New York City's packed condos present specific risk with regards to coronavirus
Yoly Sanchez and her large family in her small Washington Heights apartment.(Yoly Sanchez)
The cleaning is constant and the fear never-ending for Yoly Sanchez and her family of 11.
When Sanchez’s brother-in-law became the first confirmed coronavirus case in her packed two-bedroom Washington Heights apartment, their lives changed immediately and dramatically.
“We couldn’t really quarantine,” Sanchez, 46, told the Daily News. “All of us were together and using the same space so we could have all given it to one another.”
In New York City, where many living situations are multi-generational and translate into a crowded home, many renters are struggling with how to quarantine and keep family members safe in conditions that are not conducive to either.
Sanchez’s situation is especially extreme because her sister’s family of four is staying with her, her husband, their three children, an aunt and a niece.
Her sister’s family came to New York from the Dominican Republic to look for an apartment. But those plans didn’t materialize.
Her brother-in-law Santiago Gomez fell ill and later tested positive for COVID-19. His family could not return home because of new travel restrictions.
He’s now in the hospital, and the family remains packed in Sanchez’s apartment struggling to enforce a quarantine on themselves with little success.
Soon, Sanchez got sick. Then her nephew. And her aunt. And her son.
Two people sleep to a bed. The men are packed into the living room and sleep either on a futon or an inflatable bed.
Going to the apartment’s one bathroom meant using Clorox and alcohol to disinfect after each trip.
“I had to text or call to let everyone know I was coming out (of my room), and they would close all room doors," Sanchez said. "When I had my fever, which lasted for around 10 days, we had to do a constant cleaning after each bathroom use either by me my aunt or sister.”
Living arrangements like this, common for many New Yorkers, are why Mayor de Blasio announced Thursday that the city would be readying 11,000 hotel rooms for people living in packed apartments to have a better chance of effectively quarantining.
Elected officials like Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Washington Heights) said the city needs to do much more if it wants to effectively slow the spread of the virus.
“There are 100,000 empty rooms in the hotels,” Rodriguez said. “The governor and the mayor have to understand that to do self quarantine in our city is the privilege of the wealthy, which we also have to provide to the poorest New Yorkers.”
Dr. Ramon Tallaj, chairman of SOMOS Community Care, a healthcare provider, told The News he pleaded with de Blasio for a month to address the issue. “We were fighting, asking, working, pushing,” he said.
The requests took weeks to gain traction. Tallaj said when he was finally able to broach the subject with de Blasio’s deputy mayor for health, Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, he was told that enacting such a plan would make people nervous.
Tallaj suggested that based on current rates of infection, considerably more beds will be needed to safely quarantine people and more antibody tests are necessary to safely send people back to work.
It would be unwise, he said, to release people from quarantine without test results that show immunity.
“I’ve been crying for this,” he said.
In an April 9 letter sent to Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, Rodriguez suggested the city could use Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center and the Armory in Washington Heights to help quarantine people.
The issue has hit close to home for him. One of Rodriguez’s aides, Pascual Pena, is living through it.
When his mother and father started to show symptoms of coronavirus in their packed four bedroom Washington Heights apartment, it wasn’t long until almost everyone else living with Pena — eight people in all — began to come down with the fearsome malady.
After his parents got sick, Pena’s sister, his two uncles and his uncle’s wife started to display symptoms. The only ones spared were Pena and his little cousin.
“That was the luckiest thing,” Pena remarked. “I didn’t show any symptoms. I was fine. Probably I was a carrier.”
He was the only one left in the family home who could go outside to procure medicine and food for his loved ones. When he goes outside, he wears gloves and a mask.
It isn’t just big families struggling to quarantine at home, either. Dorcas Janet Alvarez, 36, lives in a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx. She shares one bedroom with her two sons and rents the second to to a 37-year-old man to pay her bills.
“He was still going out without a mask and seeing friends, and I told him, we aren’t going out because this is a small space,” she said. “We have one bathroom, and he doesn’t clean it. So if he gets sick, we are all in trouble because we have to use that bathroom.”