WASHINGTON – For two weeks, Laura Peterson waited for the Watergate East apartments to cancel an April 1 meeting for residents. But even as a pandemic swept through the capital and the death toll climbed, her 240-unit co-op did not yield.
By March 30, Peterson was fed up.
“Dear neighbors,” she wrote on an Internet mailing list,venting about the Watergate East’s refusal to postpone the meeting. Noting that many people at the co-op are older and have a higher risk of dying, the attorney urged residents to stop “this unconscionable risk to public health.”
The furor at the Watergate East – part of the complex made famous by the 1972 break-in that brought down President Richard M. Nixon – is one of many playing out in apartments, condos, co-ops and public housing complexes as the novel coronavirus leaves much of the country trapped inside.
Although most Americans have retreated to single-family homes, about a quarter cannot. For the nearly 70 million people in multifamily buildings, isolation is often impossible and tensions are unavoidable.
Shared spaces are suddenly sites of possible contagion. Each ride in the elevator could mean exposure. Each trip to the laundry room could bring contamination.
Some buildings have responded by restricting access, increasing cleaning, installing sanitizer dispensers and adding plexiglass at front desks.
But the new rules – or a lack of them – have left many residents angry or afraid.
“There is no quarantine if you live in public housing,” lamented one resident of Highland Terrace, located in the poorest part of the nation’s capital.
In New York, one co-op stirred controversy when it barred a doctor who was staying at his brother’s place while treating patients with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In Miami, condos that were slow to shut their swimming pools drew widespread ire.
And in one Washington condo, residents worried about catching the virus from a neighbor gave her pads for her dog to pee on so she wouldn’t go outside.
As the pandemic spreads, more buildings are informing residents when one of their own is infected. But the announcements often contain few details, sparking debates over whether privacy or public health should come first.
At the Watergate East, Peterson said she feared the meeting – at which residents would vote on a $3.5 million loan for a new heating system – would turn the wealthy co-op into a cluster of infection.
“This was too dangerous,” she told The Washington Post. “It was outrageous.”
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Carole Buncher was on her daily walk in Northwest Washingtonwhen she asked her exercise partner the question that was increasingly on her mind.
“Do you even know someone who has the virus?”
“Someone in our building has it,” Susan Lesser replied.
The septuagenarian stroll came to a stop.
Buncher, who lives three blocks from Lesser, was outraged that her friend had not mentioned the case in her building before the walk.
“Who is it?” she recalled asking.
“I don’t know,” Lesser said.
“That’s crazy,” Buncher replied, putting several more feet between her and her friend.
Later that weekend, Buncher, a retired analyst at the Government Accountability Office, posted a message on the Cleveland Park neighborhood mailing list.
“The co-op building in the Van Ness complex has reported that a resident has tested positive for the coronavirus,” she wrote on March 28. “Management is not releasing the name nor location (i.e., floor) of this resident. They are citing privacy and guidance from their attorneys as the reasons for withholding this information. I question whether privacy, which may have applied during, for instance, HIV testing, is an appropriate reason to withhold this information.”
Buncher was expecting a flood of support. After all, information on who was sick could prompt others to get tested or go into quarantine.
Instead, she got “a small firestorm,” she recalled.
“Naming names is a hideous suggestion,” one person responded.
“Stop the ‘us versus them,’ ” wrote another. “For all you know you’re going to be the ‘them’ tomorrow morning. We all choose to live in [an] apartment/condos.”
In a city full of attorneys, lawyers soon chimed in on the email thread to warn that disclosing the name or apartment number of a covid-19 patient could put landlords, co-op boards or condo associations at legal risk.
Within the co-op, people began wondering who had leaked word of the infection.
Lesser emailed her neighbors to say she was the one.
“It was current information,” she told The Post when asked why she had mentioned the infection to her friend. “What the hell else are we talking about?”
Lesser, a retired clinical social worker whose nephew died of covid-19 days after the controversy, said she was proud of how her co-op had handled things.
At the Van Ness Apartments, a stone’s throw away in the same complex, Kara Harkins said she thought her building had handled things all wrong.
She had received an email from the property manager on March 27 saying that “a resident or employee” had contracted the virus and was in quarantine.
“Please be assured that we are taking the necessary preventive steps for containment,” the email said. “This includes intensive cleaning of common-area spaces of the property.”
Harkins, a programmer who is also on the tenants’ association, pushed for more details.
