To help battle the coronavirus outbreak, governors of several states have shut down all but essential services in recent days. This has left building departments, state building associations and elected officials inundated with questions from contractors in affected areas. Heads of AEC firms of all sizes and functions, including subcontractors and architects, are looking for guidance on whether their work can proceed.
For now, it appears that the shutdowns that have been enacted so far exempt most construction activities, but with caveats. (Click here for Construction Dive's map tracking construction closures across the country.)
New York: construction can continue
For example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order, which went into effect last night, mandates 100% closure of all nonessential businesses and bans all nonessential gatherings. It permits skilled trades such as electricians, plumbers and other related construction firms and professionals to provide work on-site for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes.
According to Mike Elmendorf, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, this exemption applies to all construction in the state, per guidance from the Empire State Development Corp., a state agency tasked with supporting economic incentives.
In an email to members, Elmendorf also said that construction firms do not need to request a special designation in order to continue work. However, firms must comply with other rules, according to a ESDC fact sheet, which says that only employees who are needed to provide essential products and services are permitted to work at the business location.
Essential businesses are still required to utilize telecommuting or work from home procedures — especially for support staff — to the maximum extent possible, it states. Nonessential businesses, under which architecture primarily falls, for instance, are required to work remotely under the "stay at home" orders.
In New York City on Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is working within state parameters but that it is “important” to discuss with state officials whether all construction, such as the building of luxury condos, should remain exempt, according to the Real Deal.
Illinois and California: construction can continue
On Saturday, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s statewide stay at home order went into effect in order to keep new cases of COVID-19 from rapidly increasing and to ensure the state's health care system remains fully operational to treat patients in need of urgent care. As in New York, the Illinois mandate deems construction essential and therefore allowed to continue.
A “stay at home” order enacted in California late last week does not pertain to current construction projects in the state. Although the executive order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom does not mention construction, a notice on the state’s website lists it as one of the sectors that is not affected.
“The California State Public Health Officer and Director of the California Department of Public Health is ordering all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence, except as needed to maintain continuity of operation of the federal critical infrastructure sectors, critical government services, schools, childcare and construction, including housing construction,” it reads.
The Associated General Contractors of California is also seeking clarification on whether Newsom's measure supersedes more stringent shutdown mandates in other parts of the state, most notably the San Francsico Bay Area.
"There is still some ambiguity that we have to work through," AGC of California CEO Peter Tateishi told Construction Dive. "But we're telling members who ask if they can go to work today that if they're on an existing project, they're exempted."
Pennsylvania: construction must stop
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's mandate to close all “non-life sustaining businesses” effectively stops construction work. The order requires the closure of all real estate brokerage firms, as well as the cessation of construction of all residential and non-residential construction, utility, highway, street and bridge construction, starting tonight. The closure of construction sites in Philadelphia has been extended to Friday at 5 p.m.
On Friday, the Wolf administration granted an exception for healthcare facilities, including the University of Pennsylvania’s $1.5 billion Penn Medicine Pavilion patient tower.
4 Massachusetts cities: construction must stop
Some cities have halted all construction, including Boston, as well as Cambridge, Chilmark and West Tisbury, Massachusetts.
These bans have generated strong opinions from local contractors, with some seeing the need to put safety first and others saying the move will hurt the economy and jobs.
“There are no completely safe places. But there is, most likely, no safer place to be than a construction site typically in the middle of nowhere,” wrote on commenter on a Martha’s Vineyard Times article about the shutdown. “Do we all ride to work together? No way! Do we share tools on the job site? Not anymore. Not for at least the last two weeks. Common sense has taken a backseat to the decision-making process. As was suggested before, some out-of-work people would probably appreciate getting some part-time work with a builder, landscaper or painter. [These are] all occupations where “social distancing” has always been in effect for efficiency purposes.”
More clarity is needed
Contractors in affected areas agree that these types of statewide mandates are not easy to decipher. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to President Trump, urging his administration to issue guidance that would clarify terms such as essential infrastructure and essential businesses and services.
Chamber CEO Thomas J. Donohue's letter requested the federal government to recommend exemptions that allow workers to leave their residence to provide any services or perform any work necessary to the operations and maintenance of essential infrastructure, including public works construction, residential construction and operation of roads and highways, among other activities.
While saying that business closures are important in helping to reduce the threat of the virus, Donohue stressed that governments should provide clear guidance on their mandates."It is important that these orders do not inadvertently harm businesses and services that support the essential infrastructure needed to successfully combat this pandemic," he wrote.