COVID-19 and Opening Amenities Questions of Ethics, Liability, & Resident Demands

Last spring, amidst the panic and confusion of the burgeoning pandemic, condominium, co-op, and HOA communities were faced with the difficult task of deciding what to do about their shared gyms, pools, clubhouses. Almost universally, these and other popular amenities were closed as a hedge against infection by a little-known virus. Community leaders and boards of directors reported being hopeful the closures would only be temporary. Once more was known about the virus and its transmission, and then as the pandemic waned, a return to pre-pandemic life would await us.

Now, a year into the worst public health crisis in over a century, we are faced with a situation very similar to last year. While our knowledge level about the virus is higher and vaccinations are underway throughout the United States, we are still facing a second summer of COVID-19. Along the way, the pandemic has raised issues that have made learning to live with the problem even more complicated for boards and managers. Those factors include liability, cost, continued misunderstanding of the short-, medium-, and long-term realities of COVID-19, and perhaps most difficult of all to maneuver, politics.

Liability

Perhaps the greatest impediment to associations and corporations trying to develop plans to reopen their amenities in compliance with CDC and other health department recommendations is the fear of liability. A survey of insurance providers and brokers for this article indicated that insurers have taken a position against most, if not all, COVID-19 claims, stating that viral infections and whatever results from them are excluded under existing coverage and policies. This potentially moves liability to associations, corporations, and possibly even individual board members, a risk few are willing to take. Hence, there is a high likelihood that many community amenities will remain closed this spring and summer.

Joe Balzamo is the COO of AR Management, a property management firm located in New Jersey. “One of the biggest problems right now in terms of opening amenities is that insurance companies don’t cover viruses, etc., as part of their coverage,” he says. “The impact is simple: if someone gets sick and sues the association, there’s no ability for the insurer to validate the litigation. Associations would own the litigation and the claim. All the risk is on the association.”

Glen Masullo, president and managing partner with Preferred Community Management Services located in Somerset, concurs. “Legal issues are a major block to unilaterally opening pools and other community amenities. Insurance doesn’t currently cover these claims, and members of the board, association, and even vendors can be sued personally.” As concerns this coming season, continues Masullo, “the insurance issue hasn’t gone away.” 

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