Strata managers are facing an unprecedented modern-day challenge in Covid. Here’s how we’re working to keep communities safe.
More than a year before the highly contagious Delta Covid variant hit Australia, images of apartment dwellers singing on their balconies in Italy as a pandemic raged around them became a symbol of resilience and hope.
It was March 2020 — relatively early days — and at that point Australia was moving to shield itself from an outbreak that was taking hold across the world.
The figures seemed frightening then — a global death toll which stood at 33,642 on the World Health Organisation’s count and nearly half a million confirmed cases — but it was only the tip of an approaching iceberg.
As of 4 October this year, 4.8 million people had died of Covid globally and the number of confirmed cases reported by WHO was more than 235 million.
Covid has also gained a foothold in Australia. Victoria and New South Wales have been locked in a deadly and protracted battle with the new Delta variant and other States and Territories have been working hard to keep it out.
In the middle of this, Australian strata managers and communities have faced unprecedented modern-day challenges.
Julie McLean, a director of SCA (Vic) and a member of SCA’s Education Board Advisory Group, has been in the strata frontline in Melbourne, which on October 4 became the world’s most locked down city.
“I have been shocked at how underprepared Australia was,” she says. “Fifteen years ago the SARS epidemic impacted 29 different countries, Australia was one of them.”
Apartment blocks locked down
In July last year, about 3,000 people in nine public housing blocks in Victoria’s Flemington and North Melbourne were placed in hard lockdown after Covid outbreaks. Authorities warned of an “explosive” potential for the virus to spread in the complexes which had shared lifts, corridors, rubbish facilities and laundry rooms.
A year later, a string of private apartment blocks in Sydney and Melbourne were also placed in hard lockdown, against the backdrop of wider lockdowns and restrictions in both cities.
Ms McLean says whole building lockdowns are extreme cases. It has been more common for sections or floors of buildings to be quarantined or for infected people to be removed altogether.
In NSW, the government warned people living in residential buildings to take care when moving through common areas. Residents were advised to wash hands after touching surfaces such as doorknobs or communal washing machines, to maintain social distancing as much as possible and to wear a face mask in indoor common areas.
Strata managers and body corporates were also advised to ensure that regularly touched surfaces were frequently cleaned.
A tale of two cities
A big challenge for the strata industry in Victoria has been getting authorities to consider it in planning and modelling, Ms McLean says. She says from public housing towers to hotel quarantine and apartment infection, they all have the same thing in common — high density living, shared spaces and poor ventilation.
“Despite our sector representing nearly 25 per cent of the population — it’s NSW as well — there’s no recognition at all for high density living,” she says.
She says the result has been a confusing situation where Victorian apartment buildings have been left to decipher websites for information that is directed at single home dwellings or business. As a result apartments have had to comply with conditions placed on businesses such as having a CovidSafe plan, QR code and a Covid Marshall and to close pools and gyms.
But on other matters, such as claiming a $10,000 government rebate when a deep clean is needed, their status is unclear.
With a void in the information available to the State’s strata industry, SCA (Vic) directors and staff last year pulled together their own guide for strata properties in the hope it would be replicated by the State government. The sector says it is still waiting for a proper guide directed to high density living.
When the public towers were locked down, SCA (Vic) and other key stakeholders were consulted to assist with knowledge on managing shared spaces in multi-unit dwellings.
They have also supported strata managers as practical issues arise, such as how to get food to people isolating in apartment towers.
Now, as government systems become increasingly stretched, Victorian strata managers have also been called on to help with contact tracing by collecting and providing health authorities with details of residents at a building. Communication is compounded by the lack of a statutory requirement to have a register of building occupiers or a central register of buildings and their strata management company, Ms McLean says.
In NSW, the local SCA office says it has been able to work closely with health authorities and has used technology and the virtual world such as regular webinars to keep its members informed.
