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A construction crew works to dismantle Boulevard Park's pedestrian overpass on Nov. 21, 2019. Construction in Bellingham was temporarily halted during the stay at home order, but will now resume for essential projects. // Photo by Noah Harper

Restrictions on commercial and residential construction remain

By Benjamin Leung

The restart of active construction on essential public projects will begin April 20, according to a press release from Bellingham’s Interim Public Works Director Eric Johnston.

Capital construction projects help maintain and improve infrastructure. Those that meet exceptions listed in Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order can resume active construction, according to the press release. Exceptions include health care, transportation, utility facilities, energy, defense and critical manufacturing; and construction ‘to further a public purpose related to a public entity,’ including publicly financed low-income housing; and emergency repairs.

After a temporary two-week suspension, projects authorized to continue working include: A paving project on Harrison Street and James Street; the West Horton Road project; safety improvements and the development of Cordata Park; project work at the intersection of Lakeway and Old Lakeway; and water and sewer-main work.

“Construction is a key element of the economy. The city is anxious to support and provide opportunities for all construction sectors to be thriving,” Johnston said. 

Restrictions on commercial and residential construction remain in effect. “During the local, regional and national response to the COVID-19 pandemic the city is supporting the governor’s order in an effort to slow the spread of disease,” Johnston said. “This includes supporting governor’s orders for closure of non-essential businesses.”

Robert Schwartz, owner of Northwest Framers LLC, is self-employed. “I do physical work. I frame up houses,” he said. As the sole proprietor, he’s ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Working as a commercial and residential contractor, his work remains classified as non-essential.

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide stay-at-home order, effective March 25 at midnight, his office published additional guidance for construction. It declared that “commercial and residential construction is not authorized [as] construction is not considered to be an essential activity.”

“They went quick on me,” Schwartz said. “All of sudden I was out of work. I really have to work.”

Schwartz takes immunosuppressant medication to prevent the rejection of his kidney transplants. His medication alone costs $2,500 a month.

As a contractor working alone, Schwartz believes he’s socially-distancing at work, but without inspectors working at the moment, Schwartz is still unable to continue. “What good is it for me if I’m not getting my work inspected? I can’t get it inspected so people can’t move on the job and finish it off and do their part,” Schwartz said.

According to Schwartz, opportunities for work disappeared suddenly. “We just want to get back to what we know what to do, to make our money, to pay our bills,” Schwartz said. “Especially in my case. I take a lot of medications just to stay alive, so I stress over that. I wonder where I’m gonna come up with my twenty-five hundred bucks for that month, for my medication alone, not counting my rent or my company bills.”

As of February, the construction industry employed an estimated 7,800 workers in Bellingham according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Anytime you have people unemployed that can have an impact on local economies because they’re going to change their spending behaviors,” said James McCafferty, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western. 

According to McCafferty, there are several classifications of unemployment. McCafferty said that there are people that are looking for jobs and people that are collecting unemployment but will still have a job once it is deemed safe by public health. Construction workers fall under the latter category. 

As the first sectors of the construction head back to work, suggesting the start of a return to normalcy in the industry, McCafferty expects the economy to return to a similar scale prior to COVID-19.

“What you have here is a disaster shock, which typically has a much faster recovery,” McCafferty said. “It’s a very different type of recovery. People behave in a different way. It’s a different kind of impact than what you might see from 2008, where you saw this really long rebound process, where with a disaster type of response, we don’t expect that type of long-term process to rebuild. It generally comes back much faster because the underlying principles of the economy are still there.”


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