They gathered on a summer weekend in the small northwestern Minnesota town of Lake Park to pay their respects to 78-year-old Francis Perreault and share their grief and memories of the good times.
They hugged. They cried. They held hands and prayed and honored a man who was described by his daughter as “wonderful.”
Yet despite wearing masks and taking precautions, 30 family members became infected with COVID-19 within weeks of the mid-July services at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, and five became so sick they were hospitalized.
“We tried to do everything right, but of course when you’re grieving, you let your guard down,” said Stephanie Schindler, Perreault’s daughter. “One of my friends that got sick was wearing a mask the whole time. But of course when you’re crying, you’re going to be rubbing your face.”
Schindler said the attendees did a good job observing precautions during the services, but discipline broke down afterward as people cried, hugged and held hands to pray. Even amid a pandemic, the natural human instinct to comfort one another is strong.
“I think it’s part of the process of coming to terms with things,” Schindler said. “It’s closure for the living and support for each other.”
Painful as it may be, it’s probably a good idea not to have such family gatherings during the pandemic, said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.
“All of us at the department, from the leadership down to the individuals working the front lines, understand people’s need to have gatherings like funerals and weddings and graduation parties,” Schultz said. “As the governor has said, it pains us all to see that it’s probably not a good idea to have those gatherings. And it pains us to see Minnesotans not having these important rites of passage. But COVID-19 is still very much with us. The pandemic is still very much with us. And so gatherings like these do pose a risk.”
Perreault suffered from Parkinson’s disease and several strokes, so his death didn’t come as a shock to the family, Schindler said Thursday.
“We were at peace with that. But then this aftermath happened, and that has been harder for us to come to terms with,” she said. “I’m kind of overwhelmed.”
Schindler said several of those hospitalized have since been released, though she couldn’t give an exact update on all involved. But the illnesses have brought home the reality that COVID-19 is a threat even in sparsely populated settings in rural Minnesota, she said.
“I think in a rural area, you have to be aware that if you have people coming from out of state or even interstate — places different from your own home — you are going to share that space and the germs are gonna fly,” she said. “I just have to caution people about — please be careful. Even in this rural area, there is still COVID.”
Among Minnesota’s 87 counties, Becker County is in the middle of the pack for COVID-19 infections, with a rate of 45 per 10,000 residents. The statewide rate is 109 cases per 10,000 residents, according to data released Thursday by the Health Department.
As Schindler talked about the virus, she reflected on her father.
“He was very trustworthy, constant in the family, believer in Jesus,” she said. “He was a hard worker — believed you just keep going.”
That’s what family members will have to do now as they cope with their loss and the health troubles that followed.
“What’s done is done. We have to go forward, we have to grieve,” Schindler said. “We have to pray for each other and raise each other up with support.”