Santa Maria mortuaries fill as coronavirus infections spike on Central Coast

By Joe Payne

When California went into lockdown thanks to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Moreno Mortuary in Santa Maria didn’t see a heavy surge in families needing their services, but that’s all changed in the last few weeks, according to owner Joe Moreno.

“We were the first ones to get a COVID case in Santa Barbara County,” Moreno said. “The Coroner’s Office said it was going to be a big to-do, but it wasn’t that many. Just with the last two or three weeks, after Christmas, was when it skyrocketed.”

Moreno said his funeral home is now “nearly at capacity.” For an industry that relies heavily on PPE, keeping a stock of necessary supplies is difficult. The amount of storage space available in his downtown mortuary has been a challenge over the past weeks.

Moreno Mortuary in Santa Maria California is at capacity due to the spike in coronavirus infections and deaths in Santa Barbara County. Photo by Joe Payne

The crunch that local funeral homes are going through are a lagging indicator of the explosion of COVID-19 infections in Santa Barbara County and the greater Central Coast. In a recent press conference, County Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso explained that current infections are in the thousands, and that the Health Department had to adjust their charts to fit the current spike.

The increase of clients for Moreno has been felt across the Central Coast, he said, and other local funeral homes are even sending some his way. Moreno said that most of his clients are Spanish speakers, many of whom wish to return their loved ones to Mexico. It’s a challenge that other funeral homes aren’t as experienced with.

“The process is kind of difficult,” he said. “You have to deal with the Mexican Consulate, you have to get all your documents in order, and the thing is now, if you pass away from COVID and COVID appears on your death certificate, now you’re limited with what airlines will take you.”

Moreno said that the funeral homes in San Luis Obispo County have sent him business because navigating all that paperwork is sapping time they don’t have while dealing with the overload of people who have died from coronavirus. At least one funeral home in SLO County has utilized a mobile refrigeration truck to help store the deceased.

For facilities with a greater square footage, like Magner-Maloney Funeral Home and Crematory in Santa Maria, staff has been able to offer services without running out of room. But they had also worked toward this moment all last year, explained Funeral Director Ben Pirkl.

“We had time to prepare, almost a year to make adjustments to our facilities and our staffing, and now we’re making the arrangements to keep everything safe,” Pirkl said. “When this all began we ordered a new brand of cooling unit, which took many months to get because they were in high demand. We waited our turn, but we were able to extend the number of people we were able to hold at our facilities.”

Magner-Maloney Funeral Home and Crematory staff have been approved to receive coronavirus vaccinations, but are still awaiting an appointment day from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. Photo by Joe Payne

The need for that capacity has been felt acutely over the past few weeks, as Pirkl and his staff move quickly to work with families mourning the loss of their elders to coronavirus. Staff need to prepare the bodies to the families’ needs, but also help conduct memorial services. Those services as well need to follow safety measures, with masks and social distancing enforced as well.

The devastating human cost of the pandemic weighs on everyone. The services allow families to say goodbye to their loved ones after having to do so over computer or cellphone screens while they were still alive due to quarantine measures at local hospitals,

“I’ve had to sit with just too many families and it’s heartbreaking,” Pirkl said. “I just think that everyone needs to take the precautions that are set forth that they need to be taking to stop the spread of COVID.”

As local mortuaries work through the influx of those lost to coronavirus, their staff are at risk everyday while preparing the bodies to lay to rest. Pirkl said that disease control is a constant aspect of the work mortuary staff do, including before coronavirus, but their protections have been increased.

At Moreno Mortuary, Moreno purchased air purifiers to help keep the air clean from potentially infected droplets. 

“It’s scary for us too, because I put myself in this situation, but if I were to get sick, what would happen to the business?” Moreno said. “If I got sick, and I couldn’t help the families, and my staff got sick, we would basically have to close down for two weeks, and everybody who came here would have to get reverted to another funeral home, and that would put twice the load on them.”

The staff at both mortuaries have been approved by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department to receive the coronavirus vaccine, though they haven’t been scheduled to receive them yet. While first responders in government, Marian Medical Center staff, and others have received vaccines, the need is still pressing on staff who work with the bodies of those who’ve succumbed to the virus.

The Santa Maria Cemetery District is surrounded by several of the city’s funeral homes, which are facing increased numbers of locals deceased from coronavirus. Photo by Joe Payne.

For Pirkl, who works with families affected by coronavirus everyday, the importance of a vaccine is paramount, but so is observing all the safety measures recommended by public health officials until more are available.

“We’re at a bad point right now, in my opinion,” he said. “I am no expert, but we are unfortunately serving families that I wouldn’t be expecting to serve right now. I’d expect to be serving them years from now, but unfortunately they are passing a little untimely, and that is a direct relationship to COVID as I’ve seen.”

“I just really want people to stay safe and be kind to people, I think that’s key right now.”

Joe Payne is a lifelong journalist and Santa Marian who shares news, analysis, and commentary online at politicalpayne.com and in video form on YouTube and Twitch. You can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

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