No Shelter (for Doctors) in the COVID Storm

“On the one hand, we are heroes, and on the other hand, we are shunned.”

Park Avenue, home to many co-ops. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Park Avenue, home to many co-ops. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

When Dini von Mueffling, who owns a public relations company, and her husband Ted Sann, former chief creative officer at ad giant BBDO North America, left the city for the country — “We came for the weekend and never went back,” von Mueffling says — she wanted to let her friend, Dr. Gail Roboz, stay in their empty co-op apartment on East 73rd Street. Roboz heads the leukemia program at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, has treated Nora Ephron and Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, and sometimes is on TV as a medical expert. Roboz knew that she would be exposed to the coronavirus on hospital rounds, and since she lives not just with her husband and two daughters but also with her elderly father-in-law, who is immunocompromised and in cognitive decline, giving herself a little social distance seemed prudent. Meanwhile, since most of von Mueffling’s neighbors in her building had also fled the city, “There’s almost no one there,” von Mueffling says. So lending her friend the apartment seemed obvious.

But von Mueffling’s co-op board forbade it, enforcing a new, strict no-visitors rule enacted during the pandemic, and then refusing to make an exception in Roboz’s case. It’s an ongoing conflict in the city right now between the people who own or manage apartment buildings, who are trying to maintain the safety of their residents and employees, and the shifting housing needs of people. Unlike rental buildings, which are governed by fair housing laws and other regulations (which already have limited some attempts to keep non-residents out), the city’s co-op boards have wide latitude in setting and changing rules for who can stay there. Von Mueffling’s building is not alone in pulling up the drawbridge: The New York Times wrote about an emergency room doctor similarly barred from staying at his brother’s apartment.

Roboz is furious. She points out that medical professionals on the front lines have many reasons to try to shelter apart from their families. They may need to be nearer to their place of work, especially when public transportation and ride sharing are fraught. They may need more isolation than is possible in a city apartment, especially if there are young children or others on hand for whom hygiene and social-distancing protocols are a challenge. “We can’t be viewed now as, on the one hand, we are heroes, and on the other hand, we are shunned,” she says.

Before COVID-19, the house rules in von Mueffling’s co-op — an Emery Roth–designed prewar, where she’s lived for 14 years — were that if a guest was going to stay more than eight weeks, “you had to let the board know,” von Mueffling says, but the board had no approval or power over who the guest was, nor their profession. It’s the kind of building where staff and residents share the responsibility of looking after an elderly retired teacher named Rose, who, until the pandemic hit, would hold court in the living room-style lobby. “We are unusual for an Upper East Side co-op — we are very cohesive,” von Mueffling says, which was part of what gave her confidence that providing shelter for her friend wouldn’t be a problem.

On April 4, the building’s management company sent an email to residents prohibiting any visitors. “It says essential medical personnel are allowed into the building,” von Mueffling points out, “But the presumption is only if they are taking care of our residents.” In any case, “There’s a nurse on my floor who is a frontline worker [at Memorial Sloan Kettering], so it’s not like she’s not coming in and out from a hospital daily,” she says. “And we have other health-care workers in the building.” The Upper East Side is home to many medical professionals because it is also home to so many hospitals. Roboz herself lives in a co-op only a few blocks from von Mueffling’s.

Von Mueffling reached out to a friend on the co-op board, who said he would make an appeal on Roboz’s behalf. In hopes of swaying the board, von Mueffling forwarded a note from Roboz attesting to how careful she was and would continue to be, since she was caring for the most vulnerable patients in the hospital.

“Frontline health-care workers know best of anybody how to protect themselves and others,” Roboz says. “The donning and doffing of PPE is a very painstakingly executed process in the hospital.” Nothing comes off the premises. “I am even leaving my work shoes at the hospital and wearing a different pair to go home,” she explains, ticking off the precautions she takes, including no jewelry: “This is the first time in about 30 years I haven’t worn my wedding ring.” She describes a decontamination scrub-down of stripping, showering, and “washing with bleach wipes and sanitizers.”

But the co-op board was unconvinced. “He got back to me right away: They wouldn’t budge,” von Mueffling says. “The thing about this that makes me incredulous is we have like ten people left in our building, and the doorman said the few people that are left rarely leave,” she says. “Gail doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

In describing the growing resentment those on the front lines feel about their treatment at the hands of co-op boards, Roboz uses words like illogical, absurd, mean, ungenerous, heartless, and thoughtless. But “the word hypocrisy is the most important,” she says. “I would like to understand the decision-making that allows a member of a co-op board to call me on my cell phone in the middle of the night and ask for help, but at the same time make or make up a policy that prohibits me from living in their building.”

