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Real estate deemed 'essential,' but only virtual showings allowed

Diane and Michael Grannum, real estate agents with

Diane and Michael Grannum, real estate agents with Exit Realty Premier in Massapequa Park. Credit: Courtesy of Diane Grannum

New York is allowing real estate agents, inspectors and appraisers to resume work -- but only by showing homes "virtually" or working in their own offices, state officials said Thursday.

The state's economic development agency has designated certain work by real estate agents, inspectors and appraisers as essential, but that "does not mean business as usual," Matthew Gorton, a spokesman for the Empire State Development agency, said in a statement Thursday. Business, he said, "can only be conducted if social distancing and other public health protocols are followed.... ​ For real estate, that means brokers can only transact business in their offices or show properties virtually, and anything else is off limits."

The agency said real estate agents may enter properties to conduct showings online or through video calls; inspectors and appraisers can visit properties for inspections; and brokers can oversee transactions such as signings at their offices while observing social distance guidelines.

The requirement that showings be conducted online or by video call -- rather than in person -- was a nuance that was not reflected in a statement released Wednesday by the New York State Association of Realtors, an Albany-based trade group.

The trade group announced Wednesday that state officials said, “Residential and commercial showings along with back office real estate work, appraisal services and home inspections are essential real estate functions effective immediately.”

The group also said that according to the state's directive, all essential businesses “must continue to comply with the guidance and directives for maintaining a clean and safe work environment issued by the Department of Health and every business, even if essential, is strongly urged to maintain social distance to the extent possible.”

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, said in an interview Thursday that it could be safe for real estate agents to interact with clients in person as long as everyone maintains a six-foot distance and wears surgical masks, "to respect the potential for the virus to spread even when people don't yet have symptoms."

If no surgical masks are available, a cloth mask or a cloth over the face would be better than nothing, since regardless of whether someone has developed symptoms, a cloth barrier "makes us much less infectious to the people around us," Hirsch said. 

Even before state officials clarified that showings must be virtual, some real estate agents said they would not resume in-person work.

Diane Grannum, who is a real estate agent with Exit Realty Premier in Massapequa Park along with her husband, Michael Grannum, said their brokerage had decided not to do in-person showings.

"Better safe than sorry for everybody," Diane Grannum said. "We don't want to create a situation where [interactions between agents and customers] would increase transmission of the virus."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month ordered all nonessential businesses to shut down all in-person work by March 22 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, real estate was not on the list of essential businesses.

In the statement it released Wednesday, the real estate trade group said state officials said that while back-office real estate work has been deemed essential, workers should “utilize telecommuting or work from home procedures to the maximum extent possible."

The group urged members to “limit person-to-person contact and observe the six-foot separation guidance.”

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