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A look behind the gated affluence of Trump’s Palm Beach

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PALM BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Beach goers gather at the Worth Avenue clock tower that sits at the entrance of the Worth Avenue shopping district on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in Palm Beach, FL. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
The Worth Avenue clock tower marks the entrance of an upscale shopping district in Palm Beach, Fla., where shops include Gucci and Louis Vuitton. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Laurel Baker steered her dark-blue sport utility vehicle through this tony resort town, studded on all sides with tall hedges and metal gates offering stingy glimpses of spectacular mansions.

Private entrances to private beaches read: NO TRESPASSING and KEEP OUT.

Sidewalks are rare in this affluent enclave President Trump calls home, befitting neighborhoods where people eye pedestrians with suspicion.

Baker, chief executive of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, moved here 44 years ago and says Palm Beach has changed. It’s always been wealthy, she says. But people now are more cloistered in their sprawling estates, associating only with those who think like them, politically and otherwise.

A white mansion known with a large green lawn and palm trees
Henry Flagler had the Flagler Museum, also known as Whitehall, built in Palm Beach as a wedding present for his wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. It was completed in 1902. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“When we first moved here, we drove around and we’d say, ‘Oh, my God, look at that hedge — it’s 13 feet tall!’ Well, now there are hedges 20 feet tall,” Baker said as a face shield swung from her rearview mirror. “It’s changed. It’s not as friendly.”

It is a proclamation widely made of the country as a whole ever since a lifelong New Yorker turned Florida man became president.

Last year, Trump declared this narrow barrier island his permanent residence, the place from which he votes by mail. He announced the change from his previous domicile, Trump Tower in Manhattan, in a tweet saying he had been “treated very badly” by New York politicians.

It is fitting, perhaps, that a man who staked his presidency on building a “big, beautiful wall” between the U.S. and Mexico would feel at home in his heavily guarded pink mansion, which also functions as the Mar-a-Lago Club.

People on Jet Skis pass Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
President Trump recently declared Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago his permanent residence. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Trump “has settled in a filthy-rich county,” said J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “It’s dripping with money, so to have settled there makes perfect sense.”

Older Americans like Trump, who is 74, flock to the Sunshine State for its weather and its lack of a personal income tax, Benton says. Florida’s western Gulf Coast and panhandle, he notes, attract people from the South and Midwest with more modest retirements. The state’s eastern Atlantic Coast, where Palm Beach lies, draws mega-wealthy transplants from New York and New England.

 

“The best word I can use in Palm Beach County: opulence,” Benton said.

Florida is a must-win state for Trump, who defeated Hillary Clinton by 1 percentage point there in 2016. Within heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, the town is an anomaly. About 46% of voters in Palm Beach proper are Republicans, compared with 28% in the county.

In his adopted hometown, Trump has found a place that is whiter, older and richer than the country as a whole. The city of 8,800 is 93% white, compared with 60% of the United States. In broader Palm Beach County, 43% of the population is Latino or Black.

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask passes a gated entrance to Mar-a-Lago Club.
The gated entrance of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A large hedge and a gate with a no-trespassing sign obscures the view of a large home in Palm Beach.
Gated entries with “No trespassing” signs nestle into well-manicured hedges around Palm Beach’s many multimillion-dollar homes. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The median age in town is 69. Nationally, it is 38.

The typical value of a single-family home in Palm Beach, according to Zillow, is about $6.6 million — more than 22 times the typical U.S. single-family home value of $295,000. Last year, hedge fund billionaire Steven Schonfeld bought a Palm Beach estate for $111 million, the most expensive home ever sold in Florida, CNBC reported.

“Palm Beach is a town for insiders,” said Madison Sohaney, a 22-year-old social media manager visiting her boyfriend’s parents’ house on Woodbridge Road, which runs alongside Mar-a-Lago. “Once you can prove to people that your intentions are good and that you’re not looking for the wrong things and you’re not in their business, you have a friend for life.”

“But they can label as well,” her boyfriend’s father, George Buff IV, gently interjected. “Sometimes it’s very unfair.”

Palm Beach occupies a vulnerable sliver of land, less than a mile wide, between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. It is surrounded by water and, as temperatures and sea levels rise, threatened by it.

A view of Mar-a-Lago and the Intracoastal Waterway from the West Palm Beach side.
Mar-a-Lago as seen from the very different West Palm Beach side of the Intracoastal Waterway. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The western lawns of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, a 17-acre estate whose name means “Sea-to-Lake” in Spanish, will probably be underwater if the ocean rises 3 feet, according to Palm Beach County’s GFN of vulnerability to rising sea levels. Climate scientists predict that is possible before the end of the century.

There is a distinction here between year-round residents and those who live here only during what is called “the season,” which runs from Thanksgiving through Easter. (News organizations have calculated that Trump has spent more than 130 days in Palm Beach in the last four years.)

