With the rising number of COVID-19-related fatalities in Cook County, the ice rink at Ridgeland Common could eventually be converted into an emergency morgue should the increased need exceed the capacity of the Cook County morgue.

Under a 2006 agreement between the village of Oak Park and the Park District of Oak Park, the village has the ability to commandeer park district facilities for emergency mass-sheltering purposes. Although not explicitly stated within the agreement, that includes converting the ice rink inside the Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex, 415 Lake St., into a makeshift morgue.

Jan Arnold, park district executive director, mentioned the possibility on March 19 during a park district meeting — conducted virtually due to COVID-19.

“I would imagine it was a reminder,” said Diane Stanke, park district director of marketing, on behalf of Arnold. “We have new board members too. I don’t know if anybody’s on the board from 2006 when this mass-sheltering memorandum was actually put in place.”

The village of Oak Park reported its first likely COVID-19-related death April 1. As of April 5, Cook County has a total of 210 deaths from COVID-19, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office has a morgue that can hold 285 bodies,” said Natalia Derevyanny, spokesperson for the Cook County Medical Examiner. “Because of COVID-19, we brought in a refrigerated trailer onsite in our parking lot, which can hold 30 additional bodies.”

Under the village of Oak Park’s emergency operating plan, “The village will operate in a support function only for mortuary services and will assist the Cook County Medical Examiner (CCME) to the best of its ability as requested.”

The plan also states that if “requested by the CCME and in the event that a local mass morgue facility is required for temporary storage, an arrangement exists between the village of Oak Park and the park district to use their facilities in the best interest of the public.”

Under the shared emergency mass-sheltering agreement, the park district “will permit the use of physical facilities and equipment by the Oak Park Department of Public Health within 12 hours of the request” and for the requested time period.

The Ridgeland Common rink is National Hockey League regulation size, with the sheet of ice measuring 85 by 200 feet. The surface temperature of the ice ranges from 20 to 24 degrees, while the air temperature in the arena averages about 53 degrees. The entire building, including the ice rink and its locker rooms, is around 53,000 square feet.

“The village certainly considers the Park District of Oak Park as an important resource, but using the ice rink as a morgue would be a last resort,” said Oak Park Director of Communications David Powers.

According to Derevyanny, the Medical Examiner’s Office is in the process of acquiring more refrigerated warehouse space.

“Obviously our hope is that we will not need additional space during the pandemic, but we want to be prepared for any eventuality,” Derevyanny said.

However, converting the Ridgeland Common ice rink into a temporary morgue is hypothetical only.

“That is not something we’ve looked into,” said Derevyanny.

Oak Park Public Health Director Mike Charley could not be reached for comment.

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