‘One Confirmed Case’: Inside a Monthlong Covid-19 Building Lockdown

Residents of Phnom Penh’s Prince Central Plaza condominium complex provide their samples for Covid-19 testing on the evening of February 23, 2021. (Supplied)
Residents of Phnom Penh’s Prince Central Plaza condominium complex provide their samples for Covid-19 testing on the evening of February 23, 2021. (Supplied)

UPDATE: A few hours after this article was published, residents of Prince Central Plaza in Phnom Penh told VOD the building was ordered locked down again because a second tenant was announced as having tested positive, just two days after it was reopened for all but one floor after a nearly monthlong Covid-19 quarantine.

After nearly a full month in mandatory Covid-19 lockdown, about 800 people were told they could leave the Prince Central Plaza condominium complex in Phnom Penh late Friday night. 

The building had been sealed under government order since February 20 — with nearly nothing allowed in or out except carefully handed over, alcohol-sprayed food delivery bags, several tenants said.

After three rounds of Covid-19 testing for 110 of 845 people locked inside the luxury high-rise, just one person in the building tested positive for the disease, as far as tenants have been told by building management.

The Covid-19 patient’s floor, 33B, remained under quarantine as of Sunday morning, said John*, a Prince Central Plaza sales employee who lives in the building and requested anonymity.

“This floor is still locked down,” he said. “All of this is because of the safety.”

‘Same Time, in the Same Place’

Four tenants of the 36-floor building situated on Norodom Blvd. in Chamkarmon district spoke to VOD about life inside lockdown on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.

They said after the building was locked down on the same day the Health Ministry announced the ongoing “February 20” community cluster, residents inside were allowed to leave their apartments and wander around the massive complex, while wearing masks, including visiting the building’s grocery store, restaurants and an outdoor space for socializing.

Some noted feelings of frustration before the lockdown was lifted late Friday, citing a lack of clear communication about testing, when they would be released, why some floors were locked down, and whether more than one person has tested positive in the building.

George*, a resident who requested his real name not be used, said that three days after the Prince building was sealed, dozens of residents at a time crowded into the first floor to provide samples for Covid-19 testing.

“I thought to myself, this is a little bit — if we possibly have Covid, I don’t know why they’re gathering us all at the same time, in the same place,” George recalled on Friday before the lockdown release was announced.

While he said he mostly bought food in the building’s grocery store to cook at home, he had witnessed the process of accepting food deliveries in the lobby during the lockdown.

First, the delivery person places the bag of food on a chair positioned right outside the lobby’s automatic sliding glass doors. Then, a security guard sprays the bag with alcohol solution, and the delivery person departs. Next, the guard sprays the tenant’s hands and they pick up their order. Everyone wears a mask, George said.

The first line of thought when the building management locked the doors was that there must be someone who was exposed.

On March 8, 845 people in the building were tested for the second time, according to a property management notice dated March 9 and seen by VOD. The second round of testing was done outside, in front of the building’s lobby, George said.

The Health Ministry “reported the second round of testing included one confirmed case,” the notice says. “Management contacted the Ministry of Health to send the patient to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

“After the second testing, and he got confirmed, so the [health] department picked him up,” John, the Prince Central Plaza sales employee and building resident, told VOD on Saturday. “He’s already left this building for days.”

Over the next two weeks, building management conducted a third round of testing for residents on three floors, and said with a “large percentage of certainty” that it believed everyone had passed, but then introduced stricter lockdowns for some areas of the building before finally ending the lockdown late Friday.

‘Uncertainty Is the Worst Part’

Before the lockdown was lifted around 10 p.m. on Friday, some residents said they were beginning to lose patience and hope.

George, the building resident, said he was “not prepared for how mentally draining it would be to be put through a situation of indefinite isolation, indefinite and very much blacked out in terms of information.”

“One of the first things that happened was, people in the building were wondering, was anyone detected from that February 20 [cluster]?” he told VOD.

“The first line of thought when the building management locked the doors was that there must be someone who was exposed,” he added.

The lack of clear communication from the property management made matters worse, George said.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to not know when you’re going to be released from a building. The uncertainty is I think the worst part.”

In a WeChat group made for residents to share information about the lockdown, one person said they felt “like a prisoner with a life sentence” and were “hoping every day, [but] disappointed every day.”

Another, also writing in Mandarin, said their “mentality [was] about to explode.”

In yet another WeChat message, screenshots of which were seen by VOD, the sender was a bit more hopeful: “I always say it’s soon, it’s soon, endure it a little longer.”

But one poster was more concerned about how Cambodians would view Chinese people living in the country.

The ongoing Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in more than 1,100 locally transmitted cases, the nation’s first three deaths attributed to Covid-19, and school and business closures, travel restrictions and suspensions of large gatherings, especially in hotspots including Phnom Penh, Kandal and Preah Sihanouk provinces.

