Woman Who Pushed Florida to Reopen Elder Care Centers: ‘I Knew I Had to Do Something’

April 11, 2021 Updated: April 11, 2021

Mary Daniel’s husband has Alzheimer’s and is in a memory care center. In March 2020, she was barred from seeing him as Florida joined many other states in imposing harsh restrictions to try to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Daniel immediately started searching for a way to continue to see her husband, Steve, with added urgency each day as the months passed and restrictions remained in place. Among her ideas was petitioning the facility caring for her husband, Rosecastle at Deerwood in Jacksonville, to let her work there or get involved in some way, such as bringing in a therapy dog.

Several news reports followed. That drew the attention of the center. The corporate office said they had a part-time job washing dishes. If Daniel took it, she could see her husband after work.

“My biggest concern was that he was not going to remember me, that I was going to miss this window of opportunity to be with him. And that was the urgency for me, is that I needed to get to him before he forgot me or wouldn’t be able to remember me and I would lose this wonderful window where I could connect with him and I’d never get it back. And that was really a huge driving force for me,” Daniel told The Epoch Times’ “American Thought Leaders.”

“But that day, I went in, did my five hour shift, and went in and his back was to me when I walked in the door. And he turned around when he heard the door open and the first word out of his mouth was ‘Mary.’ So he remembered me and I wasn’t too late.”

That was on July 3, 2020. One hundred and 14 days had passed. Daniel accomplished her goal, but saw the bigger picture.

“I started to realize that there were tens of thousands of people in Florida, hundreds of thousands of people across the United States, who were in the same boat that I was,” Daniel said. People across the country wrote to her and called her, sharing their struggles and commending what she did.

Also, she was only able to see her husband two days a week. That wasn’t enough.

Daniel was soon added to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s task force for reopening long-term care facilities in the state. The trained patient advocate was able to represent herself and people like her who worried about the prolonged isolation their family members were experiencing as states kept harsh restrictions in place with no end in sight.

“I knew that there were other people just like me,” she said. “I knew that they were trying to get to them and they couldn’t. Even in our own facility, being able to see the other residents there alone was motivation for me to get back. Why was I able to go in as a dishwasher, and not as a wife? It just didn’t make any sense to me when we were willing to do anything that they told us to do.”

mary daniel
Mary Daniel, founder of Caregivers for Compromise, at her home in Jacksonville, Fla., on April 7, 2021. (Tal Atzmon/The Epoch Times)

Daniel’s advocacy helped lead to state officials announcing on Sept. 1, 2020, the lifting of restrictions for visitation to long-term care facilities like the memory center caring for her husband.

“I don’t think you can fight a pandemic very well when society is in the fetal position,” DeSantis, a Republican, told a roundtable that day. “And part of having a healthy society is understanding that human beings seek affection, that you have family members, who—many of the folks understand that they have loved ones who are in the last stage of their life.”

“They’re not demanding a medical miracle. They’re not having unrealistic expectations. They just would like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody,” he added, pausing to collect himself before questioning whether some of the state’s actions may have prevented loved ones from saying their goodbyes.

Daniel, who was at the roundtable, thanked officials for their support.

“I can promise you, when our Caregivers For Compromise see that we’re getting back in, it’s going to be as if the days hadn’t happened because that first hug and that first conversation and rubbing their back and holding their hand will take away the pain that we’ve all been suffering for these last 175 days,” she said at the time.

The state introduced new restrictions, mandating that all visitation be halted if a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and limiting which people could visit. But it was progress.

Some felt the reopening was too much. Jeff Johnson, AARP’s Florida director, said the group recognized that loved ones were torn between worrying about their relatives in centers getting the virus and suffering from the decline that comes from forced isolation.

“AARP recognizes this step will be welcomed by those who have seen spouses and parents suffer significantly from the isolation of the last five months. We all hope that this approach works. But we continue to ask: Should we be trusting our older residents’ safety to hope?” he added, pushing for mandatory testing for all staff and visitors.

Trend lines from the group’s nursing home dashboard showed improvement in Florida’s long term centers in September and October. And as of March 11, Florida has seen a lower COVID-19 death rate among nursing home residents—0.62 per 100,000—than most other large states and a number of states with more restrictive rules, such as California, New York, and Pennsylvania.

“We had no uptick in any residents getting the virus from family. It has continued to be simply that staff,” Daniel told The Epoch Times.

Daniel’s saga was not over with the easing of restrictions in September. Her facility ended up blocking her from seeing her husband, and she was no longer working as a dishwasher. She tried utilizing a November order that said family members could pull loved ones from centers and bring them home. She went another 114 days without seeing her spouse.

Rosecastle at Deerwood did not respond to a request for comment.

DeSantis later rescinded all COVID-19-related orders. Long-term centers, though, are governed largely by federal regulations. Daniel has turned her attention to the federal government.

“It’s been quite the journey from me fighting for Steve, to this viral story, to the growth of the Facebook group. In the middle of it as I was weepy as I like to call it late at night, someone told me that God has put me here for a reason. And that all of my work, I truly feel, that all of my work all my life has been to get me to this point, that I just happened to be the right person at the right time, to be able to get the governor’s attention, to get a dishwashing job, and, and be able to get people in,” Daniel said.

“It’s amazing how my actions—which could not be possible without the governor—has enabled literally hundreds of thousands of people to get in and be with their loved ones.”

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