Residents in some Forsyth County neighborhoods are left searching for answers as they have watched subdivision pools open all around them while their own amenities have remained closed.
The Riverstone Plantation Homeowner’s Association is one of several boards in Forsyth County that made the decision to keep their amenities closed with no opening date planned. At first, the HOA announced earlier in May that it would be opening its pool, asking residents to volunteer to monitor the space and make sure pool visitors were keeping social distancing guidelines in mind.
Days later, however, several residents were disappointed and frustrated when the HOA provided them with a statement from its attorney, Benjamin Ost, stating that it was recommended that it keep the pool and other amenities closed for the time being.
“The Board has met all of the requirements of the C.D.C. sanitizing and social distancing guidelines, but even with these processes in place the risk to our Association is still great,” the HOA’s statement reads.
Ost advised the HOA that even following social distancing guidelines, cleaning as often as possible and putting up warning signs may not prevent lawsuits against the HOA if a resident were to contract COVID-19 while using its amenities.
In the meantime, the statement provided that the HOA will continue to work with committee members and vendors to try to open the pool back up as soon as it is safe for both residents and the HOA to do so.
The president of Chadbourne’s HOA, Frank Garrahan, came to a similar decision, letting residents know in an email that it is too soon to open neighborhood amenities.
“I know that many of you would like to see our amenities area opened,” Garrahan wrote in the email. “I too would like to see it opened and things getting back to normal. However, it's not that simple.”
Garrahan wrote that, after speaking with the HOA’s lawyers, insurance company and property management company, he felt the liability risk is not worth opening the pool at the moment as it would not only hurt the HOA but also all of Chadbourne’s residents.
Residents from communities choosing not to open their pools have since taken to social media to debate the issue and try to connect with their HOAs.
Many say that the real choice should be up to the residents.
“I wish they would maybe offer up an online vote for residents,” Riverstone Plantation resident Erin Jones said. “Have us sign waivers if we want to use it or something. A big portion of our dues is for this amenity that we currently can’t use.”
Although Jones said she understands that there may be a liability issue, she wishes that the HOA would at least communicate more with residents about what its next steps or plans are for the future. The board has not come out with a statement on the matter since earlier in May, and it has left many unsure of what to expect in the coming months.
Riverstone Plantation resident Michelle Filipovich said that she is also unsure of when the pool may open back up, but she believes that it is important for residents to try to find some normalcy in their lives again.
“The thing is COVID is here to stay,” Filipovich said. “COVID is something we’ve got to live with, and deal with, and learn about. And learn how to live as normal of a life as possible.”
As Ost pointed out in his statement to residents, however, HOAs along with government officials are still trying to figure out what the new “normal” is.
“It is important to note that the situation we find ourselves in is unique,” Ost wrote in his statement. “The last, similar pandemic was in 1918 and community associations did not exist at the time, so there is no helpful case or statutory law to guide us directly on how to respond to the new threats we face as a society. This, of course, increases liability for the Association because it makes it difficult to say that certain actions or measures will avoid a lawsuit.”
Ost also pointed out in his statement that guidance from state or federal officials or legislation that would prevent individuals from suing a property owner for the contraction of the virus would change the situation, and they could consider reopening.
On May 12, Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order allowing for public pools, including subdivision pools, to open back up, but the order did not mention liability risks or lawsuit prevention.
Forsyth County resident Erin Englar has since reached out to call on other community members to send their concerns to Kemp, asking him to provide clarification on how private neighborhood pools can open with “reasonable mitigation measures.”
Joe Barnes, an HOA member at Northern Oaks, said that he and the rest of the HOA had decided to open their own neighborhood pool with restrictions.
Their main reason for opening, however, was that the past has shown that their pool is never especially busy.
“Our pool does not get a lot of use,” Barnes said. “Usually there is no more than about five or six people down there at any given time.”
For extra precaution, residents in Northern Oaks cannot bring guests with them to the pool, they cannot visit the pool if they are showing any signs of illness, they must sign liability waivers before visiting and physical contact is prohibited.
While Barnes decided to open the pool in his own neighborhood, he also understands why others may be staying closed. Barnes and Ost both said that an HOA’s insurance does not cover the pandemic, meaning that the HOA would have to take out a loan or take from its reserves to pay for its own defense.
“It's a tough spot for HOA boards to be in for sure,” Barnes said. “Many are getting hammered on social media for not opening, and I'm sure they are trying to do the best they can.”
Without guidance from state or federal officials on what homeowners associations can do to avoid liability risk, residents remain frustrated and afraid that they may miss out on their yearly traditions at the pool with family and friends this summer.
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