One year later, remembering victims of pandemic

Exactly one year since state health officials confirmed the first COVID-19 case in New York, local leaders gathered in Riverhead Monday to commemorate those we’ve lost during the pandemic.

“Over the past year, so many have suffered the painful loss of family members and friends due to COVID-19,” Councilman Ken Rothwell said during the ceremony. “Many are still fighting the virus and thankfully, many have healed. The death toll has been unimaginable.” 

Local religious leaders, including Father Larry Duncklee of St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church, Rev. Charles Coverdale from the First Baptist Church of Riverhead and Rabbi Michael Rascoe from Temple Israel of Riverhead joined elected officials, offering prayers for those who have passed away from COVID-19, those who have survived and a prayer for the future and the end of the pandemic. The ceremony also featured a performance of “God Bless America” by Catherine Renshaw, who won the Riverhead Idol competition in 2020.

To pay tribute to the victims, town officials dedicated a newly planted copper beech tree and stone marker outside of Town Hall. 

“We shall forever cherish the memories of those we lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. We pray for strength and healing to the survivors and peace to all whom have suffered,” the stone reads.

The tree was donated by Case’s Creek Nursery and John Spila of Whitman Nurseries Inc. and Rothwell Monuments donated the granite marker.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the memorial provides a quiet, reflective spot for residents to grieve and remember.

A copper beech tree and monument outside Riverhead Town Hall. (Credit: Tara Smith)

“The memorial also represents hope, resilience and recovery as we recognize and pay tribute to all those who survived the COVID-19 virus and continue to experience the lingering effects of this disease,” Ms. Aguiar said, proclaiming that March 1, 2021 and the first Monday of each March will be recognized as COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day in the town of Riverhead.

This follows a nationwide effort to observe March 1 as a national day of remembrance as the COVID-19 death toll recently surpassed 500,000 Americans.

On March 1, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state: a woman who had returned from traveling to Iran.

“There is no reason for undue anxiety—the general risk remains low in NY,” Mr. Cuomo tweeted. “We are diligently managing this situation & will provide info as it becomes available.” 

Just eight days later, Suffolk County would report its first case of the virus.

Since March 2020, there have been 162,243 total cases reported and 3,076 fatalities in Suffolk County, according to the most recent available data from the county department of health services.

Amy Loeb, who was recently promoted to executive director at Peconic Bay Medical Center, grew teary-eyed as she reflected on what she called the “most trying year” for health care workers and thanked the community for their support, which came in the form of colorful cards, parades and other tokens of appreciation.

At her side stood Charlie Parker, a U.S. Air Force Veteran and hospital employee who battled COVID-19 as a hospital patient last spring. “To see one of our own in that state so early in the pandemic is when it really hit us,” Ms. Loeb said. “We prayed, we hoped, we did everything that we could to ensure that Charlie was OK.”

The next step toward survivorship, Ms. Loeb said, is “taking a moment to feel the pain,” but also the hope that lies ahead.

“The loss was devastating, but hope springs eternal here in Riverhead,” she said.

Town officials were presented with a certificate of merit from Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio’s office by her chief of staff, Jill Doherty.

Ms. Doherty, who also serves as a councilwoman in Southold Town, said the memorial will serve as a reminder as we get used to the new normal.

“People may walk by and smile in memory of somebody, or cry in memory of somebody,” she said.

A county COVID-19 memorial will also honor the lives of Suffolk County residents who succumbed to the virus and provide an “opportunity to find comfort in community” for those who lost someone.

County officials gathered Monday afternoon in Smithtown to unveil the memorial, which is composed of ribbons affixed to a wooden structure that bear the name of a COVID-19 victim. The memorial will be on display at the Suffolk County Legislature’s William H. Rogers Building in Smithtown throughout March and a temporary structure will also be placed in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverside.

“This has changed our lives forever and defines our lives,” said County Legislator Al Krupski. “To have [this memorial] here…certainly means a lot.”