Coronavirus in Austin: Construction crews back at job sites as work ban lifted
Some recently sidelined construction workers in Austin are back on the job this week, after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order allowing commercial and residential building to continue amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Previously, city of Austin and Travis County leaders had issued orders barring most construction from continuing during the COVID-19 outbreak, except in limited cases for what was deemed essential uses, such as public works and affordable housing projects.
The local bans were in contrast to other major Texas metro areas, which have allowed building to proceed. The prohibitions prompted pushback from builders and others in the real estate, development, general contracting and other sectors who said the local orders were confusing and unnecessary.
Late Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler issued new guidance, saying the city will no longer prohibit commercial or residential construction projects. However, the document outlined numerous employer requirements for all construction work. Those include social distancing guidelines and healthy work practice requirements, including pre-screening the “general health” of workers, limiting crew sizes and rotating shifts for sites with more than 10 workers on the job a time.
Although work is now permitted to move forward, Adler said he hopes builders who are not doing essential or critical work will not resume construction.
“Just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should or that it’s right,” Adler said. “Our best hope to not have our hospitals overwhelmed is to prevent the passage of this virus, and that’s best done by people avoiding public interactions.”
Adler pointed to a recent decision by San Francisco that revised its shelter-in-place order to ban most Bay Area construction. New York has also banned most construction statewide.
“San Francisco and New York have been out front in this battle and the fact that they’ve banned most construction is something we should listen to,” Adler said. “The community in Travis County is doing their part. I just hope this doesn’t create a hole in the dike.”
Joe Fowler, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, had said on Wednesday that lawyers for the builders’ group determined Abbott’s order “makes clear residential and commercial construction companies are essential businesses and may proceed in spite of any conflicting order of any local governmental unit.”
“It is now incumbent on us to stress to our membership that safety practices and procedures on job sites must be closely observed and monitored,” Fowler said. “We firmly believe this allows us the opportunity to put our employees, subcontractors, suppliers and vendors back to work regardless of what the city and county have ordered.”
In February, before the coronavirus outbreak, the Austin metro area″s economic sector that includes the construction industry employed 71,600 people, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Fowler said builders, subcontractors and suppliers “are excited and ready to start back to work.”
“The construction machine should get back up and running pretty quickly in the residential market,” Fowler said. “However, it will depend on the stage of construction the project is in and if subcontractors have started other jobs in cities and counties adjacent to Travis County.”
He said his association had reached out to the city and county to help in drafting safety protocols, although he had not yet heard back.
Phil Thoden, president and CEO of the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors, said that with construction now able to continue locally, his association “is working with contractors to implement heightened health and safety protocols designed to protect the workforce and the greater Austin community.”
Thoden said he also had visited job sites on Thursday and “observed practices in action such as worker wellness pre-screening before work, safety meetings held outside – not inside – the jobsite trailer, pre-packaged individual hand sanitizers for all, no community water coolers, and collective touch points being cleaned and disinfected twice a day.”
However, an Austinite who lives near an apartment construction site in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood on Barton Springs Road said he hasn’t seen safety protocols observed at that work site.
James Retherford said social distancing guidelines did not appear to be observed on the site, and said he observed workers gathering at lunch or after work nearby, “endangering not only their own workforce but also the surrounding neighborhood and community.”
“They’re walking in groups on narrow sidewalks, and they don’t do anything to distance themselves from mothers walking their kids down the street, or people walking their dogs,” Retherford said. “I don’t think it makes any sense from a public health standpoint.”
The contractor for the project, Linbeck, has “been instructing all project workers to follow the current government safety guidelines and will continue to monitor compliance daily,” company vice president Tommy Cole said in a written statement. “Linbeck’s top priority is the safety of the workers on our projects and we appreciate the community feedback during this unprecedented and difficult time."
In a letter this week to Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, members of Austin’s building, design and real estate community wrote: “We understand that the entire economy is taking a hit right now. However, the long-lasting fallout from completely stopping all projects in the middle of construction will be hard, if not impossible, to bounce back from. We are fully committed to taking every safety precaution to protect both our workers and our community and feel confident we can do this while continuing to work.”
Anthony Siela, co-founder of StoryBuilt (former PSW Homes), said the company -- which specializes in infill developments and had previously stopped all construction -- “is relieved that construction can resume, albeit with the proper guidelines.”
“We have over 75 team members in Austin, numerous trade partners working on several mixed-use and single- family communities where over 50 Austinites have already pre-purchased their homes.”
Siela said employees will be “maintaining strict social distancing guidelines along with hand washing and sanitization efforts. StoryBuilt has increased its own safety guidelines on all construction sites to meet these safety standards to help prevent COVID-19.”