The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is currently monitoring a new outbreak of coronavirus, (COVID-19), which originated in Wuhan, China and is causing respiratory illness.
As apartment owners and operators prepare to mitigate and educate residents on potential exposure, NMHC has compiled an overview of suggested apartment owner preparations in anticipation of the potential spread of COVID-19.
Of course, NMHC recognizes the broad array of company types, sizes and geographic locations that discourage one-size-fits-all approach to planning. This overview is not to be construed as legal guidance but merely a starting point for your company-specific plan. Therefore, we encourage you to seek expert consultation in the development of your plan to ensure comprehensive coverage.
Getting Management “Buy-In”
Firms should start by creating a "Crisis Team" comprised of senior executives charged with developing the plan. Since the impacts of the spread of COVID-19 can vary significantly, team members should include personnel from the corporate suite, risk management, human resources, legal, information technology, and operations. And team members should have decision-making and spending authority.
Communication is Key
Accurate, timely and regular communications with employees, residents, suppliers and even the media are critical. Make sure you have all available contact information for your staff, residents and suppliers (cell, e-mail, fax), and develop alternative ways to disseminate information (corporate web sites, hotlines) in case telecommunications are disrupted. Also be sure to appoint spokespersons
The most common communications will concern prevention practices, changes in office policies (telecommuting policy or sick time) and resident communications. Certain resident policies will need to be adjusted, such as transitioning to an emergency-only maintenance policy.
Managing Infection Control
Clearly the most important and ongoing component of any plan. Everyone is now familiar with the “common sense” approach to infection control-practicing proper cough etiquette, washing your hands frequently and staying home if you are sick.
Once beyond the early stage, enhanced measures may be required, such as sanitizing work areas, public places and commonly touched elements (door handles, elevator buttons, etc.) and placing hand sanitizers in common areas and fitness centers.
Establishing Protocol for Employee Leave
A severe outbreak could cause absenteeism, due to infection, fear of infection and caring for family members. Develop a leave policy that includes telecommuting, staggered schedules and liberal leave. Establish protocol for employee/supervisor communication, cross-train your staff in case of long-term absences and test telecommuting plans to ensure they work.
Crafting a Plan for Potential Lapse in Services and Supplies
With the loss of staff and on-site personnel, most companies will have to curtail their services. It may be necessary to implement online-only leasing and online rent payment or drop boxes. Service calls, trash collection, security, maintenance and move-in/move-out will require another look in a severe outbreak. Fitness centers, pools and community rooms may need to be closed.
Anticipate high absenteeism at your suppliers and service providers that might create disruptions in trash removal, utilities, transportation and Internet access. Seek alternative service providers and outsource options for IT. Secure generators for power outages. Consider allowing employees to stay in model units.
Understanding Legal Liability
The spread of COVID-19 could raise a host of legal issues that must be analyzed in advance to reduce company liability. Consider liability sources such as resident illness, employee exposure to sick residents, evictions and employee leave scenarios. Also consider how much risk you want to assume. Do you direct residents to third-party sources for information on the virus rather than being the source of information; do you advise residents on how to secure protective supplies instead of distributing them yourself?
Dealing with the Aftermath
Disaster planning also means considering what happens after the event. The human and financial impact on a company and its property operations can be devastating if the recovery process is not included in your overall plan.
In the days following a disaster, experts recommend companies evaluate their insurance coverage, revisit human resources policies regarding back-to-work issues, identify any need for Employee Assistance Programs or counseling, and evaluate re-opening common areas and services. Pay special attention to the availability of government aid.
Finally, evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and modify as needed and practice regularly.
It is unknown whether one or more “waves” of COVID-19 outbreak will emerge. However, to proceed without a plan is a risk your company should not take. Firms must remain vigilant and fine-tune their plans, practice them and adjust to unanticipated events.
For more information and a list of go-to resources, visit our coronavirus resources for apartment firms webpage.