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.
The effects of a construction halt ripple through Washington’s forest-products industry and could affect everyone, particularly those hunting for toilet paper.
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.
Paper mills are deemed essential and may continue operating. In addition to toilet paper and paper towels, they make packaging and materials essential to health-care and food production.
But being allowed to operate doesn’t matter if materials needed for production are unavailable.
Toilet paper demand doubled recently, according to Kristi Ward, a spokeswoman for Georgia-Pacific. It makes a large share of toilet paper used west of the Rockies at a mill along the Columbia River, in Wauna, Oregon.
Ward said 50% of the wood fiber it uses comes from Washington.
“We share the concern that sawmills are curtailing due to stoppage of construction,” she said.
At Manke Lumber in Tacoma, production continues for now. But demand plunged, and log supplies are shrinking as loggers suspend work, said Scott Manke, mill manager and corporate secretary.
“If this lasts more than a month, we’re probably going to be forced to close,” Manke said.
Manke Lumber usually buys up to 100 logging-truck loads per day for mills in Tacoma and Sumner, spending up to $1.5 million a week on logs. That can’t continue without demand. If lumber can’t be sold because there’s no construction, mills run out of money to buy logs.
Then there’s no sawdust and wood chips produced to make toilet paper. Shutdowns also affect production of wood pellets that some people depend on for home heating, Manke noted.
State lists of essential businesses, authorized to keep working, generally follow federal guidelines but interpretations vary by location. The federal list of essential workers includes those “performing housing construction related activities to ensure additional units can be made available to combat the nation’s existing housing supply shortage.”
Inslee’s list of exemptions from his March 23 stay-home order includes some building trades, including electricians and plumbers, but not builders.
People are ready for the crisis to end and normal life to resume, but that won’t happen anytime soon.
That’s forcing Inslee to make difficult choices as he seeks the right balance of safety and sustenance. He’s risen to this challenge admirably.
Adjustments are inevitable as more is learned about the intended and unintended consequences of public-safety orders.
One such change should allow residential construction to resume, keep mills going — and prevent mayhem that will ensue if toilet paper becomes even more scarce.