How to Restrict Residents' Right to Have Visitors During Pandemic
Restricting visitors may be a legitimate health measure—as long as the restrictions are reasonable.
It may be your site, but residents are allowed to host visitors and hold parties in their units any time they want. At least, those are the rules in normal times. But during a pandemic, restricting visits to apartment communities may be a legitimate health measure, provided that the restrictions are reasonable and no broader than necessary to achieve their infection control purpose. Go too far and you risk not only the enmity of your residents but also liability for discrimination, privacy, lease, and other violations.
The Justification for Restrictions
Any time a stranger comes to your site, that person creates a potential health and safety risk. What makes the COVID-19 crisis different is that the hazard stems not from who’s visiting but the fact that they’re visiting at all. Stated differently, the virus is so contagious that anybody can spread it, including people who don’t have symptoms. That’s why social distancing and staying at home have become the orders of the day; that’s also why restricting visitors is a necessary COVID-19 infection control measure.
Owners’ Legal Right to Restrict Visitors
Of course, you already know all that. The real question, though—one your residents are almost sure to ask—is what gives you the right to tell them they can’t invite people to their own homes?
Answer: The owner’s legal authority to restrict visitors is rooted in the public health emergency decrees that state and local governments have adopted in response to the pandemic and which remain in effect in most jurisdictions. While terms vary from place to place, these emergency decrees temporarily suspend normal legal restrictions standing in the way of legitimate measures necessary to control the spread of COVID-19.
Visitor Restrictions at PHAs
Emergency decrees apply to owners and managers of public housing authorities (PHAs), including the ban on gatherings of more than a specific number of people—typically, 10 for indoor and 50 for outdoor gatherings (although limits vary by geography and how far the jurisdiction is into its re-opening plan). Result: PHAs have authority to ban big parties and social events at their sites. Bans on individual visits or small gatherings are more problematic but may also be justifiable, especially at PHAs for seniors, the disabled, and other residents who are susceptible to COVID-19 infection.
Question 38 under Operational Concerns in HUD’s most recent COVID-19 FAQ for Public Housing Agencies asks if a PHA can ban visitors from a senior high-rise. HUD says yes: “PHAs have the authority to restrict visitors from public housing properties.” Also notice that the answer refers to “PHAs,” rather than a particular type of PHA, which implies that the authority to restrict visitors during the pandemic applies to all PHAs.
Visitor Restrictions at Non-PHA Sites
But what about non-PHA HUD housing sites? Can they also ban visitors? In its General Multifamily Housing Q&A guidance, Question 35, HUD says that “owners and agents may have the authority to restrict visitors from HUD-assisted Multifamily housing properties” and should review state and local emergency decrees and laws to determine if that’s permissible in their jurisdiction.
How to Implement Restrictions
In the Q&A, where the guidance says that PHAs do have, and owners of other HUD assisted housing projects may have, the right to restrict visitors, HUD talks about how to implement those restrictions. Specifically, HUD recommends that the visitor restrictions policy:
- Be implemented “as part of a broader, publicly announced plan to respond to the pandemic national emergency”;
- Follow CDC and public health agency guidance; and
- Allow for non-social visits that may be essential to meet residents’ needs.
Six Things to Put in Your Visitor Restrictions Policy
Our Model Policy: Restrict Visits to Ensure Social Distancing During Pandemic, which is based on a template from a PHA in Tacoma, Wash., incorporates the HUD recommendations. Like our Model Policy, your visitor restrictions policy should include six things.
1. Policy statement. Set the context by explaining that the visitor restrictions are a temporary emergency measure to protect health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and that they’re authorized by state and local emergency decrees. Caveat: The reference to emergency decrees may not be appropriate for sites located in states and municipalities where emergency decrees haven’t been issued or which have already expired [Policy, Sec. 1].
2. Visitor restrictions. Say that residents can’t have visitors or guests unless the visit falls into one of the exceptions listed in the next section [Policy, Sec. 2].
3. Permissible visits. In accordance with HUD recommendations, make allowances for visits essential to residents’ needs, including:
- Deliveries of essential supplies like food, medications, sanitary products, and equipment enabling residents to work from home [Policy, Sec. 3(a)];
- Deliveries of medical, emergency, and other essential services [Policy, Sec. 3(b)]; and
- Visits necessary to care for members of the family or household or pets [Policy, Sec. 3(c)].
4. Rules for safe visits. Specify that visits that are permitted must be no longer than necessary to achieve the essential purpose and that visitors must follow all social distancing, sanitation, and other health and safety rules when they’re in the building [Policy, Sec. 4].
5. Remedies & acceleration. Make it clear that residents are responsible for any violations their visitors commit and that failure to comply with visitor restrictions is grounds to evict [Policy, Sec. 5].
6. Duration. State that the visitor restrictions will be in effect until the public health emergency ends or earlier if they’re no longer needed. Also keep in mind that the pandemic situation is fluid, and reserve the right to revise the visitor restrictions to keep up with changes to CDC and public health guidelines [Policy, Sec. 6].
See The Model Tools For This Article
|Restrict Visits to Ensure Social Distancing During Pandemic|