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The mad dash to keep society functioning

Frontline workers like doctors, nurses, and grocery store employees have rightly been applauded for risking their health to do their jobs throughout the pandemic. But you might not have considered those who work at some other businesses, that have also shouldered increased loads of work and stress to keep our houses in good repair, fill our prescriptions, and shepherd our growing numbers of dead to their final resting place.

The last responders

Aaron Tirpack, 31, is a funeral director at F. John Ramsey Funeral Home in Franklin, N.J.“ I would say the stress level from March to May was probably double or triple what it normally is, just in the volume of work that we were doing,” he said. Tirpack lost 25 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic, running around with little time for eating or sleeping.

With so many Covid-positive bodies to handle, the team of three funeral directors realized there was no point wearing their trademark dark suits under the white protective suits that had become their new uniform. “We finally learned to go in your skivvies,” said funeral director Joe Clark.

Perhaps just as stressful was the work they were not able to do. They had to turn down families calling F. John Ramsey from Staten Island and Brooklyn, desperate to get their loved ones’ bodies out of refrigerated trucks before the remains were sent to Hart Island, the largest mass gravesite in the U.S. where unclaimed bodies are buried. As New Jersey funeral directors, they are not licensed to go into the city to pick up a body even if they had the manpower – which they didn’t. They were getting calls from way out of town, they realized, because these families couldn’t get a local funeral director to pick up the phone. It wasn’t only first responders who were overwhelmed by the tide of sickness; last responders were, too.

They had to tell big families still shell-shocked by loss that they’d have to winnow down the number of people who could come into the funeral home to pay their last respects, per government regulations. The funeral directors did what they could to help, shuttling water to lines of 50 family members snaking out the door and under the awning. Sometimes, a minister would come into the funeral home or do a drive-by blessing, but churches weren’t saying funeral masses at all.

F. John Ramsey continued embalming Covid-19 victims, even after hearing that other funeral homes had stopped doing that. “The families that we worked with definitely thanked us and appreciated what we were doing,” said Tirpack, “even if politicians or commercials that were thanking frontline workers didn’t specifically say funeral directors or death care workers or anything like that.”

“Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, getting to the crematory by 6 to be the first in line so I didn’t have an hour’s wait, stuff like that, it just kind of wore you down,” said Clark. The crematories were so backed up that local funeral homes had to store bodies in refrigerated units for up to two months. When the cremains finally made it back, “It was kind of heartwarming to see, you know, handing them over to the families,” said Clark. “It was like a big ‘whew.’”

Had any of them had a day off? “Here was my day off,” said Clark. “I went home and I thought I was having a heart attack. I got my little blood pressure machine out; I thought it was broken when I saw what was reading there.” He told his wife he was going to the hospital. “I was there 20 hours, Morristown Memorial, and it came up it was not a heart attack – more of like an acid reflux or stress, they’re not sure which. I went home, called my boss, he said, ‘Why don’t you take a few days off.’ I said, ‘Well I’ll tell ya, I was in a corona environment at the hospital.’ So I wound up with 11 days off, but it wasn’t fun. I felt like I was letting down my friends here, my family, my funeral community, and I know that’s when they were getting slammed, those 11 days.”

The team was around the virus every day at work, of course, but there they were hyper-vigilant about sanitation. Along with their one-piece protective suits they wore booties, two pairs of nitrile gloves and R95 masks to handle remains, all of which they took off with great care. “That was our biggest worry here, was one of us contracting the virus. It would literally shut down the business. Each and every one of us would have to go into quarantine,” said Don Brossman, the third member of the funeral home team. He swears by his homemade sanitizer of grain alcohol and aloe vera. “We even gargled,” he said. “Listerine.”

The protocol for handling a body is universal, though “in a normal case, we may get a little lax,” said Brossman. “But with the Covid, we were always on point.” Now the virus occupied their thoughts constantly, haunting them all the way home. “Everywhere we go, everything you touch, it’s a little additional fear because you really worry about what you’re taking home to your family,” he said. Brossman asked his wife if he should get a hotel room, or whether she wanted to go to her mom’s; she said it was okay. “My worst fear is God forbid we slip up. So when I got home in the garage, I stripped there and just wiped myself down with Lysol. I was so afraid. It’s just me and my wife now, my kids are gone. I didn’t see my kids for a good six weeks. I wanted them to be wary of me,” he said.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs in the business here,” said Brossman. The 25-hour shifts are rough even under normal circumstances. “But I think if I asked any one of the three of us would you do it again,” he said, “Yeah, we’d do it again.”

Tirpack, who was supposed to get married the last weekend of August, had to push his wedding back to next summer. Someday, he may be telling his grandkids about the year he didn’t get married. “I don’t know what the future’s going to bring with the pandemic, but to look back on this spike – that we directed these funerals and helped these families, that we were coming into work every day, long hours,” said Tirpack, “to look back on it now, I know I’m very proud of what we did.”

