Social distancing, self-isolation difficult for those in shared housing

TORONTO — In Canada’s crowded major cities, where many people live with one or multiple roommates, the spread of COVID-19 is leaving residents struggling with what to do if someone in a shared house has to self-isolate.

For Lebni Avitia, a video editor in Toronto, the pandemic has compounded the everyday stresses of living in a confined space with multiple people.

Avitia has a heart condition that would put him at a higher risk of complications if he were to contract the novel coronavirus, but he says it still took time to hammer home the point to his roommates that they take social distancing seriously.

At the start of this week, his roommates were still going out to crowded restaurants, despite increasingly dire warnings from public health officials that Canadians should be staying home.

“It was awkward when I realized they weren’t (staying inside),” Avitia said in an interview. “When they told me that, I sent a message on a group chat basically saying ‘I’m planning on staying inside, I hope we can all do the same.’”

Avitia said it hasn’t been too difficult to be honest about his expectations with his two roommates, but it has been a problem driving the point home to a person who has been crashing on their couch, along with leaving the apartment every day to see his girlfriend and his mother.

“I understand. But at the same time (you’re) doing that — who knows what the people you’re visiting are doing themselves?” said Avitia.

“If you go out and you’re in contact with them and you’re here in a common space with all of us, who knows what you could be spreading?”

It’s a struggle that’s playing out in many shared homes as people manage varying expectations when it comes to social distancing.

Statistics Canada does not have specific data on how many Canadians live with roommates, but according to the 2016 census, there were roughly 582,000 “non-census-family households of two or more people” across the country — or about 4.1 per cent of all households.

Statistics Canada describes such situations as “siblings or roommates living together.” In Toronto, the rate of such dwellings was 6.1 per cent; in Vancouver, 7.3 per cent.

On its website, Public Health Ontario says in order to properly self-isolate in a shared home, you have to stay in a separate room as much as you can and use a separate bathroom from others, which isn’t always an option.

The health agency says shared spaces like kitchens should have good air flow and surfaces must be cleaned after each use — a practice that Avitia said he has already organized with his roommates.

It also says to keep a distance of two metres from people in your home and to wear a face mask if possible.

Avitia said he hadn’t even considered what he and his roommates would do if one of them was told to actually self-isolate. At this point, he said he plans to temporarily move back with his parents in Niagara Falls, Ont.

But not all people in shared homes are finding it difficult to organize self-isolation with roommates.

Vivian George, who works in the film and TV industry in Toronto, said managing her own self-isolation period has been fairly straightforward despite the fact that her roommate is in his 70s.

She said the apartment is already too small for them to use common areas like the kitchen at the same time.

George said she has spent almost all of her time in her room for the last 10 days after developing flu-like symptoms. She only leaves to grab groceries that her friends have dropped off and to microwave food.

“I just peek my head out the door to make sure he’s not there. If he’s there, I wait until he leaves and then I go in,” said George, who said she tries to hold in her coughs until she’s back in her room.

Her roommate, despite being at risk because of his age, hasn’t been too bothered by the spread of COVID-19, George said.

She said being mostly confined to her bedroom has been the tiresome part.

“It’s like living on a tour bus or something and you just stay on your bunk,” said George.

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