Carol J. Ott in Building Operations on March 19, 2020
Habitat spoke recently with three professionals on the guidance they’re giving their co-op and condo board clients during the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke with Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management; Ken Jacobs, a partner in the law firm Smith, Buss & Jacobs; and Steven Sladkus, a partner in the law firm Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas. Below is an edited transcript of the panel dicussion.
Habitat: What’s the first step you took when the virus hit?
Wolfe: Our first step was to close all amenity rooms so people can't congregate and they’re keeping a safe social distance. If somebody is self-quarantined or somebody has tested positive, we are treating those the same – a thorough disinfecting of that person's floor, the lobby, the elevator and anywhere they've traveled.
Habitat: Are boards legally responsible to hire a company to come in and disinfect the building if someone in the building has the virus?
Jacobs: There is an old case from the scarlet fever epidemic in 1900. It said that if a landlord has control over the public parts of the building and fails to take precautions, that might be considered negligence. So the answer is, I think, that a board has to act proactively – not just morally but also legally – and it's better to err on the side of active disinfection and active information.
Sladkus: I agree. But if more and more people get infected in a building, and professional cleaners come over and over and over again – a board is going to look at $100,000 worth of cleaning bills before they know it. I think Lysol and disinfectant and Clorox wipes are reasonable, but I don’t think professional cleaning services are necessary because someone else could walk in the next minute and contaminate the building all over again.
Habitat: Can boards and management force residents and staff to follow the new protocols?
Wolfe: We had a situation last week where somebody returned from one of the countries that are on the watch list. And that person refused to self-quarantine himself. We called 911 and the Department of Health, and they came. Hospitals staffers and the Department of Health actually told this person, look, you have an obligation to self-quarantine yourself. So that corrected that issue.
Sladkus: A lot of us have been discussing what to do if somebody has been infected and they're not self-quarantining. I think the best step is to call 911, 311 or the Department of Health immediately to try to have public authorities act. I think going to court is an absolute no-win. You've got to look to the public authorities for help.
Habitat: Have any residents in your buildings tested positive?
Wolfe: Yes. The Department of Health is visiting the infected person or persons every two days for a wellness check. The problem will be how many people will the Department of Health have to do these wellness checks if the virus continues to spread at a very quick rate?
Habitat: What can boards do if building staffers get sick or decide to self-quarantine at home?
Sladkus: It’s going to be as if a strike has occurred. Residents might have to start manning the door and helping with garbage and the like.
Wolfe: Our memos to our buildings have treated it exactly that way. We are asking for volunteers. It’s similar to what we do during a strike.
Habitat: How are your buildings handling deliveries?
Wolfe: We're letting the boards decide, but we've sent out a memorandum to all of our client buildings encouraging them to have deliveries left at the front desk. I believe that my entire portfolio of 140 buildings all agree that the delivery should remain in the lobby. However, buildings that have a concierge or door people, they may bring those packages up.
Habitat How often should boards be communicating with their residents regarding the illness?
Sladkus: I think at the very least on a weekly basis, and quite frankly we have some proactive boards who might even issue just a quick one- or two-sentence update every day. It's very easy to do over something like Building Link if everybody's hooked up and everybody's at home. Regular updates by the board, if anything, will just help make people feel better.
Habitat: If a resident has tested positive, are they required to tell management?
Sladkus: You can make any requirement you want, but you can't force anybody to do anything. Boards can and should put it out there that if you test positive, you are strongly, strongly encouraged to confidentially tell the board, and the board should assure the resident that his or her identity and the floor will not be disclosed. I think people have a right to know there's an infected person in the building, and that the person is self-quarantining, and everything is being done to protect other residents.
Wolfe: We've gotten a bunch of emails in many of our buildings from people letting us know that they've been in a certain country or they've been exposed and they're self-quarantining. I think people are forthcoming. I think they realize how important it is to protect themselves, the rest of their family, and the residents and the building staff. So I think people have been very cooperative to date.
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