CRANSTON, R.I. -- In ordinary times, 94-year-old Anne Skog would have had many mourners at her funeral.
Skog had a large extended family, and she was a longtime member of the Gaspee Days Committee, a lively nonprofit group that organizes annual events to commemorate when Rhode Islanders burned the British schooner HMS Gaspee in 1772.
Skog was well-loved, but her death last Thursday came as Governor Gina M. Raimondo ordered restrictions on gatherings of more than 25 people. By Friday, Raimondo had lowered the limit to no more than 10 people.
So Skog’s wake and funeral at Woodlawn Funeral Home will be private -- and small. Her family will hold a memorial Mass eventually, when they can.
“I think it’s very sad that people can’t say goodbye the way they normally get to say goodbye,” said committee member Ann-Marie Richards of Warwick, who e-mailed other members with the news. “Anne was a very nice lady, and I’m sure for her really close family and friends, not to be able to give her a send-off now is very hard.”
All over the country, the coronavirus has ended gatherings and spread anxiety ahead of illness. And with it, people are postponing or canceling those milestone moments that create family memories.
Richards has found herself thinking about all those people -- loved ones who can’t be together to say goodbye at funerals, couples with weddings planned, high school seniors who may not return to class, go to their proms, or celebrate at a graduation ceremony.
She said she saw on Facebook how students were upset about missing those special occasions. “In the overall scheme of things, it’s going to be hard on them, and it’ll be something they’ll remember,” she said. “But in the overall scheme of life, let’s face it: You have family and friends and people who love you. What we’re doing now is focusing on safety.”
At her home office in Warwick, wedding planner Christine Ellingwood has been waiting two weeks for her phone to ring. The bustle of bridal shows, the frenzy of lining up vendors, photographers, caterers, florists, and beautiful halls, the excitement of planning every detail -- all stopped after the news last week that the coronavirus was here in Rhode Island, it was spreading, and things were going to get worse.
“I’ve had hurricanes before. It’s not the same. The hurricane kind of happens, and it’s over,” said Ellingwood, who started her business, Planned to Perfection, in 2005. “This is no ending. The issue is the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen, in a month, or two months.”
They are all waiting -- the couples with wedding dates, the families planning bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceaneras, reunions, graduations, and landmark birthdays. So are all the other businesses that are part of the celebrations: the venues, the florists, the caterers, the photographers, the musicians.
Ellingwood thinks about her brides, who’ve shared their dreams with her. “It’s tough. You just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m trying to be so positive for my clients, because I don’t want them to feel it.”
All are playing a role in wait-and-see.
At first, when there was news about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, “we saw people move their celebrations and events from international locations to luxury destinations like Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn,” said Laurie Hobbs, director of public relations and marketing for the Westerly inns.
However, with the new government guidelines restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people and prohibiting dining in restaurants, the hotels are allowing people to reschedule their events.
“Once government health and safety restrictions are removed, we anticipate increased business due to pent-up demand,” Hobbs said.
Russell Morin Catering & Events in Attleboro, which runs events and corporate catering and is the exclusive caterer at venues including Rosecliff mansion in Newport and Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston, is feeling the impact.
“Many of our customers planning weddings and corporate galas for the spring have been forced to adjust their plans," vice president Lizzy Desibia said in an e-mail. "We are working with customers one-on-one to decide the best course of action, and rescheduling or modifying events as appropriate.”
At Check the Florist in Providence, second-generation owner Mitchell Check said there have been some cancellations, but mostly, a lot of weddings are on hold.
The busy season of weddings and other celebrations begins in a few weeks, and Check expects customers will continue to postpone their celebrations until the outbreak is over.
“Whatever they have to do, we’ll do. We’ll make the best of it,” Check said. “I’m worried about the elderly, who [COVID-19] is most affecting. That’s the most important thing -- everything else is secondary.”
Last week, health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott reminded people that the 10-person limit also applies to funerals and wakes, and advised the elderly and those with illnesses not to attend the services.
“This is a hard message,” Alexander-Scott said, “but this is about keeping the other loved ones in your life healthy and safe.”
And so, at Nardolillo Funeral Home in Cranston, which has hosted funerals that drew up to 1,200 mourners, director David Nardolillo and his brothers are changing the way they help families grieve.
Although the building has room to accommodate four wakes at a time, the funeral home is following the governor’s order and limiting the number of people allowed inside. At the beginning of last week, it was 25 people. By last Friday, the governor set a new limit -- no more than 10 people at a gathering.
So the funeral home locks its doors and has staff at the entrances to let people in and out, staggering visits every 15 minutes or so. They have private visitations, travel directly to the cemetery for the burial, and will hold a memorial service later.
Nardolillo said this is how they can accommodate mourners and still keep them safe.
“I hope I’m criticized for being too cautious, rather than not being cautious enough,” he added.
Since 1906, four generations of Nardolillos have run this funeral home on Park Avenue. They held services for many of the victims of the Station nightclub fire in 2003, the biggest disaster in Rhode Island’s recent memory.
But this time is different. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Nardolillo said.
This reminded him of his grandfather’s stories about the Spanish flu in 1918. His grandfather talked about all the people who died, the fear and suffering, the trouble with banks and money.
As a boy, Nardolillo said, he would look through the funeral home’s old records. Back in the early 1920s, "every page you turn was ‘influenza, influenza,’ as a cause of death,” he said.
Now Nardolillo knows that eventually, his family’s funeral home may be called for those who die from COVID-19, adding new entries to the home’s records. And he’s bracing himself and the funeral home’s staff for what may come.
(NOTE: The writer is a member of the Gaspee Days Committee.)