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TAMPA — At the Ronald McDonald House Tampa’s outdoor playground, a familiar statue greets children staying there while they receive treatment at neighboring Tampa General Hospital.
But this week, the playground was empty.
The facility, with room for 14 families, has suspended overnight family stays.
And no new families are being admitted to the three Ronald McDonald Homes in St. Petersburg.
“Any new person entering is an exposure risk,” said Lisa Suprenand, the executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay nonprofit that manages the four area homes.
The Ronald McDonald House, like all aspects of society, has been impacted by the spread of the coronavirus.
The charity has long had an unofficial motto.
“We like to say we are the best place you don’t ever want to be,” said Suprenand, because of the fun atmosphere each home promotes.
Still, she admitted, for now that is something they cannot offer.
“We are trying to balance the safety and well-being of our families,” she said. “It is all very sad and tragic, but an outbreak of COVID-19 here would be even more tragic.”
Pediatric patients staying at the homes include children with cancer and other diseases that weaken their immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness.
Typically, Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay’s four area facilities provide housing for up to 80 families whose children have come here for medical procedures.
Some stay for a few months, Suprenand said. Others stay for years.
The homes allow the families to stay together, affordably.
“Family is the best medicine,” Suprenand said. “We need to keep them together. In addition to that, it is expensive to have a sick child. A hotel in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa can average $150 to $250 a night.”
Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay provides room and meals and asks only for whatever donation a family can manage.
Still, at the homes, Suprenand said, family extends beyond the parents and siblings.
“Everyone becomes family,” she said. “You never know what someone is going through unless you’ve been through it. The families can connect and bond and support one another over those details most of us wouldn’t understand.”
It’s a norm at all four Tampa Bay area Ronald McDonald Houses for families to eat with other families by pushing tables together in the dining area.
The common living room and playground at each home usually teem with kids playing video games and sports.
But social distancing has changed the St. Petersburg homes.
Families must dine alone in their private rooms and are asked to stay out of common areas.
They can enjoy the outdoor playgrounds but should make sure no other families are there.
Visiting entertainers who perform and 350 volunteers — all of whom add cheer to the locales — are prohibited from entering the homes: Essential personnel only.
The Tampa house suspended all operations on March 27 due to Tampa General Hospital’s visitor restrictions during the pandemic.
Pediatric patients can have by their side just one parent who cannot come and go. As a result, there was no need to keep that neighboring Ronald McDonald House open.
“The Tampa team will look for other ways to support children and their families at this time,” Suprenand said.
Most of those who stay at the St. Petersburg homes are treated at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. That hospital allows two caregiver visitors, but only one at a time. They can leave the campus.
This new coronavirus world has been difficult for Fred Amaral, an 11-year-old from Brazil who stays at one of the St. Petersburg homes for up to six months while receiving treatment for his cerebral palsy.
Lampert’s Therapy Group, which has been helping the boy to walk without assistance, suspended operations due to coronavirus, Fred’s mother, Isabella Amaral, said. She is worried Fred will lose the the gains he has made.
What’s more, she said, she feels it is too dangerous to fly home. For now, they are mostly confined to their room.
“We miss the old environment,” Isabella Amaral said. “This is usually a very happy environment and one big family. We miss those friends we are attached to.”
Still, she said, the home is taking the right precautions.
“Can you imagine if one of us caught the virus?” she said. “We cannot be split up."
For more information about Ronald McDonald House Charities Tampa Bay, visit https://rmhctampabay.org/
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