New York masks coronavirus
People wear face masks on April 03, 2020 in New York. In New York, the epicentre of the US outbreak, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged residents to cover their faces when outside and Vice-President Mike Pence said there would be a recommendation on the use of masks by the general public in the next few days Image Credit: AFP

New York City officials are starting to lay chilling contingency plans if deaths from the coronavirus outbreak begin to overwhelm the capacity of morgues: temporarily burying the dead in one of the city's public parks.

Mark Levine, chairman of the City Council health committee, said the office of the chief medical examiner was looking into creating temporary mass graves in a public park as it confronts the possibility that deaths from the coronavirus outbreak may soon exceed the capacity of city and hospital morgues.

Levine declined to say which park was under consideration, noting only that it would likely have to be a large one "out of the way of the public."

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that no such plan had been put in place yet, although he acknowledged it was under consideration.

"If we need to do temporary burials to be able to tide us over to pass the crisis, and then work with each family on their appropriate arrangements, we have the ability to do that," he said.

The medical examiner's office said in a statement, "We are planning for all possibilities, however no decision on this has been made, and there is still adequate capacity at this time."

Levine, however, said in an interview: "This is definitely not in the hypothetical stage now. I think it's fair to say we are moving to do this."

In one of his posts on Twitter, Levine said that the bodies could be placed in "trenches dug for 10 caskets in a line."

"It will be done in a dignified, orderly - and temporary - manner," he wrote.

Last week, the medical examiner's office rushed 45 new refrigerated trailers to hospitals around the city that had started to report that their in-house morgues were filling up.

In recent days, the virus has tripled the number of people dying in the city compared with an average day.

Not only are hundreds of people dying in hospitals, straining their morgues, but the number dying at home is exploding, said Aja Worthy Davis, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office. Before the pandemic, she said, at-home deaths ranged between 20 and 25 a day. Now they average around 200, she said.