By J. Ashley Oblinger, Esq., Associate Attorney, Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber P.C.
Since mid-March, self-storage facilities across the country have been forced to temporarily close their doors or limit their operations due to state COVID-19 shelter-in place orders. States are now beginning to lift those shelter-in-place orders in an effort to reopen and rejuvenate their local economies. This can be great news for local businesses. But for many businesses, the question quickly becomes, what do you need to do to reopen and how will your business operate once you fully reopen? Life has changed drastically since many facilities were fully open.
The first step to take is to be aware and ready for health and safety guidelines with regards to employees and customers. For example, in the recent easing of the Georgia shelter-in-place order, businesses are being told to follow OSHA COVID-19 workplace guidelines. Safety and cleanliness should be a top priority when reopening. Many businesses that have stayed open have taken measures recommended in the OSHA guidelines to enforce social distancing and increase customer confidence in being in the building, such as spaces marked near office counters for appropriate social distancing, use of plexiglass at office counters as a barrier between the customer and employee, provision of personal protection equipment (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) to employees and even customers, and clear rules posted for employees and customers to follow. Other changes to a self-storage facility may include limiting the number of customers in your office and even at the facility, disinfecting the office after each customer leaves, disinfecting any frequently touched surfaces, and providing hand sanitizer dispensers around the facility for employees and customers to use. Operators should be up front and transparent about the steps they are taking and the rules they are implementing, even putting additional signage up at the facility and on their website.
The emphasis on cleanliness and safety and adhering to applicable guidelines is highlighted in the recent lawsuit filed against Walmart by a family member of an employee who contracted and died from the coronavirus. The lawsuit claims that Walmart was negligent in keeping the store safe and healthy and failed to protect its employees from COVID-19, including failing to implement, promote, and enforce social distancing guidelines, failing to cleanse and sanitize the store, and failing to provide employees with personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and antibacterial products.
Additionally, consider providing up-to-date education and training to employees on COVID-19 risk factors and make sure that employees know not to come to work if they are sick. The EEOC has said that it is legal for companies to ask employees if they have symptoms of COVID-19, employers are permitted to take an employee’s temperature to determine if they might be infected, and employers are permitted to ask employees to seek medical attention and get tested for COVID-19 if symptoms exhibited by the employees are the same as those for COVID-19. It is important to note that workplace civil rights protections still apply during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next step in the process is to determine if your operations will ramp back up once you re-open. Most facilities have not been conducting lien sales or even charging late fees during the shutdown. So, when will you be able to resume these normal activities? Our recommendation is to essentially start over from scratch once the applicable orders have been fully lifted. Thus, even if someone has not paid their rent for three months, for lien enforcement purposes, we recommend that day one of the lien process does not begin until the applicable orders have been fully lifted. Otherwise, you run the risk of possible legal action and certainly bad publicity.
This new reality is constantly changing, and so are the rules and guidelines associated with it. Be vigilant with regards to your state and local rules when reopening and be nimble enough to follow any and all guidelines recommended by your state and local governments. During this pandemic, the best businesses may be those that protect the well-being of their employees and customers while conducting businesses.