Reopening Communities with a Cautious Approach

By:
Terry Danner

Originally featured in Multifamily Executive on May 1, 2020

With state and local governments already making plans to reopen the economy in incremental stages in the wake of the coronavirus health crisis, it’s time for multifamily owners and operators to develop their own procedures for easing restrictions, as well.

Though the excitement over the idea of life returning to normal has ramped up recently, the process for reopening facilities and services needs to be underwhelming.

While social-distancing mandates and stay-at-home orders were imposed rather abruptly, they can’t be rescinded in the same fashion. To help protect associates and residents alike, the apartment industry should take a page out of the government playbook and prioritize the facilities and services to reopen first, and develop a plan to lift restrictions in phases.

Fitness Centers: Social Distancing, Cleaning Remain Crucial

Gyms and recreational facilities will be among the first businesses to reopen in many parts of the country, but apartment communities will need to take steps to prep their fitness centers before allowing residents back in.

Removing equipment to create space and facilitate social distancing is imperative. Establish at least a 6-foot buffer between equipment – especially cardio machines. A reduction of equipment may effectively limit the number of residents who can use the fitness center at a given time, which is a perfect complement to capping the number of people allowed in the fitness center at a given time. Consider leveraging reservation practices or check-ins to ensure there are no more than 10 people in your fitness area at a time (or less if your fitness center is small and having 10 people will not allow for proper social distancing). Resident communications tools like community apps can help with the reservation process.

While cleaning wipes to sanitize equipment between users isn’t a new idea, ensuring that supplies are well stocked and dispensers regularly refilled will become paramount moving forward. Proactively distribute communications to residents reminding them to use the wipes before and after using a piece of equipment, and include instructions on the various parts of the equipment that should be wiped down. Post reminders in the fitness center, as well. Consider providing more aggressive self-service cleaning options, too, such as spray bottles with disinfectant.

Communicate updates with Residents.

Also, increase the frequency of daily gym cleanings. Schedule gym closures throughout the day to allow cleaning crews or your maintenance team to thoroughly service the equipment, and eliminate 24-hour gym availability to ensure that fitness centers receive a complete cleaning at the end of each day. Be sure your teams are practicing the right protocols as well utilizing disposable gloves, mops, cloths, etc. when possible to minimize cross-contamination.  

Common Areas: Time to Reconfigure Offices, Lounges

Leasing offices, coworking centers and resident lounges were designed to encourage person-to-person interaction. Unfortunately, until we’re given the all-clear on COVID-19 concerns, we’ll need to rethink how those common areas are utilized in order to support physical distancing while rebuilding some social interaction.

Space out workstations for leasing associates and rearrange or remove seating to accommodate safe distancing for residents and prospects. Ensure that office spaces and lounges are reconfigured to facilitate adequate spacing. And consider providing your team members with masks.

Keep cleaning supplies on hand so that seating, desktops and countertops can be cleaned between guests and users. Also, plan to extend the enhanced common area cleaning services that were implemented as a coronavirus precaution and maintain special attention to high traffic areas and frequently touched surfaces. Remind residents that while you are happy to see them again, now is not the time to simply congregate in these common areas.

Maintenance Crews: Moving Beyond Emergency Services

Import backlog into a task management system to support maintenance scheduling.

While most multifamily maintenance teams scaled back service to include only urgent tasks or emergency repairs when stay-at-home orders went into effect, as we emerge from such restrictions the backlog of non-urgent service requests will start pouring in. Maintenance teams will need to prioritize their to-do lists, as well as communicate those priorities to residents. Share the actions plans for restored maintenance service with residents.

And for those residents who submitted non-urgent tasks during the stay-at-home orders, use record logs to remind them of what the task was. This communication also serves as a way to proactively check to see if the resident may have taken care of the issue on their own or it the task truly remains outstanding. Transparency will help temper resident expectations and limit pressure on service teams to keep pace with demands until the workload tapers to a manageable level.

Communicate task details with your residents.

Establish lines of communication between maintenance teams and residents, allowing service associates to ask detailed questions and enabling them to bring only the tools and parts they need to complete a task, thus limiting the equipment they need to disinfect after each job. Communicate the continued social distancing expectations for both residents and team members when they enter a home and develop protocols to protect both employees and the integrity of residents’ living spaces.  Share essential information on how your teams will be diligent to limit surface contact within the apartment home as well. If there is a need to contract any of the work out, don’t hesitate to communicate that to residents also. If possible, provide them with the names and photos of those individuals who are authorized to do the work in their apartment home.

As restrictions are systematically loosened, allowing renters to incrementally resume their enjoyment of community features and services, it’s not the time to let our guard down. Communicate that the floodgates are not open and life as we once knew it has not returned in full, but rather that we’re making our way back to normal together.

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