When the building needed a new employee to sort the mail and hand out packages, longtime resident Matthew Penrod — a retired National Park Service ranger — signed up. One of his regular visitors was a Franciscan friar who seemed to like long discussions just as much as he did. Sometimes, Brother John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond would stop by twice in the same day, Penrod said, just because he wanted to talk more.
Then the new coronavirus came to the District. And when Penrod saw news reports in March about the first person in the city to die of covid-19, he gasped at the familiar face. It was Laird-Hammond.
The virus has transformed life in the District’s largest residential building, which has an estimated population of more than 2,000 — aging tenants who have stayed in their units for decades, lots of Latino immigrant families, students and interns, teachers and journalists, and anyone else seeking affordable rent in the gentrifying 16th Street strip between Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant.
Gone are the relaxed gatherings by the pool, the children playing and elderly residents catching up in the lobby, the carefree mingling in the in-house dry cleaner and grocery store. Instead, residents stay in their units, gripped by fear of a virus that has hit Columbia Heights particularly hard — and has sickened and killed Woodner residents and employees.
Once, the Woodner was a swanky hotel and apartment complex, the largest air-conditioned building in the world when it opened in 1951. But the glitz and glamour have long since faded. And since March, the building’s managers have cut exterminators and repair work to reduce the risk of contagion. Residents have taken photos of trash piling up in the hallways and dirty floors in the laundry room. They gripe about bug and rodent infestations and about inconsistent answers when residents try to set up payment plans to delay their rent.
And they worry especially that the management company has not shared any information about coronavirus cases in the building, even as more and more residents seem to have gotten infected. Frustrated tenants are withholding rent, signing petitions and, one day last month, holding a protest with social distancing outside the building.
“You’re talking about people who live here in the largest apartment building in the capital of the United States on the same street the White House is on,” said José Lucas Badué, a teacher at Roosevelt High School who is helping to organize the rent strike. “This is just intolerable. You can’t do this.”
Joseph Milby, the general manager of the Woodner for the past 22 years, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment.
The Washington Post communicated with more than a dozen residents and employees of the Woodner. Four said they had a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus, and an additional five said they knew someone in the building who had the virus.
Those who got sick included Penrod. Two days after he learned of Laird-Hammond’s death, he had a fever and sore throat. Then nausea and headache.
“It would have been getting a lot of attention if this was a nursing home. If this was a cruise ship, they would keep us offshore,” said his wife, Jacqueline Penrod. “To me, it’s reckless disregard. … They didn’t at least put a notification up that the coronavirus was in the building?”
While Penrod was sick, another resident took his mailroom gig — a man in his 30s who had lost his job in a restaurant because of the pandemic shutdown and needed new employment so he could pay rent.
The man had worked in the mailroom for only about two weeks when he started running a fever, said his fiancee, who asked that their names not be published to protect their families’ privacy. After weeks on a ventilator, he died of the virus in May.
Only after her fiance became sick, she said, did the building install plexiglass shields in the mailroom and other high-contact places like the grocery store.
Multiple Woodner residents say they have called the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the D.C. Health Department and other city agencies to ask for help and have been met with polite acknowledgment but no concrete information.
D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt told reporters that the District’s response to the coronavirus is focused on preventing spread in the community and within families living in close quarters — not from apartment to apartment.
“There is no risk of between-units transmission, and we want to make sure people fully understand that,” Nesbitt said.
Yet to many in the Woodner, the risk of catching the virus feels very real.
Mary, a political consultant who like many said that she feared the building’s managers would retaliate against her if her last name were published, said she has been getting information from text message chains among tenants. One neighbor on her floor texted that he had tested positive for the virus, and she went to drop food outside his door.
Others texted photos every time they saw an ambulance pull up to the building. On walks through the lobby, decorated with photographs of the Woodner’s early days as a hotel that drew visitors as acclaimed as John F. Kennedy and Bob Hope, Mary said she more than once has seen a neighbor being carried out on a stretcher.
“Given the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, it’s worth being alarmed about,” she said. “We have no idea how extensive the infection rate is.”
Data from D.C. 911 calls show that calls for emergency medical services at the Woodner have gone up 32 percent compared with last year. From March 1 to May 14, 2019, the building had 31 calls. For the same period in 2020, there were 41, at a time when hospital visits for almost all non-coronavirus medical causes dropped sharply.
Nesbitt has said she does not recommend that managers tell residents when someone in a building comes down with the coronavirus, even if the manager omits the person’s name to protect privacy.
“We don’t advise that because that resident doesn’t pose a risk to their neighbors,” Nesbitt said in May. “What we advise them to do is to make sure they are not as a property manager creating environments on their property for virus transmission to happen.”
In many apartment buildings, that logic seems suspect to residents. Some are making a habit of awkwardly telling their neighbors that they would rather ride the elevator alone. Tensions over shared amenities, from pools to laundry machines, are rising in many buildings. And in Anne Arundel County, those fears were confirmed at a house divided into four separate apartments: Fourteen of the 16 residents tested positive, and one died.
A security guard at the Woodner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said managers have told him that “a lot of people in the building have caught the virus,” without specifying how many.
“A lot of people are constantly leaving the Woodner sick, going to the hospital. That’s on the regular,” he said. “You start seeing the ambulance like two or three times a week there. That became like a normal thing.”
In printed bulletins, the building’s managers have listed precautions due to the virus: The management office would be closed, maintenance repairs would be limited to emergencies only, the shuttle to Giant for grocery shopping would be canceled. Other bulletins have offered advice like wearing a mask and washing hands. But none has mentioned any cases within the building.
The guard said he believes the building managers should communicate about cases inside.
“I got family. I got six daughters. We can’t be playing with this. I want to be healthy,” he said. “This is stuff we should be briefed on.”
Hector Franco, who has worked at the building for 35 years, supervises a team of carpenters who repair floors, doors and cabinets when tenants move out. He said he had heard rumors about residents getting sick but had not been told by his bosses that anyone in the building had the virus. Then in mid-April, he started aching.
He tested positive for the virus and suffered three weeks of coughing, vomiting, fever and headaches. He spent two nights hospitalized when his oxygen level dropped dangerously low, he said. His wife and daughter then suffered milder cases.
He knows of other employees in carpentry and housekeeping at the Woodner who have come down with the virus as well. But he says he doesn’t blame the building — he thinks he could have just as easily caught the highly contagious illness at the grocery store.
Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.