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How Massive Penn South Co-op Is Coping With a Massive Threat

Tom Soter in Building Operations on April 9, 2020

Chelsea, Manhattan

NORC, coronavirus pandemic, house rules, Penn South co-op board.

Manager Brendan Keany and the sprawling Penn South co-op in Chelsea.

April 9, 2020

Brendan Keany, the longtime general manager of the massive, 2,820-unit Penn South co-op in Chelsea, has faced major problems before. But it’s safe to say that he’s never encountered anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic. The property, with 5,000 residents in 15 high-rise buildings, is a NORC (a naturally occurring retirement community) with a significant senior population. “And that,” says Keany, “is a group that is particularly vulnerable to the disease. They are  a prime target.”

In preparing for the virus’s deadly onslaught, the co-op initially offered the basics. It sent out a newsletter explaining the looming challenges, installed hand-sanitizers by the ground-floor elevators, and stressed the importance of proper hand-washing. On March 9, Keany met with the board’s operations committee and explained the importance of “desocialization,” or social distancing. On March 16, the board announced that it would be following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health. That meant closing club rooms and playgrounds, cancelling non-essential events and classes, and eventually forbidding residents from sitting in the lobby. This was six days before New York State’s stay-at-home order went into effect. The Penn South co-op board was ahead of the curve, a critical factor in slowing and containing the spread of the virus.

The co-op compiled a list of residents with special needs who are home-bound or physically challenged, in case of an emergency. The co-op also prepared another list of cooperators who are self-quarantined, based either on untested symptoms or doctors’ orders, as well as those who are simply staying home out of caution. The board provided a list of restaurants and grocery stores that deliver.

But some deliveries – of new couches, for instance – were banned. Exceptions have been made for essential deliveries, such as hospital beds, medical supplies, refrigerators or stoves. The co-op also prioritized maintenance tasks in case it has to operate short-staffed; reorganized building cleaning priorities to focus on sanitizing; adjusted sick-leave policy; changed from a five-day, eight-hour work week to a four-day, ten-hour work week; and closed the management office, allowing some staff members to work from home.

Non-essential building repairs have been deferred. Floods, bad leaks, or major electrical problems are considered essential; replacing light fixtures is not. “This measure allows maintenance workers to focus on increased sanitizing of our common areas,” explains Keany. It also limits personal interactions that might speed the spread of the virus.

The board has yet to deal with the problems of residents who are unable to pay their monthly maintenance, although the co-op did waive late fees for April and May. “We’ll be talking about this soon,” says Keany. 

He notes that the board is trying to offer common sense solutions, while realizing the limitations it faces. “It's difficult enough to keep the recommended six or more feet of distance from others on sidewalks and in stores,” says Keany. “In elevators, it's impossible. People can be infected with the coronavirus and not realize it for days – or at all – so simply feeling OK doesn't mean that you are not transmitting the virus.”

Residents are warned to ride in the elevators alone, or only with the other people living in their unit. “If you're going out,” advises Keany, “take a squirt of hand-sanitizer in the building lobby as you leave, and scrub the sanitizer on your hands thoroughly. If you're coming home, wash your hands with soap and water for a count of 20 as soon as you come through your front door.”

Attention to such small details could be essential to survival for the residents of this massive co-op – and for people all over the world.

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