- Reopening Commercial Buildings Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Preparing Your Property
- Creating Protocols
- Tenant Communication
- Maximize Social Distancing
- Cleaning and Sanitizing Your Property
- Best Practices for Protecting Yourself from COVID-19
As businesses prepare to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial real estate owners and property managers are directing their focus to tenant safety. In-person workforces will require comprehensive health and safety plans to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. How can property owners and property managers ensure their assets are safe when tenants, visitors, and clients return to work?
Follow these guidelines to prepare your properties and protect your tenants:
Preparing Your Property
From a commercial property standpoint, owners and property managers are responsible for providing a safe place for tenants, their employees, and visitors to work. With that charge in mind, commercial property owners and managers have a variety of options to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their buildings.
Inspect and Update the HVAC System
The novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) is microscopic and can be transmitted through the air from person to person. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has expressed concern that pathogens like COVID-19 can spread through commercial HVAC systems. However, the ASHRAE says businesses should continue to run systems as shutting them down could have even more disastrous consequences.
To limit the spread of COVID-19 through your building’s HVAC system, the ASHRAE recommends several steps:
- Inspect the HVAC system for any air blockages, ensure all seals and frames are intact and clean, and make sure the system is functioning correctly.
- Recommend installing a MERV 15 or higher filter to remove microbes from the air. This can prevent pathogens like COVID-19 and other airborne viruses from circulating through the commercial HVAC system. Though powerful filters are costly and use more energy than standard filters, the health benefits are well worth the additional expense.
- Introduce UVC lights to kill viruses in the HVAC system (see below).
Use Ultraviolet Light to Kill the Virus: UV Sanitation
We already know that ultraviolet light is harmful to humans in high doses. Similarly, scientists are using concentrated ultraviolet light to kill viruses and other pathogens. A specific spectrum of UV light – UVC – can effectively kill airborne pathogens like COVID-19. HVAC systems can be outfitted with UV sanitation devices, which will kill 99.9% of COVID-19 viruses in the air.
There are endless applications for UVC lights, and property owners and managers should consider how employing UVC technology will make their spaces safer for everyone.UV sanitation lights have other pathogen-destroying applications as well. Though UVC lights have been used for years to disinfect high-traffic surfaces like escalator rails or elevators, this pandemic has brought its usage to the forefront. Some businesses employ UVC robots to “clean” public spaces after hours. Others use lights inside elevators to clean and sanitize the air when passengers aren’t riding.
However, consult the experts before installing any kind of UV system. Any direct UV light is harmful to humans.
Use “No-Touch” Tools When Possible
The coronavirus can live on hard surfaces for up to three days on some hard surfaces. This could potentially be disastrous for an office building. Therefore, to minimize the spread, consider installing no-touch options: automatic or double-swing doors, automatic faucets and dryers for bathrooms, and automated lighting.
Consider eliminating any touch-screen options in your building. You may also remove all food and beverage options, like free coffee, water coolers, and even vending machines. Be sure to clean and sanitize any hard surfaces often.
Before you prepare your building and reopen to your tenants, be sure you’re following all national, state, and local regulations.
Follow State and Local Guidelines
Before you prepare your building and reopen to your tenants, be sure you’re following all national, state, and local regulations. Many municipalities are extending stay-at-home orders, while others are already opening to the public.
Property owners and property managers need to create detailed plans to keep their tenants, visitors, and employees safe in the coming months. Work with local healthcare leaders to establish protocols for tenants, employees, and visitors.
When creating an action plan, consider the following:
- Will tenants, employees, and/or visitors be required to wear PPE like masks, gloves, or other coverings?
- How can you minimize crowding in your public areas? You may want to consider single entry and exits points, directional foot traffic patterns, and other steps to reduce close contact.
- What are your expectations for tenants and their employees and visitors? Will they conduct screening before individuals enter the building? Will there be someone to monitor temperatures and ask about symptoms?
Once you have created a health and safety protocol, be sure it’s clearly communicated to your tenants and their staff. Create, print, and hang signage announcing protocols, and task an employee with ensuring compliance.
