The announcement by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 2 lifting the state’s requirement that its citizens wear masks in public has Texas apartment operators split over whether to change their mask protocols for employees and residents.
Property management professionals’ emotions have ranged from “loud cheers in the corporate office” to “relief and gratitude” from staff members; while others still fear the health consequences that could be caused by Abbott’s decision.
Those making adjustments will put them in place immediately or within the next week. Others are in a wait-and-see mode while they continue to recover from the state’s late-February freeze.
Gina Y. Erwin, president of Houston-based GWR Management, says, “We literally just sent an email out today to our teams telling them that we will no longer require masks of employees and that they can remove the signs from the doors as of next Wednesday. Of course, we certainly will allow staff members to wear masks if they feel more comfortable by doing so. Most are thrilled.
“We watched the announcement live at our corporate office, and I could hear cheers down the hall. There are few in the field who expressed concerns and will continue to wear masks, but overall the majority are happy to have their smiles paroled.”
Prior to this, GWR mandated masks at every property. Staff was required to wear masks at all times while in the office and while in occupied apartments.
“As long as they could maintain 6-foot distances from others while outside, they were not required to wear masks,” Erwin says. “We also required all guests, residents, and customers to put on a mask before entering our leasing offices, and we posted mask-wearing signs on every entry point.”
For inside common areas, GWR posted signs that essentially put the onus on residents for taking “safe steps” about the pandemic, including keeping safe distances, wearing masks, and only allowing a certain number of people inside depending on size and capacity, according to Erwin.
Pools and outside common areas had the same restrictions as far as capacity and distancing, but no mask requirement.
“Apartment communities and other businesses can determine what policies regarding masks and the use of amenities are best for their residents and employees,” says David Mintz, vice president of government affairs at the Texas Apartment Association (TAA), of the governor’s executive order. “TAA will continue sharing best practices and other guidance on steps property owners can take to help reduce spread of the virus.”
Camden will continue to require its team members and anyone entering its offices to wear face coverings. And effective March 10, all amenity spaces will resume standard occupancy requirements for each area. Face coverings will remain a requirement for indoor amenity spaces and elevators.
This [mask-wearing] is consistent with the advice of health professionals and guidelines from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says Camden vice president of marketing Julie Keel.
Camden’s company memorandum sent this week states, “While we know many of you are excited about the changes, please understand not all are comfortable being around others in close proximity, not wearing face coverings. We strongly encourage face coverings to be worn throughout the community and to continue with social distancing.”
Thus far, Keel says, “It’s being received favorably by the majority of our residents.”
John Boriak, president of Tomball-based Veritas Equity Management, says his company is still sorting through rental assistance programs and storm recovery [from the late February freeze] and hasn’t given this new mask development a lot of thought yet.
“Internally we are excited and feel like it’s confirmation that we are headed in the right direction when it comes to recovering from this pandemic,” Boriak says. “We will probably still request that team members who are interacting with residents—such as maintenance techs when going into homes and office staff when speaking with residents—wear masks until Harris County gets out of ‘threat level red.’ But beyond that, we’ll just ask team members to respect the wishes of others who still choose to wear masks (and reciprocate when around them) but won’t have any requirements beyond that.”
Christy Rodriguez, director of multi-family at Houston-based Judwin Properties says her company is not changing its protocols at this time. “Masks and social distancing guidelines are still in place and will be for at least the next 30 days,” she says.
“Several team members expressed a sense of relief and gratitude. One mentioned that, due to her current health condition and autoimmune deficiency, she felt a sense of relief and wanted me to personally thank ownership for this decision.
“Another mentioned that her residents are accustomed to doing business in our offices and maintenance technicians in their apartments with masks and social distancing, and that she didn’t foresee any issues with us not changing our requirements. She believed that her residents would be more satisfied with the decision, and it would make the customer service experience better.”Rodriguez says she has not received any feedback from team members stating that they are dissatisfied with the decision to maintain current protocols. “However, I do foresee a state divided on this topic for the foreseeable weeks,” she adds.
The Virtual Tour Alternative
Shelley Watson, executive vice president of operations at Houston-based Morgan, says the national developer and manager of Class A multifamily properties is taking a conservative approach and is requiring teams to wear masks when in the office interacting with each other and residents, and when entering residents’ apartments or while conducting a property tour.
“We have received positive feedback today from our team members about this,” Watson says. “Most have experienced being short-staffed due to COVID-19 illnesses or quarantines and are supportive of wearing a mask.”
Morgan also will continue to require prospects to wear masks while on tours (if they do not want to wear a mask, then its teams will provide those prospects with the option for a virtual tour).
Houston Apartment Association’s Morgan Taylor assisted with this article.