“Have you asked the person where they went?” she replied. “Are we safe doing our laundry?”
She got a curt response, she said.
“The safety and security of our residents is our primary concern,” Marty McKenna from Equity Residential, which owns the building, told The Post. Staff regularly cleaned “high touch” areas, including laundry rooms, which were safe to use,he said. But privacy issues prevented him from sharing details on the coronavirus case.
“In our building, people are coming up with questions,” Harkins said. “But they are not really getting a lot of information.”
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In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, some buildings have sent out detailed plans.
At one 300-unit condo on the Upper West Side, residents who thought they or someone else in their household might be infected were instructed to double-bag their trash and leave it outside their doors to be picked up by porters. If someone sick or in quarantine had to leave the building, they should notify the front desk so staff could clear an elevator and the lobby. Only three people could be in an elevator at a time, unless they were all from the same household.
At first the new rules were awkward, said Tony D’Souza, a software engineer who lives in the building with his wife and their two young children.
“There was a time when you’d get into the elevator, and there would be two of them and two of us. We’d look at each other and think, well, it is just one floor,” he said. “Now there is nobody in the elevator.”
Many of his neighbors had disappeared, presumably to second homes, he said.
In Jessica Pruett’s six-floor co-op in Queens, a rule limiting elevators to one apartment at a time meant people lined up in the narrow halls. And though the building was well cleaned every morning, the 34-year-old accountant longed for more guidance. At first, she tried using one of the two laundry rooms when no one else was around. But then she read that the coronavirus could survive inside the machines.
“I kind of stopped doing laundry at that point,” she said.
Before the pandemic, she and her husband had bought a house in New Jersey. Now they donned masks to attend the closing, where they sat at a long table far from a lawyer and an escrow agent.
“It was very strange,” Pruett said.
After struggling to secure a moving day from the co-op, Pruett worried the movers would cancel. But the truck arrived, and now the couple has four walls of their own.
“We just got our washer today,” she said.
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Although the coronavirus has sown the same fear in all kinds of multifamily buildings, it has hit the poorest the hardest.
At the Park Morton public housing complex in Park View, the approximately 250 residents don’t have laundry machines in their buildings, according to Shonta’ High, resident council president. With some nearby laundromats shut down, High said, she has taken to washing her clothes in a bucket.
Residents had long complained of poor conditions, including the stench from a decomposing body in an apartment earlier this year, she said. The coronavirus had only made things worse.
At the Highland Terrace public housing complex in Southeast Washington, Markina Hall’s refrigerator and toilet had recently broken, leaving her family of five with one toilet and no fresh food. Neither could be fixed during the pandemic, she said she was told.
“So I’m going to the store literally every other day,” she said.
She often comes home to dirty masks and gloves hanging on the railings, she said.
“There is dried blood on the walls,” she said.
A spokesman for the D.C. Housing Authority said that it had increased cleanings of common areas to twice a day, plus deep cleans on weekends, and that maintenance staff continue to perform emergency work orders.
Hall’s husband lost his job at a fast-food restaurant and her GED courses were canceled. The only member of the household who still has a job is her 21-year-old son, who washes dishes at a hospital.
“He’s hands-on,” she said. “I’m terrified.”
It wasn’t long after Laura Peterson posted her warning to the Watergate mailing list that other worried residents joined in.
“We have all been working so hard to be living like relative monks in our cells,” wrote Aron Primack, a retired physician. “I feel like a meeting such as the one being proposed sets all that on its head.”
The meeting “is a danger to all of us,” wrote a resident of another co-op in the complex. “Worse, it shows the ignorance of denial of the pandemic we are all facing.”
Twenty-four hours before the event was to be held, the building’s board of directors sent out an email saying that the meeting, like so much else in the era of the coronavirus, would take place on the videoconferencing app Zoom.
Paul Knight, the board president, blamed the uproar on a few dissidents.
“I’m not sure what’s so controversial,” he said. “I’m kind of laughing.”
The meeting had to go ahead or the co-op would pay a much higher interest rate on its loan, he said. And the delay in switching to a virtual meeting was nothing nefarious; it was because Knight had not used Zoom before and wasn’t sure it would work.
Asked whether meeting in-person would have been dangerous, however, he said: “It might well have been.”
“You get many, many, many views in a big co-op,” he said. “You respect them all.”
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The Washington Post’s Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.