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What community associations should do during the coronavirus pandemic

By James Slaughter

How do you practice social distancing when you live communally and share services, amenities and even hallways and elevators with neighbors? That’s one of many questions on the minds of community association board members and managers as covid-19 impacts all our lives.

Since news of the virus broke, homeowners associations and condo boards have wondered how they should respond to the outbreak. Among the questions being asked:

  • What should we do to protect the association and its members?

  • What is our responsibility for amenities such as the clubhouse, pool, fitness center, and playground?

  • Do we need to upgrade our plumbing and HVAC systems?

  • What if a resident is diagnosed with covid-19?

Given the spread of the illness, all associations should be asking similar questions.

The general response is that association boards should be vigilant and, while medical professionals are on the front line of responding to the crisis, community associations have an important role to play as well.

The association can act as a conduit for information to owners on tips for staying well and protecting themselves. Information should come from a reliable source, such as the governor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or state and local health officials.

From a legal perspective, responsibilities in a community association usually follow ownership. The association controls the common areas, and lot or unit owners are responsible for their private property, except as provided in the governing documents. Without question, the association must abide by any state or local health emergency declarations, which could include shutting down common areas or banning gatherings of people. Even without such mandates, an association should consider:

  • More extensive cleaning, disinfecting or wiping down of common areas and surfaces.

  • Postponing or canceling events of any size in the common area, whether a membership meeting or educational event.

  • Temporarily closing common areas, such as clubhouses, exercise areas, playgrounds or pools.

  • Installing hand sanitizer dispensers or wipes in the common area for owner and guest use.

Some owners have questioned whether improvements are needed to plumbing or HVAC systems to combat covid-19, whether in common areas or the entire building for a high-rise condo. Such upgrades could be expensive and might accomplish little, as it does not appear the virus spreads through those systems. However, discussing such issues with a professional may help answer questions and allay fears.

If covid-19 becomes prevalent in a community, the association should discuss with its professionals how best to handle the specific situation. As noted above, that talk will certainly focus on what the association is responsible for and what the owner is responsible for. At the end of the day, owners are most responsible for their own health and safety. CDC’s tips for preventing illness concentrate on an individual’s responsibility:

  • Avoid close contact with sick people.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Stay home if you are sick.

  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

  • Follow recommendations for face masks.

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are dirty.

The association should require association employees to follow these guidelines, including any additional advice from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or health department recommendations.

If an owner in the community contracts covid-19, it may be appropriate to inform residents, especially in a condominium with shared hallways or elevators. The information is relevant to other owners and is not protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or usual medical privacy laws, but check state laws. Recognize there is a big difference between stating that an owner has coronavirus and identifying that individual. Consult your professionals.

No matter what steps a community or individuals take to prevent the spread of illness, someone could always become ill. The likelihood of an association being liable for that is very small — in part because it’s difficult to prove the cause of any specific illness.

Community associations also should consider possible future steps, but they should approach this crisis reasonably and calmly, as with any other. Board members should discuss developments with the community association’s, manager, attorney and insurance experts, and take any necessary precautions.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post on April 20, 2020. Access the article here.