“As COVID-19 evolves from pandemic to endemic, indoor air quality will remain one of the most important social issues of our era. In addition to workers in the care economy, there are many frontline and essential workers who also are a part of the social infrastructure and need protective measures for indoor air quality.”

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

City officials checking the ventilation in classrooms ahead of the 2020 school year.

Vera Partis was my grandmother and a home health aide in New York City for 31 years at Selfhelp Community Services. Her work was part of what we now would call the care economy, but its value goes beyond profit or production. Ms. Vera was part of the backbone and fabric to the social infrastructure that brings dignity and wellness to our world. She provided direct care to those who needed assistance with daily living tasks, like cooking, bathing, and basic mobility.

When she would come from work, after traveling on our public transportation system, I learned that she also was a confidant and friend to her patients. She knew about communities they grew up in, their kids and family members, and their favorite tv shows. She often also learned about their pain and troubles. The combination of personalized health services, interpersonal human conversations, and supporting their needs with clinics and hospitals, it all made Vera Partis more than a home health aide: she often became a friend and part of the family.

Because of her work, I often wondered about my grandmother’s own health. Yes, the physical labor and the commuting, they both were worries. But she also literally breathed the same air as her patients. As a care economy worker, Ms. Vera spent much of her time indoors: in small apartments, even smaller bedrooms, the backseats of cabs or Access-a-Ride vehicles, and the waiting rooms of hospitals and clinics. And then she took New York City’s public transportation to get back to our South Bronx apartment. In reflection, I think about how badly my grandmother needed and deserved a safe, just, and high-quality environment. Ms. Vera, and the millions of other working class, care economy laborers like her throughout the five boroughs and beyond, especially deserved exceptional indoor air quality.

As COVID-19 evolves from pandemic to endemic, indoor air quality will remain one of the most important social issues of our era. In addition to workers in the care economy, there are many frontline and essential workers who also are a part of the social infrastructure and need protective measures for indoor air quality. Transportation, education, and hospitality are sectors where workers are especially at risk, but also serve populations of the workforce, students, and the ill who are vulnerable. Perhaps our most vulnerable population is those who work in early childhood, are parents and caregivers to young children, and children themselves. Specifically, this is a concern for maternal and postpartum health, as women spend more time indoors as they progress through pregnancy and in caring for early life children and infants.

There is the scientific and medical mandate for dealing with the virus: enact measures to reduce the transmission and spread of COVID. With large-scale quarantining increasingly looking like an unlikely political option, and growing calls about the benefits of in-person social interaction for overall mental and physical wellness, public and private leaders are required to consider health-based solutions for gatherings to work, learn, play, pray, and generally commune.

Though outdoors strategies are a great and necessary option, there remains a serious need for innovation and creativity to generate excellent air quality in spaces that are enclosed, covered, or conventionally “indoors” and hold more than groups of 10. From elevators to heated tents, indoor air quality will be a significant factor in our society’s health care. This proves to be a challenge of physical infrastructure. How do we create the policies, products, and proposals needed to generate quality air in the indoor spaces where we live, work, and commute? 

I believe that the health and environment challenges caused by COVID-19 requires our public sector to make a bolder investment in three industries: air filtration, pest management, and cleaning services. From the design and construction of our windows, to the installation and upgrading of our heating and cooling systems, air filtration is a critical component for removing toxins and allergens from our indoor spaces.

We also will need innovations in air quality to sustain the new types of closed and covered spaces that will become more popular as we strategize for safe ways to continue our social lives. The enclosed containers for sidewalk dining, the covered tents for warm cold weather-gathering, the mobile spaces for direct services that meet the needs of community members with limited mobility or transportation—all of these places will need new ways to ventilate and filter air. 

Poor overall air quality has long been known to cause respiratory illness, especially outdoors. The Bronx often is cited for these types of health problems, with asthma rates as the primary indicator. There has been an intense focus on the outdoors and its transit-oriented factors like highway construction and car traffic. Community organizing and movements in environmental justice have effectively promoted important interventions and solutions, such as increasing green space, reducing carbon emissions from vehicles, and of course Capping the Cross Bronx. However, our borough still has become an example of how poor air quality is a consequence of environmentally harmful development.

But what decades of tenant organizing and population-level health research has taught is that the indoor environment has a dramatic effect on respiratory health. Drivers include unfiltered air, but also mold, pest, and other toxins and allergens. The physical infrastructure of our apartments, buildings, offices, schools, medical institutions, and brick-and-mortar small businesses are crucial sites where poor indoor air quality can be socially harmful, if not treated. 

In this light, pest management and cleaning are two business services that seem less related to our COVID-19 challenges but are clearly aligned to our strategies for high quality indoor air. Since 2016, my organization and our partners have piloted the programming and tested the implementation strategies needed to successfully use green economy vendors and services to improve indoor air quality.

NWBCC’s Healthy Buildings program and BCDI business development work with green economy MWBEs and worker cooperatives that have created health outcomes and community wealth. To execute this model for coordinating solutions to the issues of managing pests and ensuring high-quality cleaning, a multi-stakeholder partnership between government, landlords and property owners, and the business community is required.

So where do we go from here? I propose a three-step policy response on indoor air quality to meet the greatest health and environment challenge of our time:

  1. Invest in workforce training and business incubation for workers and community-lead innovations through advanced manufacturing 
  1. Publicly subsidized business services in air filtration, pest management, and cleaning with a mandate to procurement from MWBEs in those sectors
  1. Create a stakeholder-led Task Force to recommend innovations and redesigns to our city’s physical infrastructure, led by housing organizers; maternal, postpartum, and pediatric health experts; indoor air quality scientists; construction unions; and MWBEs in industries related to indoor-air quality

We need bold solutions that honor the workers like my grandmother and millions of other New Yorkers who are frontline, essential, and ensure our care. 

Michael Partis is the executive director of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative. He serves on the board for the Youth Power Coalition, New Economy Project, and Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.