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NYC lawmakers call for a construction moratorium during coronavirus outbreak

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Elected officials want a suspension on all non-essential construction in the five boroughs, but the industry is pushing back

Max Touhey

The de Blasio administration has encouraged New Yorkers to work remotely, shuttered restaurants and bars, and closed the city’s school system to curb the spread of COVID-19. But private construction sites continue to teem with life, as a growing chorus of elected officials urge the mayor to enact a moratorium on “all non-essential construction.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams along with City Council members Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are calling on the Department of Buildings (DOB) to follow the lead of other major U.S. cities, including Boston, to suspend all construction aside from emergency efforts. Essential projects, such as work on hospitals and healthcare facilities, public infrastructure, supportive housing, and homeless shelters, would be exempt, along with emergency repairs. New residential or commercial construction would be prohibited.

“Construction is a core component of New York City’s economy, and this is a drastic and painful call,” the trio of lawmakers wrote in a recent letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio. “At this urgent moment, however, it is necessary as part of our social distancing policy, to slow the spread of the virus, give our health care system a chance to meet the dire need that is growing, and save lives.”

The DOB has advised contractors and construction firms on what “necessary precautions [should] be taken to protect the public and their workers,” including the latest guidance from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, says DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he will “continue to consider how to handle this” but has pointed to San Francisco’s “shelter-in-place” mandate, which includes restrictions on construction but has exempted crucial public works, as a potential model for New York, though he acknowledges making such a declaration is in state hands.

“I think the argument is, it’s outdoors, which is a different health dynamic, workers are often more spread apart,” de Blasio said in a recent appearance on NY1. “And if it’s production of things we need, housing being an obvious example, there’s value in that. So, I think construction has been exempted so far for valid reasons.”

Carlo Scissura, the president of the New York Building Congress, called a potential construction moratorium a “very dangerous proposition.” “The last thing we want in a crisis like this is for a road to cave, a water main to break, a track that needs to be repaired to go without,” says Scissura. “There’s just too many things that need to happen.”

When asked about ensuring the health of workers and their families, Scissura stressed that firms have been advised on health precautions they should be taking, but that work must continue. Restrictions on construction, Scissura insists, would prevent important city needs, such as housing, from being met.

“We’re not going to be quarantined forever,” says Scissura. “And at some point we’re going to continue with our lives and we’ll still need things like affordable housing.”