HOAs are encountering uncharted territory with COVID-19. Over 73 million Americans currently live in community associations and are leaning on their leadership for guidance. Decisions about communication practices, mandatory meetings and voting, community events, common spaces, and self-reporting are weighing heavily on board members. In uncertain times, it is important for HOA boards and management to come together and share best-practices from across the country.
Emergency Plan/Legal Guidance
In a recent publication on its website, the Community Association Institute (CAI) urges associations to “review or establish an emergency plan in consultation with legal counsel, insurance and risk management experts, and their manager.” Consulting with your legal and insurance representatives during this time is critical because each state has different laws and regulations governing community associations. While the CAI has published a sample letter for open use by HOAs, personalizing that letter to your community will require you to have it reviewed by legal counsel. In addition, reviewing your emergency plan with legal professionals in light of COVID-19 concerns—which may include decisions that affect your community covenants and restrictions—is a prudent practice.
Many of your community members are worried that living in their HOA will affect their health. Providing them with accurate, up-to-date information can help alleviate fear and help prevent the spread of the virus. The CAI is suggesting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the best source of current COVID-19 health and prevention information. The CDC can provide your membership with best practices for personal hygiene, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and isolation procedures. Whether you address these concerns through regular publications or through special announcements, providing information to your membership is a critical tool to alleviate stress and encourage compliance with basic preventative measures like social distancing and hand washing.
HOAs keep in touch with their members through general communication practices like distributing newsletters, maintaining a central bulletin board, in-person meetings, websites, and email blasts. Some of these practices are better than others during the COVID-19 crisis. Obviously, reducing person-to-person contact would mean cancelling in person meetings. Paper newsletters, typically distributed by hand, can also be a way to spread the virus. The best methods of communicating during this time are electronic. Teleconferencing with websites like FreeConferenceCall.com and virtual conferencing with platforms like Zoom and GoToMeeting are becoming extremely popular.
Depending on the demographics of your community, using solely online methods of communication may be an easy solution to implement. Other communities, however, may find the transition to electronically delivered information challenging. For these communities, it might be easier for members to access announcements and information through existing platforms such as Facebook. Information can also be sent using text messages that provide a hyperlink directly to the correct webpage. Of course, individual voice calls are still a good option, even if more time consuming.
Common Spaces and Community Events
HOAs are responsible for the maintenance of common spaces, which usually means that members have maintenance-free access to these facilities and spaces. In this situation, however, HOAs must decide how to appropriately “maintain” those spaces. The CAI suggests the following:
· Vigorous cleaning, disinfecting all common areas and surfaces.
· Shutting down common areas like pools, fitness centers, and meeting spaces.
· Adding hand sanitizer dispensers in high-volume common areas.
Similarly, the CAI suggests cancelling or postponing all social activities and events to reduce spreading the virus by contact. Members of your association may feel disappointed or frustrated by these changes. Still, it is important to remember that the HOA is there to ensure the safety of all amenities and events. Right now, according to the CAI and the CDC, closing common areas and canceling events are the best way to stay safe.
Board Meetings and Voting
State and local laws regulate the requirements for board and open meetings, so consultation with a legal professional before changing official meeting procedures is suggested. In some cases, teleconferences may be appropriate as long as all members are present and agree to the change. Fortunately, technology today makes a conference call as easy as a phone number and access code. Similarly, elections or membership votes typically require paper ballots or meeting in person. Voting via teleconference or online voting is permitted in some states, including Florida. Consult with your legal representative for your state’s requirements for meeting remotely and voting electronically.
Disclosure of Infected Persons
Perhaps the most controversial issue facing HOAs in light of COVID-19 is disclosing self-reported infected persons to the community. HOAs must weigh disease prevention with personal privacy. It is important to obtain full-disclosure permission and consult with legal counsel before releasing any personal information to the community. To limit the spread of the virus, HOAs should encourage individuals who have come into contact with the infected person to self-isolate. If the infected person does not want to reveal their identity, the board cannot release their name. It may, however, be permitted to notify the community that a member tested positive.
In light of these changes, it is not easy for HOA boards and management personnel to make decisions. Still, by listening to government and medical professionals and consulting your attorney, your HOA will be prepared to help prevent the spread of the virus in your community.
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