Reason Roundup

No, NYC Is Not Running Out of Burial Space Due to COVID-19

Plus: Vote shamers should check their privilege, little change in Biden vs. Trump poll, and more...


Century-and-a-half-old Bronx burial site sparks panic on social media. The COVID-19 death toll in New York City right now is chilling (more than 4,400 at last count). So are images of coffins being buried in mass graves. It's hard to see things like that and not feel the weight of those numbers all the more viscerally—which makes it all the more imperative to contextualize and not sensationalize those images.

Unfortunately, a lot of professional media has been erring on the side of LOOK AT WHAT AMERICA HAS COME TO: THERE ARE SO MANY DEAD BODIES THEY HAVE TO START HIRING PEOPLE TO DIG MASS GRAVES.

The city cemetery on Hart Island is indeed tragic. It has been for the past 151 years.

"Since 1869, prison labor has been used to bury unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves of 150 adults or 1000 infants," states the Hart Island Project website. Families of those buried there were only allowed to start visiting in 2014.

"Since 1980, 68,955 people have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island," notes the Project, which is dedicated to telling stories of those laid to rest there.

That's around 1,724 people per year, 33 per week, or a little under five per day for the past 40 years. New York City Department of Corrections spokesman Jason Kersten puts the average a little lower, telling Reuters that prison laborers bury around 25 bodies on Hart Island each week.

Kersten now estimates that there are upwards of a hundred coffins per week being buried there. So, yes, there appears to be a recent spike in burials in these mass graves. But that's not because there are so many dead that the city has run out of burial space elsewhere. It's because more people are dying right now, and that includes people who don't have anyone to claim their bodies.

That is very sad, and it says something about what happens when the new problem of COVID-19 collides with old problems like isolation and homelessness. It doesn't mean New Yorkers have resorted to just dumping bodies into unprecedented mass graves, and journalists should not imply that it does. (Cue The Guardian: "Aerial video shows mass grave on New York City's Hart Island amid coronavirus surge.")

Kersten said the city hired contractors to add "two new trenches in case we need them."

"For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic," Kersten told Reuters. That's why new contractors were hired, not (as many have implied) because there are just too many bodies to meet demand.

The fact that the city hired people who have a choice in the matter to do this dirty work instead of getting barely-paid prisoners to dig graves in a pandemic seems like a good development, relatively speaking.

Julia Kite-Laidlaw with the New York City Department of Transportation offers more context here.


Voters tend to be more privileged than nonvoters, notes The Intercept. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) just dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest "and already a shaming campaign has been launched against those who are contemplating abstaining from voting due to dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates," Glenn Greenwald writes:

The premise invoked for this tactic is that only those who are sufficiently "privileged" have the luxury of choosing not to vote—meaning that nonvoters are rich and white and thus largely immune from the harmful consequences of a Trump presidency, which largely fall on the backs of poorer and non-white Americans.

This tactic rests on a caricature: it is designed to suggest that the only people who make a deliberate and conscious choice not to vote due to dissatisfaction are white trust-fund leftists whose wealth, status and privilege immunize them from the consequences of abstention. By contrast, this you-must-vote campaign insists, those who lack such luxuries—poorer voters and racial and ethnic minorities—understand that voting is imperative.

This assertion about the identity and motives of nonvoters is critical not only to try to bully and coerce people into voting by associating nonvoting with rich, white privilege, but also to suppress any recognition of how widespread the dissatisfaction is for both parties and the political system generally among poor and non-white citizens.

But the problem with this claim is a rather significant one: it is based on the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges—voters of color and poorer voters—are unwilling to abstain….The truth is exactly the opposite.

For the details, go here.


Biden beats Trump in CNN Poll. Americans polled by phone April 3–6 preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump, with 53 percent of registered voters surveyed saying they would vote for Biden in November and 42 percent for Trump.

The poll of 1,002 people and 875 registered voters had a "margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points" for the full sample and 3.9 percentage points for registered voters, notes CNN. These results are "roughly steady from CNN's poll in early March." More here.


  • Harvard Law School "prohibits firearms on campus but has no clear policy regarding the brandishing of weapons during Zoom class," notes Slate.