The common Aspen chorus of digging, pounding and hammering officially ended Monday as all local construction sites ceased operations per a Pitkin County emergency public health order to quell the spread of the coronavirus.
The stay-at-home order issued March 23 directed citizens performing nonessential business to limit their movement and only leave the house for health and safety reasons. Construction was specifically cited in the list of definitions as a business sector that would need to shut down through the ordinance’s time frame of April 17. That order was extended to April 30 late Wednesday.
“For clarity, residential and commercial construction is a business not listed as an Essential Business above,” the order reads. A one-week delay in enforcement was given so that sites could be abandoned safely.
“Residential and commercial construction sites may continue Minimum Basic Operations until March 31, 2020 for the purpose of safely securing and closure of their construction site,” the order says.
Another exception was given for projects deemed critical, but workers may not violate other terms of the health order, such as a 6-foot separation between workers.
“Essential Infrastructure will be considered an Essential Business and may continue operations so long as they are in compliance with Social Distancing Requirements and otherwise in compliance with this Order,” it states.
The mandate comes just as the typical construction season would be launching. In Aspen there are 182 active building permits with a total valuation of more than $10 million.
In April 2019, the building sector brought in over $5 million in sales tax, or 14.1% of the city’s total earnings that month.
“It’s going to have a heck of an impact pretty quickly,” said Mike Metheny, chief building official for the city.
“It’s pretty damaging. It’s a large portion of the local economy,” Metheny added.
In a memo sent to city councilmembers this week, Finance Director Pete Stecker predicted an $18 million loss in taxable construction sales for 2020 — nearly a 30% decline.
He said that depending where in the project’s timeline the build is, there is potential that certain projects will cease indefinitely.
“Construction projects that are in motion … are believed will continue. But projects that are in the design phase or don’t necessarily have vertical build happening right now, could be pulled back given where sentiment may be from investors or owners,” Strecker said.
Metheny also predicted that there will be a number of projects that can not weather the delay, which in the best-case scenario for development will be through the end of April.
“I don’t know what some of the unintended consequences are down the road,” he said. “It’s going to turn some folks upside down I’m afraid.”
He said some projects may have financing that is tied to staying on schedule. And in general, the price of building goes up over time, so delays in development come with added costs.
Eagle and Garfield counties have not enacted the same restrictions on construction work. Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide distancing order lists construction projects as essential business if they are related to housing, including low-income housing, or if they are related to critical business, government functions and road maintenance.
Contractor Mark Bunchman has projects in the works throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. He is concerned for the workers that have been laid off due to the closure, and doesn’t think subcontractors will wait around for projects to start again, especially when there is other work to be had outside of Pitkin County.
“The cost of the county measures will be seen by massive struggle within the working communities,” Bunchman said, adding that he feared many workers would leave the county if the health order extends beyond April 17 — which is exactly what happened on Wednesday.
Bunchman suggested it would be helpful if the county could refund partial permit fees back to the job sites that have shut down, so that the money could be used to retain workers.
Metheny is sympathetic, but pointed out the call wasn’t made by the city or county community development departments, but by the Health and Human Services team that is working to curb coronavirus spread locally.
“It really wasn’t a building department decision,” he said. “It’s a matter of public health.”
Earlier this week he acted as the point person as job sites were getting weatherproofed and shut down safely.
“The contractors have been outstanding. They are really doing their best trying to work through a pretty difficult situation,” Metheny said.
In certain situations, construction may continue, including emergency structural repairs or other matters of public safety. Other building service providers who maintain safety and sanitation may continue to operate, such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators and broadband providers.
There also is a provision for vital government projects to continue, but locally, for now, the city and county have also complied with the order for their major development projects.
Current city developments such as the new city offices building under construction near Rio Grande Place is on pause, as are the three affordable rental developments nearly completed by Aspen Housing Partners.
Public Works Director Scott Miller, who also is serving as an interim assistant city manager, said that a few vital projects will begin this spring.
“The only ones that will start soon are utility projects that are essential for delivering water or electric services or emergency repairs,” Miller said.
Any essential service, including permissible construction projects, must still adhere to social distancing guidelines regarding a six-foot separation between any two people who do not reside together.
Social distancing measures are widely cited as the best way to slow down the spread of COVID-19 within a community. The slower pace is designed to ensure that the local health care system does not receive more cases than it is able to treat in any given time period.
The governor’s office has presented data using June 1 as the date when the state will know if the distancing measures have been successful in flattening the curve to levels that ensure the best outcome for all Coloradans.