Apartment isolation: What your body corporate should be doing for you
The MoH’s guidelines to minimise the spread of Covid in residential buildings.
Living on the city’s doorstep was oh-so-convenient until Omicron reared its ugly head. Now it’s like watching the Titanic heading towards the iceberg.
I live in an apartment building made up of 94 units in the middle of Wellington city. My front door opens into a shared hallway and judging, from the amount of laundry powder, weed and/or burnt popcorn I can smell, it’s fair to say that one of the hallway’s special features is recycled air.
In a stand-alone house, you have a good idea of who enters and, if you so choose, their vaccination status. Whereas in an apartment building, it’s a total free-for-all.
I pass many a neighbour in the halls, and I can count the number I’ve seen wearing a mask on one hand.
Exhibit A: popcorn-burning neighbour. Let’s call him Joe. When both our balcony doors are open, Joe’s voice drifts into my apartment. On one such occasion, I could hear him talking on the phone, sharing the news that he’d tested positive for Covid. Uh oh, poor Joe.
The week this news drifted into my apartment, I happened to be working from home. My colleagues could hear Joe coughing in the background of every Zoom meeting (thin walls). It also means I could hear every single time Joe’s creaky front door opened as he left his apartment.
Passing Joe in the stairwell one day confirmed my suspicion: Covid-positive Joe does not wear a mask. On this occasion, I witnessed three other maskless people pass him in that stairwell.
Yes, we’ve gone through two years of an international pandemic already and Joe (along with everyone else) should really know better. But the blame can’t fully be put on him, when our building’s body corporate committee has offered no advice, guidance or mere suggestions about Covid safety.
It took me eight emails (and a lot of willpower to ignore the passive-aggressive ignorance and deflective behaviour, such as "we’re not a hotel, we can’t police people" to "what exactly do you expect us to do here!?") going back and forth with the building’s body corporate. And that was just to get them to print a single piece of A4 paper with a light "encouragement" of mask-wearing to stick on the wall in the shared entrance space.
It's no surprise, then, that many of the building residents appear to have absolutely no concept of the MoH guidance. And it’s not just my building. I spoke with several apartment residents in the Wellington region, all of whom were unaware of the government advice.
The Ministry of Health released the guidance in November 2021 and updated it in February. But it's not just for the residents; it’s also for bodies corporate to ensure adequate health and safety measures in the shared spaces, which are their responsibility.
So what’s the deal?
Apartment isolation – the dos and don’ts
If you test positive or are a household contact, you are not allowed to leave your apartment for any reason other than an emergency. Essentially, you’re supposed to seal yourself inside your apartment and not leave for seven days.
No, you can’t leave your apartment to pick up Uber Eats
Self-isolation means exactly that: isolation. You are not allowed to use shared spaces such as the stairwell, elevator or foyer unless in an emergency, as these are high-risk spaces due to poor ventilation.
You must rely on friends or family to drop off any supplies you may need, though they’ll have to leave these outside your door. You can only open your door to collect them when the hallway is empty and you’re masked. You must close the door again as soon as possible.
No, you can’t take your trash out
You can seal yourself inside your apartment and not leave for seven days. That’s it. That’s what you can do.
You need to ask someone else to remove your rubbish (wearing gloves and a mask), which must be left double-bagged outside your door when the hallway is empty.
So, how the heck are you meant to survive in an apartment?
Yes, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect someone who lives alone to be locking themselves away with a growing pile of smelly trash and dwindling food supply.
Not everyone has friendly neighbours or a contact close by with a spare key who can pop around to (safely, wearing gloves and a mask) empty your trash and drop off fresh food or medical supplies.
Emma, 25, lives alone in a studio apartment in central Wellington. She says it could be difficult to isolate.
“I had an idea of what to do if I need to self-isolate, but after seeing the guidance (from Ministry of Health) I didn’t realise how strict it is. I hadn’t thought as far as someone else having to remove my trash while wearing gloves and a mask.”
Emma says her building received very little guidance from the building manager and body corporate committee.
“I think the body corporate could definitely offer more support,” Emma said. “My building has a lot of studio apartments, so they must be aware that there are a lot of people living alone here. An individual resident can only do so much if they get really ill.”
Back when the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, Emma started a Facebook group for her building as a way for residents to be able to stay in touch and help each other out (like a virtual noticeboard).
“I was concerned about myself and others who would be alone in such an isolating time,” said Emma.
David, 49, is an apartment owner and resident in the same building as Emma. He’s also on the body corporate committee. David says that each building has its unique problems for residents, but most bodies corporate would have no idea of what it’s like to actually live there, and the challenges within each building.
“Residents need support … my apartment building was simply not designed for people and families to live in.”
David said most owners are investors and don’t occupy the apartments themselves, so there’s no incentive to create a home.
“For instance, we don't have an intercom or a way to let people in the building; it wasn’t thought about when the place was built. But if we’re quarantining, we can't go downstairs and let our food delivery person in. Someone else will need to do it for us … and we don't have room in our apartments to hoard all we need for an extended lockdown.”
Has his committee done enough for residents’ safety?
“Honestly, we have done nothing … but then there is no responsibility. Is it the building manager, is it the apartment owner, is it the body corporate? No one knows and each wants to give the responsibility to the other, as none have a real vested interest in the actual residents who have to live with the problem.”
