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What’s Next: Multi-Unit Buildings are Giant Petri Dishes

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Centers for Disease Control updated guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19 by suggesting multi-unit buildings such as apartments and condominium buildings:

“Clean and disinfect shared areas (laundry facilities, elevators, shared kitchens, exercise rooms, dining rooms) and frequently touched surfaces (e.g. tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, phones, tablets, touch screens, remote controls, keyboards, handles, desks, toilets, sinks) using EPA-registered disinfectants more than once a day if possible.” April 25, 2020.

Two-thirds of Arlington households are in multi-unit buildings. From anecdotal feedback, buildings ranging from luxury to affordable have done almost nothing to change their normal cleaning habits unless a COVID-19 case has been identified.

“Every day when I go down the elevator to walk my dog, I am in a gigantic petri dish,” one person told me. “I am in an enclosed space, touching hundreds of people’s germs on buttons and door handles. We are in a viral pandemic and our building has still not changed our once a week cleaning schedule”.

As Northern Virginia plans to reopen in the next few weeks, we will collectively increase our chances of germ spreading. Part of Arlington and Northern Virginia’s path for reopening should include CDC recommendations for multi-unit building cleaning and disinfecting as a part of their plan.

Arlington County has already done an impressive job collecting information about building managers for their effort to inform landlords about courts being closed for evictions and renters’ rights during COVID-19. This contact information data can and should be used in a proactive effort to remind buildings about CDC recommendations to clean multi-unit building high-touch spaces multiple times a day. This seems like a little, easy, accomplishment that we should be able to get done and might be able to save lives upon our reopening.

Contrary to public belief, people of all ages live in multi-unit buildings. With the knowledge that a significant amount of virus carriers are asymptomatic, we should not be waiting for residents to proactively tell management that they are sick to trigger regular cleaning of common spaces. Extraordinary measures that the CDC has laid out in their guidance should be taken when you have over 1,000 people living in one building sharing the same front door.

Between dog care, groceries, and taking a mental health break, it is inevitable that people will need to go outside. It is in the interest of public health for the majority of Arlingtonians that live in multi-unit buildings to have a safe home to walk in and out of. I hope the Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development can work with the communications and public engagement team to get the word out to apartment and condominium management about updated CDC guidelines for disinfecting as part of our reopening plan.

Resources if you are in need of assistance:

Do not feel ashamed to ask for help.

If you are in need of assistance for rent, food security, help filing for Medicaid or unemployment benefits go to this website: Department of Human Services Assistance, call 703-228-1350, or if necessary visit 2100 Washington Blvd in Arlington. Someone will work with you to get the help you need.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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