March 19, 2020 — For almost 5 decades, funeral director Harry Greer, 74, has ushered families through loss and grief in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Alameda, CA. But the coronavirus pandemic has roiled his business. Recently, two families postponed funerals until May. Then this week, a third family canceled at the last minute, the funeral only days away.
The reason? On Monday, March 16, Alamedans received a startling notice on their cellphones. In a bid to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, the 78,000 residents of this island city were ordered to begin sheltering in place beginning at midnight, March 17. Local public health departments in seven Bay Area counties, including San Francisco and Alameda, ordered 7 million residents to stay in their homes until April 7, leaving only for essential outings, such as buying groceries or getting prescriptions or medical care.
Governments, first responders, and utilities would still function, but people could only go to work at essential businesses, such as health care, food supplies, banks, and gas stations. The Bay Area was the first region in the nation to impose such a sweeping shelter order.
Daily life changed overnight. In Greer’s line of work, it matters to provide clients with a compassionate human touch. When a loved one dies, family and friends congregate to mourn and to remember collectively. “People need support,” Greer says, “and they get it from others.” But the coronavirus, which has dominated headlines for weeks with images of fear, sickness, and death, has forced people to grieve apart.
The crisis has also prompted Greer to change his work style. He’ll continue to help people with funeral arrangements through phone calls and emails, just not in person. He knows that the change will be hard for some clients, but he plans to keep his business going. “When somebody dies, somebody’s got to take care of them,” he says.
Besides funerals, weddings have also been postponed. Local church services have gone online-only. Alameda’s three libraries have closed, and City Hall is shuttered to the public until early April. The shelter order mandates that restaurants close their dining rooms and offer takeout and delivery only.
The order has capped a hectic week for this city located between San Francisco and Oakland. Alamedans prize the relaxed, friendly atmosphere. They consider their town down-to-earth compared to San Francisco, their renowned neighbor across the bay.