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Manitoba funeral homes will take "a very big step in the right direction," with the news the cap on allowed attendance will soon double, advocates say. 

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced the slackening of a handful of COVID-19 restrictions Thursday, including an increase in the number of people allowed to attend funerals. Effective Saturday, it will rise from five to 10.

"This has to be a gradual and cautious process. We do not want to be opening and then closing and then reopening again. Everyone is aware of the challenges these restrictions have caused Manitobans, but we just cannot overwhelm our health-care system," Roussin said.

"We cannot continue to lose so many Manitobans."

One person intimately aware of the number of Manitobans lost during the pandemic is Kevin Sweryd, owner of Bardal Funeral Home in Winnipeg and president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association.

He characterized Thursday’s announcement as "a very big step in the right direction."

"The hardest thing right now, especially when families are more than five people, is to say to them: ‘You have to pick and choose who can come or you have to split into groups and do your services and visitations at different times,’" Sweryd said.

Of the roughly 35,000 people who filled out the provincial government’s recent survey on potential changes to COVID-19 restrictions, 62 per cent agreed with raising the cap on funeral services to 10 people.

Sweryd said the industry understands why tight restrictions have been imposed on it, and is not "opposed to the regulations." Nevertheless, he wishes the province had worked more closely with the sector in the past when developing rules.

Since the pandemic was declared in Manitoba in March, Sweryd said there have been no outbreaks linked to funerals in the province where there was professional oversight of the service. He said it shows the industry’s ability to rise to the challenge and conduct its business in a safe manner that doesn’t jeopardize public health.

"The biggest disappointment and frustration funeral directors have expressed to me is there has been very little consultation from the province. We will send letters on a weekly or monthly basis, offering input, offering to be a part of committees, offering to plan strategy," Sweryd said.

"And while I understand they’re busy, and they can’t talk to every industry, I do think in a pandemic, with us working alongside the health-care industry as much as we do, it would be nice if we were consulted more often."

The most important thing, Sweryd said, has been the rules impact on grieving families — some of whom have had to forgo funerals entirely, others have pushed back services until cap sizes are increased.

When Manitobans are allowed to have funerals with 25 to 50 people in attendance, he said, families who have delayed services will begin contacting funeral homes, which will likely create a bottleneck.

"It will be a very busy time for the funeral service industry," Sweryd said, adding he’s not concerned about the demand, since the province has more funeral homes than most jurisdictions with comparable populations.

One of the key things funerals offer grieving loved ones is the ability to "gather for emotional and spiritual support" during a difficult time of life. But due to COVID-19, Sweryd said, the industry’s ability to support families has been hampered.

"I understand the balance political leaders have to strike. They don’t want to be the people who loosen restrictions too fast and cause another spike. I get that and respect that," Sweryd said.

"Similarly, there is not a funeral home in Manitoba that wants its name in the paper that says, ‘We’re the source of this super spreader event.’ We have a very strong vested interest in making sure the guidelines are followed and things are done safely."

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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