Gov. Jay Inslee announced a limited rollback of Washington’s statewide ban on residential and retail construction at a press conference Friday. Construction projects that were underway before the ban will be allowed to restart work, subject to a new list of safety restrictions.
“We have found a way to safely allow low-risk construction that is underway to resume,” Inslee said.
All non-emergency construction in Washington has been halted since March 23 by a stay-at-home order aimed at combatting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry groups have been critical of the ban, pointing to the fact that most other states have designated construction as an “essential” activity.
Inslee addressed those concerns in the press conference, acknowledging that Washington’s order went further than most of the others.
“There’s a reason for that,” he said. “We knew we were first hit, and we knew we needed some time to develop protocols for this industry.”
Inslee convened a work group to help develop those protocols earlier this month, with representatives from the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Association of Washington Businesses, trade unions, health experts and other industry stakeholders.
The protocols are collectively referred to as Phase 1, which allows for the resumption of low-risk construction work. Later phases will focus on protocols for higher-risk work.
Mark Riker, executive secretary of the Washington state Building and Construction Trades Council, said the work group determined that it would make more sense to evaluate the safety of general construction work tasks rather than specific construction projects or categories.
The “low-risk” determination is based on whether officials can conclude with a high degree of confidence that a given task can be performed while maintaining social distancing. Any existing construction project could potentially resume work immediately, but only on those low-risk tasks.
“That’s going to delay some construction projects, and we understand that,” Inslee said.
The Phase 1 protocols require each job site to develop its own comprehensive plan for COVID-19 exposure control, mitigation and recovery and post it at the site.
The protocols include a list of 30 safety requirements that must be implemented at every job site, starting with the designation of a site-specific COVID-19 supervisor at every project to monitor employee health and enforce the site safety plan.
Other requirements include a weekly training meeting for all workers to review safety measures, personal protective equipment provided by the employer to every worker and general cleaning and sanitation measures for both the job site and the workers.
The list also includes several strict social distancing measures that must be enforced at work sites, such as maintaining a six foot separation between workers at all times, staggering lunch break shifts to avoid crowds and limiting the number of contractors on site to the lowest practical number.
“If it can’t be done with social distancing, then it cannot proceed at this time,” Inslee said.
Industry work group members who spoke at the press conference praised the decision to allow limited construction and emphasized the need for the industry to closely monitor job sites and enforce the new rules. Local industry leaders echoed those comments.
“Our members in Clark County were very active in advocating for sensible health and safety protocols on the job site, many of them signing pledges to show the governor how serious they are about preventing the spread of COVID-19 to not just protect their employees and families, but also the larger community,” Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building and Industry Association of Clark County, wrote in an email. “Our members are aware that the stakes are high right now, because if safety measures are not followed and complaints are filed, the industry will likely be shut down again and a Phase 2 rollout will not be entertained.”
Inslee said his office will convene stakeholder groups to develop similar reopening plans for other economic sectors, but added that it’s too soon to say when other shuttered businesses might be able to reopen and stressed that a full reopening at this time would result in a resurgence of the virus.
“If we push that green button too soon, a lot more people are going to die,” he said.