OLYMPIA — As the state battles the new coronavirus pandemic and a bruising economic slowdown, Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday announced that some construction work on existing projects will restart under new safety guidelines to protect workers.
The plan came together after discussions among Inslee’s office, the construction industry and labor unions for a resumption of “low-risk” tasks on projects where workers can remain at least 6 feet apart on the job at all times.
Those working on the projects will have to maintain physical distancing and follow other safety and health requirements, Inslee said in a Friday morning news conference with representatives from business and labor groups. Once he signs the order, Inslee said, projects that fit the criteria and have a plan in place can start back up.
The announcement could help lift Washington’s stricken economy and maintain progress on fixing the state’s long-standing housing-affordability crisis. Inslee said the recent deliberations about how to safely work amid the virus will serve as a template for reopening other sectors of the economy.
“I think this is a very thorough, thoughtful approach allowing construction to move forward,” Inslee said.
Job sites can’t restart until their contractor can meet and maintain the safety plan’s requirements, Inslee said. The state Department of Labor and Industries will collect workplace-safety or health complaints. “And obviously, eventually work sites could be shut down if they’re not in compliance with these orders,” he added.
Friday’s announcement is the first of what is expected to be three phases of reopening construction, said Greg Lane, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW).
Across the nation, governors have been split on when and how to reopen their economies. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday allowed barbershops and hair salons, tattoo and massage parlors and bowling alleys and fitness centers to reopen. And Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee plans to reopen most restaurants and retail stores next week.
Here in Washington, the first phase of Inslee’s construction plan allows at least some work to resume on many residential and commercial projects, a move that will keep construction going forward, prevent weather-related damage and deter the theft of materials from empty job sites.
“It will get work going on the vast majority of sites, instead of just leaving them in a state of pause and standstill,” said Lane.
The agreement “gives contractors flexibility to be creative and find ways to maintain” social distancing on their projects, Lane said. Contractors won’t submit their plan to the state, but they must post the plan at their job sites about what work is going forward, he added, which could be reviewed by regulators.
The second phase of reopening construction — which Lane said the work group is currently discussing — aims to authorize some activities where workers may have to be closer than 6 feet.
Those two phases combined, he said, “should take care of pretty much every residential situation.”
A third phase will address work sites such as large transportation projects and high-rises, he said.
Inslee’s announcement also allows work to resume on state transportation projects, provided they adhere to the safety guidelines, Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar wrote in an email to agency workers. The state Department of Transportation had suspended most construction work March 26 in response to Inslee’s stay-at-home order.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit will take steps to resume construction that it had suspended April 6 in response to Inslee’s order.
Tasks that Sound Transit considered critical had continued, like work on the Interstate 90 floating bridge to extend light rail to the Eastside.
Starting Friday, work will resume incrementally on a project-by-project basis, agency spokesperson Geoff Patrick said in an email. Sound Transit will work with contractors to verify safety and worker training measures. “In the coming weeks, we expect most construction work to resume,” he wrote.
Sound Transit also previewed how future expansion plans will be adjusted amid the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
A realignment process that will be kicked off in the months ahead “will put particular focus on avoiding impacts to projects that are currently under construction or under contract,” wrote Patrick.
On Friday, Inslee said his office and the state Department of Commerce will assemble similar work groups for other industries to draft safety guidelines to prepare for reopening those sectors.
It remains unclear still when other businesses will reopen, Inslee said, because it could be too dangerous. The governor’s stay-home order is scheduled to lift at the end of the day on May 4, but Inslee has said many restrictions might continue.
“So we know that our strategy is working, and we know that it is protecting people from sickness and death right now,” he said. “And we do not want to have to go through this again.”
Inslee’s announcement came as his office this week released the 30-point plan to make sure construction sites can operate safely amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The outbreak has resulted in 723 deaths in Washington and 12,977 positive cases of coronavirus the state health department reported Thursday evening.
The governor on Friday said that announcements on lifting bans on outdoor recreation and elective surgeries could be made in the coming days.
Friday’s announcement to reopen some projects came in a news conference with representatives such as Lane from the BIAW as well as from the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council and others.
The discussions about how to reopen took place between “some groups that don’t normally get along,” said Mark Riker, executive secretary of the trades council. But the groups “put aside our differences to work on one thing: worker safety in Washington state,” Riker said in the news conference.
Inslee has said he won’t begin opening the economy until public-health indicators — like case numbers and projections for COVID-19 and hospitalization rates — look favorable.
The plan includes requirements for construction projects to have a COVID-19 site supervisor, according to a copy of the agreement. That supervisor is tasked with monitoring employees’ health and enforcing the job site’s safety plan.
Among other things, the 30-point plan lays out requirements for keeping workers 6 feet apart at all times and making sure contractors provide protective equipment like masks, gloves and goggles, if needed.
The agreement also establishes measures to encourage workers to leave work or stay home if they feel sick, or if they’ve been in close contact with someone who is confirmed to have the coronavirus.