Minnesota has purchased the Bix Produce Co.’s former cold storage facility in St. Paul for an emergency morgue, bracing for a peak in COVID-19 deaths that could strain morgues and funeral homes.
In a deal that closed Monday, the state paid $5.5 million for the grocery distribution warehouse and land; operating costs and improvements to ready the building for its new purpose will bring the total to $6.9 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to pick up about three-quarters of the cost.
The Department of Administration’s request for the funds explained that a facility is needed “that can accommodate a surge in demand for the timely, dignified, and temporary storage of human remains.”
The state has not experienced the horrific backups that have plagued hard-hit areas such as New York City, where bodies piled up at morgues and funeral homes. Responding to odor complaints, police in Brooklyn last month discovered several dozen decomposing bodies stashed inside two trucks outside one overwhelmed funeral home.
Still, deaths from COVID-19 have not yet peaked in Minnesota. A rush could back up the state’s system for handling and holding human remains, emergency managers say, and the state needs to be ready.
“The facility would be used if available mortuary facilities are overwhelmed and would not be limited to COVID-19 victims,” said Department of Administration Assistant Commissioner Curtis Yoakum.
According to the department’s request, emergency managers have been surveying hospitals, medical examiners and funeral homes around the state and determined that half the available storage is already in use. The 71,000-square-foot Bix Produce warehouse would provide overflow room for up to 5,100 bodies.
A slowdown in funerals, partly because of social distancing requirements, “does cause a capacity issue,” Yoakum said.
Gov. Tim Walz’s extended stay-at-home order includes guidance restricting funerals and graveside services to 10 people or less. People who are at high risk are “strongly encouraged” to attend remotely.
Emergency managers had been searching for an appropriate building with the proper refrigeration systems to use as a morgue and could not find a building anyone would lease for the purpose, Yoakum said.
Various models show the COVID-19 pandemic peaking in Minnesota anytime from now to mid-August. There could be up to 1,000 deaths per week, with half the deaths coming in a four- to five-week period, according to the Department of Administration.
Bix Produce, headquartered in Little Canada, trucks bulk and pre-cut vegetables and fruit, and other groceries to restaurants, hotels and schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
Bix chief executive Alejandro Montoya said the St. Paul warehouse had been on the market for more than 15 months. Bix vacated it last summer, and it has been unused since.
The warehouse is north of downtown St. Paul at 1415 L’Orient St., on 5 acres in the Arlington Business Park.