During the hot, muggy summers, the island is mostly quiet, save for the construction crews that proliferate while homeowners are away. On a recent day, traffic crawled along Ocean Boulevard as they worked. Near Mar-a-Lago, two enormous green iguanas — an invasive species whose population has exploded here as the climate has warmed — sauntered along the road.

The Trump campaign and Mar-a-Lago Club did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the mayor or the five members of the Town Council.

A postman leaves a West Palm Beach home with a yard sign for President Trump in the lawn.
West Palm Beach homes feature yard signs for both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Palm Beach homes tend not to advertise their politics. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Residents who support the president say they don’t post yard signs or fly Trump flags because they don’t want their homes targeted by protesters. But just across the Intracoastal Waterway, in West Palm Beach, signs for Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden compete for attention in neighboring yards. One reads, “Trump: You are the virus.” Another, “Dogs 2020: Because humans suck.”

Palm Beach’s high-society lifestyle harks back to the Gilded Age. In 1894, Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil tycoon and business partner of John D. Rockefeller, opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel, then the world’s largest resort hotel, and extended his Florida East Coast Railway south through the region. Snowbirds flocked.

Mar-a-Lago, designated a National Historic Landmark four decades ago, was built in the late 1920s by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who left the 126-room, crescent-shaped mansion to the federal government after her death for use as a winter White House. But the upkeep was too expensive. The government gave it back to her foundation.

At left, a sign near a wall by the beach reads "No trespassing / Private property." At right, a closed Neiman Marcus store.
At left, signs warn against trespassing on private beaches along Palm Beach’s Ocean Boulevard. At right, the upscale businesses on Worth Avenue include a large Neiman Marcus store that recently closed down. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Trump bought it in 1985 and opened it as a private club in 1995. Unlike other clubs that did not accept Jewish or Black members, Mar-a-Lago was open to anyone who paid.

Trump was broadly disliked by the Palm Beach elite, but he relished their attention.

“I’m the king of Palm Beach,” he told Timothy L. O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” “They all come over, they all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say: ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ But I’m the king.”

The infamously litigious Trump sued Palm Beach in the early 1990s after it stopped him from subdividing Mar-a-Lago’s land to develop several mansions, but he withdrew the suit after the town approved him turning it into a private club.

Trump and his club have sued the county multiple times over noise from nearby Palm Beach International Airport, dropping the most recent $100-million suit after he was elected president because the skies above Mar-a-Lago become a no-fly zone when he is present.

In 2006, Mar-a-Lago sued Palm Beach after the town cited it for erecting an 80-foot flagpole, in violation of local zoning codes.

“A smaller flag and pole on Mar-a-Lago’s property would be lost given its massive size, look silly instead of make a statement, and most importantly would fail to appropriately express the magnitude of Donald J. Trump’s and the Club’s members’ patriotism,” the lawsuit states.

A large U.S. flag flies over Mar-a-Lago Club, seen from the street.
The oversize U.S. flag over Mar-a-Lago Club prompted a lawsuit from Palm Beach for exceeding town height limits. President Trump agreed to shorten the flagpole from 80 feet to 70. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The dispute was settled when Trump agreed to a pole 10 feet shorter and to donate $100,000 to charity.

He pulled a similar move outside Los Angeles by hoisting an oversize flag on a 70-foot pole at his golf club in Rancho Palos Verdes without a permit. He fought with the California Coastal Commission for nearly a decade, got retroactive approval from the city and was allowed to keep it.

Last month in Palm Beach, a tanned man in a blue surgical mask walked into Classic Bookshop, asking for a copy of Bob Woodward’s book, “Rage,” in which Trump acknowledges downplaying the danger of the coronavirus.

“I’d vote for Joe Biden if he were in a coma,” the man declared.

He would not give his name because he associates with Trump supporters on the island, but he said he was a 63-year-old Republican who splits his time between New York and Palm Beach. He said that he was a member of Mar-a-Lago for two years in the early 2000s and that when Trump showed up, he “put on a great show.” But at the time, “it was harmless. It was a club.”

“A lot of people in Palm Beach like Trump” because they benefit from his tax policies, he said. “Most don’t like his club. It’s not exclusive. If you have the money, he’ll take you.”

The bookstore didn’t yet have “Rage” in stock. So the man bought the classic Russian novel “Crime and Punishment.”

The next day, the Chamber of Commerce’s Baker sat in the luncheonette at Green’s Pharmacy, an unpretentious local staple since 1938. John F. Kennedy — whose family had an Ocean Boulevard estate — is said to have enjoyed the milkshakes.

Baker asked a woman waiting tables what diners were talking about politically. “I try not to listen,” she said.

Driving through town, Baker pointed out highlights: The stately St. Edward Roman Catholic Church, attended by the Kennedys. The former site of an oceanfront mansion Trump sold for $95 million to a Russian oligarch, who tore it down and subdivided the property. The former home of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. The Palm Beach Country Club — founded by Jewish residents barred from other clubs — where Madoff recruited investors.