The fundamental pharmacy

“It’s high, of course,” said Daniel Gutkind, owner of West Milford Pharmacy in West Milford, N.J., of his stress level. “At the beginning of the epidemic, when we were doing curbside pickup, it was putting a strain on our staff, going back and forth,” he said. “It’s gotten better now that we have the Plexiglas up and people are coming in, but the stress level is high.” He’s doing what he can to reassure his customers, whom he sees struggling with depression from being stuck in quarantine, and anxiety from not knowing how they’re going to be pay their bills, or whether the medicine they need will remain available. He’s been working with people who are struggling financially.

But there’s no such reassurance for Gutkind. It seems like the pandemic would be a busy time for a pharmacy, but as people have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, fewer customers are filling prescriptions. Gutkind has so far managed to avoid cutting employees’ salaries or letting anyone go. “We are trying to do our best not to allow it to affect them,” he said. But the financial uncertainty weighs heavily on small business owners like him, who are responsible for other people’s livelihoods on top of their own. That’s on top of the day-to-day stress that comes with being a pharmacist, a job that requires unflagging concentration. “You have people’s lives in your hands, you have to be 100 percent focused,” said Gutkind. “But I love what I do, I love the people here, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ll deal with the stress, it’s secondary to being here.”

The schedule is normalizing enough that one of his pharmacists has squeezed in a vacation and another is planning one. For Gutkind’s part: “I usually have Saturdays off, so no complaints there,” he said.

The community has shown its gratitude and then some, says Gutkind. “Oh my God, beyond my wildest dreams,” he said. “West Milford residents are amazing. A couple customers even went out and bought us lunches and dinners, and they’re always saying thank you.” It’s gotten kind of embarrassing, actually. “I never need accolades from anyone, I do what I do because I love helping people. I’m just happy contributing, and doing my small part for the community. And I definitely appreciate when they come in and say thank you. I say thank you, that’s very sweet, you don’t have to do that – I feel awkward. I’m very good at giving but receiving is not my thing.”

Must-have hardware

Alyssa Werner is the fifth-generation owner of Werner’s Ace Hardware in Florida, N.Y. “We’ve worked every single day, longer hours,” she said. “It’s been a little insane. At first it was a little scary, trying to take all the proper precautions and sanitize everything. I think everybody had their moments of, you know, you get scared, and then you just ground yourself, wash your hands a lot.”

She allowed employees, many of whom are part-timers retired from other jobs, to work or not depending on their comfort level. That left the store short-staffed, even as they remained open seven days a week for in-store shopping and added a curbside pickup option. “I was doing opening to close,” she said. “I have small children, so it was a lot to handle.”

Her kids, almost seven and eight, were home with her boyfriend, who happened to be recuperating from brain surgery and became de-facto homeschool teacher. “It’s stressful, and you take it home at the end of the day, the stress level,” she said. Now Werner and her boyfriend are alternating shifts, since there are no camps open for the kids. Of all the new challenges in the age of Covid-19, figuring out childcare has been the hardest, said Werner, who usually coaches Girls on the Run and is a Girl Scout Troop leader.

Mid-pandemic, Werner’s shaved the store hours down to 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but business did not flag. They kept getting their three weekly truckloads of merchandise, and those trucks have been full, said Werner. “I don’t think I’ve ever run so much in my life,” said Werner, who usually works in the office. “Like literally ran, every day. Just trying to get everybody what they needed.” She’d sprint from the office phone where she was taking orders out to the curb and run back to answer six ringing phones. “We were just trying to help as many people as you can, and move ‘em along as fast as you can,” she said. When Werner rushed to take this reporter’s call, she dropped paperwork all over the floor, she explained, when an employee interrupted to inquire about the paper explosion.

Unlike big box stores, Werner’s is nimble enough to modify orders week by week, based on what their customers need. Last week, it was pools.Almost all her employees have come back now, although a few – like the retired cop with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – opted not to. “I get it, I’m dead,” the retired cop explained. “I have a pension, I don’t need this.”

As business owners, the Werners are used to always working, but she says that some of her employees are resentful of the fact that, thanks to the increase in unemployment benefits, some laid off workers are actually making more money by staying home. “I do see some of my employees feel slighted by it,” she said. “Even the talk of the extra $600, they’re like, ‘Why do I go to work?’” She gave a few rounds of bonuses to employees who worked through the pandemic as a show of appreciation.

Hardware stores were deemed essential to handle emergency repairs like a burst pipe, but once people were home in quarantine, “all those home projects that you don’t take the time to do, they were working on. I have customers who painted their whole house,” she said. Others started a garden for the first time. Werner is grateful to be able to have been able to do business at all given the economy, and like all the workers we spoke to, takes a certain pride in having showed up for her community. “It’s nice to know that when things get tough,” she said (rephrasing her initial wording for print), “who people turn to.”

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