The ongoing nightmare of coronavirus has made commonplace what was once unthinkable, a growing list of eroded norms that now includes potentially burying the staggering number of recently deceased New Yorkers in the city’s public parks.
“Soon we’ll start ‘temporary interment’. This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right),” Mark D. Levine, chair of the city council’s health committee, tweeted this morning. “Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line. The goal is to avoid scenes like those in Italy, where the military was forced to collect bodies from churches and even off the streets.”
Some statistical models predict New York will hit its coronavirus apex this week. As of Monday morning, more than 4,700 New Yorkers are confirmed to have died of coronavirus, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, nearly 3,050 of which are from NYC. That official tally, as Levine notes, is doubtlessly an undercount, as the high demand for and shortage of covid-19 tests has left policymakers with an enormous blindspot which makes such modeling difficult.
As the healthcare infrastructure here in one of the nation’s epicenters of the pandemic outbreak has been overwhelmed, hospitals have diverted most or all of their resources towards managing coronavirus patients; morgues and crematoria have hit capacity and been buttressed with stopgap measures like refrigerated trailers. According to Levine, most of those trailers are now full, too.
However, as Levine clarified in a follow-up tweet, the plan to bury the dead in a park is not set in stone, and it may not be necessary. A spokesperson for NYC’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) told the New York Post that the city’s morgues currently have “adequate space.” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a press conference on Monday morning that the city is “not at the point” of temporarily burying bodies in city parks, but if such a thing does become necessary to “tide us over to pass the crisis” officials will “work with each family on their appropriate arrangements.”
As the New York Times points out, a 2008 OCME map for dealing with a pandemic lists storing bodies in refrigerated trucks as “Tier One” of the plan; “Tier Two” includes temporary burials.
It’s not clear at this time which parks may be considered for this purpose, but Levine told the Times that he “presume[s] it would have to be a large park with some inaccessible areas that are out of the way of the public.” We’ve reached out to his office for further information.
Update: Adding further confusion to Levine’s alarming tweet, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, said that that public parks were “not currently” being considered for this purpose.
Instead, Goldstein wrote, Hart Island in the Bronx, which has a long and troubled history as a mass burial site for the city with graves historically (and currently) being dug by prison inmates, was the location officials had in mind. As of last year, Hart Island is administered by the city’s Departments of Parks and Recreations, which if we’re being generous, is maybe where Levine’s confusion derived from, though his office has yet to respond to our inquiry.