Although Governor Jay Inslee declined to add construction to the list of allowed “essential activities” as part of an April 7 update on the state’s COVID-19 response, discussions are ongoing among stakeholders about how to change that. A growing number of builders, state and federal elected officials argue that work can resume safely while avoiding detrimental effects of long-term inactivity.
Master Builder Association of King and Snohomish County Media Manager Nona Raybern told Lens that “we understand the frustration that builders are facing right now. Essentially, the job could be completed safely and following CDC guidelines, following Inslee’s guidelines, following government guidelines.”
This week two digital work groups were held between Inslee’s office and various stakeholders, including the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW). BIAW Government Affairs Director Jan Himebaugh told Lens the meetings so far have been positive. “There is definitely an effort and a desire for finding a path forward…in a way that we can protect our workers and also be productive.”
The prolonged closure of construction has led to criticism from within Inslee’s party. In an April 8 tweet, Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24) said the decision to keep construction “nonessential” is “bad policy. Small construction projects should be allowed to continue. Social distancing is easily practiced, and the loss of these jobs is making the economic devastation in rural Washington even worse.”
Another legislator advocating for that change is Rep. Chris Corry (R-14), who points to a health and safety plan created by Yakima-based Fulcrum Environmental Consulting based on Washington state guidelines. In an April 8 letter to Inslee, Corry wrote: “if we do not begin to safely re-open our economy, we will not be able to weather the long-term storm caused by COVID-19. Thankfully, we do not need to choose between protecting lives and protecting the economy, we can do both.”
In an April 6 letter to Inslee, the Home Builders Association of the Tri-Cities noted that neighboring states such as Oregon permit construction activity to occur. “Our builders who work on the state lines are now working in Oregon exclusively. They are showing that building doesn’t contribute to the spread of COVID-19 because of the safety measures in place. We can replicate that in WA.”
While the construction shutdown is intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, building advocates say the negative effects are growing. BIAW Communications Director Jennifer Spall told Lens the organization is constantly hearing “heartbreaking stories” from employers who are being forced to lay off workers.
She added that preventing any kind of residential construction besides affordable and low-income housing has created a stopgap within the existing housing market. Numerous homes on the verge of completion now sit empty while their owners remain in residential units other people plan to occupy. Now, some of those near-completed homes that sit empty are getting burglarized or vandalized.
“We’ve had some pretty organized hits,” Spall said. “They actually went in and removed appliances, fixtures, and even stacked them in the garage so they could pick them up later.”
Also affected by the construction shutdown is the pulp and paper industry. A March 26 letter to Inslee from regional and national pulp and paper associations warns that “the sector needs demand from lumber users, of which home construction is a significant component, to support the harvest of the timber necessary to keep our sawmills open and producing their essential materials. Likewise, the pulp and paper manufacturers rely on chips and other residual products from the sawmills to power their mills and produce paper and hygiene products. No one element of this supply chain can exist in isolation from the others.”
In response to the decreased demand, Washington-based timberland company Weyerhauser plans to reduce their operational capacity 20 percent for lumber and 15-25 percent for engineered wood products.
Former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace noted in a Facebook post that Washington state has now fallen from number one to 12th in the nation for total COVID-19 infections. “We flattened the curve. Now’s the time for the Governor to tell us when and how we can get back to work. Tick-tock.”