“We’ve not seen Donald Trump walk the streets” or eat in restaurants, she said. Maybe they would, she joked, if they got a McDonald’s.

Laurel Baker, CEO of Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, outside at a resort in Palm Springs.
Laurel Baker, Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce CEO, urged charities to boycott Mar-a-Lago after President Trump spoke in support of some participants in a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Baker turned heads when she spoke out against Mar-a-Lago in 2017 after Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. She said that if charities “have a conscience” they would not hold events at the club, and she quoted Dante in an interview with the Washington Post, saying “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

Charities canceled fundraising galas at Mar-a-Lago in droves. Most have not returned.

As Trump’s campaign has struggled amid the pandemic, so has the Palm Beach economy.

On a sweltering Tuesday last month, stores on Worth Avenue — an upscale shopping district with shops like Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton — were practically deserted and blasting air-conditioning through open doors onto empty sidewalks. At least 23 storefronts, including a huge Neiman Marcus that closed last month, are empty, Baker said.

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask and carrying a purse walks past shops on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.
High-end shops on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Trump’s handling of the virus, political experts say, could hurt his chances for reelection in Florida, which has an abundance of older voters and has rushed to reopen.

Toni Holt Kramer, founder of the women’s group Trumpettes USA, has lived seasonally in Palm Beach for over a decade and is a longtime member of Mar-a-Lago. She describes the town as “one of the last bastions left in America that still has that kind of old elegance of life,” where people “throw beautiful parties” and dress up for dinner. She says that she is appalled by people in Los Angeles who wear flip-flops in public and that she forbids the shoes in her house.

Kramer had planned a busy 2020, filled with Trump fundraisers and a book tour for her self-published memoir. But for months, Kramer — who says her multiple homes include a “mini Mar-a-Lago” in Palm Springs — hardly left her Palm Beach mansion. In mid-March, she called her house staff together and asked them to stock the refrigerators for a long hunkering-down.

Speaking by phone, Kramer said she’s been invited to Trump campaign events, where attendees have been mostly unmasked, but has not felt comfortable going.

“I have a respect for this virus … I have people in my house; I have to respect their health as well. I have a husband. He does have an underlying condition,” she said. But if people don’t want to wear masks and feel safe in crowds, that’s their prerogative, she added.

Trump, who was hospitalized this month with COVID-19, returned to the campaign trail with a Florida rally where he said he would “kiss everyone” in the crowd. Asked whether Trump has handled the pandemic well, Kramer is unequivocal: Absolutely. Kramer, a self-described stock market addict, said he kept the country appropriately optimistic.

“I don’t think anybody could do what he has done,” she said.

“COVID is no opponent for our president. Maybe for the rest of the world, but not for him,” she said.

George and Izabela Buff laughing at home in Palm Beach.
George and Izabela Buff live next door to Mar-a-Lago. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

George and Izabela Buff, who live next to Mar-a-Lago, say it saddens them that there’s not a greater sense of community in Palm Beach.

Their street has a heavy Secret Service presence during Trump’s frequent visits, and they have become used to having their cars checked for bombs.

In their living room, George Buff, whose grandfather helped develop the first disposable aluminum pie pan, displays a collection of campy sideshow memorabilia, old toys and a shrunken head. By the pool stands a Grecian-style statue topped with the head of a Ronald McDonald statue that once stood in a drive-through he frequented as a child.

He also has the body of a mannequin he painted gold, and he jokes that if you rub its breasts it combats coronavirus.

“I love to collect things that have intrinsic value, and are ugly to most people, grotesque or sometimes unsettling,” Buff said. “My philosophy is you have to bite into an apple that had a worm in there to really appreciate a good apple.”

George Buff wears a pug mask and holds his bulldog at home in Palm Beach.
George Buff, with his bulldog, wears a pug mask at his eclectic home in Palm Beach. (Hailey Branson-Potts / Los Angeles Times)

Buff, who says the president was his landlord for a spell, belongs to Mar-a-Lago and has found the Trump family to be polite and attentive to detail, which has garnered his respect and his vote.

Izabela Buff, who grew up in communist Poland and is leery of left-wing politics, says that when she sees Trump supporters in their MAGA hats, waving flags — which you don’t see much on the island — they always seem happy. She admires that.

Milton Jackson, a 60-year-old retired sanitation truck driver from nearby Lake Worth, often fishes in the Intracoastal Waterway, where he can see the giant flag flying at Mar-a-Lago. He tries to ignore it.

Jackson, who is Black, lost his mother, an 80-year-old nursing home resident, to COVID-19 a few weeks ago and says Trump hasn’t seemed to care about those who have died of it — over 219,000 as of Saturday.

Milton Jackson sits on a low concrete wall next to the waterway along Palm Beach
Lake Worth retiree Milton Jackson relaxes during a day of fishing on the Intracoastal Waterway, across from Mar-a-Lago. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Too many people support Trump, he said, “because they’re racist.”

