The successful reopening of apartment communities is critical not only to making things start to feel like normal but also to putting the economy back on track. For that to happen, apartment professionals need a plan that will allow things to slowly open up with minimal risk but let things get back to business as usual. Due to the board array of properties, a one-size-fits-all approach to planning the reopening is highly discouraged. Companies are encouraged to take the suggested operating models and footprints then adapt them to their needs based on their size and use.
Next, you have to bring your team together, identify resources and create a plan. There are plenty of resources available to help you get started, organizations like NMHC and IREM have templates and suggestions to provide starting points. If you’re only allowing certain employees in the office at a time, then your plan will need to determine specific metrics such as who is working and when. It’s likely non-emergency work orders have been put off the last couple months, so the plan will need to address what are deemed emergency and non-emergency, as well as when to phase non-emergency work orders in. Maybe they’re based on metrics of COVID-19 cases or the opening phases of your municipality. The important thing is that you have a plan and you communicate that plan. When you don’t have a plan and you tell your employees or residents you don’t know when they ask, that’s when issues arise.
Regardless of your plan, continue to monitor local government authorities and the CDC for ongoing recommendations. Its absolutely critical we keep our eyes wide open and while our hope is that we are able to transition back into a normal life with our communities, we realize that there is always the possibility the virus can ramp back up and spread more. So, we must continually monitor the local government guidelines and adhere to their recommendations. If your municipality says to wear masks in public or in your business again, then change your guidelines to meet their recommendations.
One of the most important keys to a successful reopening begins with keeping communication open with not only our employees, but also with our residents. While some may be happy about things opening back up, there are likely others still feeling uneasy and may have safety concerns. So be sure to craft your communications in a way to reflect a compassionate, informative tone to reflect a people-first mentality that you are letting everyone know that you are being proactive at maintaining a healthy and hygienic workplace. It’s very important to keep in mind that although this may be your workplace, it’s someone else’s home. It’s also important to remind residents that they need to do their part. While we are taking every precaution to keep the property clean, the health of everyone at the property is the duty of each resident and everyone’s health comes down to each individual acting together to stop the virus from spreading.
The biggest question most apartment owners and operators are asking is when they think the right time to open common areas are. As summer approaches, pools and other amenities are popular attractions, and often very important leasing amenities. With social distancing in place, are they worth the risk? While the CDC is recommending that they stay closed for any non-essential activities, many are starting to share best practices about how they plan to phase opening various locations.
One suggestion is limiting the number of residents into community areas by scheduling events or activities. While community buildings are being used, make sure they have good air flow from the air conditioner or opening windows. Or you might see if the ventilation system can be modified to increase the ventilation rates or the percentage of outdoor air that circulates into the building. Outdoor amenities are of less concern because they perceived to be of less risk. The thought is that with proper maintenance and disinfection (with chlorine or bromine) should kill COVID-19 in pools or hot tubs, but they may become crowded and could easily exceed recommended guidance for gatherings. If that happens it can be challenging to keep surfaces clean and disinfected. One suggestion is to consider using a reservation system where residents would have to schedule time at the pool limiting access and prevent overcrowding problems from arising. Then still the issue of touch areas in the common areas on all the door handles, chairs, and so many other items we touch on a daily basis without even thinking about it.
The key in these areas will be to sanitize, sanitize and sanitize more. That means using disinfectants to wipe down entry door handles, elevator buttons, buzzer buttons, counters, railings, and other surfaces that are touched often (including surfaces in property management offices). If possible, this should be done several times a day. Make sure your maintenance staff focuses on decontaminating surfaces and make gloves and other protective gear available to minimize their exposure. Direct them to wash their hands frequently, including after they take off their gloves. These people are your first line of defense — keep them healthy. If possible, its suggested to post sanitizing stations at all of your public entrances with signs encouraging use frequently.
Keys for success
- Designate a COVID team and create a plan
- Establish office staff & hours
- Community amenities and any adjusted rules
- Any changes in maintenance routines or policy
- Cleaning and safety protocols
- Recommendations for residents
- Follow local government/authorities and CDC guidelines
- Keep communication open with employees and residents
At the heart of it all, safety will remain the focus for not only employees, but also residents. With so much uncertainty and so many variables still in play, all we can do is take it one day at a time, make one step and assess how that works before taking another. Then adjust before taking the next step, then before long we will realize we have come far and who knows, we may wake up one day and realize that we are now in the new normal.