For those of us in the commercial real estate sector, the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the associated shutdowns has been profoundly disruptive. Landlords and tenants alike have been forced to wrestle with a whole new set of assumptions, face up to new challenges, and find ways to prepare for an uncertain future—all while taking appropriate steps to protect the health and safety of people and properties.
The answers aren’t always easy or obvious. With so many unanswered questions and variables, measures that might make sense today could be unnecessary (or even insufficient) tomorrow. In other words, the way forward isn’t necessarily clear.
There are things that commercial real estate owners and operators can be doing now (and a few things they shouldn’t) that fall into the category of universal best practices and smart and safe property management.
Establish access protocols
Screening employees and visitors will continue to be important, especially for medical tenants. To facilitate that process, make sure any medical tenants have a designated area for intake checks, and that all reasonable steps (temperature checks, screening interviews) are taken to ensure that no one enters the building who isn’t healthy.
One of the things landlords can control is the cleanliness of high-touch surfaces and public spaces and facilities. Now is the time to be procuring antimicrobial agents and other cleaning products with proven anti-viral qualities. Hand sanitizer and other cleaning agents are important tools in the cleanliness arsenal, and there is a great deal of promise in both existing and new technologies—such as ultraviolet lighting devices (used appropriately) —that can kill viruses over larger areas. It’s also a good idea to make changes like installing step-and-pull systems and other no-touch methods for opening doors, and switch to antimicrobial buttons for elevators.
Adjust operational policies and practices
As we have learned over the last several months, behavioral and operational changes are perhaps even more important than cleaning to contain the spread of the virus. Be sure to emphasize the critical importance of social distancing and PPE, and consistently communicate those measures with documentation and public signage. Simple steps such as limiting access to certain public areas, or alternating employees to spread out in interior spaces, can make a big difference.
Encourage the use of masks
As we have seen in so many cases across the country, the wearing of masks has become a flashpoint for controversy. As a result, virtually every large piece of commercial real estate will have some percentage of tenants or visitors who don’t want to follow the rules. The challenge is how to address this potentially serious issue. Generally speaking, landlords would be wise to take an approach with enforcement that deescalates tensions and focuses on education and awareness. If an individual isn’t wearing a mask, it’s likely a better move to alert the employer/tenant instead of forcing a confrontation. This is a complicated topic, where personal opinion is butting up against clear recommendations from public health experts and an order from the State. However, fellow tenants, visitors and consumers have the right to live and work in a safe environment. While enforcement of new health and safety guidelines like mask-wearing policies is important, it’s also a place where deescalation and collaboration will likely be more effective than confrontation in the long term.
Avoid common missteps
Just as important as understanding what to do is understanding what not to do. First and foremost, do not underestimate the virus. The scale and scope of the pandemic reaffirm what public health experts have communicated: that it is highly contagious, and likely isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s far better to over-prepare than to underestimate. Along those same lines, it’s critical not to over-promise—either to tenants or consumers. While clear and consistent communication should be a priority, this is an inherently unpredictable situation and things can change significantly from one week to the next. Focus on measures you can control, like providing appropriate resources, signage, and maintaining the cleanliness of public areas. Finally, as referenced above with regard to masks, don’t enforce new regulations too harshly—at least not at first. Make every effort to educate and work with tenants, instead of approaching every instance of non-compliance with an iron fist.
Policy and preparation
Across the Midwest, companies have been frustrated as decisions made about who can and cannot open have been rolled out dictating which categories of commercial real estate are safe to open—and when. This has obviously been a hot topic and a rich source of debate and discussion. Regardless of your personal opinion or perspective, the steps that have been taken were intended to help keep everyone safe—a priority that landlords and tenants can not only get on board with but contribute to moving forward. No one knows exactly what’s in store over the next several months. Now is the time to prepare for what we do know. To plan for what you can plan for. Iron out policies and procedures, secure safety equipment, and keep tenants informed and engaged. Those steps will be key as we move forward together to safely reopen and maintain a safe and prosperous commercial real estate industry.