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Large funerals discouraged in Santa Barbara County during coronavirus pandemic
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Large funerals discouraged in Santa Barbara County during coronavirus pandemic

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Federal guidelines on social distancing and gathering restrictions have forced Santa Barbara County mortuaries to limit their services, changing the way families mourn their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dudley-Hoffman Mortuary in Santa Maria responded to the guidelines, which were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to curb coronavirus spread, by offering only basic services and banning memorials, said managing partner Michael Hoffman. 

Families can no longer celebrate the lives of their loved ones in the same manner they did prior to the pandemic, adding to the grief they've already experienced, Hoffman said. 

“Our hearts go out to these families because it’s the toughest time in their lives,” he said

The mortuary only offers indoor viewings and private graveside services for groups of 10 people or less in order to comply with CDC-recommended guidelines. 

Graveside services, or committals, are traditionally accompanied by memorials at places of worship, including the mortuary's chapel, which many have banned, Hoffman said. 

While private burials should adhere to the guidelines, Hoffman can't control how many people attend if the service is held in a public cemetery.

Cremated remains are given to loved ones, who can still hold their own memorials or committals, Hoffman said, adding that families are encouraged to hold memorials at a later time. 

Limiting groups of 10 or less is a mortuary's policy and not specific to funerals, Hoffman said, although it's consistent with the CDC recommendation other states have adopted. 

In addition to limiting services, Hoffman has adjusted day-to-day business operations, including closing the front doors and taking as many appointments as possible over the phone. He directed staff to wear masks if an appointment is made in public. 

The process by which the Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner’s Bureau releases the deceased to mortuaries hasn't changed, although it's slightly delayed, according to spokeswoman Raquel Zick.

The turnaround time to release the deceased to a mortuary is 24 to 48 hours, which is slowed in cases where a coronavirus death is suspected due to testing and investigation requirements, Zick said.

Additionally, the coroner staff still must follow CDC guidelines when conducting autopsies and wear the full suite of protection equipment, including N95 masks, face shields, goggles and gloves.

The sheriff-coroner is experiencing a decrease in overall deaths that may be attributed to the stay-at-home order, Zick said, adding the order may be causing people to drive less, leading to fewer fatal crashes. 

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

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