Time to ease pandemic restrictions on construction in Washington?

Under the governor’s “stay home – stay healthy” order all non-essential business activity is shut down through May 4. As the governor states in his order extending the policy

The state Department of Commerce is providing guidance and assistance to businesses on whether they can be considered essential and other resources they may access to help during this time…

“We have taken dozens of steps under my emergency powers to help people in this time – including moratoriums on evictions, mortgage forbearance, utility ratepayer assistance, unemployment extensions, flexibility on tax payments and cash assistance to families,” Inslee said. “We will do more.”

Part of that effort is the sacrifice of business owners who had to shut down and of their workers who struggle to pay bills, Inslee said, and it is important for us to work toward coming out of this statewide shutdown. For example, the administration is engaging in productive conversations with industries to devise a safe way for them to get back to work when we can lift that part of the order.

Construction activity is still generally considered non-essential, a departure from the interpretation in other states, as The Lens reported last week.

After his March 23 order, Inslee issued a clarification stating most construction is not an “essential activity” – making Washington one of only two states to do so. Exempt from the order are affordable housing and low-income housing projects, along with work that may be needed to address unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

The Lens reports building industry associations are urging the governor to treat construction as an essential activity.

In a March 26 letter to Inslee, Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS) Executive Director Kat Sims wrote: “We are very concerned that a comprehensive shut-down of home construction could be devastating to our local, regional, and state economies. At a time when our state faces a massive housing shortage, rising housing costs, and a homelessness crisis, we cannot afford to hit pause on new home construction.” The association represents 2,700 construction companies.

The Seattle Times editorial board writes,

There is no question that shutting down much of Washington’s economy is necessary to slow the coronavirus spread.

Now, as the state considers which restrictions to ease first, the halt on residential construction should top the list. More than jobs and housing are at stake — precious supplies of toilet paper are also at risk, as  consumers stock up.

Gov. Jay Inslee is already allowing some construction to continue, including government projects and publicly financed affordable housing projects, indicating that social-distancing safety measures are adequate on job sites.

Most other states, including California and Oregon, are allowing construction as long as companies maintain distance measures. This reflects the critical, ongoing need for housing.

How’s toilet paper supply affected?

When construction stops for an extended period, sawmills curtail production, reducing the output of sawdust and wood chips necessary to make paper products. That’s a big concern when mills producing toilet paper face huge increases in demand.

“That could significantly affect our supply chain in the short term,” said Chris McCabe director of the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, which asked Inslee on March 26 to reconsider the construction halt.
In an op-ed Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler also urges the governor to consider residential construction essential. 

Washington is one of only five states not allowing home construction to continue during the pandemic. Oregon and California allow home-construction projects to proceed. Gov. Inslee should do the same…

After his initial order to shut down businesses he didn’t consider essential, the governor listened and agreed funerals could be held under certain circumstances. He allowed real estate agents to resume working, with some restrictions, and he recently did likewise with automobile repair shops, auto sales and leasing facilities, and renewable energies. He should do the same with residential homebuilding and road-construction work, as well as other industries in which employees can maintain enough distance from each other and customers.

We can’t explain the difference between the “one of only five” cited here an the “one of only two” cited in The Lens story. What’s clear is that Washington is one of very few that treats construction as non-essential. As the policy continues to evolve, we imagine residential construction will resume, with appropriate social distancing measures in place. And when it does, that will provide a little added relief to a strained state budget.