GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - They thought they were living in paradise, but now they feel like prisoners.
They even refer to themselves as inmates and wear shirts made to make their protest clear.
Residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport are angry about coronavirus restrictions after the Department of Defense put the facility on lockdown in March.
The residents walked to the west fence of the complex Wednesday to speak to WLOX News Now because if they leave campus, they would be subject to a 14-day quarantine when they return.
“This isn’t living, the way we’re doing it here, we’re not living here, we’re just existing,” said resident Grant LaPointe. “We didn’t come here to die, we came here to retire first.”
The Army retiree is one of many frustrated residents who have been restricted from leaving their campus since March 30 because of coronavirus. The Department of Defense put the campus on Health Protection Condition D, its most restrictive. Keesler Air Force Base and the Naval Construction Batallion Center are under Condition C. The ability of staff and support personnel to come and go is particularly frustrating to the residents.
“We’re being singled out as being irresponsible and unable to take care of ourselves,” LaPointe said, “and the people that are designating us that are going in and out of the gate all the time.”
“I’d like to see us have the same prerogative that Keesler has where you go out and you come back in and you get tested, just like the federal employees and the other workers,” said Navy veteran Johnny Fuselier.
There are obvious reasons for health precautions at a facility where the average age is 84.
In a statement sent to WLOX, a spokesman said “The Armed Forces Retirement Home continues to ensure the health and safety our of residents and staff as our nation, the State of Mississippi, and the Department of Defense continue to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to protect those most vulnerable from the serious consequences of the virus in direct alignment with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. "
The AFRH offers four levels of service. Three of those, memory care, long-term care and assisted living, provide various levels of daily medical care to 61 residents. The fourth is independent living where the 363 residents normally come and go as they wish. All residents and staff currently wear masks when in common areas of the buildings.
“We’re totally separated from the nursing home portion of this place,” LaPointe said. “We eat separately, we live separately. They have pretty much designated this a nursing home now due to the pandemic. Yet they’re still out there recruiting people to come in here and treat it like a retirement home, and that’s wrong, or they should take that great big sign out there that says ‘retirement home’ down. They can’t have it both ways.”
Independent living residents also have to eat their meals alone in their rooms.
“The dining hall area is the social area.” said retiree Marine Doris Denton “Three times a day, we’d go down and socialize with everybody, tell sea stories, talk to everybody. Now we’re restricted on that.”
Denton said she and other residents would like to be able to do their own shopping and go put some fresh gasoline in their cars, but she knows the restrictions are coming from the Department of Defense.
“I believe the staff is doing the best that they can under the guidelines that they have to go by,” she said.
Bill Wedding moved to the AFRH in June 2018. In January of 2020, he got married in the chapel on the Gulfport campus. Because he wasn’t married to her when he was active duty, she can’t live in the facility. When the lockdown was put in place, Wedding chose to live with his wife, though he still pays more than $2,000 a month to keep his apartment. Wedding is one of several residents who have chosen to live off-campus while the restrictions are in place.
“We used to call it paradise on the beach,” he said. “They’re referring to it as a minimum-security prison now. The independent living residents here are trustworthy. They should be able to come and go as they please with testing just like the staff does here.
“And I understand the need to protect those people that are in worse shape than we are, but the independent living residents here should have more freedom than they have.”
After all residents and staff members tested negative for COVID-19 in June, three staff members and two contract employees have since tested positive. An AFRH spokesman said the negative tests among residents validates the restrictions.
Denton thinks that is not enough.
“We should look into, for those of us that are independent living residents, to be able to go out. We’ll take the precautions, we’ll wear a mask, we’ll wear gloves, whatever we have to do to take precautions,” she said.
The AFRH sent the following statement in response to the residents' complaints.
“The Armed Forces Retirement Home continues to ensure the health and safety our of residents and staff as our nation, the State of Mississippi, and the Department of Defense continue to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to protect those most vulnerable from the serious consequences of the virus in direct alignment with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
“Our residents chose to live and thrive during retirement at our Armed Forces Retirement Home, including those residents in our independent living units. All of our residents are treated with the respect and honors that our nation owes them for their service and enjoy the comradery of living with fellow veterans and those that know and serve veterans. During this national emergency and global pandemic, we continue to do all that we can to protect the health and safety of all of our residents and staff, and therefore temporarily remain a closed campus, ensuring that we take all precautions to keep the threat of the virus and its consequences from our residents and our staff. We owe it to them and their families to do everything we can, aligned with CDC guidelines, to protect those most vulnerable to serious consequences from this virus.
“These restrictions to campus for our residents and restrictions against visitors are temporary as we continue to fight this virus and its effects. We value and honor the heroes in our staff and the larger Gulfport and Biloxi communities, including the health care teams at Keesler Air Force Base, to keep our residents and staff free from the virus.
“Out of 424 residents, we have only had one resident with COVID-19, which clearly validates our approach to protecting our residents above all else. We understand that several independent living residents have chosen to leave the retirement home due to these restrictions, and we welcome them back once the virus no longer threatens the health, safety, and lives of our residents and staff, and their families. We will continue to restrict access to our campus and residents until such time as the conditions inform us that the virus no longer threatens our residents, staff, and communities.”