When my fiancé Bryan and I began hearing about the U.S.’s first cases of COVID-19, or the “coronavirus” as it was then called, we were watching the news in North Jersey at his parents’ house while they were away. We have an apartment in a large multifamily building in Brooklyn, and even then, we felt hesitant to return to the city. Just the week prior, we had been celebrating our recent engagement with friends at a restaurant in Manhattan, and the “coronavirus,” which had yet to touch U.S. soil, seemed like such a distant threat. In retrospect, it probably had touched U.S. soil as well as multiple citizens who were going about their lives unaware of the ticking time bomb they carried, commandeering their bodies cell by cell.
The following week, those same citizens had become little red dots sprinkled near U.S. coastal cities on the John Hopkin’s map of COVID-19 cases. Still, the threat seemed distant, even though I could literally see its proximity on a map. As the week progressed, my understanding of this virus and its potential impacts grew. I was writing an article on the outbreak, which soon became a full-blown pandemic in a matter of days, and my research led me to learn about how commercial property managers and owners should be dealing with COVID-19. Things like air quality, ventilation, increased cleaning frequencies, and social distancing guidelines kept emerging as top priorities for large properties.
Although our apartment building is relatively new and seems well-managed, Bryan and I knew we did not want to stay there for the duration of this thing. We decided it imperative to go to the city and get as many of our belongings as we could to bring them back to Jersey. Our lease will be up in the first week of May, and we knew the likelihood of returning before then was not high, so we contacted the lease management office in hopes to break our lease one month early. But despite our pleas and best efforts, they would not bend the rules: “early termination of leases requires 45 days notice and two months of rent as penalty.” Meanwhile, each day that we waited to go get our belongings, our chances of getting stuck in Brooklyn during a shelter-in-place mandate increased. Last Wednesday, we bit the bullet and drove to our apartment building to relocate our things while we still could.
When we arrived our building seemed quiet, but nothing out of the ordinary for a weekday morning. Bryan insisted only one of us ought to physically touch anything in the building, so he opened the doors and pushed the buttons. He would be making trips from the floor of our apartment back down to the street level anyway.
In our apartment, I ransacked the drawers and cabinets, throwing our belongings into the small army of suitcases we had brought. After each trip down to load the cars, Bryan rigorously washed his hands and downed water. We were both sweating from the exertion, and as I went to turn the air on, Bryan stopped me. We didn’t want the possibility of air from elsewhere in the building circulating in. We didn’t know where the air from our vents was coming from but we didn’t want to take a chance. Several hours later, dripping with sweat, we both felt anxiety-ridden. No amount of hand-washing could shake the feeling of contamination. We were done.
As I drove back through Brooklyn, swarms of people strolled the sidewalks, as if it were a block party on a fair-weather day. But you could tell the mood was starting to change. Earlier in the day, millions of people listened to New Jersey Governor Murphy address the severity of COVID-19. People were beginning to realize that the virus wasn’t on its way, it was already here. They were starting to understand life wasn’t going “back to normal” anytime soon.
For me, the full severity of the situation didn’t come into focus until Bryan started having trouble breathing. He went to the emergency room where he tested positive for COVID-19. According to the doctors, they estimate that it is almost certain that I have it as well. Thankfully, the only symptom I have is feeling tired. I am more worried about those at risk who’ve been around us while we isolate ourselves and try to get well. Reflecting on the progression of the last few weeks, It’s hard to imagine what “back to normal” even means in a world changing this quickly. But we still have to try and establish some sense of normalcy.
This scary moment in our lives has driven home how infectious this virus is and how strong the measures need to be to slow transmission and combat an economic downturn. This is especially true for multifamily buildings. As cities around the country are either encouraging or requiring their residents to shelter in place, apartment managers now face the prospect of overseeing buildings with many more people in them, for much longer periods of time than ever before, in the midst of a pandemic. Multifamily tenants will be looking to their property managers to help them establish the “new normal.” While there is really no way for Bryan or I to know where we contracted the virus, it is known that COVID-19 can live on surfaces for at least many hours and perhaps many days. We could have come in contact with the virus as we celebrated our engagement with friends and family or from the common areas inside our apartment building. Who knows?
There are so many important questions that need to be answered. How can you keep multifamily building residents and employees safe? What do you do if someone in the building tests positive? How should packages be handled? How should maintenance requests be filled? What can landlords do to help tenants that are not able to pay rent? Should property managers strictly adhere to a lease’s contract in these circumstances, or can they bend the rules? In the face of an ever-evolving pandemic, the delicate balance between individual responsibility and community support is pivotal, reminding us that our collective actions and the decisions made by property managers play an indispensable role in shaping the “new normal” we all seek.