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What Should My Building Be Doing to Prevent Coronavirus?

[This article is part of the developing coronavirus coverage, and may be outdated. Go here for the latest on the coronavirus.]

Q: I live in a large Manhattan apartment building and I’m increasingly worried about the risk of contracting coronavirus in the lobby and other common areas. What should my building be doing to keep residents safe?

A: With a rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the New York City area, and about 100,000 worldwide, people are understandably anxious about how to protect the spaces they move in, be they subways, office cubicles or apartment buildings.

Coronavirus guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “are based on evidence that the virus is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets — the large, sometimes visible droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes,” Joseph G. Allen, the director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in The Times on Wednesday. “Thus the recommendation to cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands, clean surfaces and maintain social distancing.”

While he noted that buildings of all kinds “are highly efficient at spreading disease,” city officials currently see common areas, like lobbies and hallways, as low-risk areas because you’re rarely in close contact for a prolonged period with your neighbors there. There’s a better chance of contracting the virus from a co-worker who sits three feet away, or a family member or roommate.

Earlier this week, the New York City health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, described the risk in building common areas as “casual, at best,” adding that evidence suggests that the virus is not transmitted through ventilation systems. “This is not an illness that can be easily spread through casual contact,” Ms. Barbot said.

However, the New York City Department of Health is developing more extensive guidance for property owners and managers, according to spokesman Patrick Gallahue, and advising building owners to clean more often and use disinfectant cleaning products.

FirstService Residential New York, which manages 550 co-op, condo and rental buildings in the city, sent residents a letter advising them to take basic precautions, but it has not yet made changes to day-to-day operations in its properties, which house 225,000 New Yorkers.

“It’s business as usual,” said Dan Wurtzel, president of FirstService Residential New York, adding that his company has not received any directives from city, state or federal agencies. “The last thing that we want to do is start to give advice when this is definitely not in our wheelhouse.”

Buildings can and should take steps to limit the possibility of transmission, not to mention make their residents and staff feel safer. They should be cleaning and disinfecting high-traffic surfaces like front-door handles and elevator buttons, as well as common rooms, like gyms and laundry rooms. They can also station hand-sanitizer around the building, which could be particularly useful with supplies running low in stores. They could also post signs encouraging residents to be vigilant about keeping their homes disinfected and to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze and to wash their hands frequently.

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