Town officials gathered outside town hall with members of the local clergy and community residents for a ceremony dedicating a memorial tree and monument to the victims and survivors of COVID-19. Photo: Denise Civiletti

COVID-19 survivors, people mourning the loss of loved ones, health care workers and town officials came together with members of the community this morning outside Riverhead Town Hall to honor victims of the disease that, over the past year, has claimed more than half a million lives in the United States and more than 2.5 million lives worldwide.

Today marks one year since the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in New York State, which was hit hard in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“The death toll has been unimaginable,” said Councilman Ken Rothwell, who coordinated today’s ceremony. “Over 513,000 deaths nationwide and so much loss of life in our local hospital and nursing home,” he said.

“We gather in Riverhead today as so many others gather around the nation to take the time to pause and reflect on the devastating impacts of COVID-19,” the councilman said.

Riverhead officials commemorated the date with the dedication of a Copper Beech tree and a granite monument inscribed with words read today by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar:

“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.”

Father Larry Duncklee of St. John the Evangelist, Pastor Charles Coverdale of First Baptist Church and Rabbi Michael Roscoe of Temple Israel offered prayers and expressions of condolences and hope.

Riverhead High School junior Catherine Renshaw, 16, gave a moving a cappella performance of “God Bless America.”

Catherine Renshaw, 16, performs “God Bless America”. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The town supervisor issued a proclamation declaring today and the first Monday in March hereafter, “COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day.” Aguiar thanked Cases’ Creek Nursery and John Spila of Whitman Nursery for the donation of the tree and Rothwell Monuments for the donation of the granite marker.

“Our community has suffered so much over the last year,” Aguiar told the small crowd assembled under the overcast sky. “This memorial provides a peaceful place for residents to grieve the loss of the countless family members, friends and co-workers. Each life mattered,” Aguiar said. “Each was a cherished member of a family taken too soon and we mourn their loss together.”

Peconic Bay Medical Center executive director Amy Loeb grew emotional as she reflected on what she called “the most trying year in recent health care history.”

PBMC executive director Amy Loeb, left, recalled how she felt upon learning that PBMC staff member Charlie Parker, right, was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 last March. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Loeb was accompanied by PBMC staff member Charlie Parker, a COVID survivor whose illness early in the pandemic, struck close to home for his colleagues at the hospital. Loeb remembered being in a meeting of PBMC’s leadership team when word came that Charlie had been admitted with the coronavirus.

“I’ll never forget that,” she said today. The news was greeted with disbelief, despite the hospital staff’s already-growing experience with the disease. “We said, ‘Nothing bad can happen to Charlie.’ Seeing him was when it really hit us,” Loeb said.

“Now Charlie’s a symbol of survivorship. Survivorship is for all of us. And how we get through this next phase in survivorship is with things like this — taking a moment to feel the pain that we felt and taking a moment to feel the hope,” Loeb said.

Health care workers will never forget the symbols of hope they got from the community, she said.

“The rainbows, the gifts, the parades — We will never forget that. And we shouldn’t. We should remember how our community came together and how our community needs to continue to stick together in survivorship for all of us.”

Parker, who was hospitalized for a month and a half, said he is still not completely recovered. “I still have shortness of breath,” he said. He is one of many survivors with lingering symptoms and effects of COVID-19, a disease with an unpredictable course.

Diana Ruvolo of Calverton, who attended today’s ceremony, knows the impacts of the disease and all its consequences firsthand. Her disabled son Lee Alessi was discharged with COVID-19 from nursing home at the end of last March. The disease infected both Ruvolo and her significant other, Dan Leonard. Alessi died on April 17. Ruvolo remained asymptomatic while Leonard became seriously ill and was hospitalized for nearly two months. He is still struggling with the long-term effects of the disease. See story: “Months after COVID recovery, Calverton man still suffers from ‘long-hauler’ effects” (Nov. 14, 2020)

“I’m very grateful for Riverhead Town doing this, providing a place to come to and reflect,” Ruvolo said after the ceremony. “It’s just overwhelming.”

That’s a word on many people’s lips as they seek to describe the impacts of the pandemic.

Councilman Ken Rothwell, right, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar during a moment of silence at today’s ceremony.
Photo: Denise Civiletti

Rothwell, a funeral director and the owner of several area funeral homes, said his funeral home in Wading River, because of its close proximity to Calverton National Cemetery, handled a large number of burials for New York City residents because the funeral homes in the city were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of victims.

“To stand in our funeral home chapel and see all the flag-draped caskets lined up,” Rothwell said. “It is a sight I will never forget.”

So many funerals last spring took place without a family member being able to attend because of restrictions. “We made sure very one had a flag, every one had taps played, every one had a prayer said,” Rothwell said.

Though he worked during other mass casualty events, such as the TWA Flight 800 tragedy, he said, “an event like that happens in an instant and happens in a way that you can see the devastation. You knew what you had to deal with.”

A pandemic is different — a pandemic is something you can’t really prepare for, he said.

“In March and April, you didn’t know what was going to happen. It was so much to take in. It was overwhelming,” Rothwell said.

“The emotional impacts on families was overwhelming. Families couldn’t have a service where they could share their feelings with family and friends,” Rothwell said. “Everyone said, ‘OK, we’ll do something soon.’ But here we are one year later and we still can’t get together to mourn, to hug one another.” No one expected that, he said.

Rothwell Monuments donated a grante marker for the new memorial outside Riverhead Town Hall.
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar with the proclamation she issued declaring the first Monday in March ‘COVID Victims and Survivors Memorial Day.’ Photo: Denise Civiletti

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.