Builders weren’t at the KeyArena construction site Thursday as Gov. Jay Inslee’s order requiring all nonessential workers stay at home for two weeks took effect.
But they’ll be back on the job starting Monday, said Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, the company leading the $930 million arena renovation of the stadium into a much larger arena for Seattle’s new National Hockey League team.
If you’re left wondering why building an NHL arena qualifies as “essential” during a deadly coronavirus outbreak, you’re not alone.
Spokespeople for the governor and the Department of Commerce twice this week specifically called out KeyArena as a noncritical project that would not continue under the stay-at-home order.
But Leiweke pointed to exemptions in the order that he said will allow work to continue Monday. And the city, which is financing the project, has given its blessing for construction to go on so long as the contractor ensures workers maintain six feet of social distance and sanitizes their shared tools and workspaces, Ernie Aprezo, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said in an email.
KeyArena is not the only construction project to fall into a gray area.
Amid rampant confusion within and outside of the construction industry, the governor Wednesday night issued a memorandum clarifying the rules.
The new guidance said nearly all construction is a nonessential activity, meaning workers on most commercial and residential construction sites should stay home to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The only exceptions are construction related to essential activities like health care, transportation, energy, defense and critical manufacturing; construction “to further a public purpose related to a public entity,” including publicly financed low-income housing; and emergency repairs.
KeyArena construction is exempt under the last two carve-outs, Leiweke said. The arena is a public facility, and time is short to reattach the arena’s 44-million-pound roof to its permanent support posts. The roof has been held up by temporary posts since late last year.
Work will pause Friday while general contractor Mortenson cleans the site and takes other steps to comply with guidelines to slow the transmission of COVID-19, then resume Monday, NHL Seattle said in a statement.
Construction will also continue on another major city project: the $1.8 billion expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.
The project isn’t slated to finish until 2022, but Matt Griffin, managing partner at Pine Street Group, the project’s development manager, said even a two-week stoppage would be material to the project’s success.
“It’s really about being a public facility,” he said. Still, he said, he’s told the general contractor, a joint venture between Clark Construction and Lease Crutcher Lewis, “don’t be at full speed. Think about which things are critical. If it makes sense to reduce workforce, do so.”
Other project owners had a different outlook.
Costco shut down construction on its new Issaquah corporate headquarters and multilevel parking garage Thursday, and doesn’t plan to start building again until April 20 — two weeks after the governor’s order expires.
“We felt that if we closed down, even for another two weeks, it’s overall not going to have a huge impact,” Costco senior vice president of construction Ali Moayeri said.
Other contractors and project owners stopped working even before the governor’s order took effect. Sellen Construction paused work Monday, followed by smaller general contractors Wilcox and Schuchart.
“Our clients were supportive,” said Wilcox COO Trent Holobaugh. “They all understood. We’re just doing things the way the governor said to do it, to keep our workers safe.”
Washingtonians may still see some work at nonessential construction sites, but so long as it’s limited to securing the site and necessary structural work, it’s allowed to proceed.
Some businesses and government agencies that could have continued construction under the governor’s order are nevertheless considering shutting down some, if not all, work.
“A couple of our largest clients sent us home,” said George Schuchart, the owner and CEO of Schuchart Construction. Boeing and Microsoft, both classified as essential businesses, were two such clients, he said.
Building transportation infrastructure is considered essential under the governor’s order, but Sound Transit is considering halting work at “well more than half” of the agency’s construction sites, CEO Peter Rogoff said during a board meeting Thursday. Some light rail expansion will likely continue, he said.
Similarly, the Seattle Department of Transportation is “working to determine what the policy will be moving forward” regarding current and planned construction, a spokesperson said Thursday. The Washington State Department of Transportation halted most construction on state roads for two weeks, in part because the agency couldn’t retain enough construction workers to staff its projects, a spokesperson said Thursday. And the Port of Seattle has paused some construction projects at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
In a news conference Thursday morning, Inslee asked for restraint.
Stated exemptions aside, “construction needs to pause,” he said. “And that’s difficult. There will be some kind of gray areas here, but I ask people to keep in mind our grandparents and our grandkids when we make decisions in those gray areas.”
Seattle Times sports reporter Geoff Baker, Traffic Lab reporter Heidi Groover and Traffic Lab engagement editor Michelle Baruchman contributed reporting.
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