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Building Owners Struggle to Comply With Evolving COVID-19 Ordinances

Now, more so than ever before, buildings are having to navigate the rapid changes of compliance regulations and ordinances. Let’s use New York as an example. Nearly daily, the New York state government releases updates and adds-on new executive orders to the “Continuing Temporary Suspension and Modification of Laws Relating to the Disaster Emergency,” many of which affect buildings and how they operate. Depending on the type of property (office, retail, multifamily, school, hospital, etc.), these nearly daily fluctuations in regulations affect things like occupancy levels, cleaning protocols, HVAC system requirements, and if the businesses that occupy the building are allowed to operate at all. It’s a lot of information to keep track of, and it’s not always easy to find. 

New York City’s official government website provides basic guidance for buildings and property managers based on the state’s phased reopening plan. But typically, the city’s guidance would supersede the state’s because of the vast regulatory bodies within the city that have been given jurisdiction. “The city itself has its own department of buildings, its own very large-scale, sprawling agencies that manage all of its compliance and track it and enforce it. So that those policies typically trumped the state policies,” said Kristen Hariton, a product marketing strategist at SiteCompli, a technology company based out of New York City that helps owners and managers assign, track, and manage day-to-day operations, including compliance.

However, now the city is looking to the state for guidance. Hariton explains that they’re seeing the guidelines “coming from the state departments as opposed to the city departments.” She gave an example of the housing, preservation, and development department which normally regulates all residential properties in New York City. They haven’t, as of yet, put forth any regulations for how to handle COVID-19 in terms of cleaning guidelines. Instead, they’ve adopted the guidelines that the state released on how residential properties should be cleaned, along with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene guidelines. According to Hariton, this is not the norm, but because state governments have taken on such a major role in handling COVID-19 that it makes sense for their guidelines to be reflected in any city policies. 

Similarly, New York City is following the guidelines released by the New York State’s Department of Health for reopening commercial properties. Within New York City’s guidelines for the management of commercial properties, a section of the document requires businesses seeking to reopen to read New York state’s guidelines commercial building management and affirm compliance with those measures. Essentially, for a commercial building to reopen in New York City, they must have read and complied with the state’s guidelines. 

What are some of the major points that commercial properties need to comply with in order to reopen in either the state or the city? The most obvious is managing the people within those spaces in a number of ways: requiring them to wear face masks, maintaining six feet apart (unless the core job function requires closer interactions), keeping workstations six feet apart, cleaning and disinfecting workspaces between shared use, and indicating with signage and floor tape traffic flow patterns to maintain safe distances. And that’s just a small sample of one portion of the guidelines. 

New York state also requires all employees to be screened for COVID-19 using some type of screening assessment tool that asks basic symptomatic questions and includes temperature checks. Documentation must be maintained for these screenings. These records not only show compliance but can also be used to mitigate risk in the event that an outbreak occurs. While these types of measures may seem overboard in comparison to other places across the country, infection rates in New York have remained, on average, steady and low since early to mid-June. 

I use New York as an example because, despite taking the brunt of the initial COVID-19 beating, once stabilized both the city and the state have done a good job of nipping problems in the bud (and butt) to continue moving forward on the path to rebuilding. Governor Cuomo has stated the reason he has been so strict is that his intentions are to keep the recovery progress moving in the right direction. The goal is not to have to pause or move backward in the phased reopening plan by eliminating risks before they can cause a resurgence in outbreaks.  

Meanwhile, in cities like Miami, where cases are just recently beginning to decline after seeing massive outbreaks since early to mid-June, the regulations aren’t as strict, and reponings have had to pause or reverse because of infections. For example, Miami’s guidelines for office spaces do not call for limited occupancy whereas New York’s require office buildings operate at fifty percent maximum occupancy. These minor differences in regulations can have big effects on mitigating exposure and risk. Both cities do, however, recommend that any personnel that are able should continue to work from home and that meetings should be conducted virtually if at all possible. 

Similarly, one of the biggest changes when it comes to the way buildings are regulated since the onset of COVID-19 could be the move to digital. In New York City, one of the most complicated, regulated cities when it comes to building compliance, has made a widespread move to allow applications, license renewals, permits and other forms to all be submitted online. Not only that, but during the peak of the outbreak, when the city was on strict lockdown guidelines, these types of forms were required to be submitted online rather than in person. 

Could this be a permanent change to a formerly archaic way of conducting business? Hariton believes the answer is yes, to a certain degree. “A lot of frustration with city agencies was because the processes were so old school. Everything was on paper. Everything was in person. And now, that’s rapidly changed,” said Hariton, but she believes that for accessibility purposes, some agencies might also revert to accepting paper applications in addition to digital. These changes indicate a larger, nation-wide trend towards conducting business digitally, and because it’s happening on a larger scale, this trend is more likely to remain permanent. 

While COVID-19 ordinances and regulations might be changing at break-neck speed, it’s now more important than ever before for property managers and owners to pay attention to the information being released. “I think we can’t assume that just because a regulation is in place one day doesn’t mean that it’s going to be in place the next day or next week. And what will that change do for your business?” Hariton explained. She suggests subscribing to newsletters from community organizations as a way to keep track of the changing information, and for New Yorkers in particular, SiteCompli’s blog is a great resource, too. While this information may be difficult to find and keep track of, it has never been more imperative to do so. Keeping up with changes in ordinances is the only way to reduce liability and show both governmental agencies and tenants they’ve done everything possible to mitigate risk—both present and future.  

Assistant Editor

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