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How New York City residential buildings are tackling coronavirus

Enhanced cleaning protocols, canceling resident events, and other measures being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19

Max Touhey

In the past few weeks, as the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 has risen across the city, New Yorkers have been inundated with messages about how to stay safe and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Wash your hands frequently (nay, constantly); don’t touch your face; don’t shake hands; practice social distancing; and above all, stay home if you’re able, whether or not you’re feeling sick.

But New Yorkers who are now spending more time at home may be wondering what their landlords or property managers are doing to ensure that common areas in their buildings (such as lobbies or laundry rooms) are being cleaned and kept safe.

In a press conference in early March, the city’s health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, said that the risk of contracting COVID-19 from areas in apartment buildings is low, since “this is not an illness that can be easily spread through casual contact.”

And if that’s not reassuring enough, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has provided a list of precautionary measures that property owners and managers should take to keep their buildings (and residents) safe. The advice is fairly common-sense, and in line with the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines: DOHMH recommends that “extra effort” be expended to keep buildings clean, with regular disinfecting of frequently touched areas (such as light switches, door handles, and elevator buttons), as well as providing hand sanitizer or soap and water in high-traffic areas, like laundry rooms or bathrooms.

It’s advice that many property managers in New York City seem to be taking to heart. While many developers or building managers that Curbed contacted declined to comment for this piece, residents provided us with dozens of copies of coronavirus prevention FAQs distributed by firms like AvalonBay, Related Cos., A&E Real Estate Management, Milford Management Corp., and TF Cornerstone (among others).

The majority noted that they’re following the city’s and CDC’s recommendations: regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces, providing hand sanitizer for employees, and increasing the frequency of cleanings within buildings. Several missives that Curbed reviewed also noted that work in buildings would continue, but only under emergency circumstances.

Some companies provided these notices as early as the end of February; for example, a missive sent to residents of Related’s rental buildings on February 28 noted that the firm had stepped up its cleaning procedures as of that week.

“We remain in regular contact with local, state and national health agencies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and will continue to implement the most current preventive measures as recommended by the CDC,” a spokesperson for Related Cos. told Curbed. That includes “end of day deep cleaning” and frequent disinfection of high-touch areas, as well as distributing hand sanitizer and cleaning products to building staff.

And as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have risen, some companies have taken more drastic measures. A March 13 email to residents of 70 Pine Street provided to Curbed stated that the building would cancel any tenant events immediately, and while its amenity spaces would remain open, “we are preparing to close them in order to effectively utilize our resources.” The email also noted that deliveries would be held in the lobby, and asked residents to limit the deliveries sent to the building (which is managed by Rose Associates) “to essential items only.”

A March 13 e-mail sent to residents of buildings managed by AvalonBay Communities, meanwhile, stated that amenities within its buildings are open, but recommended that anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 avoid common areas, including fitness centers and clubhouses. The firm also asked residents to help keep highly trafficked areas safe by cleaning surfaces after they’ve been used, and that events in its common areas have been canceled.

And on March 12, TF Cornerstone sent an email advising residents of its buildings that it would close “all amenity spaces throughout all buildings, effective immediately,” including pools, lounges, fitness centers, and roof decks. According to the email, this was done to both encourage social distancing and give its building staff more time to keep other common areas (lobbies, for example) clean. (We’ve reached out to Rose Associates, AvalonBay, and TF Cornerstone for comment; we’ll update as information becomes available.)

Enhanced cleaning protocols are especially crucial for the more than 400,000 New Yorkers who live in complexes managed by the New York City Housing Authority, where residents already deal with quality of life issues—broken elevators, heating outages, vermin infestations—on a regular basis. According to a NYCHA spokesperson, the agency is cleaning its buildings daily, with senior residences given especially thorough treatment plan that includes adding a protective coating that helps repel germs to all surfaces. The agency is focusing on highly trafficked areas, like door handles, mailboxes, and elevators.

While these efforts are laudable, there are reasons for residents to be skeptical of their efficacy, as pointed out in this New York piece: “The problem is not just that NYCHA’s aging and sick are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. It’s that the agency has little track record of creating healthy conditions for its residents.”

So what should you do if your building is not following similar protocols—or worse, if your manager or landlord is neglecting your building entirely? Know your rights as a New York City apartment-dweller; the city’s tenants’ bill of rights says that renters “have the right to live in ‘safe, well maintained buildings that are free from pests, leaks and hazardous conditions,’” and there are resources available if those are not being maintained. The Met Council on Housing has a tenants’ rights hotline that can provide advice on dealing with negligent landlords.

One of the best things you can do right now is get in touch with your neighbors (via email, notes left on doors, or the telephone—remember to practice social distancing); there is power in collective action, so banding together with your fellow residents may help ensure your landlord or property manager fulfills their responsibilities during this difficult time. (It’s also just good practice, as New Yorkers will be relying on each other much more as the pandemic continues to unfold.)