Paula Chin in COVID-19 on September 17, 2020
For Oren Shapiro, the clock was ticking. On April 11, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City, Shapiro, a partner at Sequoia Property Management, got the kind of phone call every property manager dreads. An elderly resident at an Upper East Side co-op Shapiro manages was gravely ill with COVID-19 and was insisting on returning home to die – and she would be discharged from the hospital in just a matter of hours.
“My first reaction was to ascertain if the co-op had a legal right not to permit the resident to come back,” Shapiro says, “so I got on the phone with the board president and our attorney. I also knew that if we did grant her wish, the shareholders would be livid, and with good reason. You’re literally bringing the virus into the building.”
From a legal standpoint, the matter was “very straightforward,” according to the co-op’s attorney, Dennis Greenstein, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw. “We looked at the proprietary lease, which specified that shareholders do have the right to come back and occupy their apartment if they have a disability.”
Was the co-op board facing legal liability if residents or staffers became infected with COVID-19 as a result of the woman’s return? “It was clear we wouldn’t be liable as long as the co-op complied with their obligation to take reasonable steps to protect people,” Greenstein says. “Any case would be difficult to prove unless the co-op behaved in a reckless manner and didn’t follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), state and city guidelines.”
Fortunately, Shapiro was prepared to move quickly. “We had already used a professional disinfecting and sanitizing company at our other buildings,” he says. After arranging for the crew to come to the Upper East Side building, Shapiro emailed shareholders informing them of the move and describing in detail the precautions the building was taking. The lobby at the 16-story, 66-unit property would be closed during the woman’s arrival between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m.; she would take the freight elevator up to her apartment; and any caretaker would take proper safety precautions coming in and out of the building. Residents who wished to leave the building during the two-hour window were also instructed to take the passenger elevator to the basement and exit from there.
“As expected, people were furious,” Shapiro recalls. “We have a mix of middle-age and elderly residents, who were understandably frightened, and some even threatened to sue us. I had to reassure them by explaining that we had no other option and were doing everything in our power and sparing no expense to protect them.”
Shapiro had to do the same with the co-op’s staff: “We said they could leave their stations and prop the front door open, and then lock it until the ambulance workers came back out. We also reassured them they wouldn’t go back inside until the place had been thoroughly disinfected.”
When the woman returned from the hospital, her housekeeper moved in with her and a nurse visited several times. Meanwhile, the co-op board was monitoring the situation closely. “We were in constant touch with Oren to make sure all the proper protocols were being followed,” says board president Henry Fayne. “It was our responsibility to accommodate the patient’s request without sacrificing safety, which meant a joint effort between the board and management.”
On April 17, six days after the patient returned home, Shapiro was informed by her son that she had died. “We notified shareholders that we would be following the same procedures as before in removing the body, and we would let them know when the disinfection was done,” Shapiro says. “We also kept the apartment closed for three weeks, which was more than required. We wanted an abundance of caution.”
Their efforts paid off. “No one got sick,” Shapiro says. “Teamwork was key – that, and keeping shareholders informed so they weren’t in the dark. In an extreme situation like this, you can’t communicate too much.”
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