OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday (April 15) spelled out conditions for bringing the state economy back online, as six statewide labor and business organizations presented him a detailed approach for one of the hardest hit sectors, the construction industry.
Inslee said the number of people infected with coronavirus must be reduced and the ability to rapidly test, isolate and treat those with COVID-19 must be enhanced before the state can “transition” away from social distancing restrictions that have locked down much of Washington for a month.
“Both of these things have to exist before we can push the ‘go’ button for that transition,” Inslee said at a news conference.
Inslee’s approach mirrors that of the governors of California and Oregon, the three of whom have agreed to coordinate efforts to reopen their economies and battle the virus.
Washington is under a stay-home order through May 4. For Inslee to lift it, he said, the state needs to increase testing to track potential cases; bolster efforts to protect the must vulnerable from infection; ensure hospital capacity exists to handle surges; and ensure social distancing at schools, businesses and other gathering spots are followed.
A linchpin is testing. The current lack of widespread access to tests prevents health and government officials from knowing what percentage of the population is infected. Knowing how much is out there will influence decision-making on restarting the economy.
“We have had some success with our social distancing,” Inslee said. “We have to remain committed for a period of time to social distancing.”
It is a “blunt instrument” but a necessary one because the state is still not “extremely close” to where those social distancing restrictions can be eased.
Developers, contractors and construction workers provided Inslee with recommendations on how to revive part of their industry in a way that assures workers are adequately protected against exposure to coronavirus.
In a letter delivered Tuesday, they suggest that residential and commercial projects under way when the governor issued his March stay-home order should now be permitted to start up again — but only if contractors can abide by additional rules to ensure work “is done safely so as to not take a step backward in this pandemic fight.”
Protocols recommended by the group include requiring contractors to develop and post at each job site a comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control, mitigation and recovery plan. This would cover maintaining social distancing on-site, use of personal protective equipment, symptom monitoring and decontamination should it become known that a worker tests positive.
Every site must have a supervisor designated to monitor the health of employees and enforce the plan.
The letter is signed by the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302, Association of General Contractors, Building Industry Association of Washington and Association of Washington Business.
They represent the non-government entities of a 16-member work group that has been meeting twice a week to discuss residential construction issues.
Inslee said he had not seen the letter, but knew those groups had made good progress toward agreeing on a path. He gave no indication when he might review and respond to the recommendations. Inslee stressed, as he has before, that workers should not have to worry about returning to a job and getting sick.
Mike Faulk, Inslee’s press secretary, listened in on the work group’s meeting Tuesday.
“It sounds like all sides are making progress on some aspects of this issue,” he said. “We wouldn’t make any announcements however until that progress materializes into a consensus on paper that the governor could sign off on, assuming it doesn’t put safety at risk.”
Inslee’s stay-home order halted many residential and commercial projects in the county and around the state.
Almost immediately, business groups and builder organizations began making the case that the industry could be reopened and construction carried out safely in hopes of convincing the governor to change his mind. Republican state senators last month asked Inslee to do so as well.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, renewed the call Wednesday.
“If Washington shares a vision with California and Oregon,” he said, “we should open up our economy to things like residential construction, as those states do.”