Defining an emergency in a pandemic is a new scenario for seasoned managers

As published on CondoBusiness 
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
By Kirsten Dale and Debbie Dale

At the start of the pandemic, hurdles instantly arose with a rock-solid hardness that hit condominium managers and their clients like brick walls.

The Annual General Meeting schedules fell apart like shifting sand with no tangible boundaries within which to schedule revised meeting dates. Six months post fiscal year end for the AGM meeting as a hard deadline established by The Condominium Act, 1998, vanished amidst emergency orders and social distancing.

The recommendation was made by the legal minds of our industry, and remains now, that all condominium corporations should hold off on hosting their AGMs until the state of emergency in Ontario has been lifted and public health officials are no longer recommending social distancing measures. The potential risk for danger associated with hosting an in-person meeting remains much higher than any assumed punishment that failure to hold the AGM within the prescribed timeline may result in. The government only recently issued directives to support these initial recommendations, such that the mandated timeline for owner meetings be formally extended to permit the delay of these meetings.

Condominium managers, generally the corporation’s agents for proactive thinking, now find themselves asking new questions. Can an AGM be postponed indefinitely? What if the board has lost quorum and there is no one to direct the management company and a meeting cannot be held? Cruel and unusual punishment terms left some managers with no board and over-budget expenses that caused angst. Defining an emergency in a pandemic is a completely new scenario that even seasoned managers were unprepared for, let alone the newbies.

Another challenge is customizing social distancing protocols relating to shared living spaces. A new code of appropriate conduct was quickly ushered in. Thou shalt not board thine elevator alongside other humans other than those with whom thou permanently resides. And thou shalt cease using the hallways for exercising. Many new directives were instantly assumed in our shared living environments and have remained in place since the state of emergency was ordered.

How can managers restrict condo dwellers who do not want to bother with social distancing and will do as they choose? Keeping visitors away is a challenge, alongside objections from lonely residents coupled with the demands of their neighbours who want protection from the outside world.

There is a conflict in directives here that managers must now navigate very cautiously. On one side, the corporation is the deemed occupier of the common elements and could therefore be held liable for inaction if they had knowledge of any dangerous circumstance on the common elements and made no move to address it. On the other side, if the corporation acts and is seen as acting too severely (for example, closing access to gym and pool facilities that owners pay for in their condo fees, laundry rooms, parkette areas, libraries, guest suites), it could face resentment from owners when the dust of this global pandemic eventually settles.

To add fuel to the fire, boards are suddenly divided when responding to management recommendations. Many directors are quick to agree with their managers and use recommended safety measures. Others are concerned about enticing underlying levels of fear in the community by posting signs and sending notices. Managers typically have time to mediate these different opinions into a mostly collective decision, but time isn’t readily available—there is a labour shortage as trades and staff self-isolate, owners inundate the management office with inquiries about the situation as it progresses by the hour, and managers struggle to find available resources to protect residents. Stocking a 300-unit building with hand sanitizer isn’t easy; healthcare facilities are prioritized for shipments, while dispenser stations are impossible to find.

Residents often feel entitled to monitor, track and report on the self-isolators. Once the word is out that a resident has been tested and is awaiting results, all semblance of reason seems to dissipate.

So what can we possibly agree are best practices right now? The experts seem, thus far, to agree with these tips:

  • If you have communal spaces such as hot tubs, gyms, change rooms, meeting rooms or party rooms, etc., leave them closed until further notice. Thank your residents for their support in advance with a notice to advise of the closure and suggest a party when the social-distancing protocols are lifted to enjoy each other’s company once more. The provincial government’s emergency order issued March 17th mandated the closure of these facilities, and this order remains in place until at least May 6. Even then, if lifted, each corporation will have a requirement to ensure their facilities are re-opened in a manner which ensures the safety and health of users, staff and contractors.
  • Similarly, leave washrooms closed entirely or reserve them for the sole and exclusive use of the corporation’s staff.
  • If you have an on-site management office, it should remain closed to residents and owners and require they communicate with the office over the phone or by email.
    Load up Zoom or GoToMeeting to make board meetings virtual and maintain staff work flows. Consent is no longer required from all directors to host a virtual meeting (during the emergency declaration period).
  • Managers can refer to their spending authority limits as defined by most management service agreements. If you have resources for obtaining hand sanitizer and it’s within your means to buy it before supplies further dwindle, most boards will forgive the unanticipated expenditure from the budget’s contingency account.
  • Provide a translated version of notices to residents who do not speak English as their first language. Make sure it is accurate; this is more important than ever before.
  • Advise residents that non-essential visitors should be discouraged. This includes family, friends and non-essential service trades. Hanging those new curtains should really wait.
  • Notify residents that if they have tested positive for COVID-19 to notify property management immediately on a strictly confidential basis and to self-isolate in their unit for 14 days as required by government directives.
  • If any resident does test positive for COVID-19 and you can confirm the diagnosis is true, notify residents without disclosing the person’s name or any other personal information, and strongly urge residents to self-isolate in their units for 14 days.
  • Implement a virtual buddy system to assist vulnerable members of the condominium community and to combat the sense of growing social isolation. It is advised that all condo corporations send out an immediate notice to residents advising them of the same, and asking those who would like to participate to notify property management.
  • Be forward thinking as to how to maintain infection control in areas that have just been cleaned.
  • Offer available resources to your residents. Prepare a list of local grocery delivery and pick-up options or resources your community has put together for vulnerable individuals at this time.
  • On April 24, 2020, the Ontario government enacted additional measures to support condominium corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic with amendments to Emergency Order O. Reg. 107/20. The emergency order is in effect province-wide and retroactive to March 17, 2020 (the day the order came into effect) and now includes amendments to:
    1. Permit corporations governed under the Condo Act to hold meetings virtually, notwithstanding current requirements or restrictions;
    2. Extend the time period in which corporations governed under the Condo Act must hold annual meetings (if your last day to hold your AGM falls within the period of emergency declaration, your AGM may be held up to 90 days following the termination of the emergency order, and if your last date to hold your AGM falls within 30 days of the termination of the emergency order, your AGM may be held up to 120 days following the termination of the emergency order); and
    3. Address additional matters related to meetings for corporations under the Condo Act such as re-issuing of notices to hold meetings virtually as well as certain requirements pertaining to issuance of financial statements.