As COVID-19 cases have been rising across the country and here in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine have issued over a dozen new orders and advisories between last week and this week. Though none of those orders specifically target real estate, several will impact your daily practice to varying degrees.
PAR previously reviewed the updated universal masking order and the testing/quarantine order for out-of-state travel. Those remain in effect indefinitely. New to the scene are a stay-at-home advisory and a mitigation/enforcement order that pulls together several prior documents with several new restrictions. This article will review the high points of those two new items.
Let’s start with the stay-at-home advisory (effective Nov. 23, 2020 – Jan. 4, 2021). As a method of slowing down the spread, this advisory “strongly recommends” – but does not require – only leaving home for essential purposes and only allowing individuals who aren’t part of a household to be present in a home if they are providing essential services for the health and safety of the household.
For starters, agents should discuss this advisory with clients to ensure that they are comfortable with any in-person activities that might occur (more on that in a bit) – especially regarding anything that involves going into a seller’s home. Buyers may prefer to move initial showings or walk throughs to a virtual option. Sellers may want to add restrictions to showings or even pull their property off the market altogether if they’re not comfortable with the current environment. You can certainly take that opportunity to explain the safety steps you are taking to help protect all those involved, but it is ultimately the client’s decision if they feel comfortable with in-person real estate activity.
Mitigation and Enforcement Order
The mitigation/enforcement order combines rules from several older orders that it supersedes (listed in the document) and adds several new ones. These are requirements, not advisories. Among the new rules that are most likely to apply to your real estate work:
- Remote/telework is required “unless impossible.” Much of the activity in real estate offices will need to return to remote work, and agents will have to assess which in-person activities in the field (showings, inspections, walkthroughs, etc.) can effectively be done remotely.
- Businesses that maintain in-person activity in their office must implement temperature screening for all employees before entering the building and refuse entry to anyone with a temperature above 100.4 Fahrenheit.
- Additional cleaning protocols are required, including new rules about how to handle office areas that have been visited by a person with COVID-19.
- Businesses are required to post additional signage regarding masks and physical distancing. PAR has created a sign available for you to use.
- Businesses should maintain records sufficient to identify whether any employees or customers have been in “close contact” (within about six feet for about 15 minutes) with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 as part of their business operations.
We’re getting a lot of open house questions these days. At this time, PAR is recommending that brokers and agents avoid running traditional open houses. Many have moved to a more showing-style system (e.g., no appointments, but only allowing one buyer/family at a time for a short tour with supervision), and that’s the most that would reasonably be acceptable with the new mitigation order – if sellers are even willing to allow them at all.
This order contains additional “teeth” to the enforcement process, which includes:
- First violation: Warning letter and potential required cleaning/mitigation efforts.
- Second violation: Fine/citation, required to immediately correct the violation, and required closure for at least 24 hours for cleaning and other required mitigation efforts.
- Third violation: Immediate closure, additional fines and referral for potential criminal prosecution.
As previously noted, the State Real Estate Commission/BPOA has been investigating COVID-related complaints filed against licensees. A number of warning letters have been sent to brokers and we are aware that there are some ongoing disciplinary cases in the pipeline.
A Word on “Essential Businesses”
PAR certainly believes that real estate is an essential service that is a key element to providing necessary shelter to Pennsylvanians, but this is not a concept in play at the moment.
Initial COVID-19 orders and advisories from the spring distinguished between “life-sustaining” and “non-life-sustaining” businesses. Significant limitations were placed on real estate practice because it was deemed to be a non-life-sustaining business.
More recent orders and advisories no longer make those distinctions, and there are no categories of “life-sustaining” or “essential” businesses that get preferential treatment. Rather, business rules apply to all businesses across the board except for a few select categories (such as restaurants, bars and gyms) that have been specifically identified for greater restrictions because of higher risk factors. There are currently no additional restrictions specifically being placed on real estate practice (or any broad swaths of businesses), nor any advantages given to certain “essential” businesses across the board. The rules are the same for almost everyone – though some of the nuances of real estate practice may lead to some unique challenges while interpreting the orders.
Details, Details, Details
Reading the order to see the rules is the easy part, the harder part is in figuring out how to implement some of those rules in the real estate context where much of an agent’s work occurs away from the office environment. Since May, PAR has been publishing a continually evolving best practices document with suggestions on how to implement these rules in your office, but also how to adapt them for showings, open houses and other off-site in-person activities. Please consult those best practices for more specific implementation options. Note that the document differentiates between those things you “must” or “shall” do (requirements) and those that you “should” consider doing (recommendations). Pay close attention as you review – and give yourself a few minutes…it’s kind of long.
Review all of the updated Real Estate in the Age of COVID-19: Suggested Best Practices online or download a printable PDF.