Considerations for Re-entry into Office Properties During the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 8, 2020Alerts

As states around the country gradually ease stay-at-home orders, it is important that re-entry into office properties be conducted in accordance with the public health guidelines and procedures. Operations will differ from before the pandemic, and landlords should develop a plan to meet the needs of their office tenants, employees and visitors that reflects the increased focus on safety, health and wellness. Here are a few key things that landlords should consider to make tenants, employees and visitors feel safe re-entering the workplace en masse:

Common Areas

Landlords should limit crowds in common areas and install directional signs and floor markings in lobbies, elevator banks and other areas where bottlenecks typically occur, to help tenants and visitors navigate the property in keeping with social distancing guidelines. Hand sanitizing stations should be installed at entrances, reception/security desks and in high-traffic areas, and hand-washing reminder signs should be placed in restrooms. Where possible, landlords should employ touchless technology, limit use of high-touch surfaces such as doors, elevator knobs, touchscreen kiosks and vending machines, and provide disinfectant wipes near such surfaces. Signs with social distancing guidelines and reminders should be placed in visible areas, including elevators, escalators and stairways. Landlords may also require the use of face masks, gloves and other protective measures in common areas, in accordance with local jurisdictional guidelines.

Building Amenities

Landlords should consider alternative means of access to shared amenities, including conference centers, cafeterias or restaurants, lounges and fitness centers, in accordance with local jurisdictional guidelines. New protocols should be implemented to reduce the number of people congregating in exterior amenities such as plazas and green spaces.

Cleaning and Sanitation

Landlords must follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on cleaning and disinfecting in all management-controlled areas such as entrances, vestibules and lobbies, reception and security desks, restrooms, elevator banks, corridors, conference centers, fitness centers and other areas. Cleaning products must meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criteria for use against infectious diseases and surfaces must be disinfected frequently. Visible and well-trained cleaning staff will help make tenants feel safe and provide confidence in re-entering. Accordingly, a cleaning and sanitizing regimen involving frequent cleaning of common areas and restrooms should be verified with the cleaning service provider. These enhanced cleaning protocols should be communicated to tenants, along with resources on cleaning procedures.

Air Filtration

Landlords should ensure that the building systems support good indoor air quality, and do not promote the spread of disease, by assessing and upgrading air filtration where needed to ensure use of proper and improved filters, configuring HVAC systems to run on full fresh air rather than recirculation, and pre-purging the air conditioning systems to improve indoor air quality for occupants.

Health Screenings

Inquiries about COVID-19 symptoms and temperature screenings should be conducted for all tenants, employees, visitors and all others entering the property, consistent with local jurisdictional guidelines and as otherwise permitted by law to reduce the potential for exposure, while respecting privacy limitations. Depending on the property, it may be more efficient for the landlord or the tenant to conduct the screenings and supply the necessary equipment and materials; the requirements and responsibilities of each party should be discussed and clearly articulated. Tracking of visitors within the space should be implemented to the extent possible and consistent with local jurisdictional guidelines.

Building Employees and Service Providers

Landlords should provide their employees with adequate face masks, approved wipes, hand sanitizers and any other necessary infection prevention and health protection measures, and should require the same of service providers. Landlords should also adjust security/sign-in practices to minimize contact (e.g., installation of plexiglass guards and restrictions on shared pens). Landlords should confirm that service providers are operational and arrange for replacement service providers where necessary.

Specific Tenant Needs

Landlords should communicate with tenants about their specific needs, especially those with special requirements or challenging circumstances. For example, landlords should work with tenants to set protocols for mail and package delivery that limit contact, and should coordinate with tenants about when to resume tenant buildouts and other construction projects. More importantly, landlords must be prepared to respond in the event a tenant or employee tests positive for COVID-19. The affected area must be closed and disinfected according to CDC guidance, and other tenants should be notified, while maintaining privacy. If the number of infections grows, tenants should be prepared to cease operations and the landlord should be prepared to close the building, depending on the extent of the spread and in accordance with local jurisdictional guidelines.

On the other hand, a landlord may encourage (or mandate, if the lease so provides) its office tenants to take certain precautions within their leased premises, including:

  • Redesigning space to maintain social distancing standards, including installation of plexiglass and other physical barriers, changing layout of workspaces, restricting shared workspaces and installing directional signs and floor markings;
  • Reducing workplace density by staggering shifts and breaks or alternating crews and encouraging telework;
  • Closing communal spaces and break rooms, limiting use of conference rooms and limiting or prohibiting large events;
  • Checking for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 among employees and encouraging employees who are sick to stay home; and
  • Promoting healthy hygiene practices such as hand-washing, wearing a face mask and adhering to social distancing practices to employees.

Ultimately, safe and responsible re-entry at office properties will require communication, coordination and cooperation between landlords and tenants. Expectations on all sides must be plainly articulated but also be flexible in nature. All parties should comply with protocols established by local jurisdictional guidelines.

For more information, contact Olufunke Leroy or any member of Fox Rothschild LLP’s Real Estate or Labor & Employment departments.

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