Municipalities have canceled events and public meetings, closed schools and public buildings. Long held events such as the New Haven St. Patrick’s Day parade and Boston Marathon have been postponed.
But in the midst of these doors closing, soup kitchens are balancing two public health issues: the threat of coronavirus and the threat of people going hungry.
Steve Werlin, the executive director of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, said serving a hungry population while taking extra precautions around the virus is challenging to maintain.
Coronavirus cases had topped 134,700 worldwide, with more than 4,900 deaths.
“There’s added risk because our population is immuno compromised generally and they’re at a higher risk,” he said. “On the other hand, we have to balance the threat of an outbreak with ensuring people get fed.
“We are taking the city’s direction and following their recommendations,” Werlin said. “If they tell us to close we will but I think they’re aware of this delicate balancing act we have to do.”
Already the soup kitchen is compulsive about sanitation, he said, but they’ve doubled down on supplies and cleaning.
At the Community Soup Kitchen in New Haven, volunteers won’t serve meals in the dining room starting Monday to help reduce any risk of spreading the contagious coronavirus, known as COVID-19. Instead, all their meals will be prepackaged takeout from the back door of the dining room.
“It’s going to be costly and difficult, but we’ll make it work because we don’t have a choice,” said Karen Comstock, the development and marketing coordinator for the organization.
All their fundraisers have been canceled and with many children being sent home from school, Comstock predicted there may be more families looking for meals during the day.
Most Fairfield County school districts, many in New Haven County and more along the shoreline have temporarily shut down as the coronavirus threat grows, but the state has yet to require a statewide closure.
“It’s going to be a big change,” Comstock said. “We don’t know if our numbers will climb today or tomorrow. We have to order enough takeout containers and bags. The food bank is still open and our restaurant donors are still open. So far we’re OK and we hope that this is as bad as it gets.”
In Middletown, Maryellen Shuckerow, executive director of St. Vincent dePaul, shared the same concern.
“With schools closing, I think there will be a greater need, but I have no idea what that will look like,” she said.
Comstock said they’ll keep up with their service on its regular schedule until they’re told they need to stop.
While Comstock said she’s had to turn away volunteers that aren’t needed because they’re switching to prepackaged meals, Werlin said a concern for the evening soup kitchen has been keeping volunteers.
He’s started to see some not showing up because they’re concerned about the virus and already a group canceled for that reason, he said.
While food pantries remain open, Werlin said they’re limiting the number of people who can be in the pantry at one time as a precaution.
However, looking toward the future, he said soup kitchens and food pantries may start being concerned an economic slump could impact food donations.
“We rely on donations and that’s predicated on people having disposable income,” he said.
For smaller soup kitchens, such as the one at A.M.E. Varick Memorial Church in New Haven, they’re still committed to serving their community
“We’re being vigilant, we’re being mindful,” said Sylvia Cooper, director of IMANI Breakthrough Project and church office manager. “We know it’s a disadvantaged population and doing everything to protect the people we serve as well as ourselves.”
Cooper said the church volunteers already follow strict sanitation requirements set forth by the Connecticut Food Bank to operate the soup kitchen, but since news of the coronavirus spreading, they’re taking extra precautions, making sure people wash their hands before and after they eat.
“Poverty is poverty and people still go hungry, but this is our ministry,” she said.
Cooper said people receiving food will be more cautious and everyone will follow the guidelines that the city has set with regards to interacting.
Even with public and private institutions closing or limiting services, Cooper said soup kitchens need to carry on.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker advised residents to prepare to have enough food for a month inside their homes, but for many low income residents or those who utilize soup kitchens, that’s not possible.
“Somebody has to serve,” Cooper said. “Everybody can’t abandon their post. If there was a great epidemic we’d follow everything being asked of us but we have to find a way to work around people to serve them.”
More than ever, Cooper said people need to find a way to help each other.
“If people can’t come to us, there’s nothing wrong with us dropping food off at your door,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for you to do good even if you’re concerned about contact.”
As always the church is advising its members and people coming for meals to be careful if they don’t feel well and try to stay home and take care of themselves, Cooper said, but they wouldn’t turn people away from getting a meal.
“People can come to sit and get a hot meal, but if they don’t feel well they can take it away,” she said. “It’s about relationships where they feel comfortable enough to tell us that and won’t feel shamed.”
Shuckerow enacted the St. Vincent dePaul Middletown’s essential services and emergency management plan for the entire agency.
It involves closing the dining room at the soup kitchen and serving to-go meals for the next two to three weeks and only operating pickup at the food pantry two days a week instead of four.
“It’s a very difficult situation and I think most communities are trying to figure it out the best they can,” she said.
The agency suspended all its volunteers and are only operating with its 23 staff members, Shuckerow said.
“It’s too much of a risk,” she said. “Many of our soup kitchen clients are compromised medically and that’s going to breed the illness and expose my staff. At the pantry and soup kitchen we’ll provide food daily but not in the kitchen because if my staff get sick, we can’t help.”
Normally the soup kitchen can serve 100-150 a day, but the agency is following recommendations from the state and Centers for Disease Control and practicing social distancing, she said.
Shuckerow said she isn’t worried about running out of food because already the food pantry and soup kitchen have enough for at least six weeks and doesn’t anticipate deliveries from the Connecticut Food Bank to stop.
Similarly at homeless shelters, staff are balancing the need to protect vulnerable populations from getting sick while giving a safe place to stay.
“I think we’re in uncharted times and learning as we go, but I think there’s been a good communication channel and the governor and CDC has done a great job,” Shuckerow said. “You do what you have to do to keep going.”
Deirdre DiCara, executive director of FISH, Torrington’s homeless shelter, said she and her staff are focused on keeping their most vulnerable residents – those with chronic health conditions and the elderly – safe, as well as all other members of the shelter community.
“Our public health officials, as well as the mayor’s office, the hospital and the Department of Housing, and the coalition, are being very proactive about the coronavirus and its impact on the community,” she said. “We are all working together to make sure people are safe.”
Food is being dispensed differently by shelter staff, DiCara said. “At the food pantry, we’re wearing plastic gloves and greeting people at the door, rather then have them come inside. We take their bags, fill them and hand them back to them,” she said.
Cleaning at the shelter is always a top priority, she said, and those efforts have been redoubled.
“We’re always cleaning, we always take great precautions, because we don’t want people to get sick with colds or the flu, and now we’re doing it even more,” DiCara said. “People who are responsible for those chores know what to do.”
If a resident shows possible coronavirus symptoms, DiCara said they will be isolated in two rooms that have been disinfected and set aside for that purpose. “We’ll use masks for them and contact the hospital and the health department right away,” she said.
“The goal is to keep life going on as normally as possible,” DiCara said. “We are concerned mostly for our elderly and chronically ill residents, and we will do our best to keep them from getting sick.”