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Some Tampa Bay independent-living facilities have opened to visitors

Florida's COVID-19 infections have continued to climb, including in long-term care facilities.
An unidentified woman walks towards the entrance to St. Mark Village nursing home on April 20 in Palm Harbor.
An unidentified woman walks towards the entrance to St. Mark Village nursing home on April 20 in Palm Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jul. 6, 2020
Updated Jul. 16, 2020

The doors to the independent-living center at St. Mark Village in Palm Harbor have been open for pre-approved visits for a few weeks. But the visits are hard to come by.

Doug Fresh, the CEO of St. Mark, approves some visits for residents’ with loved ones passing through town, including one for a woman whose daughter does her taxes.

“It’s kind of like a hall pass,” Fresh said. “They’re not for pure pleasure yet. We’re very careful who we let in, even in the independent living.”

Several Florida independent-living facilities have opened up for visitation, according to Nick van der Linden, spokesman for LeadingAge Florida, in an email last week. The trade group represents about 250 retirement homes and other elder-care facilities.

The facilities allowing visitors make sure they’re conducted in limited, prescribed areas, largely by appointment, according to van der Linden. Masks and social distancing are required, he said, and visitors don’t cross into the nursing home or assisted-living areas of the centers that have them.

Visitors to St. Mark are screened for exposure to and symptoms of the coronavirus, and their temperatures are taken, Fresh said. Residents and visitors must wear masks at all times. They meet their visitors at the facility’s screening station, Fresh said, and may take guests into their private apartments, the dining room or wherever else they would like to go.

Visitors must leave by the end of the business day, and no one has pushed the limit so far, Fresh said last week. He was hopeful that St. Mark could completely open its independent-living center to visitors in July, but the state’s increase in virus cases likely has pushed that possibility out.

As of Monday, Florida’s long-term care facilities, which include independent-living, assisted-living and nursing homes, have 2,623 positive COVID-19 cases, 3,118 residents testing positive and transferred, and 4,191 staffers testing positive, according to a report from the state Department of Health. Long-term care facilities in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties combined have had 262 deaths.

Statewide, there have been 29,565 cases in people 65 and older so far, with 3,531 deaths, according to the state report.

“I’m guessing the governor will continue the lockdown,” Fresh said.

In Hillsborough County, independent-living residents of Allegro-North Tampa may receive visitors — by appointment and outside, said Joe Ruggeri, president of Allegro Management. Residents meet with loved ones under a portico, once they’ve been screened with a quiz and a temperature check, he said. All parties must be masked and stay 6 feet apart.

“If the families are happy with our security process, we want to keep it that way,” Ruggeri said.

The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay in South Pasadena opened its independent-living facility to scheduled visits in late June, allowing visitors to sign up for 15-minute visits, according to an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

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An email sent to family members by The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay on Jun. 12.
An email sent to family members by The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay on Jun. 12. [ Bailey LeFever ]

Visitors must wear masks, have their temperatures checked and answer questions about where they’ve been, according to the email. During their time together, the resident remains 6 feet away from the visitor, who sits at the other end of a long table.

Other independent-living facilities have remained closed to visitors.

That includes Addington Place at College Harbor in St. Petersburg, according to administrator Justin Mock. As in other facilities, residents are using Zoom, Skype and FaceTime to connect with their loved ones online. They are following state recommendations to keep their residents safe, he said.

Governor Ron DeSantis has not advised when visitation might resume in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. But on May 28, the Florida Health Care Association sent a list of reopening recommendations for long-term care centers to the governor, said Kristen Knapp, spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group representing nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

“He has to rescind the executive order, and that hasn’t happened yet,” Knapp said.

Independent-living facilities are regulated differently and house a different population than nursing homes, whose residents require 24-hour care, she said.

As of last week, about 700 of the state’s 3,800 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities had reported infections, Knapp said. About 1.6 percent of residents in those facilities and 2 percent of staff have contracted COVID-19, she said.

“If you have a building that has no positive cases, and they’re in a community where they’re not experiencing a significant spike, then let’s look at how we can do something safely to open for visitation,” she said.

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