Social distancing is important. But what if you live in an apartment tower with shared spaces?

It's good news that the B.C. government wants to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 crisis with economic support for renters, but those in multi-family residences also have other worries — namely, the lack of safety standards in their buildings.

While new measures announced by the province on Wednesday allow landlords to restrict access to common areas, this is not mandatory, but at individual landlord's discretion. In a high-density city like Vancouver, this feels like too little, too late. 

How do residents of the 58 per cent of dwellings in Vancouver that are apartments "self-isolate" when they have shared spaces such as laundry rooms, elevators, stairwells and lobbies to contend with?

For those living in detached houses, self-isolation is much easier than for those in towers, and yet according to the 2016 census, 33.5 per cent of Canadians live in multi-family dwellings. In Toronto's census metropolitan area, nearly three in 10 dwellings are in highrise apartment buildings, and in Vancouver towers make up 16.7 percent of housing.

Alarming lack of protocols

In my own rental apartment tower in Kitsilano, a neighbour in her 60s informed me by email that she was returning from two months in California and would self-isolate across the hall from me.

While I was grateful for my neighbour's disclosure, I was alarmed at the lack of protocols on multi-family residences from my landlord, the Residential Tenancy Board or Vancouver Coastal Health. I live in an old building with shared facilities, such as heating and ventilation, and many aging and vulnerable tenants.

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The only reason I know my neighbour is returning from the U.S. is because she informed me, but I have no idea how many other tenants in my building are also returning from abroad and if they are voluntarily self-isolating. I have no idea if anyone in my building has tested positive or what the protocol would be if they did.

Our landlord has only very recently put up posters in common areas with some basic advice, suggesting social distancing and "limited time spent in the laundry room."

No additional cleaning protocols are in evidence and visitors — overnight and otherwise — are allowed, as are visits by maintenance staff who work in dozens of other buildings, and couriers and postal workers who deliver to individual suites.

Virus breeding grounds

In many places battling COVID-19, apartment towers can become potential breeding grounds for community spread if proper protocols are not followed.

In Hong Kong last month, for instance, officials quarantined dozens of residents living in an apartment tower where a woman who lived 10 floors below a resident with the virus also tested positive and was found to have an unsealed ventilation pipe in her apartment.  

Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in the New York Times that buildings of all kinds "are highly efficient at spreading disease," but proper ventilation, filtration, diligent cleaning of common areas and adequate levels of humidity can help mitigate community spread. 

In New York City, the health department is developing more extensive guidance for property owners and managers, and advising them to clean more often and use disinfectant products.

In Canada, this doesn't seem to be a priority.

CBC/Paul Borkwood

When I rang my landlord for more information after the province's announcement, he said they were waiting on a directive from the Residential Tenancy Branch, but told me that they could not reveal if there were any tenants in buildings who had COVID-19 or who had recently returned from abroad or whether they were self-quarantining, because of privacy concerns. 

Moreover, in cities like Vancouver and Toronto with sky-high real estate prices and low vacancy rates, many people are forced into "co-housing" situations that make self-isolation virtually impossible.

Roommate drama

On a popular Facebook group called COVID-19 Coming Together (Vancouver), a young woman sharing a condo with eight others asked whether it was still OK to have friends and lovers stay overnight during the pandemic.

Another plea came from a woman whose roommate was returning from a band tour in the U.S. and refused to practise basic self-isolation protocol. The two share a bathroom and kitchen in a small basement apartment in a complex.

The issue also affects condo owners who rub elbows, as it were, in lobbies, elevators and even gyms (an alarming number remain open, even as public ones close.)

Current public health guidelines around COVID-19 would seem out of step with Canada's new urban, high-density reality. 

If all levels of government continue to make protocols to mitigate community spread in multi-family residences a low priority, leave it in the hands of landlords or simply pass the buck, they do so at our increasing peril.