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Evers issues ‘safer-at-home’ order with exception for most construction (UPDATE)

Much of Wisconsin’s construction industry will continue to work despite orders from state and local officials requiring residents to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Evers on Tuesday released a so-called “safer-at-home” order that classifies a broad variety of construction work as an essential function that should proceed even as many businesses close to comply with the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Hours before Evers’ order, Milwaukee put out its own stay-at-home directive with exemptions for construction and other industries.

The city of Madison was also planning to issue its own shelter-in-place order but had not released the action by press time Tuesday. The number of COVID-19 cases in the state rose rapidly over the weekend from 206 on Friday to 416 on Monday. There have been five deaths reported so far.

The order exempting construction work came as a relief to industry officials who feared Wisconsin could follow states and cities that have banned construction along with other industries. A coalition of 15 trade groups released a statement on Tuesday praising Evers’ order deeming construction an essential service.

“I think this is much appreciated by the industry,” said Robb Kahl, executive director of the Construction Business Group. “Certainly no one takes for granted the responsibility placed on us.”

Although Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin’s orders generally allow construction to continue amid the emergency, they may prevent some projects from moving ahead.

Evers’ order, for instance, stipulates that “optional or aesthetic” construction should be avoided during the safer-at-home mandate, which lasts until April 24. Milwaukee’s order, meanwhile, doesn’t explicitly list school construction as essential work as the state’s order does. As is true with many orders of this sort, the state’s directive in this case supersedes the local one.

And even as construction will broadly continue, the industry is still faced with uncertainty. Kahl said supply chains outside the state may be disrupted. State officials may also tighten their response to COVID-19 if the outbreak worsens.

Wisconsin’s action closely mirrors the orders of states such as Ohio and Illinois, which have each allowed construction work to proceed. Wisconsin construction interests had lobbied the Evers administration in recent days to avoid the more restrictive actions of Pennsylvania, Boston and San Francisco, which shut down construction along with other industries.

The Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, for instance, urged Evers to issue an order that would include a “broad clarification” exempting public and private construction projects. The Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin likewise sent a letter calling on the Evers administration to follow the specific example of Ohio by allowing construction work to proceed.

“It would be incorrect to say that it is business as usual for construction,” Mielke said. “However, in part due to significant lobbying by ABC’s government affairs staff, we are pleased to report that construction generally is deemed an essential service and therefore not subject to Governor Evers’ executive order because construction is essential, and job sites can be operated safely.”

Milwaukee and the state’s orders list a wide variety of construction projects as essential. The actions classify work on hospitals, long-term care centers, public works and housing; building management and maintenance; highway work and the operation and maintenance of utilities; along with other activities.

Beyond construction, the order contains exceptions for a wide variety of businesses and industries. They include grocery stores, pharmacies and drug stores, food producers and agriculture, gas stations, hardware stores and healthcare.

The state’s order also adopts a definition of essential businesses and workers that conforms with guidelines released by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security on Thursday. That definition includes work on transportation, energy-utility infrastructure, public works, water systems and building maintenance.

Evers’ safer-at-home policy is an about-face from last week, when he said he’d try to avoid such a restrictive measure. On Friday, he released an executive order clarifying a previous decision to ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Republicans who control the state Legislature were quick this week to criticize Evers for adopting the shelter-in-place order and initially providing few details about which companies would be exempt.

Evers has meanwhile taken other steps in response to the outbreak. Last week, he called on the Legislature to waive a one-week waiting period for people to receive unemployment benefits, but said state lawmakers likely wouldn’t take any actions related to the coronavirus this week. Applications for jobless benefits have spiked since state officials started restricting gatherings to slow the spread of the outbreak. Between March 17 and Monday there were more than 95,000 claims filed, up from a mere 4,700 in the same period a year ago.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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