Claim: NYC is using parks to temporary bury deceased COVID-19 patients
New York City Council member Mark Levine made headlines April 6 when he tweeted the city was considering temporarily burying the dead in city park trenches.
"Soon we'll start 'temporary interment.' This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right)," he wrote in a tweet that has since been removed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's office was quick to deny Levine's claim.
“We are NOT currently planning to use local parks as burial grounds,” press secretary Freddi Goldstein tweeted the same day. “We are exploring using Hart Island for temporary burials, if the need grows.”
A spokesperson for the city Office of Chief Medical Examiner confirmed this was not the case in an email to USA TODAY Network.
That evening, Levine deleted his controversial tweet and clarified that NYC parks would not be used for temporary burials.
“I have spoken to many folks in City gov’t today, and received unequivocal assurance that there will be *no* burials in NYC Parks. All have stated clearly that if temporary interment should be needed it will be done on Hart Island,” Levine tweeted. “And that of course if such burials are required they will be done in a dignified, orderly, professional manner. “
Tuesday, the city’s COVID-19 death toll had climbed past 7,300. New York state has seen significantly more COVID-19 cases and deaths than anywhere else in America.
Despite the numbers, a spokeswoman from the medical examiner’s office told The Associated Press on Thursday that the office “does not currently anticipate reaching morgue capacity.”
Burials on NYC's Hart Island
New York City has used Hart Island as a public cemetery since 1869. Hart Island is a small island off the coast of the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. Historically, the city used Hart Island for unclaimed bodies and deceased individuals whose families didn’t plan funerals.
Typically, the city buries about 25 bodies on Hart Island per week. According to Department of Correction spokesman Jason Kersten, the city now buries about 24 bodies per day.
The city's new storage policy has contributed significantly to these increased burials. The policy shortens the amount of time the medical examiner’s office can keep an unclaimed body in storage to 14 days. The policy was changed to alleviate some of the pandemic's increased pressure on the city’s medical system.
“As we aim to accommodate the many New Yorkers who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) will provide temporary storage of a decedent for up to 14 days,” the medical examiner’s website says. “We continue to work with families to accommodate their needs during this difficult time.”
Aerial images of Hart Island show burials
Thursday, The Associated Press published aerial images of workers digging graves on Hart Island. In accordance with the medical examiner's policy, these trenches are for the burial of individuals whose families have not claimed the bodies for private funerals.
“There will never ever be anything like quote-unquote mass graves or mass internment in New York City ever,” de Blasio told Spectrum News NY1.
The mayor said that if temporary burial did become necessary, it would be done individually on Hart Island so families could reclaim their loved ones after the COVID-19 crisis was over.
Family members who wish to visit loved ones at Hart Island can request to do so online. Hart Island is closed to visitors to limit further spread of COVID-19.
Our ruling: False
The claim that New York City park trenches may be used as temporary graves during the COVID-19 crisis is false. Although burials at the Hart Island public cemetery have increased, these graves are for individuals whose families haven’t claimed their bodies for private funerals after 14 days. They are not temporary graves. The city has been burying unclaimed bodies on Hart Island for more than a century. The city's medical examiner’s office does not anticipate requiring temporary graves.
Our fact check sources:
- USA TODAY, "As coronavirus deaths mount, New York City examines 'temporary burials' on Hart Island, official says"
- Tweet by Freddi Goldstein, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio
- New York City Council member Mark Levine's tweet
- NYC Health COVID-19 Data
- USA TODAY, "Tracking the spread of coronavirus cases in the US and worldwide"
- Associated Press, "As virus kills, NYC shortens deadline for claiming dead"
- New York City Council Hart Island
- USA TODAY, "Stark aerial images show new graves being dug on Hart Island as New York coronavirus deaths surge"
- NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner
- Spectrum News NY1, "De Blasio: There Will Never be Mass Graves for Coronavirus Deaths in NYC"
- New York Department of Correction on Hart Island Visitation
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: NYC won't use local parks as temporary burial grounds