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Is someone coughing in 11F? Amid coronavirus, condo and apartment buildings have turned into towers of fear

Elevator buttons that might be contaminated. Neighbors breathing on you in the hallway. Even the laundry room doesn’t feel clean.

Julie Sullivan and Jeffrey Green photographed in the lobby of their apartment building.
Julie Sullivan and Jeffrey Green photographed in the lobby of their apartment building.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

It’s the e-mail that every condo dweller or apartment renter dreads. This particular one arrived on April 3, a day when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts barreled past 10,000.

“Dear Residents,” the letter to renters in one of the fancy Seaport buildings began, “Management was notified today that we have a confirmed case of COVID-19 at our community.”

Who? What floor? Did he or she take the elevator recently? Throw out their garbage? Linger in the lobby? Breathe?

Management wouldn’t tell.

The silence left at least one resident, a middle-aged businessman with a wife with a compromised immune system, even more afraid of the invisible threat.

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“If there’s one case there could be more,” he said, requesting anonymity, after forwarding the Globe the correspondence. “We all live so close to each other.”

With deaths mounting and public officials warning that things are going to grow worse, no one feels immune. But people who live in multi-unit buildings say their exposure and their anxiety is amplified: they don’t even feel safe in their own homes.

“You don’t have control over your neighbors,” said Rekha Purwaha, a publicist who lives in the South End. “God forbid your child opens the [building’s] front door with her hand.”

From triple-deckers to shared townhouses, Bostonians have long lived in close quarters. But the building boom has turned this town into a land of condo and apartment towers and trendy mid-rise residential developments. And now, in many buildings — even those with floor-to-ceiling windows — a siege mentality is setting in.

In luxury buildings, the amenity packages that attracted customers have transformed into such threats that they have been closed — gyms with waterfront views, airy work-from-home spaces, sky-top community kitchens for dinner parties on the roof. In small walk-ups, the staircase and entryway can feel like danger zones.

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“I wanted to live here precisely because it was a condo community,” said a single woman in her 60s from Brookline. “I didn’t want to live alone in a single-family house.”

But now even residents living across a narrow hall are alone. Or hope they are.

People are washing clothes in their bathtubs to avoid the laundry room. They are retrieving mail at 2 a.m. They are insisting that UberEats drivers drop their food with the doorman and go, and that dog walkers meet their charges in the lobby.

In Cambridge, Julie Sullivan, an executive assistant, asks other residents to stay out of the elevator when she’s riding, and she is trying to limit outings to once a day. “It’s a planning game of how many things on the to-do list we can piggyback together,” she said.

The pandemic has building management companies on a wartime footing. They are training authorized volunteer residents as back-ups in case the staff goes down with COVID-19 — they’re learning how to shut off the water, and where to direct firefighters or gas company workers in case of an emergency.

“This is so different than 9/11 — there is no end date,” said William D. DiSchino, president and CEO of Barkan Management Company.

In the South End, National Development is requiring visitors to its Ink Block apartment buildings to submit to screening. “Please answer honestly,” the questionnaire at the concierge desk begins. Have you traveled internationally? Coughed? Had contact with an infected person? “If you answered YES to any of the above,” it concludes, “please reschedule your visit when you are well.”

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Buildings are hiring sanitizing companies and removing outdoor furniture to prevent gatherings, and perhaps most intense of all, figuring out what to reveal — or not reveal — when a resident reports that they have tested positive for the virus.

“We’re getting that question all the time,” said condo attorney Richard Brooks, of Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, P.C., in Braintree.

For starters, he said, people cannot be required to self-report.

Despite many residents’ desires to know who, exactly, has the virus, Brooks’ firm is advising clients to tell the other condo owners that there is an infected person in the building, but not to identify the person unless he or she has requested, in writing, to be identified.

“Once the owners know about the infected person, the building can take action to sanitize and owners in the building can be more cautious,” he said.

“It may be violative of law as well as outrageous to give out at an owner’s personal information.”

Further, the common thinking is that revealing who is sick could be counter-productive as it could make residents who fall ill in the future less likely to report their diagnosis.

The challenge of dealing with a sick neighbor is happening in very real time in a converted mill building in Lowell, where one resident has been walking the property openly coughing, according to a condo trustee who requested anonymity.

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Alarmed neighbors have been told there’s nothing they can do about his behavior, making people feel even more nervous about leaving the confines of their small one-bedroom units, he said. “I wish we at least had balconies."


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.