“It’s a very freaky situation. ... Life in the condo has totally changed,”
Two City Plaza resident Hank Kucine said.
Since Coronavirus restrictions prohibit them from having visitors, Stan and Yvette Yoslov host a virtual cocktail party in their condo at Two City Plaza via the Zoom app with Marjie and Dr, Shelley Konigsberg of North Palm Beach and Nedda and Larry Pollack of Palm Beach.
But, unlike people sequestered in single-family homes, condo dwellers at TCP and elsewhere throughout Palm Beach County can’t retreat to a spacious backyard with a private pool and flower garden.
“It feels like we’re in jail,” said Juan Orellana, who shares a 1,095-square-foot unit with his wife at Prado Condominium in downtown West Palm Beach. “I am so envious of people who have a backyard.”
The pinch particularly stings condo residents over the age of 65 who are following the coronavirus-prevention advice of the county’s health director and staying home at all times.
“We are constrained and we feel a little bit of cabin fever,” said Deepak Laroia, 71, who shares a 1,400-square-foot condo on the 12th floor of TCP with his wife, “but things could be a lot
They might feel like passengers on a cruise ship that’s stuck on land, but they’re certainly not the only ones feeling the COVID-19 social squeeze.
The pandemic struck just as West Palm Beach’s skyline was transforming, reflecting a shift to a more densely populated downtown. The Bristol, a 25-story luxury condo tower along the Intracoastal Waterway, sold dozens of high-end units last year, some to wealthy buyers who traded Palm Beach estates for more compact quarters.
Meanwhile, a new generation of high-rise apartment buildings in downtown West Palm Beach has added more than 1,000 units to the city’s urban core. A similar trend played out in downtown Boca Raton, which also has seen a boom in vertical construction.
Now, as boards impose more and more safety restrictions, many of the nearly 187,000 condo units across Palm Beach County, like millions of condo dwellers worldwide, are being forced to adapt to the unique challenges of confinement in a communal environment.
‘Promised not to breathe’
Many condo neighbors, some physically separated from each other by a just few hundreds yards down the hall, are using the internet and texting to stay connected. They’re hosting virtual cocktail parties and attending online religious services using the Zoom app. Living rooms floors are used for pushups, situps and squats.
The book club at Two City Plaza, which usually gathers in The Club Room or a resident’s unit, will hold its next meeting in April online via Zoom. The guest will be TCP resident Michael McAuliffe, the former Palm Beach County state attorney, who will discuss his recent novel “No Truth Left To Tell.”
But a trip to the grocery store or the simple activity of going outside for a walk often comes with new, unsettling routines: Wearing protective gloves, or using room keys or tissue, just to press the elevator buttons.
Once inside the elevator, masked passengers stand at opposite corners, eyeing each other with suspicion or breaking the uneasy silence with gallows humor.
“The other day, my wife Rita and I got on an elevator and there was a man in it who promised not to breathe until we reached the lobby. It was a joke, but I found myself holding my breath for eight floors,” said Thomas Madden, a public relations consultant who lives in The Chalfonte at Boca Raton.
“We’re all sort of looking at each other, wondering, trying to judge how healthy someone is,” he said, “and we dare not cough or it could start a stampede.”
Until March 30, Two City Plaza residents could still take in the spectacular views from the spacious rooftop, which encompasses the building’s footprint between Olive Avenue and Dixie Highway just north of Okeechobee Boulevard.
But if they wanted to sit where the outdoor furniture used to be (it is now in storage to avoid the risk of COVID-19 spread), they had to carry up their own lawn chairs on the freight elevator. Now, that’s closed, along with the sauna and steam room.
Many dwellers are rediscovering their condo balconies, some of which had been occupied by potted plants more than people before COVID-19 became a household name. Others are re-reading books, cleaning out closets and venturing outdoors only for groceries.
“It’s very boring. You watch a lot of TV,” said Kucine, who shares a 1,200-square-foot condo with his wife, Zandra.
“Everyone is afraid of contracting coronavirus. And as you watch TV, inevitably, like driving on the highway and seeing a car wreck, you are fascinated by the news, even though you really don’t want to watch it.”
The Kucines are immersing themselves in spy novels. Hank used to take his book to the rooftop, with a cigar and folding chair. The new rooftop prohibition has forced him to his condo unit’s balcony, Zandra’s reading spot.
“Luckily, through no intelligence of my own, I happened to go to the library before it closed and I took out five books,” Hank said. “After that, we will have to re-read whatever we already have.”
On the other side of downtown, residents in The Edge, a 16-story condo tower east of Clear Lake on Australian Avenue, lost access to the pool on March 30, following an order from West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James.
The gym and clubhouse closed a week earlier. Packages are delivered to a neutral room in the lobby, accessed by a key fob and an emailed security code, without any personal interaction between resident and courier.
“The only thing that I’m remotely upset about is the food deliveries not being allowed to be brought directly to my door,” said Anne Hoffarth, who shares a 900-square-foot unit on the third floor with Ellie, a French bulldog puppy.
“I tend to order in when I’m feeling lazy,” Hoffarth, 30, said in an email. “That kind of defeats the point of being lazy if I have to get dressed and make my way downstairs to the front and back up again, lol.”
