By Sherri Hall
As 2021 progresses, many communities are hoping to be able to start reopening some of their amenities this year. Although very few have already reopened, many amenities have been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But will reopening require additional maintenance? And has maintenance of the amenities and the communities as a whole been affected by the pandemic? We spoke to Doris Steele, Partner at Spinnaker Management, to get her perspective on the matter.
According to Steele, the CDC regulations have prevented most communities from opening their amenities during the pandemic, mainly because of the cost involved to comply with the requirements. “Many were unable to follow the CDC recommendations with having to hire staff to monitor social distancing, contact tracing, mask wearing and sanitizing, so most communities did not open their amenities since the pandemic started, including their pools,” she said.
Steele noted, however, that while none of the communities her company manages opened their clubhouses or fitness centers during the pandemic, a couple did decide to open their pools. She explained that these associations saw a significant increase in pool-related maintenance costs as they had to purchase sanitizing stations, hire additional staffing to monitor social distancing, perform sanitizing measures every hour, on the hour, and conduct contact tracing..
For those that did not reopen their pools, they still saw their normal pool-related costs during the pandemic, said Steele. Technically, the pools had to be opened (just not for use) in order for maintenance to be performed on them, which Steele said was still necessary. “You have to do pool maintenance no matter what,” she noted.
In order to reopen the gyms and clubhouses, associations will need to ensure they have a cleaning contract in place and will need to have an initial major cleaning performed to get everything sanitized properly. Additionally, the fitness equipment will need to be serviced and cleaned.
Not only will the clubhouses and fitness centers be required to be fully sanitized, but the maintenance of keeping those areas sanitized may be more frequent than it was in the past, said Steele. “This could place an extra burden on the properties in terms of their budgets regarding their amenities,” she said.
While many associations were able to save money in terms of amenity maintenance, this will not be the case in 2021. “What you saved in 2020, you’re certainly not going to save in 2021,” said Steele. “Those retained earnings will be needed in 2021 to open the amenities due to the extra expenditures of sanitizing as per the CDC guidelines.”
Of course, Steele said associations did not remove any of their usual amenity costs from their budgets for 2021 with the idea in mind that the pandemic isn’t going to last forever, and they would eventually be able to reopen. “It’s important to keep those budget line items in there so the common charges reflect what you would normally utilize,” she said. “I think the biggest question in terms of 2021 budgets was, ‘If we do open, where are we going to get the extra money needed to follow the CDC guidelines?’ And I think reopening really depends on the CDC guidelines and the budget of each property and whether or not the property can afford to hire additional staffing to get some of these amenities open.”
Steele said she believes that making certain modifications may help associations tackle this issue and keep costs down as much as possible. “I do see communities moving in this direction to try and get some of their amenities open, but maybe with limited hours,” she noted. “In the approach that I’m taking, we’re talking about it and what it might look like in terms of starting slowly. Ultimately, I think we have to run it by each community and perhaps take a poll. Ask how many people plan to use the fitness center and what hours they would want to go. And try to customize it from there because it’s definitely going to affect the budget.”
Of course, closing amenities wasn’t the only change that took place during the pandemic. Certain projects and their timing were also affected, noted Steele. She explained that early in the pandemic, statewide shutdowns affected some of the bigger projects, as certain contractors were not considered “essential workers” and it was also difficult for some to hire staff during that time. Therefore, for example, a roofing project that started in 2020 and had previously been expected to be finished in 2020 as well may have only been halfway completed with the other half now planned for 2021.
“We did fall behind on some of the bigger ticketed items, and people were concerned that things were taking a long time,” said Steele.
In this case, she said it’s important for property managers to communicate with the unit owners. Having a one-call system, for example, is helpful for being able to send an email to every homeowner at the same time. This can allow managers to let the homeowners know what is taking place regarding certain projects and help alleviate their concerns about what is happening in the community.
Steele noted that with many unit owners home during working hours for the first time, people were more aware of things that they may not have noticed in the past. For example, people who were now forced to work from home were experiencing lawnmowers running while they were trying to work. She said it was, and still is, important for managers to communicate with homeowners and let them know that this is what typically happens when they are at work outside the home.
With everyone being home, Steele said, managers have been receiving more calls from homeowners with concerns and needs. This, she said, has put additional pressure on property managers to have their contractors perform, sometimes even outside of their contracts.
Steele noted that one of the major concerns for managers in 2020 was making sure everything got done that needed to before the first snowfall. “We just kept pushing through and were able to accomplish what was necessary going into the season,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but we were able to navigate through it while trying to keep the homeowners updated. For the most part, people understood once it was explained to them.”
In terms of routine maintenance, those items weren’t really affected as those contractors were considered “essential,” noted Steele. “They were able to continue working and we were able to keep up the maintenance for the properties,” she said. “Everything still needs to be done. Once the snow is gone and we’re into April, the lawns need to be cared for. We’re still staying on the same schedule,” she said.
Aside from snow removal, winter maintenance items also include any necessary tree pruning or tree removal, which is best done while the trees are dormant from late fall until early spring.
Other than that, Steele explained that during the winter is the time for communities to start gearing up for their spring projects. “Right now is the time to gather contracts and prepare for projects you want to accomplish in the spring,” she said.
It’s also the time to get ready for spring maintenance items including power washing; lawn maintenance such as fertilizing, weeding, and mowing; pool-related items such as acid washing and opening preparations; fire hydrant flushing; inspections of air conditioning systems; and inspections of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
In addition, Steele said it’s important to get any damage caused during the winter months taken care of as quickly as possible during the spring, especially trip hazards, as well as any larger projects such as roof or siding replacement.