COVID-19 has created new legal questions for landlords, homeowners, and tenants: The government has, for public health reasons, limited peoples’ ability to gather and move freely. Other restrictions regarding non-essential businesses and requiring masks in public, are also emerging across the United States. The following two categories of restrictions tend to cause tension among neighbors—especially when you no longer have the ability to simply go someplace else to cool off.
The most common restriction, now in effect in the majority of states, is a “stay at home” order of some kind. While the situation changes daily, and state and local orders vary, most orders require people to stay at their residences except to perform any "essential activity." For the most part, essential activities are limited to basic activities such as getting food or seeking medical care.
However, states' and localities' definitions of "essential" vary. Some orders allow limited outdoor activity, such as exercise while maintaining social distance (e.g., AK, AZ). Some allow gatherings for religious activity (FL, AL), for visiting convenience stores (CA), and even for visiting pet stores (NJ). Some states (AK, TX) have even used individual factors to impose isolation or quarantine orders, like 14 days for people flying in from a high incidence location (like NY or NJ).
Many local governments are now requiring face coverings for going out in public. Some localities specify the types of face coverings and how to sanitize them. Most allow homemade fabric masks or common items (like scarves) to keep people from buying up protective masks (N95) in short supply that healthcare workers need.
Because of all the nuances and exceptions in these new rules, you're going to have to carefully read the applicable orders in your area to fully understand what applies to you and your neighbors. When a neighbor, landlord, tenant, or other person in close proximity is breaking the rules or otherwise making a stay-at-home order more difficult than it needs to be, there’s no need to resort to social media shaming or thinly veiled threats. Here’s some advice for how to deal with—in a safe and legal manner—troublesome neighbors during the coronavirus outbreak.
A: If your area is subject to a stay-at-home order, be sure to look at the wording and note any exceptions for “essential services.” The people you're observing might be walking to the grocery store, or simply going out for (allowed) exercise. Also, keep in mind that most of your neighbors are confined at home, rather than going on trips, attending events, or going to work, so it's likely that you'll see more (perfectly innocent) foot traffic in and around your property. So long as no one is trespassing on your property or otherwise posing a threat to people or property, it’s best to just ignore the activity and keep your distance.
A: Most areas have limited gatherings to either a set number of people (5 or more in RI; 10 or more MS) or to people of the same household—even if their number exceeds the maximum gathering limit. So, not all gatherings are prohibited. Note that in some areas, gatherings aren’t restricted—they are merely discouraged. Also, many areas allow gatherings so long as everyone maintains a safe distance (often six feet). If you see a clear violation, consider offering a friendly verbal (from a safe distance) or online (such as on your neighborhood’s social media page) reminder that we all need to try to flatten the curve. If friendly reminders are ignored and the behavior occurs repeatedly, consider alerting your landlord or homeowners’ association. A large, persistent gathering could warrant a call or online report to local law enforcement (non-emergency number).
A: As mentioned above, there is a wide range of what’s considered essential activity—these people could be legally doing many things, such as going out to buy food and fuel, seeking pet care, or attending doctor’s appointments. Many people in industries where you can’t work from home are still commuting to work. Or, perhaps they have a sick relative that they must attend to. Without more specific information, you’re probably not going to definitively determine if someone is breaking the stay-at-home orders. Assume good intent and give them a pass. (Don’t be this nosy neighbor who sent a scolding letter to a 9-1-1 dispatcher.)
A: Face covering guidelines vary widely by location and situation, and, in many places they are just that: guidelines—not orders. Determine if a mandate applies or is even practical given the situation these people are in. The rules might be different for someone driving in their car versus shopping at a grocery store. Most mask orders require covering one’s face in any building that’s not your house. If you live in a multiunit condo building, residents might not think these rules apply in shared indoor spaces like laundry rooms or other common areas. If you see violations occurring in shared spaces, your best route for reporting concerns is probably the landlord or building supervisor.
If you are a landlord or property manager, consider posting applicable guidelines in common areas and at entrances. Send your tenants email reminders and suggestions for staying healthy and sanitizing their units. You could also seek out sources for cloth masks to provide to tenants—look online for homemade mask-making groups in your area. Investing a small sum in masks for your tenants will help support local makers as well as keep your tenants safe and healthy.
A: The COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates have changed people’s patterns and behaviors. Millions of people who normally are at work or school are now home all day. In addition, a frightening virus is changing how people interact, shop, and live. A threshold question to ask if you observe unusual behavior would be: Is it a violation of a rule or just a trigger? Many people—perhaps even yourself—are under financial, emotional, and physical stress due to this pandemic. Maybe the leaf blower has always gone through the neighborhood every Wednesday afternoon but you just never noticed because you were at work. Or, out of boredom or anxiety, a group of neighbors are singing our their windows or playing loud music and dancing in unison on their decks every morning for exercise. Perhaps young children and their parents search the neighborhood looking for teddy bears in windows. Other neighbors might be dealing with their stress by starting gardens or filling their garage with toilet paper and rice.
Regardless, people use varying coping mechanisms in times of stress. Many of these activities don’t run afoul of normal neighbor law issues related to noise or trespassing issues. Landlords and tenants can check their leases or rental policies to see if the behavior violates a rule. Homeowners can check their homeowner’s association rules and local ordinances. Otherwise, try to realize that you might have a heightened sensitivity to annoyances until things return to normal—and your neighbors might be acting a bit out of the ordinary, as well.
While self-enforcement and education have been the main enforcement methods, there are increasing reports of fines and arrests for violations, especially for organizers of large gatherings or those who refuse to comply with social distance or face covering rules when asked by law enforcement.
Some cities even have COVID-19 task forces or special hotlines or agencies to cover concerns. Landlords keeping open gyms or pools, in particular, could face swift enforcement.
Keep in mind that arresting people for violations runs counter to the goals of the temporary orders themselves—as a society, we don’t want law enforcement having unnecessary close contact with individuals, nor do we want people unnecessarily kept in close quarters such as jails.
As mentioned, you could explore other options for enforcement. Tenants can contact their landlords for assistance. Homeowners can look towards homeowners’ associations and local code enforcement. Relying on “moral suasion” ("in this together") and logic could also be helpful (for example, sharing on social media the statistics on available hospital beds should an outbreak occur in your area).
Again, whether your area has mandates and active enforcement will determine the resolution of any complaints. Keep in mind that this is uncharted territory—these regulations haven’t been widely tested. Civil liberties arguments and claims of ambiguity and vagueness in the regulations themselves might cloud enforcement.
Don’t put undue pressure on already strained law enforcement: Call emergency services for only serious violations or risks. For example, a call is likely warranted when a very large group is congregating, a known COVID-19 carrier refuses to isolate, and when personal or property damage is threatened, imminent, or occurring. For unclear or suspected violations, first try a community-based resource such as those mentioned above, or call a non-emergency number or COVID-19 hotline your area might have implemented for advice.