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Philadelphia will allow construction to resume Friday — with some limitations

3 years ago
Charlie Sprang

By Michaelle Bond
Philadelphia Inquirer

When construction resumes Friday in Philadelphia, no work will be allowed in units that are occupied, and all work will be limited to specific hours during the week, except for emergency repairs, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Wednesday.

Kenney issued an executive order mandating that authorized construction work occur between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and limiting the number of workers on a site based on its type and square footage. The Philadelphia Board of Health also is considering increasing fines for work that violates the order, Kenney said.

The order allows projects with construction permits as of March 20 to continue, except for demolition of an attached structure, projects that require the support of an existing shared wall, and foundation work.

Gov. Tom Wolf said last week that he would allow all construction throughout Pennsylvania to restart on Friday, as long as sites adhere to certain safety guidelines, which include social distancing when possible, hand-washing stations, and face coverings. He had banned most construction as of March 20 to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

But local governments can impose additional rules for the reopening of construction sites within their borders.

Half the construction in Pennsylvania happens in Philadelphia, according to the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia.

“I’m confident that the resumption of construction activity in Philadelphia will prove to be a much-needed boost to economic activity in the city,” Kenney said. “I’m equally confident that everyone involved will be vigilant about adhering to these safe procedures and protocols as this work resumes. This is just a first step, but an important first step, as we attempt to restart the economy while still doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of this virus.”

No more than four workers will be permitted on site per dwelling unit at one- and two-family residences. No work will be allowed in common areas of multifamily buildings. For commercial jobs, no more than four workers will be permitted in enclosed sites of fewer than 2,000 square feet. An additional worker will be allowed for each additional 500 square feet.

The city will not issue a permit to any project requesting a zoning code variance until further notice, and the city will handle all permitting online.

The Philly311 hotline and online reporting form are handling complaints of possible violations of Kenney’s order.

Venise Whitaker, a founder of the Riverwards L+I Coalition, said Wednesday that “it looks like the majority of things we had requested were put into place” for residents, such as the inclusion of a contractor on site with an OSHA COVID-19 safety certification, the ban on certain kinds of demolition, and limit on work hours. Builders had hoped to extend their hours to make up for time they lost during the shutdown.

Whitaker said Kenney’s executive order clarifies confusion within the city caused by the governor’s order and prior waiver system.

“We’re hopeful people will follow these guidelines,” she said. “But we’re very aware there will be individuals that will try to sneak around and do work without permits, without being trained, and without following any of the requirements. History has proven pre-pandemic that people were cutting corners.”

Dan Durden, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Builders Association, lamented the possibility of confusion if municipalities create different standards for reopening construction sites. And local governments could keep sites shuttered if they don’t support them, he said, even though Wolf is allowing them.

Local officials will likely differ on whether and how to reopen construction, depending on whether they are in urban, suburban, or rural areas, said Ernie Holling, executive director of the Chester County Association of Township Officials.

Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, agreed that local standards across the commonwealth will be “a bit of a mixed bag.” Some will follow the governor’s guidance, and some will enact stricter rules, all with the goal of protecting the public.

“There is a concern you’re putting employees out there and in the midst of all this,” Schuettler said, referring to inspectors and other such workers.

Municipal officials have said they want more guidance from the governor’s office about how to proceed, he said.

Durden, of the builders association, said the governor’s guidance isn’t clear enough about what members can and can’t do on job sites, including staffing guidelines based on the type of project. Builders don’t know whether they should schedule subcontractors to come to sites or whether they should have their equipment and building materials ready for Friday, given their uncertainty.

“The guidance reflects little understanding of residential construction or the needs of home buyers,” Durden said in a statement. “Unless the administration provides more direction, it is likely that very little residential construction will actually resume.”

And indoor staffing limitations will delay projects by months, he said.

Denise Hotz, executive director of the Chester and Delaware County chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, is advising members not to start work Friday unless they know they’re ready and have the protective equipment and procedures they need to follow safety guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“First, [members] were extremely excited about Pennsylvania opening up. There were cheers, and everybody was saying, ‘Thank God,’” Hotz said. “Then, fear set in.”

On Thursday, members will join a chapter-sponsored Zoom call with lawyer Craig Fleischmann, based in Montgomery County, to ask questions about their liabilities and how to safely and legally move forward in “uncharted waters,” she said.

For example, companies might want to document how they are following protocols, such as writing down how many workers enter a site, what types of safety gear they are wearing, and when they wash their hands.

Hotz said her members plan to follow the governor’s guidance unless they hear differently from their local municipalities.