The first week of June, after almost three full months of closure, the Bemidji Senior Center reopened its doors to visitors and members. The 'soft opening' involves implementing coronavirus precautions for sanitizing and distancing and limits the number of visitors in a space at one time.

Board members Carol Gilbertson and Donna Kimmes were among the first to return, donning masks, testing the plexiglass screen by the front desk, and measuring out six-foot distances -- taking the precautions seriously while smiling and rolling with the situation.

The center, which has provided a social gathering space and a full calendar of programming since 1962, is easing back into a regular schedule. While activities and services that are standard on the senior center's calendar had to be canceled or go virtual, board members continued to meet remotely during the stay-at-home order to make leadership decisions. A COVID-19 health and safety team prepared for the June 1 limited reopening. Members of the gift shop committee reorganized the on-site store while the recycling group made greeting cards at home. Some volunteers delivered Meals on Wheels; and the program committee worked at canceling facility rentals, bus trips and fundraisers that had already been planned.

“Our members have still been logging lots of volunteer hours for the Center,” said Michelle Crow, director of the center. "Our seniors desire the personal contact that you just can’t get from virtual communication." She visited with seniors by phone while the center was closed. "But it just isn’t as fulfilling as sitting down next to someone with a cup of coffee," she said.

Prior to the closure, about a thousand visitors came to the center each month. During the closure, the center’s activities -- like chair yoga, wood carving, silver stretchers, mahjong and live music -- were scratched. Services like vital signs clinics, manicures and pedicures, laptop and tablet Q&A sessions, and safe drivers' courses couldn’t meet on site, and lunches provided by Lutheran Social Service stopped. A few virtual activities were offered, like exercises through Northwoods Caregivers, and some meetings usually held at the center -- like Weight Watchers -- met through Zoom.

The Senior Center employs just three part-time staff members and two part-time contracted staff members.

“A huge part of our budget comes from fundraisers,” Crow said. “We had very little income during the months of March, April and May, due to canceling our monthly pancake breakfasts, the spring style show, rummage and bake sale, bus trip, antique sale and plant sale. Canceling our fundraisers has had a devastating effect on our budget.”

The Paycheck Protection Plan allowed them to continue to pay the three staff members, but not the contracted staff. The center also applied for the Small Business EIDL loan and for the United Way’s Emergency Funding Grant. The center currently has about 455 members with a 2020 goal of raising that number to 500. Members don’t have to be seniors, Crow emphasizes, and visitors to the center don’t have to be members, but a pandemic that poses higher risks to older adults and a closed building without weekly music, daily lunches, and other activities have made it difficult to grow membership.

In spite of the closure, senior center volunteers worked “on behind-the-scenes stuff,” Crow said. The center had some “home improvement” projects on the docket and had obtained grant money and donations to help with expenses, so the volunteers have given the center a face-lift from floor to roof. Crow and the building committee worked on a re-roofing project while the redecorating committee completed a flooring project, repainted the interior, and installed new cabinets in the coffee area and dining hall.

Cabinets and flooring were updated at the Bemidji Senior Center during the shutdown. Submitted photo.
Cabinets and flooring were updated at the Bemidji Senior Center during the shutdown. Submitted photo.

“Cheryl Brooks took on that task,” Crow said. “She pulled everything together and made it happen.”

Brooks says the face-lift project was on schedule before the COVID-19 shutdown, with several volunteers lined up to tackle the tasks, but the stay-at-home order threw a snag into the works. Adjustments were made, and Brooks volunteered to steer the project while the center was closed. With donated flooring and cabinets from Home Depot, paint from Hirschfield’s, wall art from McKenzie Place, the Bemidji Senior Center now has a fresh, clean look thanks to both paid and volunteer labor. Looking back, Brooks said it would have been much more difficult to complete all of the work with the center open on weekdays.

“We hired the flooring work and some of the painting, but we had lots of volunteers too," Brooks said.

George Brooks and Tom Detschman installed the cabinets; other volunteers prepped, moved things around, painted walls, reorganized, and took care of cleanup.

“Being shut down made the job easier because things got moved around and messed up," Brooks said. The entire job, originally planned for two weekends, was spread out over six weeks.

When the senior center reopened, reactions to the face-lift ranged from “pretty pleased to downright amazed,” Cheryl said. Colorful new tablecloths added a finishing touch, but there’s no coffee or snacks unless visitors bring their own, no lunches, no large gatherings and only limited activities. The gift shop is open, and as visitors to the center slowly return, the fruit of the labor of dedicated volunteers during the closure is a clear sign that this is a place that doesn’t stop moving forward -- even during a pandemic.