The city of Austin as implemented a new administrative process to approve construction projects as “essential activities, critical infrastructure, essential business or affordable housing projects.”
The issue of whether or not construction is considered "essential" has been a hotly debated topic across the country ever since the coronavirus pandemic has taken over seemingly everybody's lives.
There hasn't been a blanket statement that applies to every state, which has caused some confusion around this topic and the livelihoods of construction workers. Different local areas across the United States seem to have different rules than one another.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued shelter-in-place guidelines on March 25. But as the evolution of the virus continues, rules surrounding whether or not construction projects in Austin can continue have evolved, too.
As of the first week of April, the city has implemented a new administrative process to approve construction projects as "essential activities, critical infrastructure, essential business or affordable housing projects." More recently, Austin and Travis County leaders extended their "Stay Home, Work Safe" orders until May 8. Additionally, the requirement that the public wear fabric face coverings such as bandanas, scarves or non-medical-grade masks when conducting essential work or activities has been instituted.
Projects that fall into any of the above four categories will be allowed to continue. Those that are found to be nonessential will be asked to stop and could be subject to "enforcement actions" if they do not.
Development Services Department Director Denise Lucas wrote in an email on April 13 that the requirements apply to all active construction sites moving forward. Some additional requirements include:
- Staggered shifts for sites with more than 10 active workers
- Daily briefings to workers on COVID-19 safety requirements
- Mandated hand-washing with wash stations and restrooms at least six ft. apart
- Providing single-use disposable paper towels and no-touch trash bins
"This will not only help in slowing the spread of the disease, but face coverings are also part of our foreseeable future to safely reopen our society," Interim Health Authority Mark Escott said in a statement.
Officials said the updated orders closely mirror Gov. Greg Abbott's definitions of essential businesses that can stay open.
Austin banned most construction activities in its original March order. But after more than a week of confusion and backlash from businesses, Austin abandoned its order on April 2 because Abbott embraced a more expansive view of essential activities that included more construction.
Under the March 25 "Stay Home, Work Safe" order, construction exceptions were established as:
- Public works construction projects
- Affordable housing projects
- Construction of facilities for individuals experiencing homelessness
- Construction of facilities that provide social services
- Construction of facilities that are defined in the order as essential businesses, essential government functions or critical infrastructure
- Construction of facilities specifically required by the city in response to the current COVID-19 emergency
According to Lucas, a notice affirming each construction project's "essential status" should be displayed at the construction site and all projects must comply with social distancing and safety measures in the new "Supplemental Guidance for the Construction Industry."
The Real Estate Council of Austin was in the process of reviewing the new guidelines but had not yet changed its position on the city's current construction regulations, which it called "excessive" in a statement to the press on March 27.
"Public health and safety is the top priority for all of us, but the mayor's implementation of a construction ban shuts down essential work, makes unrelated exceptions for narrow categories and goes too far," said RECA CEO Dianne Bangle in the statement. "Implementing this construction ban will devastate construction workers and small businesses, including large communities of color, skilled and unskilled trades, labor and their families."
New safety measures under the guidelines include daily job-site health screenings for each worker, hand-washing stations, eliminating community water coolers and a commitment to cleaning and disinfecting shared tools, common areas and "collective touch points" like doorknobs and keyboards. In addition, site managers are required to post information in English and Spanish about the new regulations and ways to submit complaints about violations.
The city has formed a Construction Exemption Review Committee that will review requests for designation, with all determinations being final. There is no process for appeals.
The committee, according to the press release, is a joint effort of the director of the Development Services Department, the city's Building Official, and representatives from Law, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Austin Code Department, Austin Fire Department, the Public Works Department and the Economic Development Department.
Exemptions can be requested on the Development Services Department website.