The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down and has changed the way that we go about our daily lives. Current public health recommendations include requirements for self-isolation, restrictions on gatherings, and physical distancing. In apartment-style condominium buildings, these recommendations are creating unique challenges and raising several issues that condominium corporations and boards of directors should be considering.
Obligations of Condominium Corporations and Boards of Directors
The specific obligations and duties of a condo corporation and its board will depend, in part, on that condominium’s bylaws. However, all condo corporations and boards are responsible for the control and management of the common property under Alberta’s Condominium Property Act. This extends to ensuring that common areas are maintained in a manner that minimizes risk to the health and safety of occupants, staff, contractors and invitees.
To protect the health and safety of occupants and invitees, condo corporations, through their board of directors, can establish new rules that take effect immediately when addressing an emergency or safety concern. COVID-19 certainly qualifies as both. Condo corporations are still required to properly notify all occupants and owners of any new rules in writing, and by posting throughout the common areas of the condominium.
Condo boards need to consider what specific obligations they owe to the owners and occupants in their building, and move to introduce updated protocols and rules to minimize the risk to occupants. If this has not already occurred, condo boards should strongly consider convening an emergency meeting, by video or teleconferencing, to identify issues they are already facing as a result of COVID-19, and discussing strategies to minimize this risk. Condo boards should make and implement any new rules on the basis of the public health and safety recommendations, and in consideration of the issues specific to their properties, while also adhering to all public health orders and recommendations that have been made.
Key Considerations in Addressing Issues and Minimizing Risks
All unit owners and occupants have the right to use the common areas of a condominium for access to and from their units, and this right cannot be restricted. This needs to be kept in mind when considering new protocols and rules. While movements throughout the common areas can and should be discouraged during this pandemic, and restricted up to a point, all occupants will continue to require access.
When setting new rules and policies, condo boards should consider approaches that will minimize risk to occupants, staff and invitees as much as possible while also still being reasonable in terms of implementation and adherence. Condo boards will want to ensure that all occupants comply with self-isolation and other public health orders in order to avoid risk to anyone else on the property. In doing so, they also need to ensure that newly implemented rules and protocols contain certain accommodations so that individuals can comply with public health orders.
There are a variety of issues that condo corporations and boards need to consider when first tackling their COVID-19 approach. Some immediate items to address include the following:
- Posting educational information, public health recommendations, building rules, and requests to respect physical distancing recommendations throughout the common areas of the condominium, as well as providing copies to each unit within the building;
- Reviewing and updating common area cleaning procedures;
- Closure of all condominium amenities, such as fitness centres, meeting rooms, and pools;
- Restricting movement of occupants and invitees in the common areas to adhere to physical distancing requirements;
- Use of staff or volunteers to assist occupants who may require additional assistance due to self-isolation or other personal matters; and
- Compiling a list of occupants who have disclosed a positive COVID-19 test, or who have been tested and are awaiting results, for use in the event of an emergency or evacuation of the building.
It is important to note that condo corporations can be held liable for the actions of any volunteers acting on their behalf. As such, condo boards must ensure that all staff and volunteers are properly informed of, and adhere to, all public health recommendations, including physical distancing requirements, proper handling of parcels, garbage and other items, and proper hand-washing techniques.
COVID-19 Positive Occupants
While condo boards can ask occupants to disclose their COVID-19 test results, there is no requirement to disclose this information. Condo corporations and boards must continue to comply with all privacy and access to information laws in Alberta, even during the pandemic.
Where an occupant has disclosed that they have tested positive for COVID-19, condo boards should consider a telephone discussion with the occupant regarding current public health orders and recommendations, as well building-specific self-isolation rules and protocols. This will ensure that the occupant knows what is expected of them during their self-isolation period. Having this discussion will also give the condo board the ability to identify any accommodations that the occupant may require during their self-isolation, such as receiving deliveries and groceries, garbage disposal and pet care.
Current public health recommendations require that individuals undergoing self-isolation not leave their individual units, even to use common use facilities, for the duration of their isolation. As building occupants will need to dispose of their garbage and potentially receive grocery and other deliveries, condo boards should consider different accommodations for these individuals to ensure that they are not required to leave their units for any reason.
Condo boards should also consider implementing procedures for situations where an individual is required to leave their unit to seek medical care. This could include a request that individuals notify condominium staff of any appointments and their expected departure and return times, so staff can take proper precautions to practice physical distancing and thoroughly clean/disinfect common areas, as required.
