Two days after Shannon Harris returned home from his girlfriend’s funeral, he received an unexpected call. It was a friend calling from the town’s only grocery store, telling him he wasn’t welcome there anymore.
Overnight, news had reached Buchans, Nfld., a former mining town of about 600 residents in Newfoundland’s wooded interior, that someone at a funeral home in St. John’s may have spread COVID-19 to people gathered there between March 15 and March 17.
One of the funerals held at Caul’s Funeral Home was for Shannon Fleming, Mr. Harris’s girlfriend, who died at 36 after a long fight with diabetes. As word spread on social media, people began to panic. And just like that, Mr. Harris was ostracized.
“I’ve been shunned by my own community,” said Mr. Harris, who has since tested negative for the virus. “I was just settling back into everything, and then ‘bang’ I was hit in the face by a brick wall. I haven’t been able to grieve because I’m dealing with this.”
Newfoundland and Labrador has been staggered by a cluster of coronavirus cases linked to a three-day period of wakes and funerals at the same location. The funeral home outbreak, now responsible for more than 120 cases, or more than 75 per cent of the province’s total, has become one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in Canada.
The fallout for family and friends who attended the wakes and funerals, including the more than 150 who reportedly packed into a chapel at Caul’s to say goodbye to Ms. Fleming, has been swift and, at times, ugly. They say they’re getting death threats, online harassment and have become scapegoats in a province where little more than two weeks ago there were no cases of COVID-19.
With no way of knowing who has tested positive, some Newfoundlanders are turning on anyone who visited the funeral home. Neighbours are keeping tabs on each other and calling the police if people leave their houses. Hundreds have used a new snitch line set up by the province to report anyone suspected of breaking quarantine.
“It’s like a mob mentality. It’s a bunch of people who are infuriated at a situation they have no control over, and they want someone to point a finger at,” said Heather Vallis, a close family friend who helped plan Ms. Fleming’s funeral.
“We’re getting threatening messages; they’re telling us we’re the reason the virus is here.”
Meanwhile, the toll from the funeral home cluster keeps growing, as the virus has spread from mourners to paramedics to postal workers. The province reported its first coronavirus death, a St. John’s man believed to be linked to one of the funerals, on Monday. On top of receiving the wrath of an angry and scared public, dozens of Ms. Fleming’s extended family and other mourners are learning their virus tests are coming back positive.
“This is a solemn day for our province,” Premier Dwight Ball said Monday during the province’s daily update, the same day it was announced that funeral services, visitations and wakes were banned.
“As we see the first death of a resident of our province due to complications of COVID-19 virus, we have a family in our province who is grieving and impacted at the greatest extent of this virus.”
When Ms. Fleming’s funeral was held on March 16, there had yet to be a confirmed case of COVID-19 on the island. Schools had been closed that morning, but large gatherings for sports or parties were still happening. As the infections spread, people have accused mourners of somehow being irresponsible and reckless in the face of an outbreak.
But there was no way for them to know the storm that was coming. Mourners dispute the funeral home’s claim that signs were posted encouraging people to keep their distance, and say that the common areas and lounge were open, and food was shared widely.
“When we went to the funeral home, it was as if none of this had happened,” said Christina McGory, a friend of Ms. Fleming. “No one was being told to stay away from each other. The lounge was open, food was brought in from outside, there were sandwich trays and Tim Hortons and drinks. It felt like any other funeral.”
When these contradictions were put to him, the funeral home’s 79-year-old owner, John Anderson, told The Globe and Mail that social-distancing restrictions were in place “to the best of my recollection" during the funerals. He also insisted there were only 50 people in the chapel at a time – in keeping with provincial regulations at the time. The outbreak could have happened at any funeral home, he added, but now he’s stuck with a $100,000 bill to disinfect his business.
Mr. Harris and others say because Ms. Fleming had been sick for so long, her family and friends were already extra-cautious about spreading illness. They say they would have postponed the funeral if they had known there was a risk anyone might get ill.
It’s now believed the outbreak was unknowingly started by a woman who came from out of province for another funeral that overlapped with Ms. Fleming’s – not someone returning home to Newfoundland as previously reported. Hundreds of people passed through the funeral home on the three days in question.
“We were just going to a funeral, and now we’re getting all this hate for it,” Ms. Vallis said. “A lot of people are being traumatized, dealing with this backlash. ... It’s got to the point where if they know you were at Caul’s, you’re ostracized.”
Derm Corbett, the mayor of Buchans, said he has sympathy for Mr. Harris’s situation and for others being shut out by their neighbours. But his community has many older residents, he said, and they need to be protected.
“The fear is there, and it’s not just in my community. It’s in every community across the country,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that sometimes it’s been directed at individuals, because no one is responsible for bringing this on themselves.”
Because of a week-long lag between the funerals and public alerts about possible COVID-19 exposure, Newfoundlanders are desperately trying to figure out where mourners went in the province.
“Everybody is just scared, and people are panicking,” said Mike Bennett, who was at Ms. Fleming’s funeral, along with his five-year-old daughter. “This was a world away, and all of a sudden, it’s in people’s homes.”
Mr. Harris, meanwhile, says it’s hard to watch Ms. Fleming’s family trying to grieve while being subjected to so much anger from within their own province. And he’s upset that the memory of his girlfriend – a woman known for her baking and for making others laugh and helping recovered addicts – is being tarnished by all this.
He says his quarantine, imposed by public health officials, will be lifted at midnight on Wednesday and he’ll be allowed to leave his home again. But whether things can ever be the same again, he’s not so sure. Mr. Harris grew up in Buchans, but it hardly feels like his home right now.
“It’s just atrocious,” he said. “I was shunned immediately, before I even knew what was going on. I don’t know how things will be after this."
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