One of the challenges for many people, especially those of us living in urban environments, is how to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic in a building of multiple units.
I live in a large building with approximately 130 units in the middle of Logan Square. Our lobby, barren as it is, has a bank of mailboxes. In and out of the lobby come delivery people daily: USPS, UPS, restaurant and grocery delivery, etc., as well as the 80-100 or so people who live here. One door faces one very busy street while the other door faces another even busier street. Just from this description, you can see that this building is at the corner of two very congested intersections and there is easy exposure to a rather large segment of population in our neighborhood.
Since the pandemic, the crush of humanity and the closeness of city dwelling has become engulfing. The real problem that all of us face during the pandemic, while living in close proximity to one another, is the dangerous effect of COVID-19 and how we can stay healthy. The necessity of the mask wearing is vital. As people breathe, talk, laugh, sing or cough they expel spores into the air which can linger for hours and sometimes days. In enclosed spaces it is especially dangerous. The spores can enter into one’s system through any open orifice including eyes, ears, nose, mouth; even a cut or sore.
The shocking thing is that mask-wearing has now moved from the realm of an incredibly crucial and mandatory way to protect not only yourself and everyone else around you, to a political-social-cultural battleground where people are suddenly belligerent and angry about “having to wear a mask” or doing something that other people are asking them to do “against their will.” The compelling and life-saving logic of medicine and science have gone out the window and has been replaced with an escalated fight between an erroneous definition of “free will” against doing the right thing to save lives. People are constructing the necessity for mask-wearing as a feeling of interruption of their personal space, as something they “owe” to others against their will, which seems to bring about bitterness and misconstruction, rather than the recognition of our mutual cooperation as a society and the need to participate in new modes of behavior, like mask-wearing, that will ultimately save lives.
My youngest daughter is a neuro-critical care attending physician for Advocate Health here. We had a discussion recently about mask-wearing and she shared insights worth passing along. She exhorted those of us who are compliant with CDC guidelines not to be “reactionary,” that we need to avoid engaging with people who refuse to wear masks as it can end up in a conflict that cannot be resolved. Her advice was to keep calm and avoid them as much as possible. In many multi-unit buildings this is hard to do, especially as we need to keep the six-foot distance as much as possible. This is practically impossible in the hallways unless you both wear a mask and a face shield and then hang back until people pass.
In addition, here’s the kicker: my mask does not protect me as much as it protects you. It seems this concept is difficult for many Americans to grasp. It requires that one consider the well-being of others just as much or more than oneself. Doctors warn that confronting non- mask wearers, what some of us are now calling “maskholes,” (with some gallows humor), can end very badly.
To quote my daughter: “People are very aggressive about mask opinions. We have entire articles published in medical journals advising doctors how to have these conversations. It’s similar to hostage negotiations. It is tricky to do right. It takes a great deal of calm to get it right and even then, it can turn badly. People respond poorly to being told what to do and they also do not respond to shaming. They perceive the shaming is inherent in the request to wear a mask! To them, the request implies judgement. You cannot convince people who feel judged.”
How Can We All Stay Safe in Our Multi-Unit Buildings?
We will have to adjust to a new normal and navigate our lives with this Virus as part of the daily equation. Eventually, herd immunity will develop, but for that to happen many, many more people will die. This is a world-changing, life-altering event from which our global society will emerge completely transformed.
I sent a series of six or seven emails to the office of our landlord hoping to get through to the office the urgency of making sure we are all staying safe. I suggested that an outbreak in a building of this size would be a catastrophe and would have serious ramifications for both residents and the landlord. Each email was met with a rather condescending tone from the office manager, telling me there was “nothing they could do,” they could not mandate mask-wearing or anything else and exhorting me to try to stay safe as much as possible.
I kept trying. Email after email from March until May, when it was obvious to everyone in the world that this virus was serious, it was killing people and it was not going away soon. At that point, around late May, our landlord posted copies of the CDC guidelines next to the elevator on each floor and above the mailboxes in the lobby.
I noticed a few more people wearing masks, quite a few tenants moving out, and still a lot of people and traffic coming in and out without masks. I kept trying to remind people that as the oldest resident in the building I needed them to consider my safety. This did nothing for the residents I have spoken with and continue to speak with — they are adamant that it is their “freedom” to choose not to wear a mask.
Landlords around our city are more concerned with making sure people pay their rent than they are with whether they live to pay it. [On Aug. 20, Gov. Pritzker extended Illinois’ ban on evictions for another month and will now expire Sept. 22.] Why is it incumbent upon a 71-year-old writer living alone in a big city to continually campaign for people to do a very simple thing that will save many, many lives, including, perhaps their own?
The landlords of Chicago need to take into consideration the safety, security and health of residents who pay rent in their buildings with gentle but persistent encouragement. I should not have to confront people about my safety when they refuse to wear a mask. Our landlords, our business owners and our elected officials should aid everyone in this endeavor. If we are “all in this together,” then we need to see that multi-unit buildings are on the front lines of mitigation.
How to Stay Protected and Respect Your Elderly Neighbors
In the meantime, I recommend tenants in large buildings do the following and think about their elderly neighbors
1. Wear a mask at all times: every time you walk outside your apartment or door to the hallway, and of course always wear a mask covering both your nose and mouth whenever you are outside.
2. I recommend a face shield to give added protection, especially against “mask holes” in and around your dwelling. Shields are easy to find — eBay, Etsy and many other places have affordable shields. I wear mine whenever I must travel by bus or even Lyft, when I go inside a grocery store or Walgreens or any other public shopping place.
3. Write, email, call your landlord and let them know you are a concerned citizen and tenant and your safety is essential. Encourage them to send letters/emails to tenants letting them know that the owners of the building expect them to wear masks so that all can stay safe
4. Do not confront a maskhole. They will ramp up the engagement in a hostile way. Avoid them, steer clear and make sure to leave plenty of space between you and them, if possible.
5. Do not share an elevator with anyone if possible. If you must share, avoid elevators with non-mask wearers. Wait for the next elevator; it’s only a few more minutes. In addition, do not walk up and down stairs near people without masks.
6. Encourage delivery people to wear their mask when delivering to you.
Ultimately, the sad news is that many more hundreds of thousands of people will die. Globally, it could reach the millions. The CDC reported over 5 million cases since the start of the pandemic, including over 180,000 deaths. Illinois is seeing a surge in cases, even though less people are dying, according to top city health officials.
We need to do our part to the best of our ability, but it begins with landlords in large urban environments to acknowledge, recognize and act on a new turn of events. This is not business as usual. Landlords need to step up and enforce protection.