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New York bans nonessential construction amid coronavirus pandemic

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Work on infrastructure, hospitals, and affordable housing is still allowed

A high-rise construction site in midtown Manhattan.
Max Touhey

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has halted most construction statewide in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping New York, following outcry from workers and lawmakers when the industry was largely unaffected by a shut down of all nonessential businesses.

Under the new directive, most residential and commercial construction is suspended, the governor announced Friday. Some crucial work, including on infrastructure, hospitals, and affordable housing, along with emergency repairs, will be permitted.

“We’re closing down nonessential construction sites,” Cuomo said at a Friday press conference. “Some construction is essential to keep the place running, but nonessential construction is going to stop.”

Initially, all construction in the state was classified as “essential” and exempt from the state’s PAUSE order, which mandates all nonessential workers stay home. In updated guidance, the state declared that “all nonessential construction must shut down except emergency construction.” Those who violate the new rule could face fines up to $10,000, according to city and state officials.

In certain emergency circumstances, nonessential construction may move forward, such as to continue a project if it would be unsafe to allow it to remain unfinished.

The order puts the kibosh on entirely luxury residential and office construction, but still permits work on apartment buildings with a majority of market rate units. Guidance on the updated mandate by the city’s Department of Buildings notes that construction is allowed on buildings where no less than 30 percent of the apartments are below-market rate or on projects that include Mandatory Inclusionary Housing—a zoning mechanism that mandates either 25 or 30 percent of a building’s units be set aside as below market rate.

“Anything that is not directly part of the essential work of fighting coronavirus and the essential work of keeping the city running and the state running, and any construction that is not about the public good, is going to end,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “So luxury condos will not be built until this is over, office buildings are not going to be built.”

Cuomo’s shift follows reports that construction had continued on sites where workers tested positive for COVID-19. Some sites, including LaGuardia Airport and the Moynihan Train Hall, temporarily stalled work due to sick workers.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases ballooned statewide, lawmakers criticized the governor and the mayor for allowing work on high-end apartments and office space to endanger the health of workers and their families.

City Council members Carlos Menchaca and Brad Lander, along with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, pushed for the suspension of non-essential construction and were pleased to see the state amended its guidance on non-essential building.

“This is the right call,” Menchaca said in a statement. “I’m glad the Governor finally heard the voices of construction workers who refused to stay silent while their health was being sacrificed for profits.”

Earlier this month Carlo Scissura, the president of the New York Building Congress, called a construction moratorium a “very dangerous proposition,” but in a Friday interview he said the updated guidance “is a good policy” that still allows for a host of crucial city projects to move forward.

“I think what we’ve said from day one is that the health and safety of workers is paramount,” says Scissura. “I think this is a good policy, and hopefully, we’ll just be shut down for a few weeks.”

James Whelan, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, echoed those comments. “We agree that the health and safety of New Yorkers remains the top priority,” he said in a statement. “These are challenging times and REBNY will continue to support all efforts to address the City’s needs for public health and future economic growth.”