Dogs don’t do social distancing
Then there’s the challenge of taking dogs out for walks and bathroom breaks. As owners try to practice social distancing, dogs stretch their leashes to the max for up-close-and-personal pet interactions.
“When I use the elevator, I tend to use my elbow, the fob, my knuckle to press the buttons. And then I just try to wash my hands once I get back to my unit,” Hoffarth, said the other day after returning from a walk with Ellie.
“The poop trash cans have lids you’re supposed to lift open. One more compromise.”
There’s a dog-walking park, with grass, that’s still open on the rooftop at Two City Plaza. But many residents, some wearing face masks, journey to the street to take their dogs for strolls along the Flagler Drive waterfront.
“My wife makes me carry a Clorox wipe,” said Michael Maschio, a 73-year-old cancer survivor who wears a face mask while walking Sheldon, a gentle cocker spaniel.
As Maschio was returning to Two City Plaza, two neighbors were venturing out of the garage on bicycles.
“I ain’t afraid of no virus,” Bruce Behrstock said, using the same cadence from the famous line of the “Ghostbusters” theme song.
He and neighbor Keith Rockwell both said they were taking precautions. But they also refuse to be held hostage during their self-imposed condo quarantines, regardless of health director Alina Alonso’s repeated pleas for people over 64 to stay home.
“If you’ve got to be quarantined,” Behrstock said before riding off on his bike, “doing it in paradise isn’t so bad.”
Praise for condo management
Other than the residents who briefly protested when the TCP fitness center closed on March 16, there have been few complaints about the restrictions.
In fact, many condo dwellers are praising the building’s management and staff.
“Our management has done an excellent job in thinking of the safety of the staff and the residents,” said Lin Irey, who shares a 1,461-square-foot unit on the sixth floor with her husband, Ger Eubank.
“We are all in this together,” she said, “and the only way this will stop is for everyone to use common sense.”
In Boca Raton, Madden said he thinks most people in the twin 22-story condo towers at The Chalfonte have welcomed the restrictions. And he said residents have taken notice of extra cleaning measures in common areas.
“Sometimes when I get off the elevator and see one of the masked cleaning people pointing a vacuum cleaner rod,” said Madden, who writes a blog, “I hold up my hands like I’m under arrest, which gets a muffled chuckle.”
At Two City Plaza, Yvette and Stan Yoslov are content to stay inside; their condo has 2,100 square feet, 14-foot ceilings and five balconies. “I never used any of them until last week,” Stan, 83, said of the multiple balconies.
The Yoslovs miss going to the Kravis Center and movies. Also canceled: A planned vacation this fall to northern Italy, where the pandemic has killed thousands.
The last trip they took? China, where the coronavirus was first detected in December. They returned home in September. “We seem to be lucky with travel,” Yvette said.
In many parts of China, high-rise residents have their temperatures taken when they leave the building and upon their return. They exit lobbies by walking across a thick plastic mat covered with a bleach solution.
The Yoslovs hope it never gets that serious at Two City Plaza. But while they welcome safety restrictions, they dearly miss visitors.
“I really would enjoy having friends from another building come over and visit us,” Yvette said, “but at same time it’s getting to the point where this virus is getting too scary.”
Like many condo dwellers, the Yoslovs are improvising.
“We had a Zoom cocktail party the other night,” Yvette said. “We have three couples, one in North Palm Beach and one in Palm Beach. Each of the women prepared appetizers. At 5 o’clock we all met online so we could see each other and chat.”
The party chat led to a discussion about the last time anyone could remember living through something like COVID-19.
“We are all in the same age range,” Yvette, 79, said. “One girl remembers a summer when polio was prevalent and you were no longer allowed to go to pools or parks or play with other kids.”
For Hank and Zandra Kucine, the pandemic has brought back memories of living in Manhattan during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly 20 years ago.
“Our apartment was on the 37th floor and we unfortunately watched the fires burn in the towers,” he said. “We put duct tape around the windows but it did nothing. The dust came in and you realize you’re walking around in it.
“We collected bottled water and brought it to the police. You’d see people walking around with photographs in their hands and asking, ‘Have you seen this person?’ You didn’t know what to say. So you say, ‘No, but If I see them I will get in touch with you.’
“That was truly horrific. This is the second truly horrific experience of my life, but I don’t know that one can be compared with the other. That was an isolated place and this is
(affecting) the entire world.”
Odd ‘sense of community’
COVID-19 has given the Kucines another dose of anxiety, one that has helped put their condo restrictions in perspective: Their daughter is a doctor in Manhattan, working on the front lines of the pandemic.
“A frightening situation,” he said. “She is dedicated to what she does. She has to deal with a much more difficult situation than what we are enduring here.”
Until the pandemic subsides, TCP residents are trying to make the best of a crisis that, despite its imposed physical separations, has brought many of them closer in spirit.
“Of course, it’s an inconvenience for everybody, but you feel a sense of community, you feel you are going through it with others alongside you,” said Laroia, who is enjoying his12th-floor balcony.
“Obviously I am more or less restrained to the limits of my condo, but I can still see the Intracoastal. I can still see the world.”
He added, “We just have to be patient and ride this through.”