Authorities have tied the “February 20” outbreak to four Chinese women who left quarantine without authorization last month.

“Don’t you understand? Now all Chinese people are seen by them as a virus source! A small group of people still feel good about themselves and think their image is so great. They don’t know how locals curse at us Chinese people. Even getting in a tuk-tuk, they will fucking curse in their local language that ‘the pig has gotten on,’” the WeChat messager says.

Another Prince Central Plaza resident, Paul*, told VOD on Friday of the difficulties and frustrations of being stuck in the condo building for weeks.

The 27-year-old man said despite having a toothache he was not allowed to leave the building.

“I need to see a doctor but they did not allow me to go out unless there is a Covid-19 case [and I] will be brought out in a vehicle,” Paul said.

Everyone in the building kept asking when the building would reopen, with some venting in the WeChat group.

“The tenants here, some feel stressful and created a WeChat group … they feel very stressful, crying and shouting at the property [management] downstairs,” Paul said.

“No updates are given and tenants only ask when [the condo] is going to reopen, when [the condo] is going to reopen? Everyday they ask only this question. Whenever they open their eyes, there is a question, when is the condo going to reopen? When is the condo going to reopen? When is the condo going to reopen?”

For the safety of our community, [I] would like them to be patient.

He also said some tenants have not been able to go to work and have no money to pay their rental fees.

Paul said some people stuck in the building had just come for a visit with friends but ended up being caught in the lockdown.

One Chinese woman he met had cried because she felt so stressed and she had to spend money daily since she was not in her own home, he said.

Other people had already returned to the building after recovering from Covid-19, Paul claimed, but some had not returned and instead stayed outside to wait for the building to reopen.

“If the test is found positive, the [Health] Ministry will call and inform the tenants to prepare their stuff and go to a quarantine center,” he added.

‘Locked Down for Some Reasons’

The building’s third round of testing was announced by building management on March 12, to check people “above and below the one confirmed case detected during the second test on March 8.”

Three days later, on March 15, management congratulated 110 people staying on floors 32, 33 and 34, saying Prince believed “with a large percentage of certainty” that everyone passed the third test.

“Currently, Central Plaza property management is using the property company’s public relations resources to contact the government, to coordinate with the government and report the Central Plaza’s current precautionary measures and to send in an application report, to request the government to release Central Plaza from lockdown,” according to the notice provided by a resident.

But contrary to their optimism on March 15, by March 18, the building management announced that “floors 27A and 33B will remain locked down for some reasons,” without mentioning whether anyone else had tested positive or come into contact with a positive person.

“Personnel on floors 27A and 33B may not leave their floors. As of now the management has already placed 24-hour guards on the two above-mentioned floors to maintain the lockdown according to government requirements,” says the March 18 notice.

It adds that since February 20, at least one patient had been sent to the hospital to ensure other residents’ safety, while tenants living on other floors would be released in the near future — once authorities gave Prince the all-clear.

Alex*, a resident of the 33rd floor, which spans buildings A and B in the complex, said their floor should have been locked down since March 8, when the person who tested positive gave their sample.

There was “no point at all locking down” since Thursday, March 18, Alex said.

They wanted to “plead with the government” because its way of controlling the pandemic “isn’t really right.”

When asked on Friday why Alex thought the building was still locked down after nearly a month, they could only give the obvious answer.

“The reason for lockdown, there can only be one reason, and it’s because of the pandemic.” 

Alex said up to 28 tenants lived on each floor, and 33B was blocked off by police tape in front of the elevator and being guarded by security 24/7.

Alex, which is not their real name, said they were tested three times alongside the other 109 people on floors 32, 33 and 34, and had received no notice about getting tested a fourth time as of Sunday afternoon.

“They should’ve locked down our floor the day they confirmed the case. There’s no point in locking it down now,” Alex said.

Alex explained that the isolation of only floor 33B on Thursday made little sense, since just a day earlier, residents of all floors had been free to mingle throughout the building.

On the building’s fourth floor, labeled as floor 5B since Chinese people generally think the number 4 is unlucky, there’s an outdoor patio with space to exercise, playground equipment for children, and tables and chairs to eat and socialize, Alex said.

The 33rd floor resident said they went there on Wednesday.

“I’ve been there occasionally, sometimes I go there to eat with friends,” the tenant said.

In general, Alex said they were “a little surprised” to see “a lot of people” spending time at the outdoor patio during the lockdown.

While Alex has not felt any symptoms of Covid-19 so far, they said being locked inside has impacted their mental state.

“I feel a little anxious and can’t really concentrate. I’m a little mentally tired,” Alex told VOD on Friday before the lockdown release.

