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In most states, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically disrupted our ordinary lives. Even as the country begins slowly reopening, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health institutions are still cautioning against in-person social gatherings. Many cities prohibit groups of 10 or more people, while others are asking residents to stay away from anyone who isn’t a member of their immediate household.

Although social distancing is helping to slow the spread of coronavirus, many people are bending the rules or outright ignoring them. What can a homeowners association (HOA) or condominium association (COA) do? Can HOAs/COAs ban people from gathering?

The answer isn’t black and white. The COVID-19 situation is changing almost every week, so we need to take the actions we need to handle. If you’re operating an association during the COVID-19 crisis, make sure you’re receiving reliable, official information from the local government. As to whether or not your association clients can prohibit residents from meeting in person, here’s a general summary of the issue.

Associations Must Follow Local Law

As with all the current laws regarding COVID-19, they vary from state to state and from city to city. It’s important to remember that associations must obey their local law above all else. Although they set rules and regulations for their communities, associations are not government authorities and cannot supersede the law.

Questions like whether an association can prohibit people from meeting in person can result in legal gray areas that may, in some cases, need to be resolved in court. If your state or city is under a “shelter in place” law, you can legally prohibit people from meeting in person because you require residents to obey the law.

However, if there are no official government prohibitions on socializing, enforcing a ban on in-person gatherings becomes much trickier. While associations can legally take steps to ensure the safety and well-being of residents, some actions may violate personal freedoms. For example, it may be impossible for an association to prohibit neighbors from gathering inside each other’s homes or standing closer than six feet when they talk outside.

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Using Emergency Powers to Limit In-Person Meetings

If there are no “shelter in place” laws in effect and your clients wish to ban gatherings in their association’s community, they do have a few options. First, refer to the association’s Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) and bylaws. The HOA/COA may be able to invoke emergency powers.

Depending on the association’s emergency powers, the board may be able to hold special meetings and temporarily pass new regulations for social distancing. For example, most HOAs/COAs have rules about visitors, such as banning visits longer than seven days or limiting the number of visitors per household at any given time.

During the pandemic, associations may be able to use their emergency powers to expand upon these visitation rules. The board can attempt to pass a vote by temporarily banning all visits from nonresidents, except for essential workers such as repairmen or in-home healthcare aids.

Similarly, an association may be able to implement much stricter parking rules temporarily. While such a measure wouldn’t eliminate social gatherings or prevent visits from outside guests, it would make visiting much harder for most people if nonresidents are temporarily banned from parking on neighborhood streets.

Temporarily Closing Pools, BBQ Areas, and Other Amenities

Associations can also discourage people from meeting in person by revoking access to shared amenities and nonessential common spaces. Pools, barbecue areas, gyms, tennis courts, and other multi-use spaces can be closed down for the duration of the pandemic. Similarly, if your client’s association has a shared patio or lounge area, you can put outdoor furniture in storage.

These measures won’t stop people who are genuinely determined to gather despite social distancing regulations likely. However, some individuals will think twice about socializing if amenities are unavailable, and there’s nowhere to sit.

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Other Ways to Protect Association Residents

If your client’s association is unable to prohibit people from meeting in person to the degree that they would prefer, there are still steps they can take to improve resident safety and lower risk of coronavirus in their community.

First, communicate with residents about the pandemic. Associations may wish to send an individual email notification to residents that provide essential health tips. This communication may include details about proper handwashing techniques, information on wearing masks, a reminder to stay at least six feet apart from people outside their immediate household, and other guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Be sure to issue updates as needed.

Second, consider if there are any ways in which the association can increase sanitation for essential common areas, such as mailrooms or laundry facilities. If possible, have these areas thoroughly sanitized at least once a day. Associations may also wish to install hand sanitizer stations in these rooms.

Finally, if residents are gathering on communal lawns, mark out “social distance” zones with tape or cones. It isn’t always easy to judge when you’re six feet away from someone; in other cases, people may begin talking to a neighbor and wander closer out of habit. By providing a visual reference, residents will know where they should stand or sit to remain at a safe distance.

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CINC Brings the Community Together

No one wants to be in a position to ask whether associations can prohibit people from meeting in person. Unfortunately, situations like the COVID-19 pandemic require us to work together and make sacrifices to save lives. If you discover that your client’s residents are chafing under social distancing or other restrictions, always be firm, but remember it’s a difficult time for everyone.

At CINC Systems, we’re here to help you keep your clients’ associations safer no matter the circumstances. CINC offers a customizable website and an online account to provide homeowners with up-to-date information. Our powerful platform facilitates better two-way communication so community members can get instant answers regarding meeting restrictions including size limitations and schedules.

To find out how CINC Systems can further assist with effective crisis management communication and other issues regarding managing an association during an emergency, click here for a free demo.

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