On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Here in the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has detailed recommendations for individual preparation and response to the outbreak of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On March 14, President Trump declared a National State of Emergency, joining many states — including New York —that had already made their own declarations in the previous days. This is a scary time throughout the world, and we have to take immediate action to help our communities.
This is especially true for condominiums, cooperatives and homeowners associations. Unlike schools, sporting events or other large gatherings, that can be cancelled or dispersed to avoid proximity to other people, these communities contain residents who live amongst each other and share common areas. When quarantined, told to stay home from the office, or to work from home, residents are still a part of a mass of people who are stuck living amongst each other. So what can management and boards do to protect their community associations as we navigate this new reality? Here are some steps you and your board-management team can take right now.
Consider Your House Rules
For all practical purposes, your board is a quasi-governmental body. For the most part you are allowed to make your own rules, provided that you do so within the confines of the law. Your board should review your house rules and determine whether new rules are needed. Rule changes can be done by a board vote. With residents home from work and children out of school, there are going to be a lot more people in the common areas during the day for the unforeseeable future. The rules may have to change. For example, communities usually have rules against creating a nuisance condition; is having a fever and continuing to use common areas like the laundry room, rooftop recreational area, gym, playrooms, pool, etc., a ‘nuisance’? Perhaps that needs to be spelled out in a rule change. Before deciding that, however, you should confer with counsel to make sure the rule is within the confines of the law, doesn’t discriminate, and is evenly applied. Otherwise, your good intentions could turn into a discrimination claim or a lawsuit. Exercising care and consideration in drafting rules to protect all owners and residents will help, and is in the best interest of the community as a whole.
Keep Everyone Informed
The media is saturated with national and local information—and misinformation—but what about information on your particular association? Let your owners and residents know that the board and management are at the helm, steering the ship with confidence, and with all of their interests in mind. If your association has a website, post regular information on the rules, rule changes, places that you’ve installed hand sanitizer, cleaning processes that are being employed in the common areas, and anything else you’re doing as a board or management team to protect your associations during this unsettled time.
Take Charge of the Common Areas
Your board is charged with governing the community and the common areas. If the common areas are not properly maintained – including being thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis – it poses a risk; not only to owners and residents who may contract the virus, but to boards and management who may face claims of negligence in performing their obligations to the community, and/or breaches of their fiduciary or contractual duty.