Philadelphia’s high-rise dwellers have a particular challenge as the coronavirus spreads: how to press an elevator button.
Lauren Marks, 23, lives on the 14th floor of the 20-story Penn Center House at 19th Street and JFK Boulevard, and recommends “pulling down your sleeve a little bit or using gloves.”
"I just really haven’t left the house very much, to be honest," she said.
The city has 773 buildings of seven stories or more, though the Department of Licenses and Inspections could not say Wednesday how many are residential. Those who call high-rises home are suddenly very aware of the amount of public space they are forced to share.
Along with elevators, lobbies, gyms, and laundry rooms are practically unavoidable, with surfaces that could be touched by hundreds of others. Many — though far from all — building managers have responded by beefing up cleaning crews, restricting public spaces, and making hand sanitizers readily available.
“The hallways and the lobby now smell just like a giant tub of Lysol," said Sarah Hudson, 34, who lives at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square and has been working from home for a health center group that serves people on Medicare.
But other high-rise residents are realizing how much they rely on the initiative of landlords and management companies to keep their buildings clean — and how little power the city has to make them do it.
“We need to ensure that [the Philadelphia Housing Authority] and responsible entities are regularly cleaning high-traffic areas in apartment buildings that serve vulnerable populations,” said City Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “We know the impact of the virus is greater for the elderly, the immuno-compromised, and workers who come into contact with the greatest number of people.”
Tenant advocates are exploring what protections exist for residents of buildings whose owners or managers aren’t stepping up sanitation efforts. City code requires landlords to provide clean, safe, and habitable housing, said Rachel Garland, managing attorney at Community Legal Services, which provides legal support for the city’s poor. But it’s unclear what they are obligated to do in a pandemic.
“This is a situation we haven’t faced since the flu epidemic" in 1918, she said.
As the crisis deepened, she noted, Community Legal Services concentrated on forestalling evictions and foreclosures. Now, with a temporary moratorium on both, the organization is refocusing on other virus-driven issues, including sanitary housing.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections acknowledged Wednesday it has no authority to compel building owners to step up their cleaning.
“For Pete’s sake,” said Karen Guss, a department spokesperson. “Can’t everyone just go and do the right thing for once?”
The city must address the lack of specificity about requirements for landlords amid a de facto citywide quarantine, Brooks said.
“If people become increasingly confined to their living spaces,” she said, “we must find ways to ensure movement within those living spaces is safe.”
The city’s health department hasn’t offered advice for high-rise residents in particular, other than to say that anyone in close contact with others is at risk. General safety recommendations include using a knuckle to push an elevator button, wrapping your hand in a jacket before touching door knobs, and pushing doors open with an elbow. As the coronavirus spread through China, restrictions in high-rise buildings included taping off partitions in elevators so no more than four people could be inside at once.
Carolyn C. Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, recommended closing party rooms, creating laundry room shifts, and limiting elevator use.
At Brith Sholom, a 12-story apartment building on Conshohocken Avenue where most of the approximately 300 residents are elderly, the virus is just the latest battle in their long war with the owners to maintain the property.
“There is no cleaning,” resident Jackie Tindel said Wednesday as she waited for Amen Brown, a Democratic candidate for the state House, to drop off sanitizer and cleaning supplies for the people living there. “There’s no disinfectant, there’s no nothing for the seniors.”
Calls to Brith Sholom’s office and lawyer were not returned.
“L&I has been called,” said Judy Jones, vice president of the Philadelphia Tenants Union. “They haven’t come out yet. I don’t even think they can do anything.”
At the PHA’s West Philadelphia triad of high-rises, the West Park Apartments, residents expressed worry about the conditions there, too.
“So many people touch the elevators and leave trash in the elevators,” said Manashia Jones, 29, a home health aide who suffers from asthma. “I’m a little bit of a germophobe.”
As of March 10, the PHA has focused its most rigorous cleaning efforts on its buildings housing senior citizens. It is deep-cleaning all common areas once a week, along with daily cleaning, and has installed hand sanitizers at elevators and entrances, said Nichole Tillman, an agency spokesperson. Every PHA-operated building isn’t getting the same treatment, though. Others, like the West Philadelphia towers, are deep-cleaned weekly but not provided with sanitizers, she said, in order to ensure enough of a supply for senior citizen housing.
“We are encouraging residents to wash their hands, as the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said is the best way to fight this virus,” Tillman said.
The story is quite different at high-rises such as the River West Condos on Chestnut Street. There, in addition to a more stringent cleaning schedule, the gym has been closed and contractors’ access has been limited, according to Harvey Spear, head of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia and owner of Centra, a management company that handles about 30 properties citywide.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Spear said. “I’m not sure anyone has all the answers.”
At Society Hill Towers in Old City, about two-thirds of the 1,300 residents are 60 and older, said Brett Scioli, general manager of the three-building complex. Elevators are sanitized every two hours, and cleaning has been refocused on heavily trafficked public areas.
The efforts are comforting, said Geary Zazoff, 72, who has lived there for a decade. On Tuesday, as maintenance work was being done in her apartment, she had to hang out in the lobby. Despite her age, she said, she wasn’t concerned about catching the coronavirus.
“I think everyone is very aware and really taking things seriously, so I feel comfortable,” Zazoff said.
The biggest challenge for large residential buildings, Scioli said, is maintaining staff. The towers have 55 full-time employees, and so far there have been no reports of sickness, he said.
“This is all kind of unknown,” he said. “I have cleaning companies on standby should I lose part of my staff, but I really don’t know what their staffing is going to be.”
Essentially limited to their apartments, high-rise residents are coping with another health issue: isolation. Hudson said she has a sister who lives near the Dorchester, but they’ve decided not to see each other for two weeks because her sister is a flight attendant.
When Hudson has to use the elevator, she said, she brings a sanitary wipe and cleans the buttons.
She’s also found comfort in the people whose jobs require them to be in the Dorchester with her through the crisis. “The front desk person and door person have been their charming selves," she said, "and have been a calming influence, at least on me.”
Hudson hasn’t seen friends, though she has been FaceTiming from her third-floor apartment.