When the coronavirus began its merciless invasion back in the spring, Anthony Schembri knew that he and his fellow board members at the high-rise Trump Tower condominium in White Plains were going to need help. They were in luck. Help was, literally, right next door.
At the suggestion of the building’s seven-member board, Larry Gomez, the resident manager, got in touch with several medical doctors who live in the building, asking if they would be willing to offer guidance to the board on how to navigate the pandemic. Soon the board members were having regular Zoom conversations with five doctors, and the back and forth proved doubly beneficial.
“We got validation from the doctors on things we had already done – and advice on things we should be doing,” Schembri says. “It made sense to assemble a group of physicians we can consult with.” As the pandemic unleashed its full fury, their advice would prove “absolutely invaluable” in the words of the condo board’s attorney, James Glatthaar, partner at Bleakley Platt.
Even before the doctors began offering guidance, the board at this 31-story, 212-unit high-rise was taking precautionary steps. “At my office in Tarrytown, we started talking about working from home back in February,” says Schembri, 48, a certified public accountant who now works for a wealth management company. “We realized early on that we needed to be prepared to work remotely.”
That realization of a looming crisis hit the condo board at the same time. “We were ahead of the outbreak,” Schembri says. “We started talking about protecting our employees and residents, so we escalated our cleaning of the common areas. Once they had that COVID-19 cluster in New Rochelle in March, things started closing down quickly in Westchester County. When the stay-at-home order hit, we immediately closed all of our amenities – with the exception of our rec deck.”
This was where the advice of the doctors proved critical. The so-called rec deck is on the rooftop of a parking garage adjacent to the condo tower, and it features an array of treasured amenities, including an outdoor swimming pool, two tennis courts, a basketball court, a putting green and a dozen barbecue pits. While closing the building’s windowless gym was an easy call – and mandated by an executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – the rec deck was a gray area.
“This was an area where it was good to hear the doctors weigh in,” Schembri says. “They advised us that with proper social distancing, an outside area can be safe – if we eliminated gathering areas.” So the board decided to keep most of the rec deck open under strict conditions – the restrooms were closed, and the pool remained closed until the state’s phased reopening began in July. Residents were elated to have an outdoor escape valve.
The decision to close the gym may have seemed obvious to the board and its doctor advisers, but it did not win universal acclaim. “Not all the residents were happy,” Schembri admits. “Some wanted a refund when the gym closed. But having the doctors on our side helped minimize the exasperation and frustration of a defiant element. Consulting with experts in the medical profession validated what we were doing and gave us credibility. These doctors live in the building, and most of the residents know them. That added another level of credibility.”
It didn’t hurt that one of the board’s advisers, Dr. Maryann Buetti-Sgouros, is an avid user of the gym who missed her workouts as much as anyone – yet insisted that closing the gym was the right thing, the only thing, to do. Hard to argue with that.
The Next Challenge
Schembri, who grew up in the town of Lawrence on Long Island, has long experience with his condominium’s neighborly atmosphere. After graduating from Villanova University, he worked in an accounting firm in Manhattan while living in a condo in Riverdale. He purchased his unit in the White Plains tower in 2005, while the building was under construction. He and his wife, Tara, now have a roommate, a chihuahua named Tito, and in addition to doctors and other professionals, their neighbors include several members of New York’s pro sports teams – Yankees, Knicks and Rangers. In 2014, Schembri was persuaded to run for the board and put his financial expertise to use in straightening out the tangled budget-making process. He must have done something right because he was elected president last year.
The pandemic is far from over, and this condo board’s challenges keep coming. Next up: safely reopening the gym. Crews are working on upgrading the ventilation system to comply with new state guidelines, and the board has decided to hire a full-time monitor to make sure that people working out are following protocols on social distancing, mask wearing and sanitizing. The gym will be shut down for an hour every day for a deep cleaning.
“I think it can be successfully reopened,” Dr. Buetti-Sgouros says. “Problems will come up if users push the boundaries, allowing trainers to assist them, not wearing masks because they think it doesn’t allow them to breathe.”
The pandemic has called for unprecedented actions by co-op and condo boards and their managers and building staffs, and it continues to teach lessons. Schembri has learned this: “Response time is critical. Being able to respond to any situation – a pandemic, a fire, a hurricane – means knowing who to communicate with and how to assemble the decision makers, then communicate with the residents. The residents need to understand why you made certain decisions.”
This board made decisions because medical doctors – who happen to be neighbors – advised that it was the right thing to do.