When the deadly virus hit a Jewish care facility on shore of 1st US public beach

When the deadly virus hit a Jewish care facility on shore of 1st US public beach

In Massachusetts, a Hebrew SeniorLife independent living facility grapples with ‘gut-wrenching’ loss of six residents to COVID-19 outbreak

Revere Beach, Massachusetts, not far from the COVID-19 outbreak at the Jack Satter House, April 1, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Revere Beach, Massachusetts, not far from the COVID-19 outbreak at the Jack Satter House, April 1, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

REVERE BEACH, Massachusetts — Growing up north of Boston in Malden, Massachusetts, Paula Weiner’s social life revolved around nearby Revere Beach.

Back then, the beach was nick-named “Coney Island of the East,” and the boulevard was packed with with rides, dance halls, and theaters. Weiner would spend long days there — “from 7 to 7,” she said — with her girlfriends. From graduation parties to lazy Sundays, Revere Beach was there for any festive occasion.

Now, as a 72-year old retiree, Weiner’s life is again set on Revere Beach. Five years ago, she came to live at Hebrew Senior Life’s Jack Satter House, an independent living facility where six residents have died from COVID-19 in recent days.

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Weiner said she knew five of the deceased personally.

“Everybody feels it when someone passes away,” said Weiner, who has been alone in her apartment, in self-quarantine, for one week. “We are a family here, a little community. I didn’t think something like this could happen here.”

Jack Satter House in Revere, Massachusetts, April 1, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

In 1978, Hebrew SeniorLife opened the facility not far from Kelly’s Roast Beef, a left-over from the beach’s resort heyday. Since then, Jack Satter House has helped thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish seniors live on their own in a communal, program-rich environment.

In terms of the care she is receiving, Weiner called the staff “unbelievable” in their efforts to assist residents. In addition to meals and other necessities brought to residents’ doors, Jewish religious services and guided meditation sessions have taken place “on conference-calls,” said Weiner.

Even before the City of Revere placed Jack Satter House residents in quarantine on March 26, the facility was taking steps to keep people safe from the virus, said Weiner.

Paula Weiner before moving to Jack Satter House in 2015 (courtesy)

“It started to feel really scary to go outside of the building,” said Weiner, who said she last visited a convenience store.

According to Lou Woolf, President & CEO of Hebrew SeniorLife, limitations on visitors were imposed at Jack Satter House on March 6. Additional steps were taken inside the building to enhance hygiene and awareness of the virus, Woolf told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“This has been a gut-wrenching experience for everyone involved,” said Woolf, whose organization is the fifth largest nonprofit in Massachusetts. An affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Jack Satter House is a top teaching and research site.

During his visits to the facility since last week, Woolf said he was struck by the devotion and quality care provided by support staff.

“The staff in senior living settings do not get enough credit,” said Woolf. “The number of staff people [not coming to work] has been way below average, and they put their lives at risk to take care of our residents.”

Revere Beach, Massachusetts, where a COVID-19 outbreak hit an elder care facility, April 1, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

In addition to staff support, said Woolf, “an army of volunteers is helping by walking the dogs of residents and running other errands.”

Last week, the stretch of beach outside Jack Satter House was packed with people strolling and getting take-out food. Reporters were converging on-site to cover the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak, said Woolf, but the blatant lack of “social distancing” along Revere Beach Boulevard became its own story.

Although the rides and dance-halls were demolished decades ago, the boulevard along the beach is still a draw for ice cream at Banana Boat, fried scallops at Kelly’s Roast Beef, and being accessible by public transit.

In recent days, Revere’s mayor took to riding around town with a bull-horn to order people inside. Formal lock-downs have been imposed, and the popular eateries near Jack Satter House stopped offering take-away.

The heyday of Revere Beach, Massachusetts, known as ‘Coney Island of the East’ (public domain)

For Weiner, the neighborhood holds seven decades of memories. She never did go on the “Cyclone” roller-coaster, but she remembers being on the ferris wheel and “flying horses.”

In place of the Coney Island-style attractions, bulky apartment buildings came to dominate the southern part of Revere Beach since the 1980’s. Further north, heading toward Lynn, a condo construction boom is drawing Boston commuters to the live alongside America’s first public beach, where the horizon is dotted by airplanes coming into Logan Airport.

Until last month’s COVID-19 outbreak, Weiner kept herself busy by volunteering three days a week in the kitchen and store. Although she calls herself “a couch potato,” she also gives tours of Jack Satter House to prospective residents and their families.

“I do feel blessed to be here,” said Weiner. “I have friends at other [facilities] where the staff people have said, ‘See you later, you’re on your own.’ Here the staff wants to help and they do it with a smile.”

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