We are dealing with a situation never experienced in our lifetimes. Therefore, many of us feel anxious about returning to our workplaces. Recognize that your tenants and their employees likely feel this way, too.
By communicating with your tenants, you’ll put everyone’s mind at ease.
As the owner or manager, it’s essential to keep an open line of communication with your tenants. Keep them updated as you put protocols in place. Give detailed information about cleaning and sanitation processes, updates to increase safety, and guidelines to maximize social distancing.
By communicating with your tenants, you’ll put everyone’s mind at ease. You’ll also remind your tenants to follow all building protocols and get their feedback in the process.
Discuss Work from Home Options
Before opening your building back up, discuss work from home options with your staff and your tenants. While it may not be possible for everyone to work from home, this pandemic has shown us that many employees can work remotely.
Encourage tenants to examine their workforce and determine whether some staff can stay at home. This will minimize social contact and therefore reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Create Two-Way Communication
Get your tenants and staff engaged in the health and safety process. Establish a two-way communication channel with tenants, whether that be a link on your website, an email address, or an automated phone system where tenants can share concerns and ideas. When your tenants and employees feel heard, they’ll be less anxious about being at work. And you can address key problem areas you may have missed when creating your plan.
Maximize Social Distancing
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), social distancing – keeping at least six feet of distance between yourself and other people – is one of the best ways to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
In a commercial space, it can be challenging to maintain that distance. However, commercial property owners and managers can take steps to help tenants maintain social distancing:
- Encourage tenants to stagger employees shifts. Consider having a “morning” and “afternoon” shift, so employees can have more space when they’re in the office. Clean and disinfect surfaces between these two groups.
- Eliminate gathering areas in the lobby, like shared workspaces, tables and chairs, or other areas that encourage close contact.
- Move away from open seating. Instead, create contained work environments with partitions between workspaces. If possible, spread out desks and other work stations, so each employee maintains at least six feet of space from their co-workers.
- Limit the use of conference rooms and other gathering spaces. If necessary, remove chairs from conference rooms to encourage separation.
- Post reminders for all individuals to keep their distance from one another.
- Set up one-way traffic flow patterns in all common areas.
- Require individuals to wear face masks whenever tenants and employees are less than six feet apart.
In addition to maintaining social distancing, ask tenants to clean commonly touched surfaces multiple times a day. Employees should use disinfectant sprays or wipes to clean desks, computers, phones, and other hard surfaces.
Cleaning and Sanitizing Your Property
To maintain a safe and healthy work environment, property owners and property managers must enact strict cleaning and sanitation protocols. If necessary, hire more contracted employees to help with regular cleaning. Pay particular attention to common areas like lobbies, elevators, counters, and bathrooms.
Most importantly, everyone involved in a commercial building – owners, managers, tenants, and staff – should abide by the CDC’s guidelines to prevent Coronavirus from spreading.
Your cleaning crew should use CDC-approved supplies to kill COVID-19 on any surfaces. Consider utilizing UV lights to disinfect your HVAC system, elevators, and other spaces where the virus can spread quickly.
In addition to a rigorous cleaning schedule by your staff, you can also ask tenants and employees to keep their areas sanitized. Tenants can do this in several ways:
- Use alcohol- or bleach-based cleaning wipes or sprays to wipe down work stations, door handles, bathroom fixtures, and other hard surfaces.
- Have an alcohol-based hand sanitizer regularly available for all employees to use.
- Require hand washing before and after employees enter a work area.
- Require employees to wear PPE, like face masks or gloves, when they can’t maintain social distance.
- Eliminate office food and drink stations, like coffee machines, water coolers, vending machines, and kitchen areas.
Your tenants can also protect themselves by limiting in-person meetings. Encourage your tenants to utilize virtual meeting solutions whenever possible.
Best Practices for Protecting Yourself from COVID-19
Most importantly, everyone involved in a commercial building – owners, managers, tenants, and staff – should abide by the CDC’s guidelines to prevent Coronavirus from spreading:
- Maintain social distance
- Wash your hands often
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Stay home if you feel sick
For more information about the Coronavirus, how it spreads, and ways to keep yourself and your tenants safe, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 website.