Last month, the construction and landscaping crews toiling outdoors in Palm Beach and rebuilding the Southern Boulevard Bridge, which Trump’s motorcade uses to cross the Intracoastal Waterway to get to Mar-a-Lago, were made up of mostly Latino or Black workers. Jackson says it’s always like that in the off-season.

“Why does he want to dismiss those people?” Jackson said. “They’re building up America.”

Jackson says that because he is a Black man, he figures Palm Beach residents would only eye him suspiciously.

Does he ever cross the water and go onto the island? He laughed.

“No, no, no, no.”

Health

Wisconsin health officials worry about contact tracing plans

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APPLETON, Wis. — A key element of Wisconsin’s plan to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be difficult.

With an average of 3,400 daily cases reported in the last week in Wisconsin, and an additional 3,626 positive tests confirmed in Sunday’s update, contact tracers are now so overrun that some have begun to wonder whether they can keep up with the task at hand. The total number of cases since the pandemic began is approaching 200,000

“That’s a very valid question. I’ve been in many meetings where it’s been asked,” said Kim Goffard, communicable disease nurse supervisor in Winnebago County, among the state’s hardest-hit places. “At what point is enough enough?”

Some Wisconsin counties are so strapped that they’re now asking infected residents to reach out to their contacts themselves. That’s why Dane County, the second-most populous in the state, said in a news release it has switched to a “crisis model” of contact tracing.

Officials at the state Department of Health Services have declined to provide specific metrics about the success of Wisconsin’s tracing efforts, such as the percentage of people it has reached and how quickly, but recent press briefings have shown the difficulty of the job, the Post Crescent reported.

The department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, told reporters last week that Wisconsin’s entire public health infrastructure “cannot keep up,” including state, local and tribal health offices.

“Public health is so strained that you can’t count on us to tell you (where the virus is), which is really, really not where we want to be,” he said.

The state said it hasn’t given up. It plans to hire more tracers who can chip in where spread is most rampant. Local health departments are adjusting their priorities to protect the most at-risk populations, such as those in long-term care facilities or homeless shelters.

Even so, public health officials say the only way to get contact tracing back on track is for residents to increase their efforts to control the virus. That means keeping circles small, wearing face masks, physically distancing and washing hands.

“We control our destiny,” said Kurt Eggebrecht, Appleton’s city health officer.

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Long-term care residents in S.D. suffering health crisis due to COVID-19 isolation

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As nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have restricted the movements of residents and eliminated most in-person visits by friends and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an unexpected elderly health crisis has emerged in South Dakota and across the country.

The mental and physical health of many residents of long-term care facilities are declining and in some cases leading to death from the extended isolation residents are undergoing due to restrictions on visitation and interaction aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus among a highly vulnerable population.

Recent efforts in South Dakota to use federal relief funds to increase testing for the coronavirus among facility visitors or to implement other measures to reduce isolation have failed, leaving many worried that more elderly residents will suffer the slow decline caused by loneliness, isolation and sensory deprivation.

Anecdotal reports of the decline of residents of long-term care facilities have become commonplace in South Dakota and beyond. Advocates for the elderly and family members of facility residents recently testified before a South Dakota legislative committee that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have declined rapidly, that residents are losing the will to live, and that some have died unexpectedly from causes not directly related to the virus.

Terryl Cadwell told lawmakers in September that her father, Jim Rumbolz, 88, was living an active lifestyle at the Avera Prince of Peace Retirement Community in Sioux Falls before the pandemic. When coronavirus restrictions were implemented, including limits on social activities and family visits, Rumbolz quickly deteriorated and died in mid-June.

“There was never a slip we noticed before COVID in any of his mental capacities at all, so this was really devastating,” Cadwell said. “I feel like it was the isolation that ended this life shorter than it should have been.”

Terryl Cadwell of Sioux Falls visited with her father, Jim Rumbolz, at a Sioux Falls long-term care facility in late 2019. Rumbolz suffered a rapid decline in health during the COVID-19 pandemic and died in June; Cadwell blames his death in part on isolation he endured. Photo: Courtesy Terryl Cadwell

As the pandemic drags on, medical researchers are starting to drill in on the potential consequences of extreme isolation among elderly people.

In a paper published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, researchers from the U.S. and Australia noted that severe loneliness was present among residents of long-term care facilities at double the rate compared with people living in a personal residence, and that the pandemic has exacerbated that difference.

“A feeling of loneliness has many deleterious consequences … including increased risk of depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, aggressive behaviors, anxiety and impulsivity,” the article said.

Other studies have shown that loneliness is a risk factor for stroke, obesity, elevated blood pressure, worsening Alzheimer’s symptoms and death. Some studies have shown that extreme isolation and loneliness among the elderly can rival the mortality risks of smoking, obesity and high blood pressure.

Data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that deaths among dementia patients in the U.S. have risen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only due to the virus itself.

In the second week of April, U.S. deaths due to dementia rose by 42% compared with the average deaths in the same week from 2015 to 2019.

