FONTANA, Calif. — It has been a year unlike any other for Jessica Rodriguez, the manager of a funeral home in San Bernardino County, Ingold Funeral & Cremation. It wasn't a good thing business surged as COVID-19 tore through the community.
"As we progressed, it was devastating. It was devastation because funeral service had to change," Rodriguez said.
Fewer people were allowed in the chapel for services, yet more people were requesting help. Families were hurting from the loss of loved ones and the costs incurred after they were gone. Then, this past January, what was happening around her, hit home. Rodriguez's father tested positive for COVID-19.
"At the same time, we were at the thickest part of the pandemic. We had a running list of families who were trying to get their loved one to us," she said. "It felt chaotic. It was overwhelming because I still needed to take care of my own father."
Rodriguez felt the same strain on her heart and her wallet as the other families, and then the same fate.
"Shocking is a small word. Because from the timespan of him becoming sick, I think we realized it on Jan. 2, he was tested, and he tested positive. We took him to the hospital on the third when we realized that, you know, he needed help. And 11 days later, he was gone," she said.
Her father died, and shortly after, her uncle died from COVID-19, too.
"We did not see this coming," she said.
Then, Congress passed a spending bill to assist in the pandemic. It included $2 billion in funeral aid providing families up to $9,000 to cover expenses for each COVID-19 death during the pandemic. The program began in April, and Rodriguez immediately drew up her list and called families to inform them about the aid.
"That list became our greatest tool," Rodriguez said. "We wanted to reach all the families because we knew that they were not prepared. No one was prepared for this."
She then made the call herself that night to cover her own father's funeral expenses. She remembers being on hold for hours. A FEMA spokesperson said the agency was inundated with calls the first few weeks but said the demand and wait times have eased since then.
Rodriguez said her experience with her father has made her understand how to better help families who've lost a loved one to COVID-19.
"He was a very passive man. Very good-natured. I don't know anyone that has anything bad to say about my dad. That's the way he was built. And he helped raise a lot of his grandchildren, my son and my sister's sons. He was more of a father figure to them," she said. "I heard that [COVID-19] was so far away, I never thought in a million years that it was going to come all the way to Fontana and devastate so many people in my family, as well as in my community."
As of the end of August, FEMA had only utilized about a billion dollars on the program. At this time, there is no deadline to apply for COVID-19 Funeral Assistance.