WESTFIELD — One of Westfield’s oldest cultural institutions may need some help to stay afloat, health officials said on Monday.
The Elks Centennial Lodge, located at 444 West Broad Street, was established in 1923 as a community organization for African-American men. In 1954, Mayor Emerson Thomas donated a nine-room house on Spring Street (now Watterson Street) for the use of the lodge, which was eventually moved to its present location.
Now, almost 70 years later, that same building has fallen into disrepair.
“I was notified by the fire officials that there was a sewage backup in the basement [of the lodge]. I reached out to [the organization] and they said they were going to get everything cleaned up, but it’s taking a very long time,” said Westfield’s Principal Health Inspector Helen Mendez. “I went up there to take a look and conditions were really bad. It has been declared an unsafe structure. Until they can get the repairs done, they can’t be in the building.”
According to information provided by the Centennial Lodge, the organization has worked in the community facilitating various humanitarian efforts, including supporting children, sponsoring oratorical contests, and encouraging Black Westfield youth to pursue their education. In 1952, the Centennial Lodge sponsored a housing development on Windsor Avenue, which was a remarkably successful and notable accomplishment that resulted in the building and completion of affordable housing for returning African-American World War II veterans.
Elizabeth Talmont, president of the Westfield Board of Health, said she sincerely hopes that the organization would be able to find temporary headquarters — possibly at the town’s library or in another available community space — in order to be able to meet while repairs are underway.
The conversation at Monday night’s regular meeting of the board of health, held in person at Town Hall, then turned back to Covid-19 and its effects on the local population. Although the pandemic has been a frequent topic of discussion for the board over the course of the past two years, Ms. Talmont said things are finally looking up.
“As you know, the Governor’s mask mandate has been lifted,” she said. “This day signals a hopeful milestone in this pandemic. As a board of health, it is fair to say that we are cautiously optimistic.”
The data looked encouraging as students returned to school on Monday for the start of Westfield’s new “mask optional” policy. The reported transmission numbers for the state reflect a major decrease since the start of the new year, with 975 new cases reported on March 7 versus 38,461 reported on the same day in January.
Still, Ms. Talmont said, local residents should not let their optimism get in the way of good judgement as far as the virus is concerned.
“We would like to urge caution as we return to lives we hope will be less distracted by this deadly virus. Lifting the mask mandate is a hopeful, welcome sign, but it is not the end of Covid-19. As long as the virus lives, new variants are possible. That is why, as we transition to what we hope will be a continued decline in rates of infection, we each, individually and as a community, face a new challenge in how to protect those who are the most vulnerable,” Ms. Talmont said.
Going forward, Ms. Talmont said, local residents should continue to assess personal risk levels for both themselves and others by wearing masks in social situations when appropriate (such as when visiting with unvaccinated children or with individuals with a higher risk for infection).
“We also want to make it clear that vaccines work,” she said. “Vaccines are not perfect, nor would we expect them to be, but what is clear is that those who are vaccinated and boosted suffer less and are less likely to die from the virus.”
The board also dedicated part of Monday night’s meeting to a discussion surrounding some national statistics released by the UnitedHealth Foundation. The annual state-by-state breakdown, titled America’s Health Report, points to certain mitigating factors that collectively contribute to good public health.
“In this year’s report — which provides a comprehensive look at our nation’s overall health — we begin to see how the Covid-19 pandemic has had both direct and indirect impacts on health and health trends,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual in a recent press release. “The report also demonstrates an urgent and ongoing need to further examine and discuss these findings and how to best address Americans’ most pressing health needs.”
According to the report, New Jersey scored well in categories like the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, smoking prevention and education, high-school graduation rates and economic viability. On the other hand, the state scored poorly in areas like drinking-water violations, residential segregation and homelessness prevention.