When I reached out by email and phone to talk to someone on von Mueffling’s co-op board, Nancy Califano of Halstead Management Company sent me a one-line email reply: “Unfortunately, the Board is very busy and unable to participate.” My second query, to see whether she’d even tried, received no response.

So I called Stuart M. Saft, a lawyer who is chair of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. (He sounds like Alvy Singer on the phone and asked, “Please don’t make me look like an asshole.”) He tells me that on his first go-round as president of his own Upper East Side co-op board, 28 years ago, he hired a superintendent who died over Easter weekend from the coronavirus. Later, I learn that Saft is taking my call in Connecticut where his family fled the second week of March, warned by the doctor of his wife, who has survived cancer three times and has lupus, that she was at grave risk.

“Whoever saw anything spread like this? Where a single cough or sneeze can kill somebody? It’s insane!” he says. “I understand that doctors, nurses, health-care workers who are coming into the city have a right to have somewhere to live. And I’m not denying that.” (And of course, he has friends who are doctors — “heroes,” he says.) But, “it’s not as if anybody at any point sat down at a meeting and said, ‘We’re going to have a pandemic and doctors are going to want to move into our building. Let’s not let them,’” Saft adds. “There hasn’t been some big meeting saying, ‘Let’s screw all these doctors.’”

In the course of reporting what happened to Roboz, I learn of another co-op board (the address is redacted on the leaked email, but it’s on East 74th Street), who tried to figure out if it has the authority to stop its own residents from “returning from their ‘hideouts’ out of town” to their own apartments. “Said another way,” the emails reads, “are residents who have stayed in the city expecting their boards to protect them from Hampton-ites, for instance, returning to infect them?”

In fact, boards do not have the authority to prevent their residents from returning home, at least, according to the inquiring co-op board’s own lawyer, who then lays out this scenario: “If a doorman, for instance, tries to stop an owner from entering the building, the shareholder will get a police officer and the doorman or super will be arrested. Moreover, the returning shareholder will sue the board and probably win.”

But the fact that the question is even being asked shows the level of fear and panic in the city. Reading the email chain, I think back to something Roboz said to me the first time we talked early this month. “If they are going to label physicians an unwanted entity and shun them in society, then how are they are going to feel about the thousands of other people?” she says. “Viewing a potentially infected person as someone to be shunned? That is a very dangerous way to go for society.” (And there are alarming reports of health-care workers in Pakistan, Mexico, India, and elsewhere being assaulted and ostracized.) Given that some models estimate that already more than 20 percent of New York City residents have likely been exposed to the virus, “The concept of being excluded is particularly upsetting for those of us who are risking our lives to save others, but it’s also impractical since most of us who live in New York are either exposed or will get the disease,” Roboz says.

In New York, actual violence against medical workers seems less likely than lawsuits from apartment dwellers against buildings who house them. But Saft thinks there’s little basis for liability worries. “I can’t imagine somebody bringing a case against the board because they allowed a doctor to move into the building during this pandemic, because the board can’t be shown to have been involved in self-dealing, discrimination, or bad faith.” Still, it’s something Saft anticipated back in March (“I know lawyers!”); he sent a memo to lawmakers urging some form of legal indemnification for those providing medical shelter during the pandemic. “No one,” he wrote, “should be punished with time-consuming and expensive litigation for doing a good deed.” The memo was seemingly ignored.

When I ask Saft what would it take for residential buildings to be more welcoming to frontline workers like Roboz, he reminds me that co-op boards, as “fiduciaries for the owners,” must act “based upon what they believe the owners of the co-op would want them to do.”

“Who elects the co-op board?” he says, explaining that a co-op board is in effect, legally, “a quasi government” or “little democracy,” with an elected leadership. Ultimately, Saft says, if residents “really felt strongly about it, they could start a petition to call a special meeting of the corporation or the association to remove members of the board.” People who live in co-ops have the power to come together and lobby for change. But as anybody who has dealt with fractious co-op boards knows, this process is probably not quick enough to help people like Roboz in this first wave of the pandemic, at least.

Still, “this kind of advocacy and solidarity for those of us on the front line would be appreciated,” says Roboz, who has been seeing patients with COVID-19 on a daily basis. Fighting the pandemic will be a long slog for her and her colleagues, and “frontline health-care workers will need more than lip-service support” from the public, including co-op boards. “For us to know that while we are doing our very best to be on your side, you are doing something meaningful to be on our side, to help us — it would be very meaningful.”

No Shelter (for Doctors) in the Coronavirus Storm