Extra steps encouraged by the MoH and WHO
Fresh or purified air = take whatever you can get
If you’ve got windows, open them!
Open windows and doors on opposite sides of a room to create a cross-breeze for better ventilation. If creating a cross-breeze is not possible, you can place a fan in front of an open window to increase air flow and push indoor air outside.
My current dwelling has no opening windows, only a balcony door that opens. However, as I am surrounded by neighbours that love a good smoke, this door usually remains firmly shut while my asthmatic lungs gasp for air like a fish out of water, baking inside the hotbox that is my residence.
If you’re in an enclosed space with poor ventilation (which, let’s be honest, describes half the apartments in Wellington), the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests using an air purifier. You can find our guide on how to choose an air purifier here..
Air purifiers come in a range of prices, the key is to look for one that is rated MERV 13 or has a HEPA filter. A HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing) filter has the ability to reduce the concentration of airborne bacteria and viruses, which can help remove some (but not all) traces of Covid particles from the air.
Place a rolled towel under the door
Judging from the interesting smells that seep in under my front door, I know that secondhand air is leaking into my living space regularly. Rolling up a towel and placing it under the door is an easy, inexpensive way to seal the gap and provide peace of mind should you or others on your floor be Covid-positive.
Other steps you can take
- Have a plan.
- Be stocked up on any medication you may need.
- Have your NHI number and emergency contacts written down.
- Check your food supply. Do you have enough to last you seven days?
- Buy extra rubbish bags. If you test positive, you’ll need to start double-bagging your rubbish.
- Do you have a contact person? If possible, you should arrange for a contact to have a spare key and be able to deliver any food and supplies to your door.
MoH guidelines for Bodies Corporate
The MoH guidance framework was formed with the difficulties of apartment living in mind. Not only are bodies corporate strongly advised to implement strategies to minimise risk, but a main feature of the guidance is the recommendation that a Covid-19 contact be appointed for each building. Should you inform them you’re positive and have no other means of getting supplies, they can check in on you and offer help, such as making sure you have the essentials to complete your seven-day isolation. This helps to minimise the risk of spreading the virus throughout the building.
Tim Jones is the national president of the Body Corporate Chairs' Group (BCCG), which represents and provides support to committees of unit owners within multi-unit buildings or complexes. He contributed to the MoH guidance document, and says that this is a health and safety problem.
“You don't want random people coming into the building to deliver food or medicine or provide help or assistance if you’ve got Covid-positive cases isolating. If that’s happening, the building’s security is compromised.”
Many body corporate committees claim it’s up to ‘individual responsibility’ but the MoH guidelines to committees begs to differ. For example, it advises:
- Using signs to encourage one-metre physical distancing in foyers, waiting areas, lifts and stairwells.
- Limiting the lift to one person at a time.
- Instructing residents to avoid using the lifts or stairwells if they are isolating.
- Strongly encouraging mask use.
After two years of a pandemic, it’s pretty self-explanatory, right? Apparently not.
Jones points out the loophole that negligent bodies corporate and property managers have been using to get out of implementing any action: the guidelines are simply that – guidelines. The rules are not mandatory. However, if they don’t take notice of them, Jones believes bodies corporate are technically in breach of their health and safety rules, which are legally required.
“The committee has a responsibility to its owners on a health and safety level,” he said. “If the committee is not prepared to take steps to set down some guidelines or rules about the matter, within the confines of the building in the common area, which is its responsibility, then it's not doing its job properly and it's irresponsible.”
As for my Covid-positive yet maskless neighbour Joe, Jones said that’s clearly in violation of the guidelines and shouldn’t be allowed. Even if an individual is mask exempt, if they’ve tested positive they need to be isolating inside their apartment not walking around the building.
“The body corporate should really have signs all over the place about mask wearing. Everybody who walks around a building in the common areas should be wearing a mask.”
It is up to each body corporate to make its own rules about mask wearing. But given that experts the world over are saying how important it is to stop the spread of the virus, many body corporate committees are still leaning in that direction.
Hold your body corporate accountable
Being a renter can feel like you don’t have a voice. But at the end of the day, you pay to live in your apartment and have the right to feel safe there.
Jones has a message for apartment owners: “Owners and body corporate committees need to make sure the building is well maintained as they get their income from the tenants, and that depends on tenants being satisfied with the building.”
Body corporate systems are, in fact, democratic organisations. It’s up to apartment owners to band together and say to the body corporate committee: “We are not happy with this and we believe you’re in breach of your duty not to be adopting some of these guidelines to keep us all safe,” said Jones.
“Owners should really understand that they have the ability to disassemble the committee, kick people off, and get on a whole new lot, if it’s not doing the job properly,” he said.
“The next time that the body corporate has a general meeting, if they feel that things are not being maintained properly, owners should be putting any issues forward that the committee then has to resolve.”
If you’re a tenant going through a property manager, request that they pass your concerns on to the owner, as it’s the owner’s responsibility to take up issues with the body corporate committee.
If you feel there’s no progress, put pressure on your landlord or property manager to press the issue with body corporate. You’ll likely get pushback. If your attempts seem futile, maybe send them this article.