Q: What do I do if someone in my condo community tests positive or is self-isolating because they have symptoms of COVID-19? Is there a requirement for my landlord or building management to inform me?
This question is top of mind for many Torontonians – and pinned to the top of condo residents Facebook groups. Canadians are being instructed to practise safe physical distancing, but with so many people living in high-rises it’s all but impossible to stay completely distant from your neighbours.
Even if a community decides to close shared amenities, there are still common spaces everyone uses – hallways, elevators, mailboxes and garbage chutes.
So if someone in your building tests positive for the coronavirus, is management required to tell you? Not legally, no.
According to Toronto Public Health spokesperson and associate medical officer of health Dr. Vinita Dubey, living in the same building as someone with COVID-19 does not officially put you at risk. But contact tracing is a critical part of TPH’s response to the virus.
“When a positive COVID-19 case is confirmed in Toronto, we immediately begin an investigation to interview the person and determine where they may have gotten the infection and identify their close contacts. We follow up directly with the person’s close contacts to assess potential risk and provide further instructions, as needed,” she says in a statement to NOW.
That includes potentially asking close contacts to self-isolate for 14 days and call Telehealth Ontario, their local health care provider or health unit. But just living in the same community or building is not considered close contact, though COVID-19 has started to spread through community transmission.
“Since COVID-19 is not spread through the air, other residents in a building are not considered at risk if there is a case in a building,” she continues. “Only those who have close and prolonged contact with a case are considered at risk.”
TPH put together an Infection Prevention and Control fact sheet for property owners, managers, hotel management and cleaning/facilities staff for commercial and residential buildings. Recommendations include asking staff to regularly wash their hands and stay home if sick, wear gloves and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in common areas like light switches, door knobs and elevator buttons – above and beyond routine cleaning, twice per day and when visibly dirty. Officials also suggest providing hand sanitizer in common areas and for staff and avoiding the unit of anyone self-isolating (for repairs, showings, etc).
“We recognize that living in close proximity in a condo community can increase the risk of transmission,” says a spokesperson for the Condominium Authority of Ontario, which provides services, resources and training for condo owners, directors and residents.
The CAO encourages condo communities to take extra steps beyond what’s required, including closing amenities and shared facilities, postponing condo board meetings (or conducting them electronically) and regularly communicating with owners and residents.
Privacy is a factor that also has to be weighed, which can sometimes cause confusion. City bylaws require tenants to be properly notified about things like emergency contacts and service disruptions, but not a specific person’s health or well-being.
At CityPlace, a large master-planned downtown condo community and one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Toronto, residents of the four buildings known as Harbour View Estates were sent a notice that there was one confirmed case of COVID-19. The initial letter did not specify which building the person lived in, citing privacy advice given by the property management company, but was later amended to specify the address.
Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, agrees with TPH and the CAO that tenants deserve transparency in communication, but says the specifics aren’t the issue.
“The thing that people have to understand is: you shouldn’t worry if somebody in your building has this virus, because somebody in your building does have this virus,” says Dent. “Unless you’re living in a one-unit building, the nature of asymptomatic carriers means that someone’s probably got it and they don’t know and they could be spreading it around.”
For Dent, who represents the rights of tenants in the city, landlords should be acting as if someone in their building has the virus whether or not they actually test positive – especially considering the province is only testing so many people.
His association has received a variety of complaints from tenants about improper cleaning and unsafe behaviour by landlords, barring residents who have travelled from their units to closing shared laundry rooms and forcing people onto the subway and out into public laundromats. (The organization has put together a collection of resources for renters.)
In 2017, the city established RentSafeTO, a bylaw enforcement program to ensure safety and maintenance standards for tenants in buildings that are three or more storeys and 10 or more units. The program includes a bylaw requiring landlords to develop and implement a clear and direct cleaning plan and keep records of cleaning activity, including inspecting common areas daily for cleanliness.
A representative from the city says they’ve requested landlords and owners adopt new health and safety measures to respond to COVID-19, including: placing hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations at building entrances, posting signage limiting the number of people in common areas to retain two metres of distance between people and ensuring the building is equipped to handle essential deliveries.
RentSafe has been criticized by people like city councillor Josh Matlow for neglecting to audit the buildings registered in the program, which means cleaning plans have not been enforced at many condos and apartments. And, Dent says, that’s left them woefully unprepared for COVID-19.
“The city implementation of that has been a disaster,” he says. “I’m sad to say that, given the timing, unfortunately their failure on that has consequences.”
One thing you can do as a tenant is call or email your landlord, condo board or property manager and ask if they’re following TPH and RentSafeTO’s guidelines or if there is a specific plan for your building. And make sure you’re following the guidelines yourself: limit physical contact with other tenants, wash your hands for 20 seconds after touching any surface and self-isolate if you’ve been travelling or are exhibiting symptoms.
Some residents’ associations have even created ad-hoc volunteer boards to help out with groceries and other support for fellow tenants who might need it – elderly or immunocompromised people or even those in quarantine. We’re all in this together.
Resident Expert is a column about renting, buying and owning in the city. Send your queries to realestate (at) nowtoronto.com. NOW writers will talk to relevant experts to get the answers. Letter writers will remain anonymous. Read previous columns here.
This column is not legal advice. You should not act or rely on the information provided. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.