Marin contractors seek clarity on coronavirus restrictions

Most construction projects in Marin County are required to cease until at least early May under the new shelter-in-place order this week.

Local planners and contractors sought to clarify the changes on Wednesday and how they apply to their own projects.

The order narrows the scope of “essential” construction to include only health care operations directly related to the COVID-19 response; affordable housing projects or mixed-unit projects with at least 10% of units set aside as income-restricted; public works projects deemed essential by government agencies; shelters and temporary housing; and projects needed to serve the homeless, the elderly and economically disadvantaged.

Also allowed are projects needed to leave existing construction sites in a safe and secure state.

“I think it’s almost best to think all permitted work is to be stopped and be secured and then look at the exceptions,” said Don Jeppson, chief building official for San Rafael.

The changes will remain in effect through May 3 in Marin, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties as well as Berkeley.

Under both the previous and updated order, contractors and construction industry workers have expressed uncertainty about how the rules apply due to inconsistencies across various jurisdictions, said Marin Builders Association CEO Rick Wells.

“Our members truly want to do the right thing by their community, by their neighbors, by their employees, by all of their constituents and they’re just looking for clarity,” Wells said Wednesday.

Specifically, Wells said much of the confusion stems from the last type of project allowed under the order: “Construction or repair necessary to ensure that residences and buildings containing essential businesses are safe, sanitary, or habitable to the extent such construction or repair cannot reasonably be delayed.”

“I’ve got dozens if not more questions from our members asking for clarification from us on what this means,” Wells said.

After obtaining clarity on the rules from county health officials about the order on Wednesday, Jeppson said these types of projects are those that would need to be completed to maintain life safety.

“If you need air-conditioning or need your hot water replaced or need to finish that kitchen remodel or reroof your home, we’re here to do those inspections and make sure they’re completed,” Jeppson said.

However, permits for new projects of this kind such as a kitchen remodel will not be granted through the duration of the order, Jeppson said.

In San Rafael, all existing permits that have been issued are being extended by six months for free, Jeppson said.

One of the bigger changes from the previous order, Jeppson said, is that construction of accessory dwelling units no longer falls under the definition of essential construction.

Given the confusion during the last order, Wells said some contractors were still working while others have voluntarily halted projects once the original shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March.

Steve Rempe of Rempe Construction in Novato is one contractor who voluntarily put his projects on hold. In a posting on LinkedIn in late March, Rempe stated the public interest must override contractors’ desires to be on site.

“Now is the time to hunker down, work on our businesses, protect the safety of our team and their families, and consider the public good above our own,” Rempe wrote.

Contractors such as Byron Hector, owner of Redwood Valley Construction in Sausalito, were already feeling the strain before the updated order. While architects and engineers were still able to plan and do design work, Hector said the inability to get over-the-counter permits from local planning and building departments has delayed projects.

“We can’t do anything,” Hector said Tuesday.

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