Bimal, a 54-year-old Nepali immigrant in Queens, recently tested positive for the new coronavirus that continues to run rampant through NYC and beyond, with nearly 100,000 cases confirmed statewide as of Thursday. Over 16,000 of those known cases are located in Queens.
With few symptoms other than some initial body-ache, Elmhurst Hospital told Bimal to stay home and quarantine for a few weeks.
The problem is that home, in his case, is a one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife and two daughters. This has resulted in a difficult arrangement: he stays in the bedroom all day and night while the rest of his family stays in the living room.
All four of them, however, have to share the single bathroom.
“And when I use the bathroom for one minute,” he said, “I have to clean the bathroom for ten minutes.”
He’s been liberally using Clorox and wipes and lots of cleaning fluid, all of which were dropped off at his apartment by concerned friends, but worries about the health of his family. Situations like Bimal’s are playing out across the city, because so many New Yorkers share bedrooms and bathrooms in small apartments.
According to a 2015 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, some 1.5 million New Yorkers, or 17 percent of the city’s population, live in officially ‘crowded’ conditions. (“Crowded” is defined as a home where there are more people than rooms, including the kitchen.)
Sometimes, roommates aren’t even family members. Until recently, Karuna and her husband were sharing a 2-bedroom apartment with a man who appeared to be getting sick a couple weeks ago. (Neither Karuna nor Bimal wanted their last names used because of the possible repercussions of making their situations public.)
“The entire time I kept checking in with him, because I was scared that he might be sick, and he said he was okay,” she said through an interpreter.
Karuna wasn’t reassured, and at night, she and her husband locked their bedroom door. Then the roommate was hospitalized, for what exactly she’s still not sure.
Karuna and her husband have since moved into a hotel so they won’t be at home when their roommate returns from the hospital. Their hotel room is being paid for with help from Adhikaar, an advocacy group that supports Nepali New Yorkers.
“Folks [who have the virus] are going back home,” said Pabitra Benjamin, the executive director of Adhikaar, “and then, other people that are even in high-risk categories like those with diabetes or elderly, are getting exposed to COVID-19 because there may not be a room for them to quarantine or they need to use the bathroom or the kitchen.”
Benjamin expressed frustration at what she saw as the slow pace of establishing a system to house infected New Yorkers separately from their roommates, especially given the crowded conditions in immigrant communities.
City health officials have attempted to address the crowding issues during the pandemic by housing health workers in hotel rooms. City Councilmember Stephen Levin says the city needs to get involved for people in similar situations, because the need is considerable.
“In terms of scale, we should be acquiring thousands of hotel rooms. Maybe even tens of thousands of hotel rooms,” said Levin, who heads the Council’s Committee on General Welfare.
Levin estimates that an initiative of this sort could cost many millions of dollars, at a time when the city’s revenues are falling off a cliff. On the other hand, the city’s hotels could clearly use the business.
Listen to reporter Arun Venugopal’s radio story for WNYC:
Fellow Councilmember Mark Levine has echoed those sentiments. On Thursday, he tweeted, “let’s make use of the massive # of vacant hotel rooms in NYC–at least 80k!”
Levine, who is head of the Council’s Committee on Health, argues the empty rooms can be used to house people who have contracted the virus, an approach that city health officials are considering.
“In addition to the healthcare workers, we’re working to make hotel rooms available to individuals who are symptomatic and require isolation that may not require intense medical care,” wrote Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Such an approach would parallel one that is being used for homeless New Yorkers, being administered by the Department of Homeless Services.
However, according to city officials, people like Karuna who don’t have the virus but are living with someone who does would not necessarily qualify for a hotel room.
Karuna is grateful that she and her husband have a place of their own for now. However, both of them have medical conditions and accessing their regular prescriptions from their hotel room hasn’t been easy. “The separation is good,” she said, “but it still has its challenges.”