From March to September 2020, dementia deaths in the country increased by as many as 2,500 per week compared with the average during that time period in 2015-2019. In all, about 15,000 more people with dementia have died since March due to “unexpected” causes, which could be from the virus but also for unknown reasons, according to the CDC.

Advocates for the elderly joined with family members of long-term care residents to make the case to state lawmakers in September that some of the $1.5 billion South Dakota received from the federal CARES Act pandemic relief fund should be spent on efforts to help facilities open safely to visitors.

Their pleas for rapid testing of potential visitors and other efforts drew sympathetic responses from lawmakers, but in the end fell short. The Legislature held a special session in October and did raise the aid level for long-term care facilities from the $100 million originally proposed by Gov. Kristi Noem to $115 million.

But rules set by Congress allow CARES Act money to be used only to offset net financial losses by businesses, including long-term facilities. None of the money, which must be spent by Dec. 31, can be used on capital projects or to create new programs or install new infrastructure. The additional $15 million was added to help long-term care facilities offset financial losses during September instead of only March through August, which was the allowable time frame for losses to be offset by most of the CARES Act money. Many facilities were already facing financial headwinds before the pandemic hit.

That leaves long-term care facilities with no new money to buy or use rapid COVID-19 tests on visitors who want to safely enter the facilities to visit relatives. Furthermore, the Legislature allocated no state funds for other unique efforts beyond testing that could improve visitor access to long-term care facilities, such as creating new entrances, allowing relatives to be designated as essential caregivers or developing structural ways to allow physical visits at reduced risk.

Efforts to find money and methods to help reduce isolation are continuing in South Dakota as more attention gets paid to the plight of long-term care residents, said Joe Schartz, public policy director for the Alzheimer’s Association of South Dakota.

“It’s been a groundswell of interest from people who haven’t seen mom or dad or grandma or grandpa for months except through a window or by phone, and they’re seeing them wither away,” Schartz said. “It’s not unique to South Dakota; it’s a national crisis and is happening all over the world.”

“People who haven’t seen mom or dad or grandma or grandpa for months except through a window or by phone [are] seeing them wither away. It’s not unique to South Dakota; it’s a national crisis and is happening all over the world.”

— Joe Schartz, Alzheimer’s Association of South Dakota

Virus protections needed; health declines result

State Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, has a keen interest in helping facility residents and their families, both as the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and as a daughter whose 91-year-old mother is in an assisted-living facility.

Her mother suffers from cognitive decline but is mostly self-sufficient in the facility, Soholt said.
And yet, since the pandemic hit in mid-March, Soholt has seen her mother’s mental, spiritual and physical condition decline.

“They don’t eat together, they don’t socialize together, they’re completely isolated,” Soholt said. “Think how we would be if, since the second week of March, we had been in only three rooms 100% of that time.”

Soholt, a registered nurse, said she supports the facility’s measures to protect her mother, other residents, staff and visitors from the virus that is especially deadly to the elderly. But Soholt said that as COVID-19 protections have restricted the movement of residents within the facility, reduced opportunities for socialization in the home and limited opportunities for family and friends to meet with and physically touch her mother, she has watched her mother suffer emotionally and her physical condition worsen.

“She’s a trooper,” Soholt said. “My mom has a great attitude and a sweet personality, but you can just see the exponential decline.”

Soholt supported efforts to use federal CARES Act funding to mitigate isolation of residents, and was disappointed that the money was unavailable. She said she would not give up on efforts to find money to pay for programs to test visitors or find other ways to bring residents and families together while still keeping them safe from the virus.

“We’ve gone so far from protecting them from the virus, and I understand why, but at the expense of any kind of quality of life,” she said. “It’s really about dignity and respect for our elderly.”

Soholt said she remains hopeful that there may be CARES Act funds allocated to South Dakota that do not get spent by the Dec. 31 deadline, and that Congress may allow that money to be used for reasons other than to cover net losses. For instance, the rules could be changed to allow unspent money in South Dakota to be distributed to facilities to implement rapid testing or other programs to safely allow visitors to enter the homes.

If that fails, Soholt said she expects that elderly advocates will appear before the Legislature during the 2021 session starting in January to request state money for programs aimed at mitigating isolation of long-term residents.

Soholt, who will leave the Legislature before the upcoming session due to term limits, said the isolation issue has been put on the radar of the governor and others in government and will likely be seen as a priority in 2021.

“We want to provide funded support for the facilities to be able to develop their plan,” Soholt said. “I’m very encouraged that the legislative branch is interested in trying to do something to mitigate the isolation for our elders.”

Visits to long-term care facilities in South Dakota have been curtailed as protections have been put in place to protect vulnerable residents from the potentially deadly coronavirus. In October, an employee at the Edgewood Rapid City assisted-living facility put gloves on the hands of a resident before a visit with relatives through a plastic barrier.
Photo: Grace Pritchett, Rapid City Journal

Dementia patients at higher risk

Schartz, who testified twice before legislative committees this fall, said research on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia shows that patients fare best when they have regular routines and are surrounded by friends and family in their own homes.

