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The Return of Home Renovations


Gail Eisen was in the middle of combining two apartments in a co-op building on Sutton Place in late March, when the coronavirus prompted the shutdown of all nonessential construction projects for more than two months.

“When the workers left, with a few weeks to go before completing the job, they left in a hurry,” said Ms. Eisen, a retired television news producer. “They left neat piles of all their tools — 7-by-7-foot piles.

“But they’re back now,” she added, “and the buzz saw is music to my ears.”

Almost a month after the phase 1 reopening of New York City that allowed contractors and their crews back into residential buildings, “we’re redefining what ‘full steam ahead’ means,” said Steve Mark, the chief executive of SMI Construction. “It’s not going to mean what it used to.”

Credit…George Papas

Before hammers can start swinging or walls painted, contractors, as directed by state mandates, must fill out a welter of forms. They must outfit job sites with, among other things, sanitation stations and signage that reminds workers — properly masked, of course — to maintain an appropriate social distance and to wash their hands frequently.

But the state guidelines don’t stop there. Contractors and their employees must also be mindful of a whole host of other rules for home improvement during a pandemic: no more than one worker per 250 square feet; open windows whenever possible to increase ventilation; daily temperature checks before employees report to the job site; work stations must be cleaned and disinfected regularly; tightly confined spaces, like elevators, are to operate at no more than half capacity.

While some co-ops and condos require only that contractors and their crews hew to the state’s mandatory and “best practices” protocols, plenty of buildings have their own lists of dos and don’ts, their own documents for contractors to sign.

Some buildings are insisting that once on the job site in the morning, workers must remain there for the entire day to limit foot traffic. Some are trimming the number of hours that crews can be in residence daily, say from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. rather than the pre-Covid 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “And that includes the time it takes to get from the street up the elevator and back down,” Mr. Mark said. “Under the new rules and guidelines, renovations will absolutely take more time to complete.”

A Covid-19 rider to the standard alteration agreement issued by an Upper West Side co-op has two dozen provisions, among them, an addendum that allows for modification of the project schedule “taking into consideration that other occupants are working and/or schooling from home.”

Protocols from Orsid New York, a property management company, call for contractors to pick up and sanitize any Masonite (a floorboard mainstay of construction sites) at the end of the day, and to let building superintendents know when they’re leaving for the day. “That way the staff will know to clean the panels of the service elevator,” said Robbie Janowitz, Orsid’s senior vice president.

Meanwhile, a condo in the West Village is directing contractors to disinfect the service elevator and service entrance three times daily, a cleaning that must include misting with an electrostatic sanitize sprayer to neutralize germs. “The product must be presented and approved by the resident manager,” reads a document issued by the building.

However effective electrostatic spray guns may be, some buildings are none too keen about the prospect of reopening their doors to contractors. At least not yet and maybe not for a good long while. “People think Cuomo is the highest authority, but in New York City the co-op board is the highest authority,” said Marc Kerner, a general contractor and the owner of the company Infinity Construction. “And some boards are nervous.”

Credit…George Papas

Thus, some buildings may be allowing work that was in progress before the shutdown to go forward but are putting the kibosh on new renovation projects until next year. Some buildings are restricting the number of projects that can go on at any one time, Mr. Janowitz said. Others are limiting the scope of alterations — allowing small projects like paint jobs and cabinetry installations, but giving a thumbs down to alterations that require demolition. “Co-op boards want to make it less noisy for people who are quarantining,” said Steve Wagner, a real estate lawyer.

The demographics of a building may help explain a board’s caution, said Melissa Cafiero, the director of compliance at Halstead Management. “Some condos and co-ops may have a lot of residents who frequently travel internationally and there’s a lot of turnover with sub-letters so they’ve put a full stop in place on renovations,” she said. “And there are buildings that had a lot of confirmed Covid cases early on, which has made them more restrictive.” Boards’ decision-making is also being colored by the number of elderly residents and otherwise vulnerable people in their buildings.

“You have to balance health concerns and the effect of the operation of the co-op or condo with the needs of the people who are in the middle of a renovation,” said John Janangelo, the executive managing director at Douglas Elliman Property Management.

It can be a tough balancing act.

In early June, the shareholder of a Park Slope co-op chafed as his board pondered whether to allow his kitchen and bathroom renovation to resume after being stopped cold in March.

“Phase 1 started on June 8, and it took a lot of pushing on our end to get approval for construction started again on June 16,” said the shareholder, a small-business owner, who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing the board. “It was cut and dried for us: the city has reopened and it’s not a surprise reopening.”

The shareholder said he and his wife were fully on board with the need to protect other residents in the building, “but our apartment is currently uninhabitable and we’ve been staying with a series of friends.”

As things stand now, their contractor believes they should be able to move back in by September. But, the shareholder said, “I just hope the nine days of delay won’t hit us on the back end if there’s a second wave of Covid this summer.”

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