Editor’s Note: During this crisis, The Cooperator family of publications will be passing along information, tips, and FAQs submitted by our network of industry professionals, including attorneys, managers, and other subject matter experts. The views and opinions expressed are those of the contributors, and as the situation evolves in the coming days and weeks, those views and opinions may evolve as well. We encourage readers to be mindful of this; check posting dates, make note of contributors’ locations and industries, and above all, consult with your own community professionals as you and your neighbors navigate this challenging landscape.
On Wednesday, March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus (or COVID-19) to be a “pandemic,” which effectively meant that the disease was spreading rapidly through different parts of the world. This label inevitably led to questions to boards and managers from owners and residents as to what their associations are doing to stop, prevent, or control the spread of the illness. Below is a list of items that all property managers and board members should bear in mind as we move forward through this unprecedented challenge:
1. Neither the board members nor manager are health care professionals – As unit owners and occupants look for answers, we recommend that boards and managers remind them that local, state and federal authorities (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are the best source of information -- not the manager or board. Besides providing a list of precautions the association may be taking (such as directing maintenance staff to wipe down elevator buttons, door handles, etc.), or detailing events that the association may cancel at he board’s discretion (such as meetings, etc.), the association need not provide any further information.
2. Employees – If an association has employees, we recommend the board or manager contact their attorney to discuss the best options for dealing with suspected illness or sick leave issues related to on-site staff and employees.
3. Meeting Cancellations – Unless and until local, state or federal officials recommend individuals refrain from attending public events (such as board and owner meetings), it is entirely within the board’s discretion whether or not to cancel planned in-person meetings. Certainly, to the extent meetings can be held virtually (via phone or video conference call), the board may consider doing so. Bear in mind that owners must be provided the option to call-in and ‘attend’ the virtual meetings to ensure that they remain ‘open’ pursuant to statute. Check with your attorney to ensure compliance with such requirements and understand how associations may continue to do business in a safe and legal manner in light of public health and safety concerns.
4. Ensure Messaging is Compliant with the Fair Housing Act – Boards and managers must be sure that messages from the association related to the coronavirus do not unintentionally (or intentionally) discriminate against owners, tenants, occupants, or employees based on race, color, national origin, familial status, etc. Pandemic or no, the Fair Housing Act, Illinois Human Rights Act and other state and local laws still apply, and violations can result in lawsuits.
The coronavirus issue may well be resolved in due course, but a discrimination lawsuit against an association based on poorly-drafted communications can result in a lawsuit that could last years.
Nicholas P. Bartzen is the founder of Altus Legal, LLC and exclusively represents Illinois community associations. He currently serves as the co-chair of the Chicago Bar Association's Condominium Subcommittee, and is an active member of CAI-IL, the Illinois chapter of the Community Associations Institute, the Illinois State Bar Association, and the American Bar Association.