A group of older women are hunched over binders around a table, workshopping sections of memoirs they’re writing in a weekly class at Dorot, a senior center in a converted Upper West Side townhouse. But it’s the last in-person class they’ll attend for a while.

Like colleges that are switching to remote-learning for their students and businesses that are urging employees to work remotely, facilities that cater to the elderly are making tough calls on whether to continue programming; balancing their mission of building community with the need to protect the health of their seniors as cases of COVID-19 continue to spread.

Dorot’s director Mark Meridy made the decision Wednesday morning that the center would cancel all programming in their building indefinitely—art classes, tai chi and intergeneration-chess included. He broke the news to the memoir-writing class that afternoon. The women shook their heads and sighed. Yvonne Rossetti pushed back.

“Depression is a killer and certainly many of us are here because maybe we battle depression, or we realize if we don’t come here that we may be depressed,” Rossetti, 65, said. “This place is a lifeboat and that has to be looked at.”

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But after a few minutes the group came to accept Meridy’s decision.

“Years ago we got through polio. We got through all the different things that went on and here we are,” said 88-year-old Barbara Garrison. 

Christine Graf, 74, chimed in, “We'll get through this too.”

Graf said she had been anticipating the center would close.

“I vowed to myself I’m not gonna panic, I’m gonna follow the protocol but I’m also gonna keep engaged in my life as much as possible,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘How much do I want to withdraw?’”

Adults above the age of 60 are more susceptible to severe illness from the novel coronavirus and are more likely to be hospitalized and potentially die from it. Still, the city so far has not recommended closing its senior centers, according to Suzanne Myklebust, a spokeswoman with the Department of the Aging.

“The city is communicating preventative guidance to all [city] providers and insisting they practice diligence, vigilance, and awareness,” she said. “Senior centers have been instructed to post [Health Department] coronavirus informational signage at their entrances, instructing visitors not to attend if they have symptoms of respiratory infection.”

A knitting group at the Dorot Center

At one of the city-funded centers, the Swinging 60’s Senior Center in Brooklyn, director John Pelle said he had posted the city’s signs, but there’s something else he could use.

“Other than posters maybe they can send us some disinfectant,” he said, adding they use bleach and water to clean the facility but would like some sanitizer to do more heavy duty cleaning on areas like doorknobs. He heard about the new sanitizer New York state is producing and reached out to his local assemblyman to see if he could get some.

His regular seniors keep showing up, even though he’s received calls from their sons and daughters saying, “‘I told [my mom] to stay home.”

“They don’t want to stay home. They want to be here,” he said. “They’re more comfortable here.”