per day with bleach and instructing members to wash their hands often, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The center announced Thursday that it had canceled some programs due to the novel coronavirus but will stay open for now.
“It is not a time for panic and frenzy but to get information and take the positive steps to stay healthy,” Carlye Teel, the center’s executive director, said. “Seniors seem to be the segment of the population that is getting hit the hardest at the moment.”
Of the 10 confirmed deaths in King County, as of Thursday afternoon, eight people were in their 60s or older.
At the Southeast Seattle Senior Center in Rainier Valley, Executive Director Lynda Greene said all doorknobs, push pads and communal tables are being disinfected twice per day. Lunch continues to be served on a daily basis, using paper plates, paper cups and plastic utensils.
Greene said workers are paying special attention to anyone who appears to have a cough or cold and will follow the direction of Seattle Public Schools in determining whether to close.
In recent days, her team has been handing out brochures and flyers to seniors with information on how they can protect themselves, which includes altering the center’s standard operating procedure.
“We are forgoing hugs until this virus is under control,” Greene said.
According to the National Council on Aging, senior centers serve a critical role in providing nutrition and preventing social isolation among older adults.
About 28% of adults aged 65 and older reported living alone in 2017. However, 75% of participants visit their center one to three times per week, staying an average of 3.3 hours per visit.
Senior centers may also be particularly important to older communities of color.
The International Drop-in Center in Beacon Hill is a vital resource for its 900 members, most of whom speak Tagalog and rely on staff for translation services.
“We are their source of information, community resources, and a way out of isolation,” said program manager Lanvin Andres.
Some members have also looked to the senior center to make sense of news coverage about the virus.
“There is a fear about the situation,” he said. “Some have concerns about being racially profiled because they look of Asian ethnicity.”
In response to the coronavirus, Andres said the center will close for one week beginning Friday. Staff will reassess closures on a week-by-week basis.
Information sessions and special events are on hold until everything is stable, he said. That includes voter-education sessions that explain how the King County voting process works and an annual spring field trip to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Family members have also been encouraging their seniors, especially those who are vulnerable with underlying conditions, to stay home, Andres said.
Vincent Seymour, 78, who normally visits the Kirkland Senior Center three times per week for exercise classes, chess and chats at the coffee bar, said he has voluntarily decided to avoid the center until the threat of the virus lessens.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m missing my social activity. I’m standing near my window, looking out, wondering if I should go take a walk or something.”