When the pandemic first started to lock down our cities and forced us to shelter in place, we published our Apartment Manager’s Guide to COVID-19 to help explain the management and maintenance of multifamily buildings during the outbreak. Since then, the outbreak has remained a vital management concern, although some of the details pertaining to how to handle it have changed. In light of the new information we have about the virus and its effect on how we manage our buildings, we have updated our free research report with some important new information. IIn this article, we’ll cover a few of the changes that we came across with our newest update.
The most obvious revision that we included is around the emergence of a preponderance of evidence supporting the effectiveness of masks to keep people safe from the virus. We now know that the virus is spreadable through droplets suspended in air. Consequently, mask use should now be a universal requirement for all managers and maintenance staff in the presence of each other or residents. Every staff meeting, maintenance call to a unit, leasing tour and vendor visit must be handled with proper mask use, in order both to keep people safe, as well as to reinforce a consistent message of sanitation for residents and visitors. Beyond staff, residents cannot be expected to wear masks in their units, but managers should enforce consistent, proper mask use while in common areas. This goes not just for lounge and amenity spaces, but also simply for the lobby while on the way in or out for the day.
It has become clear, over time, that there are two broad categories of mask in use today: simple surgical masks or cloth face masks that prevent the wearer from spreading droplets via breathing, cough or sneeze, and the more protective N95 mask (or its equivalents from other countries, like the Chinese KN95) that filters out more particles, serving not only to prevent the spread of the virus but also to keep the wearer safe from inhaling viral particles, as well. Many employees may want to wear a neck gaiter or bandana-style face mask, since these can be more convenient and stylish than other mask types. However, while these are better than nothing, neither single layer neck gaiter nor bandana represents as good of a safety solution as a purpose-made fabric mask, surgical mask, or N95 respirator. In a pinch, these are better than going mask-less but as a matter of policy, real estate teams should make sure their staff are equipped with the real deal.
Interestingly, even while authorities doubled down on their mask emphasis, we also saw a walking back of language surrounding the dangers of surfaces. While authoritative medical sources are still quick to recommend the diligent sanitation of high-touch shared surfaces, most now reference surfaces as being a secondary means of transmission. Harvard Health, for instance, says that “It’s true that a person can get infected if they touch a surface or object that has viral particles on it, then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. But this is not the main way the virus spreads.” This passage came from a section recommending against the use of gloves for most individuals in the course of their day to day lives, another notable consideration.
However, the CDC does now clarify two specific use cases for gloves: first, cleaning, and second, caring for the sick. It goes without saying that masks are also mandatory during this kind of work. Since most managers and maintenance staff will not know whether their residents are sick or not, it makes sense to wear gloves while performing in-unit work as a general rule. However, it is equally important to avoid making blunders with glove use. Wearing gloves is not an excuse to forego routine handwashing, frequent sanitizing, and avoiding touching the face without first paying attention to hand sanitation.
When we first wrote our report, we noted the potential source of danger stemming from building HVAC systems. While many of the conversations on HVAC focus around office environments, this is also a concern in multifamily buildings that are serviced by chiller or central air systems. In fact, while within the office environment consistent mask use can mitigate the risk of HVAC recirculation, since residents cannot be expected to wear masks in their units at all times. Instead, the EPA suggests commercial buildings focus on upgrading their HVAC filters and also providing air purifiers to supplement filtration. Keeping windows open to increase exterior air circulation can also be helpful.
When we published our report, we called attention to generally strong multifamily rent collections despite the disruptive effects of the outbreak. This has played out as a continued trend. Full or partial August 2020 rent collections by the 20th of the month stood at 90.1 percent of the previous year’s total, only 1 percent down over that time frame. At the same time, a CDC order issued at the beginning of September laid out a federal prohibition on evictions for several broad categories of renters, in addition to a range of other state-wide mandates that augment and expand on this. At this point it seems unlikely that a new stimulus bill is likely to get passed in Congress in the near future, potentially throwing doubt on collections long-term, particularly in the time after the November election.
These are just a handful of our overall COVID-19 apartment conclusions. The reality is that this is still a developing situation, and it will likely continue evolving dynamically until we have deployed a successful vaccine. For the rest of our discussion points, check out the full report, available for free here