The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted Clark County businesses in nearly every industry, but amid the chaos, one of the county’s biggest industries appears to be chugging along with minimal impacts, at least so far: Construction.
As grocery stores scramble to serve crowds and restaurants shutter, officials at local engineering and construction firms told The Columbian that work out on construction job sites is continuing as planned.
“So far the construction industry, I believe, has done really well,” said Patrick Ginn, owner of Clark County-based homebuilding company Ginn Group.
The construction and mining sector has consistently been Clark County’s fastest-growing industry for years, according to employment data from the Washington Employment Security Department. It employed about 15,600 workers as of January.
At Vancouver-based Olson Engineering, business manager Lacey Arnold said the civil engineering firm had not experienced much of a disruption to its existing project pipeline.
Public projects tend to be mandated to carry on, and a lot of private developers view projects through a multiyear lens, so the current disruption isn’t enough to warrant canceling a project, she said. Housing projects are one example — the virus ultimately isn’t going to change the fact that Clark County has a housing shortage, so housing projects are still a safe bet, she said.
Olson’s engineers typically work in an office with scheduled site visits, so a large portion of the firm’s workforce has been able to shift to a work-from-home approach, Arnold said. The biggest impact has been a de facto freeze on new hires due to the empty office.
“It would be incredibly complicated to train someone on our processes if we were working remotely,” she said.
The firm has been preparing for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order, but even that wouldn’t disrupt all operations, she said. Most of the engineers could still work from home, and the firm works on many projects such as pipelines and railroads that would likely be considered “essential” exceptions to a shelter-in-place order, allowing the job sites to keep running.
The Building and Industry Association of Clark County, along with its statewide counterpart, has been pushing to make sure that construction sites are exempted if Gov. Jay Inslee chooses to implement a statewide shelter-in-place order.
“Our main goal is to keep the employees of our member companies working without interruption to provide a necessary supply of housing, so when the uncertainty of the coronavirus dissolves, people will have a place to call home,” said Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building and Industry Association of Clark County.
Home construction proceeding
On the home sales side of the business, Ginn Group has restricted its open houses to appointment-only and has seen a spike in online traffic, but so far they’ve only had one cancellation out of about 100 sales, Ginn said.
Ginn said the biggest disruption so far has been to the project permitting process. Clark County closed its Permit Center offices on Wednesday and is in the process of changing its procedures to allow for remote drop-off of paperwork.
Vancouver already shifted to an online permit system last year, so it’s been an easier adjustment for projects within the city than in the unincorporated county, Ginn said.
Inspections are still happening, and job sites have been able to continue operations, he said. Workers are naturally spaced far apart on jobs, making it easy to follow public health guidelines that call for 6-foot separation distance between people.
“We’re in open areas where people don’t work face to face,” said Tracy Doriot, owner of Vancouver-based homebuilder Doriot Construction. At the company’s main office, staff have switched to staggered shifts and increased cleaning protocols.
Ryan Hurley, president of Vancouver-based Hurley Development, said he’s also seen relatively little disruption on job sites, and labor is still readily available.
Workers could still be seen at many of the bigger job sites in downtown Vancouver this week, including The Aria apartments from Cascadia Development Partners.
Despite the relatively smooth sailing so far, Ginn said he expects to see a sales decline over the next month or two because of the general economic disruption caused by the virus outbreak, as well as logistical challenges — families will have a harder time packing up and moving while the kids are home from school.
Doriot said he’s also seen mostly stable sales, but a couple of the company’s clients hit pause on deals that were in the works, citing concerns about the economy.
“The economy — as robust as it was — it doesn’t take too much for these ripple effects to create difficulties,” he said.
Ginn and Doriot both said they hoped the outbreak could be brought under control quickly enough to prevent larger-scale impacts.
Things are already getting dicey on the commercial real estate side of the development market, according to Hurley. The greatest impact so far has been on sale closings, he said, with more deals getting extended or failing to close.
“Buyers are nervous,” he said.
Ginn and Doriot both said they haven’t encountered any major supply chain disruptions so far, but they’re not counting on things staying that way indefinitely. Hurley said the commercial real estate industry has begun to see supply chain disruptions that have the potential to push back project completion dates.
The biggest point of concern shared by all the developers was the constant uncertainty caused by the global pandemic. The current economic fallout doesn’t really compare to a standard business cycle recession or even a major financial crash like in 2008, Hurley said. It’s more like the crash after 9/11 — occurring all at once with no warning and no clear plan.
“The next 90 days are going to be challenging for all industries, all businesses, all people,” Ginn said.