How COVID-19 is impacting Philly’s LGBTQ institutions

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Photo caption: Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia Health Department, COVID-19 Coronavirus Response press conference March 16.

In collaborative efforts to ramp up coronavirus prevention measures, the City of Philadelphia shut down all non-essential businesses until March 27, effective March 16 at 5 p.m. Businesses and facilities that will remain open include pharmacies, supermarkets and grocery stores, banks, post offices, gas stations and discount stores. City Hall has also closed all non-essential operations at this time. 

As of Wednesday, 16 newly-identified cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed and reported, bringing the citywide total to 34 cases since the beginning of the epidemic, Dr. Thomas Farley, health commissioner for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in Wednesday’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Response press conference at City Hall.

“We are clearly in a rapid growth phase of this epidemic,” Farley said in the press conference. Since Tuesday, 177 test results were reported, which marks a 10-fold increase in the number of test reports since the weekend, Farley added. 

Here’s a breakdown of closures and schedule modifications implemented by some of  Philadelphia’s LGBTQ organizations and health centers. 

As of March 17, Mazzoni Center’s Bainbridge Street location and Washington West testing sites are currently closed through March 27. 

“We felt full closure was the most effective step we could take to protect the health of our staff, volunteers, patients and clients,” Mazzoni Center Director of Communications Larry Benjamin said in a press release. “We will continue to draw on guidance from OSHA, the CDC, WHO and the City of Philadelphia’s Health Department in planning our next steps.”

William Way LGBT Community Center is closed as of March 14 until at least April 3, at which point its directors will discuss how they will proceed. However, William Way staff have been mobilizing initiatives to deliver food to communities in need and to maintain remote connections with people in the community. 

The center is partnering with Philabundance and other local food pantries to provide food for residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments (JCAA), the Center City affordable housing apartment building for LGBTQ seniors, William Way Executive Director Chris Bartlett told PGN. He and other staffers will also be remotely checking on JCAA residents, and other seniors who engage in William Way programming, to make sure their needs are met at this time. 

“If I were trying to summarize what we’re trying to do as a staff, it’s to create a community center at a time when people can’t come together physically,” Bartlett said. “We have really been paying attention to the recovery community [for whom] 12-step meetings can’t happen at the center, so we are making four Zoom lines available for people who want to do either video 12-step meetings or any community meeting. Any community group that needs a free Zoom line so they can get their folks together for a video meeting, we are happy to make those lines available to the community for free.”

Bartlett is also facilitating 5 p.m. call every weekday for community leaders to check in with each other. “That’s anyone who self-identifies as a leader, they don’t have to run an organization,” he said. “It’s meant to be a support at a time when leaders can feel isolated. It gives folks an opportunity to share information, and almost more importantly, an opportunity not to feel alone. As leaders, we really need to have a sense of solidarity right now.” Those who wish to participate can email Bartlett at [email protected]

Similar to William Way, GALAEI has stopped physical programming at its location, including HIV and STD testing and screening, according to Francisco Cortes, interim executive director of the queer, Latinx social justice organization. However, GALAEI will continue to engage with its community through social media. 

“We’ll be having virtual groups, different conversations; different staff members will be going live and doing different activities just to continue to engage the community,” Cortes said. “For everyone, particularly LGBTQ folks, sometimes being in isolation and being in these spaces can also seem very lonely, so we want to still be there for the community.” GALAEI staff will also post social media updates about closures of community healthcare centers and similar facilities.

The team at Philadelphia FIGHT at this time has suspended all walk-in appointments but will remain open to individuals with existing appointments, according to the organization’s website. Those who need to make a medical appointment are required to schedule it by phone and can even receive medical guidance or case management via phone. The organization is not accepting new patients at this time. 

FIGHT’s John Bell and Lax Centers will be operational, but will not take “patients with respiratory complaints.” Its pediatric center is open, but will only see patients who have called in advance. Further FIGHT closures and modifications can be found at https://fight.org/a-message-from-the-chief-executive-officer/.

As of March 17, Action Wellness will be running on a modified schedule, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., Monday-Friday, according to the organization’s Executive Director Kevin Burns. This schedule applies to Center City, North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia locations. One staff member and supervisor from each team are working on a daily rotating bases in each office. Staff will also be calling each of the organization’s 2,000 clients to ensure that they are following the recommended guidelines for coronavirus prevention and that clients have proper medical care and healthy food at their disposal. Action Wellness will follow the city of Philadelphia’s guidelines on COVID-19 and HIV, Burns said. 

“What we want to do is have a conversation with every single one of our clients to go over that fact list,” Burns said. “To make sure they understand that they could be at increased risk of infection with COVID-19 if they have a low CD4 count, if they have an unsuppressed viral load, if they are 60 years of age or older, if there’s any history of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes or chronic lung disease. A lot of our clients are older, so we want to focus on those first.”

In addition to ensuring that all individuals are regularly washing their hands, Action Wellness staff are also checking to make sure clients have access to soap. 

“A lot of our clients are living in poverty, so if they don’t have soap we want to work out a plan for them to get soap,” Burns said. “We want to make sure that they have enough medication so they don’t miss their HIV medications or any other medications they’re on. If they don’t have enough, we’re going to work with them and our pharmacies to make sure they have that delivered to their home.”

Action Wellness will also collaborate with MANNA and other local food delivery services. 

In addition to William Way and Action Wellness’ food delivery efforts, Bebashi Transition to Hope will also continue to provide food bank access to the community at this time. Bebashi is extending its usual two-hour food bank window to all-day access.

“We’re getting referrals for people who don’t know our hours, and they may come when it’s convenient for them,” said Bebashi Executive Director Gary Bell. “We don’t want to turn them away. By having the food pantry hours in the two-hour block, we tend to get a lot of people in a short period of time. We have them all sitting together in one big room, so we’re trying to avoid that. By stretching it out during the entire day, we’re able to get people in and out easier.” 

Philly AIDS Thrift has closed both of its locations until March 27, and the Attic Youth Center is also closed until the 27th, in line with Philadelphia School District closures. As of last weekend, the Philadelphia Pride Parade is still set to take place on June 14, according to Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents. 

“However, we will always do what is the best for our community,” Price said in an email. “We will follow all directions from the city, and if we have to cancel for June 14, we will postpone [Pride] for a date/time we can have it.”