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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

How Funeral Homes Are Adapting During Coronavirus: 'It's A Very Different Way Of Doing Business'


Many businesses are having to adjust their practices because of concerns about the coronavirus. That's especially true for funeral homes, which are trying to navigate between serving grieving families and protecting public health. 

So far, any orders from Ohio's governor and health director have deemed funeral homes as essential businesses, and they've not been ordered to cancel memorial services. But Interim Hamilton County Health Director Greg Kesterman offered this advice Monday.

"These events, if you're gathering people together, create an opportunity for illness. It might not turn out in a great way," Kesterman said. "Right now, we should make those tough sacrifices so we can protect our community."

Local funeral directors are guiding people through those tough decisions. Ken Cahall operates three funeral homes in Brown County, about an hour east of Cincinnati. Cahall's family has been providing this service since 1951. He says many families are asking if they can still have a funeral service to honor their loved one.  Cahall says the answer is yes but they must limit attendance to 50 or fewer.

"It's only by invitation-only. It's not open to the public," Cahall said. "We're offering to families too that we can have a memorial service at a later date if they wish. We can also do webcasting or Facebook Live of the service for some of their family members that may be elderly or unable to attend or maybe not feel feeling well."

Cahall says his locations have signs about not hugging family members or shaking hands and working to provide adequate spacing. There's also lots of hand sanitizer, though now that supply is running low. Plus, there are restrictions on the number of people who can plan a memorial service.

"Four healthy adult family members come in, and the reason we say four is we have the space where we can have our spacing when they come in and they have to be adults and they have to be healthy as far as they know," Cahall said. "That is all we are allowing. And that may be pared down here soon and be able to do something online, which we do have the capability now."

Cahall and other funeral homes are getting constant updates from the Ohio Funeral Directors Association.  It's sharing information from the CDC, the Ohio Department of Health and the National Funeral Directors Association. Melissa Sullivan is the executive director of the OFDA. She says funeral directors work to help people navigate the process of death and celebrate their loved ones. That's challenging in the current environment.

"Their culture is all about, you know, compassion and supporting that family," Sullivan said. "And I think funeral directors probably are the number one huggers in the world. And I can't imagine them not being able to express their sympathies to the families by giving them a hug, you know, shaking their hand, putting an arm around their shoulders. So, it is a very different way of conducting their business and I hear that repeatedly."

Funeral directors are now taking extra precautions when they're visiting homes and facilities after someone has died for the recovery process. Cahall describes a situation last weekend at a nursing home.

"Have been met at the door where your temperature is taken," Cahall said. "You're immediately asked to use hand sanitizer and also a mask before you enter and while you're in the facility, and then also to dispose of those items properly before you leave. And also, they're taking your name, looking at your driver's license to get the right address in case a breakout does occur, they know who has been in their building."

Funeral directors use personal protective equipment just like other health care providers. And that's the same PPE in short supply because of the coronavirus outbreak. Sullivan says the OFDA will be providing information to funeral homes about how to conserve PPE and perhaps reuse it after properly disinfecting it.

Other states are taking similar measures concerning funeral services. Some are restricting families to a graveside-only service with very limited attendance. Others are encouraging online memorials.

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.