While the province has eased limits on the size of indoor gatherings in places such as casinos, restaurants and churches, funeral homes are still facing strict limits on how many people can attend services.

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While the province has eased limits on the size of indoor gatherings in places such as casinos, restaurants and churches, funeral homes are still facing strict limits on how many people can attend services.

"You can go to church at 30 per cent capacity and casinos... it's wrong for the government to do this to people,"said Mike Vogiatzakis, general manager of the Voyage Funeral Home and Crematorium.

"It's a terrible thing that's happening," he said. "The government is putting a lot of stress on families. A lot of families don't have closure anymore... it is stopping closure.

Vogiatzakis said it makes no sense that facilities are being limited to a maximum of 50 people indoors — including staff. He said families have postponed services as a result.

Michael Vogiatzakis, funeral director and general manager of Voyage Funeral Home and Crematorium, says it makes no sense that facilities are being limited to a maximum of 50 people indoors when the same restrictions are not placed on restaurants, bars and casinos. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRE

Michael Vogiatzakis, funeral director and general manager of Voyage Funeral Home and Crematorium, says it makes no sense that facilities are being limited to a maximum of 50 people indoors when the same restrictions are not placed on restaurants, bars and casinos. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

In the spring, when the coronavirus reached Manitoba and COVID-19 numbers began going up, public health officials imposed numerous restrictions on non-essential services, including limiting numbers of people able to attend funerals to 10.

By May, with the COVID-19 numbers flattened and going down, the province loosened restrictions for funerals, allowing 25 people to gather indoors and 50 at the cemetery. That number later went up, along with other public gatherings, to 50 indoors and 100 outdoors as long two-metre physical distancing was maintained.

But Vogiatzakis said many funeral homes were designed to bring large numbers of people inside to not only celebrate the lives of the deceased, but to also allow a place to get together afterwards for companionship while partaking in food and beverages.

"I know a lot of funeral homes are hurting," he said.

"They have large buildings with meeting areas. Now they are empty, but they still have to pay property taxes."

The Voyage Funeral Home chapel is often empty these days and many people have postponed funerals. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRE

The Voyage Funeral Home chapel is often empty these days and many people have postponed funerals. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Vogiatzakis said funeral homes can follow the same physical-distancing guidelines as churches and restaurants.

"To say funeral gatherings will lift the (coronavirus infection) numbers is ridiculous," he said.

"Is the government trying to put funeral homes out of business? We need to treat businesses fairly. In my opinion this is unacceptable and needs to change."

During a press conference Monday, Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he will not be ordering that change.

"Right now, given the trajectory of cases, we’re not looking at really loosening any of our restrictions in any area," Roussin said.

"We know that funerals have been sites of spreader events. We know that just the nature of a funeral really makes physical distancing unwieldy. So we hear this and we hear this from multiple sectors — it has been a challenging time.

"So the answer right now is no, we’re not looking at loosening that."

"Is the government trying to put funeral homes out of business? We need to treat businesses fairly. In my opinion this is unacceptable and needs to change." ‐ Mike Vogiatzakis, funeral director and general manager of Voyage Funeral Home

Donna Olson, vice-president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association, which represents about three dozen facilities across the province — but not Voyage — said members will continue to follow public health guidelines even if it hurts them.

"Our trust in the decisions of the chief provincial public health officer, although difficult on our businesses, must be followed for the good of Manitoba," Olson said.

"We still have the ability to help families, even with the restrictions of 50 and 100 people, but as a profession we have to look beyond how we took care of grieving families in the past and find a way to help them that will not jeopardize the health of the general public during this worldwide pandemic."

Olson said funeral homes have had to invest in costly new ways to provide services, including broadcasting equipment and additional staff to set up open-air tents and chairs.

"As funeral professionals, we have seen how COVID-19 has intensified families' grief," she said. "Life has certainly changed for all of us."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
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Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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