In addition to losing the stability of living at home, dementia patients who reside in long-term facilities are now losing that critical human touch and sense of familiarity due to restrictions on visitation and interaction.

“When you pull someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia out of their routines and you disrupt that and their loved ones are turned away, that isolation can cause the disease to progress and results in worsened outcomes or death,” Schartz said. “The isolation is leading to premature deaths for these people.”

Those cognitive conditions are common among people in long-term facilities across the country, Schartz said. In the U.S., about 48% of nursing-home patients and 42% of assisted-living residents have Alzheimer’s or dementia, he said.

Meanwhile, Schartz said his association and other elderly advocates expect to file a bill, as they did without success last year, for South Dakota to create a new dementia coordinator position within state government.
The coordinator could apply for federal grants, improve training for front-line workers and establish programs to aid Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and caregivers.

About 18,000 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease in South Dakota, and the disease if the fifth-leading cause of death in the state. South Dakota has roughly 140,000 people in that age group overall.

The number of patients is expected to climb as the population ages, and the number of dementia patients is undoubtedly rising as well, Schartz said. The state is home to about 40,000 people who are caregivers to patients with Alzheimer’s, and they too have suffered great emotional and physical stress during the pandemic, Schartz said.

“I wish that you could hear their phone calls to our office; I wish you could hear the panic and the strain and the hurt in their voices,” Schartz told lawmakers in September. “The pandemic is pushing these families to the breaking point.”

Experts say the negative effects of isolation on long-term care residents, staff and family members will worsen during the winter months in South Dakota because the few outdoor visits taking place now will become less frequent and the facilities will become more locked down from the cold.

“At the end of the day, nothing is going to replace in-person visiting and human contact, which as humans we all rely on for part of our health and part of our humanity,” he said. “This has gone on for many months, and it’s only going to get much worse as we approach winter and outdoor visitation will become much tougher.”

Tim Mercy hugs his mother, 88-year-old Patsy Mercy, through a “hugging wall” built with plastic barriers to allow a safe physical connection between visitors and residents of the Edgewood Rapid City assisted-living facility in Rapid City.
Photo: Grace Pritchett, Rapid City Journal

Facilities find ways to reduce isolation

Many facilities have allowed residents to have brief visits with patients outdoors on patios or in courtyards, though without physical touching. Other novel methods have been used to reduce isolation, including visits through windows, via internet connections or even through messages left for staff to deliver to residents.

When the pandemic hit in March, assisted-living facilities such as the Edgewood Rapid City senior living complex underwent immediate and significant changes to keep residents and staff safe.

Edgewood Director Erin Andersen said restrictions on visitation and movement within the facility, which has about 95 residents mostly in small apartments, were needed to fight the spread of the coronavirus but took a noticeable emotional and physical toll on residents and staff.

“Prior to COVID, we were like an apartment building where people could come and go and visit as they pleased,” Andersen said. “It was a beehive of activity.”

Under the threat of the virus invading the complex, shopping trips by residents were banned, visitors were not allowed inside, communal meals were replaced by food delivered to individual rooms in disposable containers, and popular activities such as bingo were halted.

Restrictions and testing of staff were heightened when a resident tested positive for COVID-19 early in the pandemic, even though no one ever got sick, Andersen said.

“We didn’t want to be cruel, but we also knew that if it got into our building, it could be really, really deadly, so we wanted to protect everybody even if it wasn’t always the most popular decision,” Andersen said.

A general pall fell over the facility and some situations in particular were especially hard to endure, she said.
“We have one resident whose husband was in a skilled-care community and he passed away from COVID,” Andersen said. “She was not able to see him or be with him in his final days, and it was devastating.”

As the pandemic dragged on, a staff member at Edgewood heard about an effort by an Idaho facility run by the Edgewood group that allowed for a safe way for residents and visitors to physically connect.

After some research, and with donations of materials from several Rapid City businesses, the staff at Edgewood built a so-called “hugging wall,” an 8-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide wooden structure that resembles a window frame in which visitors and guest can embrace. The two users are separated by a vinyl sheet that is cleaned after each use and are able to safely hug by wearing long plastic sleeves that typically would be used to artificially inseminate cattle. The plastic barriers prevent the spread of the coronavirus while allowing two people to fully embrace, Andersen said.

“It does get used a lot,” she said. “And the reactions from people the first time they touched a loved one, it was tears of joy, and actually staff cried too, because you could see the relief. You could see a lot of that loneliness wash away with just a 30-second hug.”

Jim Rumbolz was an active, engaged resident of the Avera Prince of Peace Retirement Community in Sioux Falls when this picture was taken in December 2019. Just six months later, Rumbolz had suffered rapid mental and physical decline that led to his death in June 2020. He did not become infected with the coronavirus, and his daughter believes isolation and sensory deprivation contributed significantly to his passing. Photo: Courtesy Terryl Cadwell

Family members in pain as loved ones suffer

During phone testimony before the legislative Joint Health & Human Services Committee in September, Cadwell of Sioux Falls shared the story of her father’s mental and physical decline and eventual death that she blames largely on isolation he endured during the pandemic.

