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Construction industry stung by new ‘essential’ definition

Construction firms large and small, forced to leave job sites on Friday when their work no longer fit the state’s definition of an essential industry, are hoping Gov. Andrew Cuomo instead will allow municipalities to determine whether building is a necessity.

Persons working in trade industries had been allowed to remain on the job when New York imposed a work ban for all non-essential businesses on March 20. But the state last Friday said only construction on affordable housing, or at job sites where the current stage of construction posed a danger, could continue.

Trade groups say they totally understand the health concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve always been about safety, they say.

“But building a home in Greece or Farmington or Webster is very different than going up 20 stories and building market-rate apartments in New York City,” said Rick Herman, CEO of the Rochester Home Builders’ Association.

“And building is so much a part of the economy,” Herman said. “This is going to hurt for a long time.”

Late Friday, the RHBA and other trade groups around the state petitioned Empire State Development, “asking the governor to reconsider” his ruling. They believe it makes most sense for municipalities to determine whether to have construction continue where workers are able to comply with social distancing requirements.

Construction firms say instances of people working within close proximity are few and far between at any time during the building of a house.

“I might have two or three guys in the whole house; one guy is in the bedroom, one guy is in the living room and another guy is in the basement,” said Joe Sortino, owner of Sortino Properties and CEO of the RHBA. “We always maintain that six feet. My plumber, it’s him and one guy; sometimes it’s just one guy. My sider, he can work outside alone.”

Large construction firms and real estate developers also are impacted. Spoleta Construction said it had nine active projects across the state and was forced to shut down work on six.

The three where work continues are affordable housing projects in Utica (Macartovin Apartments), Syracuse (Butternut Crossing) and Oswego (Harbor View Square).

Konar Properties stopped work on a new building in Erie Station Business Park.

Construction defined as essential includes roads, bridges, transit facilities, health care facilities, affordable housing and homeless shelters, but social distancing guidelines must be followed in order for work to proceed.

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