Coronavirus restrictions impact funeral services
FINGER LAKES--Funeral directors across the Finger Lakes are concerned if the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infects large numbers of people in Yates and Schuyler Counties, the infrastructure in place to deal with the resulting fatalities could quickly be overwhelmed. Funeral homes in the area are already taking precautions to protect staff and mourners but funeral directors worry those precautions are coming at an emotional cost.
"I think it is upsetting for everyone involved. The whole point is to keep families and everyone safe by following all these procedures but it certainly doesn't help with the grieving," said David Zinger, funeral director and owner of Vedder-Scott & Zinger Funeral Home in Montour Falls, Townsend-Wood & Zinger Funeral Chapel in Penn Yan and Haughey-Wood & Zinger Funeral Home in Watkins Glen. "I would say that most people are either burying or cremating now and planning a service when this whole thing is lifted."
Zinger added social distancing guidelines put in place as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic are already having a big impact on local families.
"As it stands now, we can only have 10 people, including immediate family and staff for a private service," Zinger said. "When people do come in they expect the social distancing, we have signs placed saying no hugging. We have hand sanitizer in place and we do a heavy clean before and after everyone comes in. If people don't feel well, then don't come in. I am doing most arrangements by phone right now. It's definitely making the grieving process more difficult for people, I want to be there for them more than I am but I can't."
Baird Booth, funeral director and owner of Baird Funeral Home in Dundee agreed, but added he is also greatly concerned for the infrastructure in place in Yates and Schuyler Counties should a large-scale infection of COVID-19 occur.
"Many funeral homes around here have limited refrigeration capacity if they have any at all," Booth said. "The hospital in Penn Yan can store two bodies and the hospital in Schuyler County can only hold four. All 48 crematories in the state are already working around the clock and Downstate is backlogged...cemeteries can't get the graves open fast enough due to reduced workforce. Our infrastructure could easily be overwhelmed by this."
Last-minute preparations can only go so far.
"If people continue to blow this off and think it is a joke, go down to New York City and see how bad it is," Booth said. "This is not the flu, people don't die this fast from the flu."
Beyond the fear of the pandemic hitting locally, Booth said it is already more difficult for local funeral directors to keep up with new regulations being instituted not because of how quickly information is coming out but because there are already industry-wide shortages of needed chemicals.
"I called my chemical companies and they out are out of personal protection equipment and disinfectant chemicals that the funeral profession uses," Booth said. "We are being told to embalm with higher amounts to preserve better, but most people choose cremation now. If we can't get the chemicals we need, it is because they can't make them fast enough. I finally got more masks recently, I got six."
While there has been a great focus for the brave medical workers on the front lines of COVID-19, Booth said there should also be a concern for people in his profession who have to handle the dead.
"When you move someone who is deceased there is still air in the body," Booth said.
Such realities leave the post-mortem industry at great risk, according to Booth.
Another concern for many funeral directors is the logistics of the pandemic, both now and once it is over.
"We have people who are putting off services now for when the pandemic is over," Booth mentioned. "Well, even when the pandemic is over, people will still die. So we will still have far too many services that families want to take place over a short period of time."
He added he is also worried about the emotional toll the pandemic is taking.
"Funeral directors try to show compassion, I have to do everything I can to not extend a hand or a hug," Booth stated. "It's so cold to us, but we have had to totally rethink how we are. We are trying to make arrangements over the phone... and it's robbing people of closure."
With so many new regulations and guidelines coming down daily, it has created an inherently fluid situation, Zinger said.
The best thing for anyone concerned about how the current pandemic could impact a potential service is to call a local funeral director.
"The problem is that guidelines are being passed down quickly and in general seem up to interpretation," Zinger added. "And all of this keeps changing by the minute."
In the meantime, Zinger and Booth pleaded with residents to take social distancing guidelines seriously and to take COVID-19 seriously.
"I know that is hard for people but it's the best thing now," Zinger said. "It's amazing how contagious this can be the more you learn about it."
Guidelines for funeral homes during a pandemic come from the federal Center for Disease Control, New York State Funeral Directors Association and from the governor's office.
"All of the local funeral homes would like families to know that during these trying times, we remain committed to serving the community as we always have during the most difficult times," Zinger said.