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Landlords, business owners scramble to upgrade safety of office space

Joshua Bellows, owner of Pure Maintenance of Georgia, sets up a sanitizing and anti-microbial “dry fog” system at an office in Alpharetta on Tuesday evening May 12, 2020. Bellows first uses an acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide mist to sanitize the office, then an anti-microbial mist that he says attracts viruses with its electrical charge, then destroys the virus for up to 90 days. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Joshua Bellows, owner of Pure Maintenance of Georgia, sets up a sanitizing and anti-microbial “dry fog” system at an office in Alpharetta on Tuesday evening May 12, 2020. Bellows first uses an acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide mist to sanitize the office, then an anti-microbial mist that he says attracts viruses with its electrical charge, then destroys the virus for up to 90 days. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Omar Ali knows that, for tenants at his Lakewood Heights office building, business has been hurting. Still, he feels he has no choice but to take steps that may make things even harder.

Consider the elevator in his four-story building. In the hopes of preventing the spread of COVID-19, Ali will limit the number of riders to two at a time. Some tenants have pushed back, namely a chiropractor and a psychiatrist who say it’s inconvenient for their clients.

Until some of the uncertainty around the coronavirus is cleared up, Ali said, such restrictions will be mandatory. “We have to have safety protocols,” he said.

Many commercial landlords and tenants are grappling with similar decisions in the new world created by the coronavirus. Dentist offices, clothing stores and tattoo shops need customers to return to make money again. Businesses want employees back at their desks in the office to improve productivity.

To encourage such a return, tenants and landlords are installing expensive filtration equipment in heating and air-conditioning systems. They’re removing chairs and benches from common areas and closing dining rooms and snack bars. They’re requiring workers wear masks, gloves and, sometimes, gowns. Some are adopting technology to track employee movement within buildings and identify potential infection zones, according to commercial real estate services firm JLL.

Some of Atlanta's biggest companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS and Home Depot, aren't rushing their employees to return to the office. But many landlords are pushing for tenants to reopen.

If the coronavirus pandemic persists and businesses shut down permanently, property owners will struggle with mortgage payments. A tidal wave of mortgage defaults could be coming.

“We asked our mortgage lender for a deferral on paying rent, but they’re not giving us any kind of reprieve,” said Ali, owner of the Lakewood Heights office building.

Landlords need tenants to return, so they must rapidly adopt workplace policies and install upgraded equipment, said John O’Neill, head of Cushman & Wakefield’s Atlanta office. O’Neill said his firm is advising clients who manage hundreds of millions of square feet of office space on how to reopen.

Many businesses “are concerned about the productivity of their workers,” he said. “For some, working from home has gone well. But for others, it’s been a real struggle.”

If tenants rush to reopen without adopting strict social-distancing policies or disinfecting office space, they could be held liable if a worker or guest contracts COVID-19 inside their building, said Meredith Caiafa, an attorney at Morris, Manning & Martin who advises employers. The safest approach is to simply follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“An employer and a building owner can never go wrong in following what the reasonable standards are,” she said.

Lawsuits have already appeared. Family members of five people who died at the senior care home Arbor Terrace at Cascade sued the assisted living facility for failing to protect residents.

Business owners are trying to prevent that situation.

Commodity Marketing Co. in Alpharetta, which brokers pet food ingredients, has installed ultraviolet lighting to kill viruses, said CEO Vince Connolly. It also hired Pure Maintenance of Georgia to disinfect its space with a dry-fog version of an anti-microbial substance that kills viruses, bacteria and mold.

UV lighting hasn’t been confirmed to kill COVID-19, but some scientists say it’s effective in reducing airborne infections, according to The New York Times. Pure Maintenance CEO Joshua Bellows said his company is waiting on test results to see if the anti-microbial kills the coronavirus.

North American Properties is installing UV lighting at Colony Square in Midtown because people must feel safe to enter public spaces before life can return to normal, said managing partner Tim Perry.

“Society is wanting to re-engage,” he said.

Roam is installing UV lighting, an air-filtration system and adopting other measures at its five co-working locations in metro Atlanta, said company spokeswoman McCauley Williamson. Roam postponed the opening of its sixth location near Lenox Square, but the steps will allow it to open next month.

Some small businesses may not be able to afford those measures but are adopting new rules. Only You Tattoo in Grant Park began seeing customers again on May 6 and it now requires patrons to wear masks and to come alone to appointments, said owner Danielle Distefano.

“We have felt strange coming back to work, but we’re hyper-focused on keeping everyone safe,” she said.

That’s Ali’s goal for his Jonesboro Road office building. He bought the property in decrepit condition in December 2018 and has since renovated it. Most construction was done this spring. He had leased about 70% of the units and planned a March grand opening.

Then the coronavirus hit and his tenants closed. He’s trying to help them return.

“Here we have a new building and we haven’t collected a dime in rent,” he said. “We’re trying to give everyone enough time to come back, but it’s been a hell of a struggle.”