Construction industry seeks clarification from state, local leaders on what is ‘essential’

Officials see differences in stay-at-home mandates

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Last updated on March 30th, 2020 at 12:57 pm

Construction and real estate industry representatives are seeking clarification from state and local leaders on what should be considered essential construction activity during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Earlier this week, Gov. Tony Evers issued “safer-at-home” orders that called for the closure of all businesses the state deemed non-essential. Similar orders were given by the city of Milwaukee.

Construction was one of the industries deemed essential, meaning projects could continue during the outbreak. But over the last few days, the industry has been sorting out what type of construction is essential and what isn’t, and therefore would have to be put on hold.

One source of confusion is the difference in language between the city’s and state’s orders on what activity is essential.

For instance, both the city order and state order list several examples of what could be considered essential construction, though both note the examples aren’t an exhaustive list. The state’s order lists a few additional examples that the city’s doesn’t, such as assisted-living facilities, schools and any construction necessary for essential governmental functions and essential business and operations.

The state order also says “optional or aesthetic construction” should be avoided.

Tracy Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said she has heard concerns from members on this issue. Jim Villa, CEO of NAIOP Wisconsin, said his group has been hearing similar concerns.

CARW is taking direction based on language in the state order, Johnson said. She added she’s been told that the city would not be closely policing construction projects to determine whether they are in fact performing essential work.

“The assumption is that the state order would prevail in terms of that narrow definition,” she said.

A spokesperson with the Department of Neighborhood Services directed questions to Mayor Tom Barrett’s office. A Barrett spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Villa called on state and local governments to place no further limitations on construction work during the outbreak than what has already been detailed.

“Based upon our reading of the two orders, we believe that construction is an essential operation and, under stringent COVID-19 protocols, can continue,” he wrote in an email. “We are hopeful that the governor and mayor continue to recognize the importance of the construction industry on our economy and that no further restrictions are placed on our ability to safely continue to build for the future.”

But complications from the issue don’t appear to be widespread.

Johnson said she has so far heard from one member of an instance in which the contractor hired to perform tenant-improvement work at an office building said they were stopping the work since they considered it not essential. However, if the work didn’t get done in a timely manner then the tenant would not be able to move in by the agreed upon date as according to the lease agreement.

In a recent interview, Mike Fabishak, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, said he had not heard from any members about their projects being put on pause.

The mandate that non-essential businesses cease operations has caused issues beyond this one. Milwaukee DNS this week announced modified operations that would allow building permits to be issued and inspections to continue during the outbreak. The department originally announced it would completely close its offices as a result of the stay-at-home orders.

The operational changes included a re-opening of the department’s permit and development center at a limited capacity, building inspections performed via photos and live video and stricter safety requirements for on-site inspections.

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.