Tuesday, April 7, 2020
April 7, 2020

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Gov. Inslee declares construction nonessential

Most building work grinds to halt after update to stay-at-home order

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a memo Wednesday ordering a halt to most construction work during the COVID-19 outbreak, leading to an abrupt work stoppage at major Clark County construction project sites including the Hotel Indigo and Kirkland Tower at The Waterfront Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a memo Wednesday ordering a halt to most construction work during the COVID-19 outbreak, leading to an abrupt work stoppage at major Clark County construction project sites including the Hotel Indigo and Kirkland Tower at The Waterfront Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a memo Wednesday night declaring that the construction industry as a whole is not exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order he issued earlier this week. The clarification has shut down all projects not deemed “Essential Critical Infrastructure.”

The original order listed several kinds of construction workers as essential, which the industry appeared to interpret as confirmation that it was exempted. The Building Industry Association of Washington put out an internal memo Tuesday stating that housing construction was an essential exemption under the order.

Inslee’s new memo says otherwise.

“In general, commercial and residential construction is not authorized under the Proclamation because construction is not considered to be an essential activity,” Inslee wrote.

The memo outlines three exceptions: construction related to essential activities described in the order; construction related to a government function, such as publicly financed low-income housing; and construction to address unsafe conditions or emergency repairs.

Most construction workers are still permitted to be on the job if they’re working on a project that falls into one of those categories, Inslee wrote. If not, then they have to stand down until the order is lifted.

School construction is considered essential, according to Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, so Clark County’s school construction projects can continue.

Still, the new guidance will impact a significant number of ongoing commercial and residential construction projects in Clark County, along with the companies behind them. The construction sector accounted for about 15,600 jobs in the county as of January, according to data from the Washington Employment Security Department.

“Gov. Inslee’s clarification of the order is a devastating blow to the building industry and local economy,” Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, said in a statement. “This order will certainly cause a backlog in builders’ ability to provide more housing units, thus exacerbating the housing affordability and homelessness crises.”

Scarpelli added that many builders will now face a decision about whether to lay off employees.

It’s an impact the industry had hoped to avoid. The Building Industry Association of Clark County and its statewide counterpart both said last week they were lobbying Inslee to designate all construction as essential if he implemented a stay-at-home order.

Local homebuilders Patrick Ginn of Ginn Group and Tracy Doriot of Doriot Construction last week appeared confident that housing construction would be exempted from any potential stay-at-home order.

Inslee’s memo is a substantial departure from what the industry had been expecting based on discussions with the governor’s office, said Doriot, who also serves as vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

In terms of his own local projects, Doriot said work has come to an almost dead stop. The company can continue offsite preparation work, such as project permitting, he said, but that’s it.

Inslee’s memo allows work to continue that’s needed to prevent unsafe conditions. Doriot said the industry is interpreting that to mean certain projects can proceed until they reach safe stopping points. If a house’s roof is half-finished, for example, Doriot said he assumes crews can complete that portion before standing down, in order to prevent water intrusion and damage.

Doriot said most potential custom homebuyers likely won’t abandon their projects altogether, but they’ll want to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic is over before moving forward with any purchases.

“I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of work because of this, but it may delay things by a factor of months,” he said.

Ginn said his company’s biggest initial concern is the customers who have already committed to moving into newly purchased or rental homes and don’t have alternative housing available. The priority is to make sure those people are able to complete their moves, he said.

In the meantime, the county and state Building Industry Associations have been working to build online resource lists for member builders, Scarpelli said, including tax credits, unemployment extensions and Small Business Administration loans.

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