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New York City Has Contingency Plan For Temporary Burials Of COVID-19 Dead

Updated at 2 a.m. ET Tuesday

In New York City, as the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues increasing, officials say the city may have to temporarily bury some of the dead at a public cemetery in Long Island Sound.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine says that if the death toll doesn't level off soon, the city will likely start doing "temporary interment." New York City's data indicate that total deaths in the city averaged nearly 150 per day before the pandemic. On one day recently, the city reported that 806 people died in a single day.

In an interview, Levine said, "It would be done in a way that allowed these bodies to then be disinterred and given a proper burial at such time as the crisis is over and our normal cemetery system and funeral home system are running again."

In a string of tweets, he detailed contingency plans for handling the dead. Trenches, he says, would be dug in a city park for caskets that would be placed 10 in a line.

However, later Levine clarified that the plan was only a contingency and might not be necessary — and still later that no bodies would be buried at city parks, after all. Instead, temporary interment, if necessary, would take place at a public cemetery on Hart Island, in the Bronx, he said.

"I have spoken to many folks in City gov't today, and received unequivocal assurance that there will be *no* burials in NYC Parks," Levine tweeted late Monday. "All have stated clearly that if temporary interment should be needed it will be done on Hart Island."

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio also confirmed in a tweet that the city was not planning to use parks as temporary burial sites.

Levine said 80 refrigerated trailers big enough to hold 100 bodies each have been deployed to hospitals in the city. Some hospitals now have added a second and even third trailer, holding the remains of people who died from COVID-19 or other causes. With so many dead, funeral homes and cemeteries in the region are unable to keep up.

"People who lose someone to this virus, they're calling half a dozen funeral homes, and there's just no way now to get served through those normal channels," he says. "You really can't get a burial in a cemetery at all now. Their resources are stretched and they have no capacity to handle the number of people who need burials."

Asked about the city's plans for dealing with the growing number of bodies, the mayor confirmed officials were looking at contingency plans, but wouldn't go into details.

"We will have the capacity we need," de Blasio said. "We may be dealing with temporary burials so we can then deal with each family later. But again, I'm not going to detail it."

The mayor said the Defense Department had sent personnel and equipment to help, but that "it's going to be very tough."

Levine, who is the chairman of the New York City Council Health Committee, conceded it's a tough topic, but one he felt needed to be discussed in public. "We need more help. We need more resources. We need more staffing for our city's mortuary system, just like we need more doctors and nurses," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 8, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the death toll in New York City averaged 20 to 25 people a day before the coronavirus outbreak and is now around 200. In fact, those numbers included only the number of people who die at home.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.