By Joe Stumpe
Rita Hephner calls March 31 her “day of freedom.”
That’s the date she expected to return to a more normal lifestyle, having passed 14 days since the second of her COVID-19 vaccination shots.
And Hephner planned to celebrate.
“I’m going to make an appointment at Beau Monde and have a massage,” she said.
Across Wichita, thousands of people were making similar plans as the pace of vaccinations picked up and COVID cases fell.
Businesses and organizations that have been closed to the public for a year announced that they would be opening, albeit with some restrictions in place.
Senior Services, Inc., which operates the Downtown Senior Center and three others in Wichita, announced that they would re-open for two days a week starting on April 1. The centers will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Many congregate meal sites serving seniors have also reopened for in-person dining or announced plans to do so.
“Everybody is kind of ready to start dipping their toes in the water and getting back out there,” said Annette Graham, executive director of Central Plans Area Agency on Aging.
Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services, said the limited hours are designed to permit sanitizing and to “let our center directors get into a rhythm, seeing how things go.” She expects the centers to resume their normal weekday schedule “within a couple of months.”
For now, the centers will require masks and social distancing, and participation in many activities will be limited. She suggested that center members call to reserve slots for pickleball, art classes and other programming. Cards, dominos and pool will be available “but spaced out, with constant sanitizing,” she said. Communal snacks and drinks are out for now.
Asked if she expects a rush of returning members, Alkire said, “Oh yeah, our (center) directors have kept in touch with them.” On the other hand, she said, “I’m sure we’ll have some that just aren’t ready to come back.”
Senior Services plans to keep offering virtual events, Alkire said.
Graham said her staff has been working with senior centers and congregate meal sites in Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey counties on plans to reopen. Some senior centers have been open a limited basis, but Graham said attendance “has been pretty low.”
“It will be interesting to gauge where people are, their willingness to go back in that congregate setting,” she said.
Senior centers and meal sites
Senior centers currently open with limited programming include those in Bentley, Bel Aire, Clearwater, Derby, Haysville Senior Center, Park City and Sedgwick.
The Cheney Senior Center was planning to reopen this week. In Wichita, the four centers run by Senior Services, Inc. — Downtown, Linwood, Northeast and Orchard Park — are set to reopen with limited hours and services April 1. The Mulvane Senior Center also plans to reopen April 5.
Centers that don’t have reopening dates set yet include La Familia in north Wichita, Mount Hope, Oaklawn and Valley Center.
Congregate meal sites will continue to offer grab-and-go meals, as they have been doing during the pandemic, since “not everybody’s going to feel comfortable coming back in person to dine together.”
The following congregate meal sites reopened on March 22: Cheney, Clearwater, Derby, Haysville, Peachtree, Huston Center, LaFamilia, Maple Gardens, Park City, Sheridan, all in Sedgwick County; and Sedgwick, in Harvey County.
These meal sites were scheduled to reopen April 5: Edgemoor, Linwood, Mulvane, Northeast, all in Wichita.
As of March 23, no reopening date had been set for: Evergreen, in Wichita; Hesston, Newton, Halstead, in Harvey County; and Susan B Allen, in Butler County.
Hephner, who retired after working for Southwestern Bell and the Wichita school district, has followed recommended COVID precautions throughout the pandemic. She received her first Moderna vaccination shot on Feb. 17, qualifying under Phase 2 because of her age. She said her second shot, on March 17, left her with “aches and pains and a really bad headache.” Those symptoms passed with 24 hours, and Hephner doesn’t regret going through them.
“I think eveybody should get it,” she said. “I know there are people who have hesitation, but I really think it’s the only way we’re going to get out of this.”
Hephner says she still plans to wear her mask in public until public health authorities say it’s no longer necessary. She’ll make an exception in the pool of the Downtown YMCA, which she plans to return to soon after, but will still wear one and any place where she could come in close contact with people.
“Even if I am not sick, there could be some of the variant in your mouth or noise and you could pass them on to somebody else. I don’t think they really know but I’m just being cautious. I don’t want to pass it on to anybody.” She said she’ll also feel comfortable hosting her niece, nephew and great nephew for Easter dinner in her apartment, where she has not had visitors for a year.