Some COVID-19 rules restricting the size of P.E.I. funerals are easing in the weeks ahead, but physical distancing requirements will keep it challenging to hold large services over the course of the summer.
P.E.I's reopening plan, released Thursday, said a total of 150 people will be allowed to attend a funeral by early June and 200 by mid-July — as long as the mourners present can be divided into cohorts of 50 people who don't mingle.
David Ferguson, president of the P.E.I. Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, said many facilities don't have the space, separate entrances or washrooms required to host separate groups.
"It hasn't changed a whole lot because most funeral homes aren't set up for multiple cohorts of 50," he told CBC News.
Ferguson said most churches are in the same situation.
In his area, covering the region from Tyne Valley to O'Leary, there's only one church that could cope with two cohorts of 50.
"It's hard to keep everyone social-distanced," he said.
Ferguson said it would have been nice to see the cohort size increased from 50 in the "Moving Forward" plan, and he may meet with members of the association to see if "a little more flexibility" is something they could request.
Overall, though, he is happy to see the plan calls for a gradual transition to larger gatherings and fewer rules by the fall, saying: "We all want to get this behind us."
'So hard for families'
Jodi Swan is a funeral director at MacLean Funeral Home Swan Chapel. Her facility is able to have two cohorts of 50 at a single service, but would be unable to expand to reach the 200-mourner number allowed by the province.
"It would be next to impossible for almost any funeral home to accommodate that size of [four] cohorts," Swan said.
Looking back over the past year, and stressing that P.E.I is lucky it hasn't experienced any COVID-related deaths, Swan said the feeling at memorial services has definitely changed.
She said there is less community engagement now, whereas before the pandemic set in, her funeral home would sometimes have a couple of visitation times for each deceased person, as well as social gatherings after the funeral itself.
"We're really missing that part," she said. "It's been so hard for families."
Hugs and handshakes
Swan said the reopening plan gives P.E.I. funeral homes a sense of hope that more people, including relatives and friends from out of province, will eventually be able to attend services when they lose loved ones.
As a funeral director, she looks forward to being able to offer a bit more comfort to grieving people — and she can't wait to remove the signs they have had to post forbidding hugging or handshakes and reminding people to stay two metres apart.
Swan is among those who have felt the loss of expressing sympathy through simple gestures: "We're very used to offering physical touch or a hug to families we care for."
By mid-September, the province's Chief Public Health Office anticipates that vaccination rates will be high enough that gathering limits can be removed, pre-travel approval from within Canada won't be needed, and people can take off their masks and get closer to each other again.
"We're very hopeful for what lies ahead in September," Swan said.
Even if all the rules are removed, though, Ferguson expects people will continue to seek out and use hand sanitizer, especially when they have the sniffles.
"This has really taught a lot of people how we can keep viruses away," he said.
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