As the new coronavirus pandemic spread, not only did it shut down the city and kill thousands of New Yorkers, but also hospitals are now being forced to store the dead in refrigerated trailers as capacity in each hospital is at the brim.
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Now, the city is considering a more drastic option: temporarily burying the dead in public land until proper funeral and burial services can resume.
Mayor de Blasio said Monday the city still has capacity to carry out mortuary services, but officials are preparing a plan if space runs out.
“We will have the capacity for temporary burials. That's all I'm going to say," de Blasio said. “We're going to try and treat every family with dignity, respect, religious needs of those who are devout.”
The mayor has been reluctant to share details of the city’s plans in public.
“I just don't want to go into detail because I don't think it's a great thing to be talked about publicly,” he said.
But Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council's Health Committee says it’s a sad but important conversation to have. On social media, Levine said the city was looking at the possibility of using public parks as an option — a last resort he says the city will have to consider if temporary freezers are filled to capacity.
“This would be essentially overflow for storing bodies until such time when the possibility for burials and funeral homes opens up again, but that might be a while. So we need an orderly, dignified and temporary way to store the deceased," Levine said.
City officials have denied the city is considering using any public park as a burial ground, but the mayor’s press secretary confirmed the city is looking at Hart Island as a temporary option for victims of the virus. Governor Cuomo said his office did not know the city was having a problem meeting mortuary needs.
Located on the western end of the Long Island Sound, Hart Island has been used as a mass grave for decades. Run by the Department of Correction, it's where the city buries unclaimed bodies: the homeless, the indigent, those who die alone.
And there are other challenges: the island is only accessible by a ferry that operates once a month, it’s a secure facility operated by the Department of Correction, it relies on inmate labor and there is no electricity.
For now, officials at the medical examiners office say the agency continues to have expanded capacity through the mobile morgues, and there is no current plan to conduct temporary burials in city parks yet.