For years in Laramie the Eppson Center for Seniors has been a hub of socialization, with its weekday lunches welcoming anyone needing a hot meal and a broad array of activities designed to meet the needs of its patrons.
That all changed March 16. With the coronavirus creeping into Wyoming, it became abundantly clear to the Eppson Center staff that the people they served were at risk. Before closing its doors, the center invited a public health official to come speak about what was ahead.
“We had (Albany County Public Health Officer) Dr. Jean Allais answer some questions, and we recorded it and put on our website,” said Tammy Comer, the center’s executive director.
Allais sadly told the staff having patrons congregate at the center put them, the staff and the community at-large at risk.
“It’s just a worry, and we knew people would struggle,” Comer said.
As such, the first day the center was closed it started offering curbside meals. Today, there are about 21 patrons the staff knows they can count on. The number can balloon to almost 70 on days when the dish is popular.
“I know when I’m going to have a ton of people, but I know I’ll do at least 50 or 60 on a day,” said Lorinda O’Hashi, the kitchen manager and chef and director of nutrition.
O’Hashi said there was some fear early on among patrons — concerns shared by staff, Comer said — but as things have settled down, they said it’s been remarkable what can be accomplished.
“It was like, ‘OK, this is how we started programs, now we need to completely change that and think outside the box,’” Comer said. “I’ve not been disappointed at all. I’ve just been impressed and delighted with these guys. They work really hard and everybody has a passion for it.”
The center didn’t have to layoff any staff and has managed to plan financially to keep things afloat for now, Comer said. While that can change depending on how things pan out with the pandemic, she said she’s thankful things have gone as well as they have.
“We’ve been so lucky our jobs were secure because of how we budget and how grant funding works for us,” Comer said. “Two years down the road it might be a different story. ... But because of how we’ve had things planned out we’ve done OK. It could have been much worse.”
The real fear at this stage is having an infection that would force the center’s staff into quarantine. Staff is trying to stay in touch with patrons by calling and is beginning to design activities that can be done while social distancing. That doesn’t change that people are still anxious to get back into the center where they’re able to socialize.
That, however, would put a risk of infection too high, Comer said. If the staff was forced to quarantine for two weeks, or even longer, that would mean the nearly 100 home delivered meals won’t be delivered. Dozens of curbside meals won’t be served. Groceries won’t be brought to patrons’ homes and dialysis patients won’t be taken to Ivinson Memorial Hospital by Eppson Center staff. To close at this stage, Comer said, would have serious consequences.
“As much as we’d love to open and get things back to normal, the risk is too great for our services,” she said.
Hannah Wright, activities director, said talking with patrons and sending out a survey has been helpful for both staff and patrons.
“We get calls almost every day about when we will open back up, and I think a lot of them after taking the reopening survey have said, ‘I understand the risks now; I’ve looked into it more since you’ve given me this information,’” Wright said.
It’s unclear when the center will open again and what a new normal may look like. But Comer said given the circumstances, there’s a lot positive to take away from how people at the Eppson Center have so far handled the unprecedented pandemic.
“It’s kind of weird how even in something as scary and unknown as COVID that there are positive things happening for the center,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can do considering the building is closed.”