Why you may not see Austin construction sites closing just yet

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Despite a stay-at-home order in effect, operations continued at construction sites all over Austin on Wednesday.

Construction companies at jobs deemed “non-essential” will not face violations if they continue to operate this week, according to a city memo obtained by KXAN.

Dozens have reached out to us in the last week, asking why building projects continue despite the new order.

One local woman, the wife of an electrician, tells us she’s concerned about her husband getting sick and spreading COVID-19 in their family.

She added that contractors often have to work in close quarters, and that construction sites aren’t sanitary.

“Construction sites are very messy, it doesn’t matter how often you clean it,” said the woman, who spoke anonymously.

We visited some construction sites where employees were working well within six feet of each other.

Other sites had explicit signs posted about the need to practice social distancing.

“If you count 20 different trades in a building, and those 20 people talk to other 20 people, it loses the point of what they’re trying to do right now,” she said.

Under the stay-at-home order, essential projects, like those for affordable housing, homelessness, and essential government functions can continue.

The new memo lends more specifics to the non-essential jobsites, which include commercial and general home construction.

“Recognizing that many construction sites and projects require a period of time to close down safely,” it reads, “the City will not cite a construction business or operator for a violation of the Order occurring prior to 11:59 p.m. on March 27.”

The city clarifies that contractors at non-essential jobsites must demonstrate they’re taking steps to clean up and stop operating.

KXAN reached out to contractors at multiple non-essential job sites.

Neither were able to answer our questions about how they were preparing to stop operations.

As construction sites get a few extra days to comply with Austin’s order, those tied to the industry believe it may be a few too many.

“We’re both very concerned, it’s scary times,” said the electrician’s wife.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has largely left it up to local cities and counties to determine their own coronavirus responses, including enacting stay-at-home orders.

KXAN investigators reported the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulation does not regulate construction workers but noted that whether construction is allowed is up to the local agency and its order.

Home Builders Association “disappointed”

The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin serves seven counties in Central Texas, but only Travis County and Austin did not include home construction projects as essential.

The contractors at those projects will also have until the end of the workweek to cease activity.

We are disappointed, to say the least, that home construction was not considered an essential service,” said HBA Chief Executive Officer Carrie Ciliberto.  “Many of our members, as well as the broad range of companies that do business with them, will be severely impacted. 

“The apparent, and unintended consequences,” she added would affect the entire community.

Frank Martinez contributed to this report.

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