Many co-op and condo boards relaxed enforcement of their COVID-19 protocols last summer when “post-pandemic” optimism was at its peak. Then came the Delta variant, and now comes the Omicron variant. So much for the end of the pandemic. Although the high vaccination rates in New York City have protected most of us from the worst effects of the variants so far, we do not have the luxury of letting our guard down as we once dreamed. What’s a co-op or condo board to do?
Masks back on. With COVID-19 cases surging statewide, Gov. Kathy Hochul has ruled that all people entering a building’s common area must wear a mask or provide proof of vaccination. Boards must decide which protection they want to require. No combinations allowed.
Vaccinations and boosters. Now that the building employees’ union has agreed to a vaccination mandate and the City of New York has issued its own mandate for private employers, there is no reason that all co-op and condo employees, barring those with valid medical or religious exemptions, should not be fully vaccinated. This should include booster shots for employees who are eligible, because the early evidence indicates they may provide broad protection against variants.
Sanitation vs. ventilation. As we approach two years of the pandemic, boards also should take stock of their COVID-19 policies in light of what we have learned. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, most buildings drafted elaborate cleaning protocols based on fears that the virus could spread on surfaces. We now know, however, that the virus is transmitted overwhelmingly through the air, so much so that any significant time and money devoted to “deep cleaning” beyond the building’s regular cleaning cycle is effectively a waste of limited budgetary resources.
We have also learned that COVID-19’s viral particles spread between people more easily indoors than outside and that the concentration of viral particles inside is often higher than outdoors. Accordingly, boards would be much better off investigating how to improve the ventilation and air-filtration systems in their buildings so that viral loads are less likely to build up in common areas.
Learning from the past. COVID-19 is not the first threat transmitted through the air we breathe. There is a long history in multifamily residential buildings of indoor air hazards — asbestos, mold, radon gas and secondhand smoke — that have proven to be manageable, if ever-present, problems. Indeed, those threats have spurred changes in the way buildings are governed, resulting in improved indoor air quality for all residents, employees and visitors. Not so long ago, smoking bans seemed unattainable; today they’re commonplace. We will be fortunate if the COVID-19 pandemic inspires similar shifts in behavior.
To be sure, improving ventilation and indoor air quality may require structural solutions that are more expensive than simply buying a bunch of cleaning supplies or putting a plexiglass barrier around the front desk. But the long-term improvements in indoor air quality and energy efficiency, plus the mitigation of COVID-19 risk, may make these modifications worth the expense.
Unfortunately, it’s almost certain that the COVID-19 virus and its variants aren’t going away anytime soon. The lesson is clear: Co-op and condo boards must remain vigilant, and they must continue to adapt.
William D. McCracken is a partner at the law firm Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer.