Austin builders say Abbott’s order means they can resume work

Shanda Novak & Lori Hawkins  |   April 1, 2020

Can builders continue construction projects in Austin while the city’s shelter-in-place order is in effect? For the past eight days, it has depended on who you ask. The city’s March 24 order generally prohibited residential and commercial construction as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Builders protested, questioning why some projects were frozen while others -- including retail and restaurant projects -- were moving forward even though they do not involve exemptions such as construction of affordable housing. They also pointed out that construction was exempt from shelter-in-place orders in other major Texas cities. Now the Home Builder’s Association of Greater Austin is taking the stance that an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday establishes that all construction in the state of Texas is deemed essential. Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday said that city attorneys would review the governor’s order and issue a guidance. “It’s real clear the governor’s order opens up residential construction and maybe all of commercial,” Adler said. “We’ll issue another guidance if not tonight, then tomorrow.” Even if all work is able to move forward, Adler said he hopes builders who are not doing essential or critical work would not restart construction. “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should or that it’s right,” Adler said. “Our best hope to not have our hospitals overwhelmed is to prevent the passage of this virus, and that’s best done by people avoiding public interactions.” Joe Fowler, president of the Home Builder’s Association of Greater Austin, said his association’s legal counsel determined that the governor’s order authorizes construction beginning at midnight on April 2. The order “makes clear residential and commercial construction companies are essential businesses and may proceed in spite of any conflicting order of any local governmental unit,” Fowler told the American-Statesman. Builders who plan to restart work on Thursday will need to take steps to protect workers from potential virus exposure, Fowler said. In February, before the coronavirus outbreak, the Austin metro area″s economic sector that includes the construction industry employed 71,600 people, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. “It is now incumbent on us to stress to our membership that safety practices and procedures on job sites must be closely observed and monitored,” Fowler said. “We firmly believe this allows us the opportunity to put our employees, sub contractors , suppliers and vendors back to work regardless of what the city and county have ordered.” In an update to clients in the Austin-area building industry, construction law firm Allensworth & Porter said Abbott’s order “prohibits local government regulations that interfere with the critical infrastructure sectors identified by (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) by superseding any conflicting local orders to the extent they ‘restrict essential services allowed by this executive order.’” The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency this past weekend issued updated guidelines for work that is deemed essential. The updated list included “staffing operations centers, maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure, operating call centers, working construction and performing operational functions, among others,” according to a post on the Department of Homeland Security’s website. An update on Texas coronavirus regulations issued Wednesday by international law firm Baker Botts agreed with the assessment by Allensworth & Porter, and also pointed out that all essential services are still required to follow federal guidelines,” including practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness and sanitation, social distancing and working from home.”

Source: Austin American Statesman