Other occupants and owners should be informed of any positive or probable cases of COVID-19 in the building. While privacy laws prevent condo corporations and boards from disclosing personal information about an occupant who is sick, these notices give boards the opportunity to notify the building of all new rules and protocols should an occupant become ill, and further remind all occupants of current public health recommendations and requirements to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
In the event that problems arise with an occupant not adhering to self-isolation requirements by accessing and using common areas within the building, the condo board can notify health authorities of the violation. Public health order violations can be reported to Alberta Environmental Public Health at www.alberta.ca/covid19.
Visitors, Deliveries and Couriers
Extra precautions need to be taken when dealing with non-occupants visiting the building. These can include notices on all entrances requesting that individuals not enter the building if they are COVID-19 positive, or are otherwise feeling ill. Condo corporations can additionally restrict access to the building for all non-occupants and non-owners, within reason. As current public health orders restrict gatherings of 15 people or more, condominium amenities or common areas should be closed and not used for any form of gathering.
Courier and delivery services are vitally important to occupants during this time, particularly to individuals who are vulnerable or otherwise considered high-risk, and those who are self-isolating. There are several approaches that condo boards can take with deliveries. First, the board can allow all couriers access to the building to drop deliveries at each unit individually. Alternatively, condo boards can allow for all parcels and deliveries to be left with a specified staff member. Those parcels can then either be retrieved by occupants, or delivered to each unit by the staff member. It must be stressed that should a condo board prefer occupants to retrieve their packages from a centralized location, accommodations will need to be made for occupants who are high-risk, ill or otherwise self-isolating, which should include the option of delivery to that occupant’s unit.
Staff members who are tasked with accepting and delivering parcels should follow proper hygiene protocols, including sanitizing packages prior to handling, frequently washing their hands, and washing their clothing and showering at the end of their shift.
Emergency Repairs and Access to Trades
At this time, it is strongly recommended that all non-urgent building work and maintenance be postponed for the time being, to help protect the safety of all occupants, staff and workers. Unfortunately, emergencies will continue to happen during this pandemic. With the majority of us spending more time at home, such events may event increase. As a result, building repairs and emergency remediation will still need to occur, especially where there is a potential risk to the safety of the public, occupants and staff.
In cases where urgent building repairs need to be conducted, all physical distancing measures and condominium rules and protocols should be strictly adhered to by tradespeople who are conducting the repairs. This includes working a minimum of two (2) metres apart, frequent hand-washing and no entering the building if sick or otherwise feeling unwell.
Condo Fees and Other Financial Obligations of Unit Owners
Given current financial hardships that many are facing as a result of COVID-19, there is the potential that some condo owners may not be in a position to pay their condo fees, insurance deductibles, and other financial obligations.
Practically speaking, the best approach at this time would be for condo boards to try and arrange a payment plan with the owner, with repayment to take place over a reasonable period of time. The terms of this repayment plan should be reasonable for both the condo corporation and the owner. Being reasonable in the circumstances will help encourage repayment of all outstanding fees sooner rather than later.
However, if a payment plan cannot be agreed on, the condo corporation does have the right to register a caveat on the owner’s unit and alert the mortgagee on title. This will allow for the mortgagee to pay all outstanding fees and add those amounts to the owner’s mortgage. In situations where legal action is commenced, it may be possible for the condo corporation to seek full indemnity legal costs from the owner. This will depend on the specific bylaws of the condominium.
As yet, there has been no suspension of limitations periods in which a corporation must commence legal action against a unit owner in arrears, but a number of interested industry groups and lawyers are lobbying for this and other, temporary forms of relief for condominium corporations. Included in these efforts are requests for the suspension of meeting requirements in the Condominium Property Act and Regulations, as well as the requirement that reserve funds only be used for implementing capital repairs and replacements. This would permit corporations to access those funds to subsidize shortfalls in their operating budgets.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges in recent days. These challenges are even more complicated in an apartment-style condominium, where many occupants regularly come into close contact with their neighbours in using the common areas of the building. However, by considering the immediate concerns and potential issues that may arise in the future, condo corporations and boards can introduce rules and protocols that will minimize the risk to occupants, owners and staff while stiff adhering to current public health orders and recommendations. For a current list of public health orders and recommendations, please visit www.alberta.ca/COVID19.