Cadwell said her father, Jim Rumbolz, had a multi-faceted career that included stints as a state trooper, a criminal-justice educator at the University of South Dakota and finally as a hospital administrator in Custer, S.D. After retiring to Sioux Falls, Rumbolz most recently lived at the Avera Prince of Peace community, where he was well known as active, gregarious and full of life.

Rumbolz, who buzzed around the facility on a scooter, eschewed games like bingo and instead sought out more stimulating and meaningful activities to keep his mind active and sharp, Cadwell said.

He was part of a book club, took art lessons and formed a coffee club to discuss current events. He exercised regularly, read a newspaper every day and relished time spent with friends or relatives either in person or by phone.

“My dad would kiss my hand every day before I left, and I was able to hug him,” Cadwell said, fighting back tears.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Cadwell said her father’s overall condition quickly deteriorated as opportunities for activities and visits were restricted and touching was not allowed.

Rumbolz became fearful of caregivers who wore masks, gloves and protective gowns. He felt isolated because he could no longer hear or read the lips of nurses and others as they spoke through masks. He longed for the touch of his daughter and other family members, but was unable to have physical contact with anyone.

In a period of just a few months, Cadwell’s father began to falter, and he died on June 16. In a follow-up interview with News Watch, Cadwell said her father’s official cause of death was a swallowing problem that required his being fed through a tube. He was never diagnosed with COVID-19, she said.

Cadwell insists that the loss of meaning, purpose and stimulation suffered by her father hastened his mental and physical decline and played a large role in his death.

“I believe we are of mind, body and spirit,” Cadwell said. “You shut that off on a guy like that, with no joy from eating, no activities that were his lifeblood, and he can’t see me or hear the nurses, and the joy of life was gone.”

Cadwell’s story is not uncommon among families of residents of long-term care facilities.

Doctors and caregivers have reported that patients with Alzeheimer’s or dementia have become withdrawn or show slowed mental cognition. Some patients have suffered falls, become more susceptible to infections and shown sudden frailty.

Soholt said she noticed her mother is walking with more of a shuffle and may not be as physically strong as she was before the pandemic.

“I’ve seen a change in her gait, and there’s no way to stay strong,” Soholt said. “The fact they’re not out walking in hallways, there’s a strength decline, and they’re shuffling their feet because the space they’re in is so small.”

Tom and Lee Raines of Sioux Falls have worked as a loving couple to make the best of Tom’s diagnosis of Alzheimber’s Disease. But Lee now worries that Tom’s condition has declined rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic led to restrictions at his long-term care facility that at first prevented Lee from visiting Tom, and later blocked her from touching him physically during outdoor visits. Photo: Courtesy Lee Raines

Lee Raines of Sioux Falls is suffering through what she said is the devastating decline of a man who became the love of her life after a 50-year separation.

Raines, 82, and her husband, Tom, knew each other in the 1950s growing up in eastern South Dakota. They led separate lives, and then were reintroduced in 2006 when both were free of prior relationships; they married in 2007.

After several happy years, Raines began to notice problems. On one occasion a few years ago, Tom was driving them on the interstate near Brookings and had to ask which exit to take to a city where he had worked as a banker for a quarter century.

Tom was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, Raines said, and he later moved to an assisted-living facility for safety. The disease took a toll on his mind and body, but since the pandemic struck in March, and restrictions on visitation were implemented, his decline has become more rapid.

“Tom was such a bright person, intelligent and fun and always telling a joke, and to see that decline so quickly …” Raines said. “I’ve seen the slow decline since 2015, but he’s definitely declining faster in the past several months.”

His physical condition has also deteriorated amid the pandemic, Raines said, noting that Tom, 82, has lost more than 20 pounds.

Now, they are only able to visit briefly together outside, six feet apart, with no touching allowed. Tom struggles with wearing a mask that sometimes entangles with his hearing aid, which then falls out. Raines tries to stimulate Tom’s mind and memory by asking him about his childhood or writing things on cards that may spur recollections of the past and generate a greater connection to the present.

The inability to fully communicate, and especially the restriction on touching, are especially trying for her husband and other people with Alzheimer’s, many of whom rely on close relationships to stay healthy and aware, Raines said.

Though the visits are a mix of love, hope, appreciation and some sadness, the trips alone back to the home she once shared with Tom can be crushing, Raines said.

“Sometimes I cry all the way home,” she said. “It just breaks your heart, it really does.”

Raines is pushing state government to implement a rapid COVID-19 testing program for visitors to long-term facilities that she said could provide results in less than 20 minutes and allow for safe in-person visits by family and friends. So far, no widespread testing programs for visitors at long-term facilities have been implemented in South Dakota.

