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COVID – 19 Confusion in Austin on Essential Services

Featured Photo (above): Travis County COVID-19 Information, Stay Home, Work Safe. Image: Travis County TX, Website

Posted: 3-26-20

By Edmond Ortiz

Austin (Travis County)–Amid disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction industry organizations are asking the city of Austin and Travis and Williamson counties to clarify to what extent their respective shelter-in-place orders may restrict construction.

According to Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s declaration, which took effect midnight March 24, “all essential businesses, essential government services and critical infrastructure are strongly encouraged to remain open…”

The mayor’s order, available for review at the city website, details which basic activities are allowed, and which businesses, functions and organizations are exempted from restrictions.

As far as construction goes, the mayor’s declaration states: “Construction, including public works construction, and construction of affordable housing or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness, social services construction, and other construction that supports essential uses, including essential businesses, government functions, or critical infrastructure, or otherwise as required in response to this public health emergency.”

The mayor’s office earlier March 24 issued further guidance, stating that public works construction projects are permitted to continue alongside affordable housing projects and those meant to shelter the homeless, provide social services, and those planned to specifically address the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the further guidance document from the city states that “in general, commercial and residential construction activities are prohibited…”

Despite the city of Austin’s restrictions, Williamson County is permitting construction under its shelter-in-place order. Some parts of Austin lie inside Williamson County.

Specifically, Williamson County’s order is allowing what the county calls “certain real estate functions,” including “permitting, inspections, construction, procurement, representation and title searches.”

Travis County’s shelter-in-place order is more ambiguous, barely mentioning construction. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt did not elaborate during a briefing with reporters on March 23.

“I will not speak about specific industries, except to say if it’s not essential for health and safety, we are asking you to stop operations for a period of time,” she added.

Hardware and supply stores inside Austin city limits are allowed to remain open with social distancing rules in effect. Critical trades, such as plumbers and electricians, are allowed to maintain what the city deemed essential businesses, government functions and critical infrastructure.

These restrictions will continue through April 13 citywide. Violators risk a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days.

Other Texas cities, such as San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, are allowing commercial construction to proceed with caution. States such as New York, California and Illinois currently classify construction as essential.

The law firm of Allensworth and Porter provided an analysis of Austin and Travis County’s orders, saying their lack of details and consistency helps nobody.

“The city’s confusing and inconsistent messaging does a disservice to the design and construction industry and its diverse stakeholders,” the report stated.

In an effort to prevent such contradictions, local construction associations including Associated General Contractors of Texas (AGC), Associated Builders and Contractors of Texas (ABC), Texas Association of Builders (TAB) and Texas Construction Association (TCA) sent a letter to elected officials on March 22 urging that any Shelter-in-Place orders take into consideration the unique role of the construction industry in managing a national emergency.  According to the letter “Shutting down construction companies means shutting down a mobilized, skilled workforce with access to materials, equipment and supply chains that can respond to hospital systems, grocery stores, food production facilities, housing, critical infrastructure, and other essential operations that are absolutely necessary during this time.”

The Texas Building and Construction Trades Council sent a similar message on March 25 to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking him to officially recognize construction as an essential service statewide.

Our constituent unions – whose members are trained in apprenticeship programs that are second to none – are prepared to work in partnership with the state to help with critical tasks related to fighting the spread of COVID-19,” the letter states.

“These tasks could include but are not limited to retrofitting hospitals, building temporary hospitals, and helping maintain existing capacity to serve Texans who become ill.”

VBX reached out to the city of Austin and Travis County on Wednesday for clarification and further details, but has received no response from either agency.

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By |2020-04-03T08:39:09-05:00March 26th, 2020|Feature Story, Industry News|

About the Author:

Edmond Ortiz is a lifelong San Antonian and a 20-plus-year veteran in local journalism, He previously worked full-time at the San Antonio Express-News, and has been freelancing for outlets such as the Rivard Report.

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