COMMUNITY ASSOCIATIONS AND THE CORONAVIRUS
As a result of COVID-19, a.k.a. the “Coronavirus,” over the past few days and weeks, we have seen states and the Federal government taking more and more action to curb its spread. As infection and death rates increase, governments encourage quarantine measures, businesses increasingly permit employees to work from home, and more-and-more people choose to self-quarantine, community associations must plan for how they are going to combat the virus.
It is essential for community associations to act seriously and move quickly, but not to panic. An association’s first step is to evaluate the specific community for potential risks. A community in which each unit has its own separate entrance exhibits a different risk than those with common lobbies, for example. Likewise, there are various risks associated with communities with clubhouses or gyms, as opposed to those without amenities where residents might interact. A demographic of predominately elderly residents has increased risks over younger populations. Communities should look to their geographical area to check the number of confirmed cases. Higher infection rates necessitate more immediate and perhaps more thorough responses.
We recommend sending an email blast that: reassures the community that the Board is following CDC protocols; contains specific measures the community is taking for its safety; and encourages residents to do the simple things necessary to prevent the spread of disease, such as cleaning their hands often and sanitizing their homes. Associations should follow these same procedures to ensure the common areas are clean. If the Association can secure hand-sanitizer, it should consider placing bottles throughout the common areas. The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) has published a poster that can be sent to residents or placed in common areas, with suggestions for individuals seeking to reduce their risk. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) has also provided a plethora of information regarding safety and updates for the virus. The New Jersey Department of Health has a 24-hour hotline if someone is feeling sick or ill: 1 (800) 222-1222.
By extension, the Association should require its staff to follow the hygiene and sanitation recommendations it makes to the residents. Employees should avoid touching their face; they should wash their hands regularly. Staff should avoid touching packages, door handles, and other similar surfaces. The Association should encourage sick employees to stay home and tell healthy employees to limit contact with sick people and residents. If an Association does not provide personal days or sick days, it should grant exceptions for sick employees.
The Association should go out of its way to check its most vulnerable residents (e.g., the elderly or others at particular risk for COVID-19) by telephone. The Association should work on updating all emergency contact information for both employees and residents, and especially for those people in high-risk groups.
The Association should cancel or postpone all upcoming meetings and events, if possible. If that is not possible, the Association should consider conducting certain meetings telephonically or via video services like Skype. For any upcoming votes that cannot wait, some associations’ governing documents permit electronic voting. In the alternative, the Association can set up a voting box into which residents can drop ballots at several hours during the day. The Association judges of election, wearing gloves, can open those ballots at the appropriate time. If the Association permits electronic voting or voting-by-mail, now would be an appropriate time to start taking advantage of those procedures. If the Association’s rules do not allow for voting through these means and an upcoming vote is imperative, the Association might want to consider passing an amendment or resolution to allow electronic voting.
While many Associations do not allow short-term rentals, some unit owners violate these rules and advertise their Units for rent on websites like AirBnB. Now is the time for the Association, if it has been lax in enforcing rental restrictions, to begin strictly enforcing them. If an Association’s governing documents prohibit short-term rentals, the Association should start aggressively sending notices to Unit Owners who violate these provisions, fining the Unit Owners, or even evicting/ejecting the temporary residents (providing the governing documents provide the Association with the power to do so).
Because people may be able to contract the virus and remain contagious before experiencing any symptoms, it is a good idea to restrict access to certain common areas. Certainly, the rental of the clubhouse should cease, if possible. The Association may choose to limit clubhouse hours, reduce the number of residents permitted inside at a time, restrict access for guests, and/or urge residents not to use the amenities if they feel sick. Regardless of the other measures taken, the Association should consider a more often and more thorough cleaning of the clubhouse over the next several weeks
If your Association has common entrances or lobbies, the Association may want to restrict food and package deliveries to the Unit door, to prevent non-residents from going through the building. Delivery personnel can call residents and wait for them to pick up their food or packages in the lobby. Concierges/security personnel should wear gloves when receiving and sorting deliveries. Those picking them up should wash their hands after opening the packages.
When determining how to act in response to COVID-19, the Association should ensure that all of their responses comply with the Fair Housing Act. All community associations are required to remain compliant with the Fair Housing Act, even as this virus spreads. The needs of people with disabilities still have to be accommodated. Yet, what is a reasonable accommodation may have to be discussed in these unusual times. If a change to an accommodation is necessary, it is the Board’s duty to engage in an “interactive process” to see what level of accommodation it can reach without significantly sacrificing safety. Similarly, the Association’s governing documents are still valid during these difficult times, but State and Federal requirements supersede them.
People tend to look to their leaders for guidance in times like these. If an Association appears panicked, its residents may follow suit, and that benefits no one. So, while an Association must work swiftly and seriously, the board must also ensure calm. Take precautions, but do not overreact.
The information in this Client Alert is provided solely for information purposes. It should not be construed as legal advice on any specific matter and is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. The information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based upon particular circumstances. Each legal matter is unique, and prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
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