“It feels different to choose to be at home and to be passively locked inside your home.” 

Alex said locking down the 33rd floor was “very illogical” and they were “pretty upset,” adding that “the government shouldn’t be doing things this way.”

‘The Precautionary Principle’

On Saturday, Ngy Mean Heng, director of the Phnom Penh health department, declined to comment on the lockdown of Prince Central Plaza, but explained that any decision about the closure or reopening of capital buildings due to Covid-19 exposure concerns were made by a government committee with public health and safety in mind.

“The committee stands on the precautionary principle, and nothing beside this, because precaution is to protect the communities around [the exposed buildings], including all of us, and they should understand, including you, because if it spread more and more” the outbreak could get out of control like in the U.S., said Mean Heng, who is a member of the Phnom Penh committee.

The official said he could not recall how many people at the Prince building had tested positive for Covid-19.

But he explained that if anyone is found positive, they and their contacts need to quarantine for 14 days, and test negative before being released.

“It is a precaution because this disease can stay in your body as long as 14 days before it shows symptoms,” Mean Heng said.

Whenever they open their eyes, there is a question, when is the condo going to reopen? When is the condo going to reopen? When is the condo going to reopen?

Monday will mark 14 days since the building’s one known Covid-19 patient tested positive, and 30 days since the start of the “February 20” outbreak.

The health department head said authorities would lock down individual building floors with infected patients when possible, but some condo buildings’ available elevators required tenants to use the same ones.

Mean Heng said he understood it must be a difficult situation for those under lockdown, but he asked for their patience in order to protect public health.

“For the safety of our community, [I] would like them to be patient,” he told VOD. “[We] don’t want to keep them. But we are afraid of transmission into the community. That is why we are forced to [quarantine them].”

Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng said he was too busy to comment on Saturday and a City Hall spokesperson could not be reached.

Prince Real Estate Group did not reply to questions emailed on Saturday afternoon.

On Thursday, Prince Real Estate Group said in a Facebook post that the firm had given financial support to the government, in the form of a $3 million donation from Prince Holding Group chairman Chen Zhi last December to help Cambodia buy Covid-19 vaccines, and an additional $3 million donation from Prince announced on March 8 to aid the nation’s anti-pandemic efforts.

John, the Prince employee, said the Central Plaza building’s occupancy may be at 50 percent or less.

“I don’t know the exact situation but maybe half,” he said. “Most of the apartments are available.”

Asked if any non-tenants got stuck in the building during the lockdown, John told one VOD reporter “there definitely were” but later told another reporter he had “no clue about that.” He also said he did not know if non-tenants were brought into the building to be quarantined there. The government has been using some mostly empty hotels as quarantine sites.

‘Released From Lockdown’

A resident of Phnom Penh’s Prince Central Plaza condominium complex scans a QR code used for Covid-19 contact tracing on March 20, 2021, the day after most building residents were released from a nearly monthlong building lockdown. (Supplied)
A resident of Phnom Penh’s Prince Central Plaza condominium complex scans a QR code used for Covid-19 contact tracing on March 20, 2021, the day after most building residents were released from a nearly monthlong building lockdown. (Supplied)

By late Friday night, residents received another notice that all Central Plaza floors were released from the lockdown, except 33B due to unspecified reasons.

“According to government notice, management security guards are maintaining 24-hour lockdown for floor 33B due to some reasons. Starting from now, all other floors in Central Plaza are released from lockdown,” it says.

John, the Prince sales employee and building resident, said government officials came to the building on Thursday to meet with property managers.

“Some staff of the department, government, had went to this building, and talked to the property managers. After that, later, maybe after 24 hours … this decision [to end the lockdown on Friday night] was made,” he said.

At around 10 p.m. on March 19, John said the lockdown ended for everyone except those living on floor 33B. Tenants just needed to scan a QR code used in Covid-19 contact tracing upon entry. If the app showed green, they could proceed, he said.

On Saturday, Eng Tola, a 28-year-old cook for residents of Prince Central Plaza’s 8th floor, said it had been stressful being locked inside the building for nearly a month, but she was happy to be able to go outside.

Tola, who was tested for Covid-19 on February 23 and March 8, worked for Chinese residents of the building and lived with them for half a year, but now that the lockdown was lifted she would return to her family’s home, she said.

“I saw police come and talk with the boss and management of the condo [on Friday] night and saw translators talking with each other, and then they told us that we can go out,” she told VOD.

“I felt stressed because I stayed only inside, under the shade, and have not touched sunshine and sunlight,” she added.

*Residents of the Prince Central Plaza requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals. Pseudonyms have been used.

Note: A freelance journalist who co-reported this article requested their real name not be used due to fear of reprisals.

Updated on March 22, 2021 at 6:25 p.m. with an editor’s note at the top of this article.

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