“One of the challenges was initially the interpretation of the public health orders so what we did was get in contact with public health and they were very appreciative because it was new to them as well,” says SCA (NSW) general manager Sadiye Ince.
“What that enabled was an open dialogue. We encouraged all our managers with weekly communications that we produced on the public health orders…
“We tried to relay the message — common sense on common property.”
“By working very closely with health authorities we were able to ascertain what works were able to be carried out in lockdown and we broke that down into services — cleaning, waste, gardening, electrical — and explained what the order meant to those areas…”
“It was quite seamless.”
Around the country
Across Australia, SCA teams, strata managers and communities have faced new challenges.
In the nation’s capital, SCA (ACT) has seen an increase in demand on building infrastructure and facilities with a big part of the population working from home.
It has asked the ACT health minister and government for Covid guidelines. It says strata community residents and managers currently do not have consistent information on how to manage different aspects of Covid.
In South Australia and the Northern Territory, the SCA (SA/NT) office has been keeping up communications for its members.
“The biggest change is the quick conversion to adapting to the change of play including the biggest one about ensuring availability remotely for continuing the effective management of schemes,” SCA (SA/NT) president Joshua Baldwin says. “Needing to adapt to online meetings etcetera has been somewhat difficult with a wide variety of demographics.”
Behind WA’s closed border, SCA (WA) has also sought guidelines from WA health authorities.
SCA (WA) president Catherine Lezer says it is important all States and Territories have clear guidelines.
Locals have also been heartened by the community spirit shown by some strata residents, including balcony performances reminiscent of those in Europe.
“It shows we are all in this together,” Ms Lezer says.
After the Lockdowns
Technology could hold the key to safer buildings in the Covid age
As talk in New South Wales and Victoria turns to roadmaps out of lockdown, strata communities are preparing to emerge into a new world — and there are many questions about what it will look like.
The difficulty according to Julie McLean, a director of SCA Victoria and a member of SCA’s Education Board Advisory Group, is that Burnet Institute modelling and government planning in that State has overlooked strata.
Owners Corporations, or bodies corporate and strata companies as they are known in some other States, are set to face the difficult task of managing vaccinated and unvaccinated residents in a freer environment without the controls available to businesses.
“An owners corporation can’t say to people who choose not to be vaccinated ‘you can’t live here anymore’,” she says.
Ms McLean says a raft of new issues is set to arise and the strata industry will have to decide how best to manage the risks.
A high powered working group made up of health, engineering and strata experts, including Ms McLean, has been set up from around Australia to tackle the matters.
“Are we going to see a disruption in services to OCs because of uncertainly of exposure in a building?” she says. “It goes to cleaning, to waste, caretaking, that sort of thing.
“Then you have to think of the shared facilities, the pools, the gyms, community gardens and rooms, theatres, business centres, all sorts of shared spaces.
“As an occupant, do I feel safe now using those shared spaces if I have no guarantee over the occupants I’m sharing those spaces with?”
Of great concern is whether OCs could be held liable if someone is infected while on common property, or even worse, dies because it did not provide effective infection control.
There are also many questions around plans for international travellers to home quarantine.
In the search for ways to reduce risk, SCA in Victoria is evaluating the use of carbon dioxide monitors.
Ms McLean says they are a low cost tool that could alert people when the inside environment was high risk for the spread of infection.
“What it does is measure the amount of CO2 in the air,” she says. “If you’ve got higher CO2, the air is more stagnant, which in turn means the stale air could contain the virus.”
Trouble spots in buildings where air quality has been identified as poor could then be addressed.
“Identifying high risk areas provides options for the OC to manage the risk by changing the density quota in lifts and other confined spaces whilst investigating increased ventilation opportunities,” she says.
“It could be if there is no fresh air to those spaces, we might have to say the lift is only one person at a time and maybe there is a delay mechanism on the lift where it would sit for a period of time — or doors would remain open to allow a complete air change — then go down and pick up the next person.
“Technology will come to play in a lot of it.”