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Hundreds of Winnipeggers have been shut out of grieving at funerals in recent weeks because of misinterpretations over public health rules for gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Sept. 28, the metro Winnipeg area was placed on the restricted "orange" level in the province’s response system.

The Funeral Board of Manitoba, based on information it received from public health officials, told city homes it meant in-person gatherings of only 10 people for any single funeral. The number dropped to five, when further restrictions came into effect Oct. 19.

But it was wrong.

While Public Health Act orders signed Oct. 7 by the chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin specifically listed funerals when prohibiting indoor and outdoor gatherings larger than 10 people, and again Oct. 19, dropping the number to five, a separate section in the act does allow for larger crowds.

That section — which specified gatherings, in general — stated up to 30 per cent of the usual capacity of a premises could be allowed, as long as the people are divided into groups of five, are physically distanced from the other groups of five, and are prevented from coming close to each other during the gathering and when entering or exiting the property.

It means dozens of funerals held across the city in the last few weeks — no matter if inside a church, synagogue, mosque or funeral chapel, or outside at the graveside — could have had significantly larger in-person attendance.

For weeks, the Manitoba Funeral Services Association and its members tried to get clarification. As well, no one from public health contacted the Free Press for a front-page article published Wednesday, detailing how a family of six couldn’t all attend a funeral for their mother because of the five-person restriction.

The first clarification, the association said, came Tuesday; further clarification came Friday.

For Robyn Kluner, the news left her "sad and angry."

Her mother, Elizabeth Brunet, died Oct. 11, and the funeral was planned by her family of eight when the number of attendants appeared to be 10. By Oct. 19, however, that number had been dropped to five.

"With the government restrictions put into place... our plans had to change and family members were not able to attend the service, even though we were outside, masked and socially distanced," she said.

"Then to learn that my mother’s wishes couldn’t be fulfilled because the government can’t get their act together to communicate the rules governing this pandemic is completely unacceptable... I personally have lost all faith that our government has the ability to keep Manitobans safe through this pandemic."

Despite repeated requests this week by the Free Press, Roussin was not made available to speak about the orders nor why the funeral industry wasn’t given clarification earlier.

Instead, a provincial spokeswoman issued a statement, saying: "It is unfortunate that families and loved ones have been limited in attending funerals."

"The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but to not be able to collectively grieve the life of a loved one is especially difficult. That being said, the cohort option has always been in place for funerals. The Funeral Board of Manitoba, the provincial regulator, has notified licensed funeral directors and homes each time there was a change made in the public health orders that impacted their sector, including information about the cohort option," the statement reads.

"Additionally, the board receives questions from their stakeholders when they arise and disseminates answers. As a regulating body, their due diligence has been met and exceeded."

It is not a feeling shared by Michael Gibbens, general manager of Dignity Memorial, which includes Green Acres Funeral Home and cemetery.

As late as last week, he received notice from the Manitoba Emergency Co-ordination Centre, via the Funeral Board of Manitoba, simply stating: "In the Winnipeg metropolitan region, the limit is currently five people indoors and outdoors."

"We have been advising all families of the gathering sizes at each of the different levels... throughout the pandemic," Gibbens said. "When it was 50 indoors and 100 outdoors, we had been advised of the facility capacity limits. In the smaller numbers, that was not made clear or that we understood as an option.

"The smaller numbers of five and 10 have been very difficult on families. So many families have more than that in their immediate family units, let alone extended family. How do they choose who gets to come?"

Now, Gibbens said, Green Acres can likely accommodate 40 people in its chapel.

Kevin Sweryd of Bardal Funeral Home (also president of the Manitoba Funeral Services Association) said his chapel, which normally holds some 200 people, could likely accommodate 25 to 30 with the rules clarification.

"For us, that’s the easiest number we can safely manage," he said Friday.

Despite pushing for attendance clarification for weeks, Sweryd said, "All I can say is funeral homes have been going with the information they had at the time."

When Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen was asked to comment on the matter, a spokesman pointed the Free Press toward public health officials.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

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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