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The Hockey Niñas, four Twin Cities girls, take to the ice to promote Minnesota’s traditional sport

Emily walpole

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At a time when hockey officials at all levels are working to expand the sport, particularly among minorities, four young girls in the Bloomington area have made it their mission, as well.

Introducing the Hockey Niñas, two pairs of sisters of color who are enjoying the sport while also encouraging others to join them. The four girls are part of the Bloomington Girls Hockey Club, which governs the sport in the hockey-rich suburb.

After a recent practice at Bloomington Ice Garden, the quartet — 11-year-old Adelyn Janzig de la Luz and her sister Elisa, 8, plus Aubrey Lang, 11, and her sister Mia, 9 — engaged in the typical, good-natured chirping about their games. Nearby, their mothers, Laura Janzig de la Luz of Bloomington and Meredith Lang of Richfield, exuded pride in their trailblazing daughters.

“That’s why we started the Hockey Niñas, because we did want to put a spotlight on girls of color that are out here playing hockey — a nontraditional sport for us,” Lang said. “They’re enjoying it and building friendships all the time. Other kids [of color] can see it. ‘Look, we have these players that are represented in hockey. Maybe it’s something we can try, too.’ ”

Added Janzig de la Luz: “The girls love it. They look so forward to spending time on the ice.”

Janzig de la Luz and Lang were introduced to hockey in different ways. A Mexico City native, Janzig de la Luz and her family moved to the United States when she was 5, and she later attended the Academy of Holy Angels.

“That’s when I learned about hockey, but I never really paid attention,” she said. “For Latinos, it’s soccer. You watch soccer, you play soccer.”

Embracing Minnesota

Lang attended Richfield High School, where girls’ hockey became a varsity sport when she was a freshman. After college, she lived in North Carolina before returning to Minnesota.

“We were moving to Minnesota, and Aubrey was like, ‘OK, I want to play hockey.’ I was like, ‘What?’ ” Lang said. “So, I just researched it, and that was the first thing we did when we got here. ‘If we’re in Minnesota, do like the Romans do. We’re playing hockey.’ ”

The Lang and Janzig de la Luz families want to see more people of color playing hockey. So does Glen Andresen, executive director of Minnesota Hockey, the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in the state. The organization falls under the USA Hockey banner.

“If you were to rank our focuses, No. 1 would be growing the game,” Andresen said. “We’ve been excited in the success in that over the last five to 10 years. However, if we were to be honest with ourselves and look at where we have more potential for growth, it’s with families of color or families with different ethnicities. We have prioritized that.”

Andresen said USA Hockey is in the early stages of tracking race and ethnicity in its membership, so complete statistics aren’t available nationally or in Minnesota. He said making people of color comfortable in hockey is important.

“As we’ve been meeting with families and kids who have played the game, one of the things we’ve come to realize is we can’t expect to grow the game much if we don’t change the culture of the experience for those players,” he said.

To make the game more inclusive, Minnesota Hockey started the Little Wild Learn to Play program; the Gear Up Minnesota! program, which supplies equipment to associations to provide to kids; and the Family Mentor program, in which established hockey families welcome new families to the sport.

“We have some more that are more diversity-focused programs that we’ll be launching this year,” Andresen said.

Welcoming new players

Lang said feeling welcome is important to people of color in hockey.

“There’s always minorities playing hockey, but is it an inclusive environment for minorities feeling welcome?” she said. “ … With all the things that are happening with racial injustice and civil unrest, it’s sparking a lot of conversation.”

She hopes that as opportunities for youngsters of color in hockey expand, discrimination on the ice will disappear to the point where they won’t have to warn their children about it. She has participated in focus groups with Minnesota Hockey about issues for people of color.

“We came with our own experiences, but it was really cool to see what everybody else experienced,” she said. “The hard thing to listen to are things on the boys’ side. They experience racial slurs when they’re so young. It’s to the point where some of the kids have signals to their parents in the stands to let them know this is happening.”

Minnesota Hockey on Sept. 30 announced a rule change that will assess match penalties for language, gestures or conduct that is offensive, hateful or discriminatory in nature.

Fun and inclusion

For the Janzig de la Luz and Lang girls, the fun aspect of hockey is front and center. They enjoy the sport and the friendships that have developed from it.

“In second grade, Adelyn came in and I gave her this piece of paper to join hockey,” Aubrey Lang said. “ … I liked that I had a friend playing hockey.”

Aubrey’s and Adelyn’s younger sisters, Mia and Elisa, respectively, relish being the “Littles” in the Hockey Ninas.

“We are strong, independent, cute, fashionable, expensive Littles,” the duo chanted in singsong fashion.

All the while, the quartet shows the way for others like them to become involved in the sport they love.

“It’s nice to see that joy where they’re saying, ‘I’m one of the first but not the last. We’re going to bring more girls of color to play hockey,’ ” Laura Janzig de la Luz said.

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