Homeowners association clubhouses, pools still closed over COVID fears
NEPTUNE — After a long winter spent mostly in isolation, residents of the Villas at Jumping Brook gathered last week in the parking lot outside the clubhouse and set up their lawn chairs, their proverbial pitchforks ready.
They wanted to relax by the pool, use the exercise room or just take a walk in the yard. But their facilities have remained closed, they said, as community board members worry about the possibility of lawsuits.
“We want socialization,” said Charles DeMaria, 78. “You see people carrying chairs. We shouldn’t be doing this. We paid a lot of money for these amenities.”
As New Jersey begins to lift its COVID-19 restrictions, homeowners associations remain cautious about reopening their facilities, saying their insurance policies won’t protect them from liability if a resident or guest contracts the virus. illness on the spot.
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The threat of litigation has left residents furious and associations begging lawmakers for help. Ultimately, experts say, board members will have to decide when it’s safe enough to take a chance, knowing that COVID-19 is likely here to stay.
“I think it’s like anything else in life,” said David J. Byrne, a Princeton-based attorney with Ansell, Grimm & Aaron, which represents about 140 community associations. “How much risk are you willing to tolerate? »
Residents who gathered in the parking lot of The Villas at Jumping Brook said the risk of a COVID lawsuit being filed against the board is minimal.
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The age-restricted community, built 20 years ago, has 160 single-family homes. And its residents pay $220 a month in HOA dues, which gives them access to amenities that include a swimming pool; a pavilion with an exercise room, a card room and a library; a patio with a grill; a tennis court; and two pétanque courts.
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With the pandemic spreading rapidly last March, the council closed facilities and residents retreated to their homes, coming up with new ideas for safe socializing.
They took walks together. They had card games in garages and backyards. The eight-member knitting club took turns holding meetings in their driveways, said Delores DeMaria, 75, Charles’s wife.
Since then, COVID cases in New Jersey have dropped 95% from their peak in January. Governor Phil Murphy has begun lifting restrictions on wearing masks and public gatherings. The weather is clearing up.
But the Jumping Brook Villas facilities remain closed.
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Marj Mottola, chairwoman of the board, said members tried to quell the uprising. They asked residents to sign waivers so that at least fully vaccinated people could use the outdoor facilities.
But they still have to rent a door monitor, install signage and hand wipes, and keep up with rapidly changing health guidelines.
“People are rightly frustrated,” said Mottola, 63. “I’m frustrated. But for the most part, once they vent that frustration, we all take a deep breath, and I’d say 95% of my calls end on a positive note saying, ‘We know you’re doing fine. the best you can, but why can’t we open?
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The Villas are not unique. New Jersey has nearly 7,000 community associations, representing nearly 1.5 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a trade group.
The problem? Insurance policies will not cover the association, or possibly individual board members, in the event of a pandemic, leaving volunteers exposed to legal liability, said Angela Kavanaugh, executive director of the New Jersey chapter. of the institute, based in Freehold.
Kavanaugh said she is not aware of any COVID-related lawsuits that have been brought against any boards of directors. But everyone had to make their own decision whether or not to reopen.
“Even if the lawsuit hasn’t been won, there are legal costs involved, and that’s the problem,” Kavanaugh said. “You’re talking about a very big expense.”
The issue has not entirely avoided litigation. A coalition of 10 age-limited communities in Berkeley has filed a lawsuit against Governor Phil Murphy, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and the Township of Berkeley.
The lawsuit, filed May 4, argues communities should have been allowed to open their pools and clubs without fear of prosecution.
The governor’s latest orders removing some of the restrictions give communities permission to reopen their facilities. But Medford-based coalition lawyer Paul Leodori said only one planned to reopen.
The others, he said, are concerned about legal liability.
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“It’s a situation that lacks a lot of clarity,” Leodori said. “I think it’s a huge failure on the government’s part. Everyone knew after last summer that this summer wasn’t going to be easy. But the Legislative Assembly hid from the real problem.”
State Sense. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, Shirley Turner, D-Hunterdon and Nicholas Sacco, D-Bergen, introduced a bill that would provide immunity in case someone is exposed to COVID-19 during a planned real estate development .
But the bill would not fully free up board members. They could still be sued for gross negligence, recklessness or willful misconduct, leaving plenty of room for interpretation.
The threat of COVID litigation might not last forever. As health officials better understand the disease, community association boards can begin to take better action to protect residents, said Michael Vitiello, attorney for Middletown-based Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla.
“Once it’s easier to assess the risk, it usually becomes an insurable risk,” Vitiello said.
For now, Byrne of Ansell, Grimm & Aaron said many associations he represents have reopened their facilities, believing the chances of a successful COVID lawsuit are slim.
Among the hurdles for a plaintiff: They would have to prove they caught the disease at the property, instead of, say, the supermarket or restaurant or any other place they visited in the previous two weeks — a difficult task, a said Byrne, even for their doctors.
“I mean, there are a lot of boards that have been led to believe that it’s like the apocalypse if someone uses a swimming pool, and they feel like there’s going to be lawsuits. massive and all sorts of things, and it doesn’t really compute,” says Byrne.
Residents of the Jumping Brook Villas said they were confused. Most of them are fully vaccinated. And they’ve seen people return to public beaches and restaurants in greater numbers.
Still, the best they could have done one day last week was to take their lawn chairs to the parking lot for a long discussion about why it was okay to walk the boardwalk, but not around their own. court.
“It’s ridiculous,” Charles DeMaria said of lawsuit fears. “Because how are you going to prove that they have (COVID) here?”
Michael L. Diamond is a business journalist who has written about New Jersey’s economy and the health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]