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State allows real estate to continue, worrying some in Berkshire industry

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First came sniffles, then the dry cough, and then an overall body ache and headache. The fever was spotty.

By mid-March, Dan Alden, a real estate broker, was leveled by whatever bug he had caught. He wondered if it might be the new coronavirus, which already had gained a foothold in the Berkshires. He tried to get tested but didn't meet the criteria.

The more he thought about it, the more anxious he grew.

"I probably met with 20 different people," he said of the week of March 14, before his symptoms began.

During that time, Alden had shown homes to potential buyers in five South and Central Berkshire County towns, at the moment the region just was beginning to grasp that it was in the midst of a crisis. The lockdowns had not yet been ordered.

He'll never know what made him sick, who transmitted what to whom, or what other ramifications might have rippled out into the pandemic-sphere. These are detective stories for epidemiologists. And Alden's story is just one.

His hindsight fired up a mission to get the state to pause house showings and open house gatherings.

In his March 23 state of emergency order, Gov. Charlie Baker shut down real estate offices, which were deemed nonessential. But, that was revised some time after the Massachusetts Association of Realtors applied to the governor for an essential designation. Baker's Monday orders extended the lockdown of nonessential businesses to May 4. But, the change is status allowed physical real estate offices to reopen Tuesday.

The limit of 10 people per gathering remains in effect, but brokers and agents have wide discretion about how to sell real estate amid a pandemic.

Alden has pleaded with town officials, local and state industry leaders, lawmakers and anyone who will listen. His change.org petition got 146 signatures.

But, weary of a battle that has gone nowhere, he shut it down.

"I've been fighting this for the last two weeks, with literally my last breath," he said. He was reluctant to speak to The Eagle, worried about how his position could affect him in future.

The state is continuing to push social distancing to slow the spread of the virus and is increasing medical capacity in anticipation of a surge in COVID-19 patients from Tuesday to April 17.

As the number of cases and deaths in the region and in the Berkshires continues to rise, so does worry about various exposure risks.

Baker paused short-term rentals until May 4, after an outcry about sites like Airbnb continuing to host people who possibly were fleeing cities hit hard by the pandemic. It now only allows rentals to those working on the front lines, like doctors or nurses. It also allows rentals for those directly affected by the crisis, and people who are vulnerable.

With real estate, it's up to the industry to police itself.

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'Who's patrolling this?'

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has discouraged open houses. A March 31 email from the group also says that, for any in-person meetings during showings or transactions, "social distancing must be enforced."

"MAR recommends the use of hand sanitizer and thorough and frequent cleanings," it continues.

While much of real estate can be conducted remotely, this worries Alden.

"Who's patrolling this?" he said. "As Realtors, are we going to pre-sanitize houses before showings? We're not qualified to do that. I can't even find sanitary wipes."

Email messages to Baker's press office were not returned Wednesday. Sandra Carroll, president of the Berkshire Board of Realtors, said that, as a trade association, it can't issue edicts. To do so, she wrote, would violate federal antitrust laws.

Instead, she said the group recommends that members postpone showings and open houses, and has given them new tools, like virtual showings and training.

"We find the majority of our members are closely following these recommendations and taking substantial precautions," Carroll wrote. "It is not/can not be a mandate."

Alden agrees that most Realtors are likely "doing the right thing and staying home."

There could be other fallout, though, from fear-driven transactions.

"There could be panic sales or price gouging," he said. "The anomalies that happen in both buying and selling situations could have long-ranging implications for the assessment and valuation of properties."

Without orders from the top, local and state officials hope for "common sense."

"The town has been mainly following the governor's orders," said Stephen Bannon, chairman of the Great Barrington Select Board, when asked why the town doesn't just shut down any in-person activity for a month. "We just don't have the staff to enforce it."

Bannon doesn't think that, given the hit to the economy, anyone will be rushing to buy a house. "I don't see it as a major problem."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who had urged Baker to pause short-term rentals, said Baker shouldn't be adding to the list of essential businesses, but subtracting them when possible, right now. And he warned the industry to not be "greedy," and to look upon the essential business designation as a "gift from the governor."

"The concern the last couple of days is, 'I don't think we're taking it seriously enough; we are now approaching the surge,' " Pignatelli said. "That's where the city and town officials have to start policing themselves."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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