As the US works contain the spread of COVID-19, what is the responsibility of commercial landlords and property managers? GlobeSt.com recently spoke with James Ferrara, a partner at Shapiro, Blasi, Wasserman & Hermann, P.A. in Boca Raton, FL to find out. Ferrara focuses his practice on a wide range of business and commercial litigation. Prior to joining the firm, he was a Circuit Court Judge in Florida’s 15th Judicial Circuit for Palm Beach County.
What are some of the main questions you are receiving from commercial landlords and property managers during this uncertain time?
I’m receiving numerous calls from property managers and commercial landlords regarding access to their buildings and what obligations they have to protect the health of their tenants. For example, a majority of one of my client’s residents are snowbirds and many were inviting family members, located in the Northeast, to relocate to Florida, as a way to escape that area’s higher concentration of COVID-19 diagnoses. The management company wanted to know if they had an obligation or the right to screen visitors for fever or other symptoms to protect healthy residents. My opinion was that without a governmental edict, they were prohibited from screening the health of visitors and could not interfere with a unit owner’s property rights.
We also received calls from commercial landlords, wanting to know what obligations they had to protect the health of their tenants in today’s environment. Generally, landlords have some degree of responsibility in the protection of an occupant’s health and safety, this includes taking reasonable steps to protect commercial tenants and their customers.
What steps should commercial landlords and property managers take?
The property management agreements and the leases we typically draft and litigate make no reference to global or national pandemics. Currently, there are no directives from the government as to leased premises or multifamily dwellings. Although no one expects either landlords or property managers to be on the front line of preventing the spread of this virus, there are a number of steps that may be perceived as good practices and a sense of heightened responsibility. While owners can’t control what happens in a tenant’s or owner’s unit, the common areas are certainly places where they can take a more proactive role. Closing community parks, pools and community centers is a good place to start.
What should commercial landlords and property managers be telling their residents and tenants?
Communication in these peculiar times is paramount. I suggest providing written communication to tenants and unit owners as to the heightened steps that have been implemented. In addition, in the case of businesses that continue to operate, landlords should request that the tenants adopt and share with them their own internal protocols for health and safety. Finally, periodic emails alerting occupants about the status of governmental closures and how it may impact occupancy will be key to effectual management.
What about their own staff?
Though it is critical for buildings to remain operational, commercial landlords and property managers need to monitor their own on-site staff. In the event someone falls ill or exhibits symptoms they should be removed from the premises immediately. Healthy custodial staff and porters should be given directives to thoroughly clean and disinfect, on an increased basis, those surfaces that come in contact with tenants, unit owners and their guests. Further, ensure that bathrooms are well stocked with soap and touchless paper towel dispensers, and hand sanitizer should be made available in common areas. To increase awareness, posters and other materials, which are readily available from the Centers for Disease Control or local public health agencies regarding the ways individuals can reduce the spread of the virus, should be prominently displayed in all common areas.
As a final word, legally we are in uncharted territory. There are no statutes or cases that provide guidance. This only addresses these important issues in general terms, and the duties and obligations of both commercial landlords and property managers may be either expanded or diminished, based upon the terms of a particular lease or management agreement. Consult with your landlord’s or association’s legal counsel to ensure you are taking the proper steps.