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Common areas like elevators in small, shared living spaces can make social distancing difficult

zoff-photo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Gabrielle Peters lives in a 23-storey apartment building and uses an elevator to get to and from her apartment.

In recent weeks, she has tried to ensure she is alone for the ride.

A wheelchair user with an autoimmune disease, Ms. Peters has for years been mindful of the potential health risks of shared spaces. These days, she is even more concerned, as the number of novel coronavirus cases in Canada continues to climb and health authorities urge people to keep their distance from one another.

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“I am not sure how aware other tenants are,” Ms. Peters said in an interview this week, adding that she would like to see increased cleaning in the building and hand sanitizer at the elevators.

Along with millions of other Canadians who live in condo and apartment towers, Ms. Peters faces added challenges in reducing social contact and health risks. As cities have embraced more dense forms of housing, residents and building managers are grappling with questions of how to practise isolation in shared spaces.

“I am concerned that no one is looking at the impact of density in contained buildings," said Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C.

“The reality check is – if you live in a single-detached dwelling and someone tests positive for coronavirus, it’s pretty easy to isolate them. But if they are in a condo building – and using elevators and walkways and other things – does that increase the risk?”

On Monday, the CHOA posted bulletins on how to conduct meetings electronically and advised managers to increase cleaning and to sterilize surfaces such as elevator buttons “several times daily.”

This week, after Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in the province, the Association of Condominium Managers of Ontario posted several notices on its website, including a Toronto Public Health bulletin about infection prevention and bulletins urging condo corporations to consider closing public amenities and postponing AGMs.

At least one Vancouver property manager has asked building residents to notify their building manager if they have been identified as a presumptive or confirmed case of COVID-19.

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A March 12 memo to residents from Austeville Properties, posted on the company’s website, said such information would be kept on a “strictly confidential basis” and would allow the company to better support residents and visitors.

An Austeville manager did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A March 17 blog posting by law firm Gowling WLG advised Ontario condo corporations to “consider advising residents of known cases in the building without disclosing the identity of those involved,” saying that communicating general information would allow residents to take extra precautions.

Federal health guidelines on self-isolation include staying in a separate room and using a separate bathroom from others in the home, if possible, and keeping a two-metre distance.

Small, shared living spaces can make that difficult.

In such scenarios, people may adapt by eating meals at different times, cleaning common surfaces and wearing masks, said Yue Qian, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of sociology.

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People are using technology to shop for food and goods online and to communicate with friends and family, said Prof. Qian, who recently received federal research funding to look at the mental-health consequences of quarantine, and whose father has been under quarantine in Wuhan, China, since January.

Governments should pay attention to groups with special needs, including the elderly and people with disabilities, Prof. Qian said.

“The elderly may not be using technology and may not be that mobile in the first place – so how can their needs be met?”

Ms. Peters echoed those concerns.

She worries about the level of cleaning in common spaces, particularly elevators, and the potential risks of using shared laundry facilities.

She is also concerned about social isolation, adding that her building does not have the balconies that allowed residents in Italian cities to sing to one another in recent days.

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“If you’re up on the 34th floor, you’re not talking to anybody but the wind,” she said.

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