Wildfire rebuilds allowed to continue during coronavirus shutdown, but Wine Country contractors not clear on what else is

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Public health officials have been trying to make it clear to residents that they largely need to stay home to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, but it’s not so clear for a number of North Bay contractors what they’re allowed to do.

Keying off of federal and state guidelines for “critical infrastructure sectors” work permitted to continue, the shelter-at-home orders by San Francisco Bay Area counties included in that construction of housing, especially units qualifying as “affordable” and those for the homeless. Also allowed were trade professions — namely, plumbers, electricians and exterminators — that maintain health and safety of homes and “essential businesses” that need to remain open during the shelter orders such as hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies.

But questions remain for commercial contractors, according to Keith Woods, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group of 1,100 contractors and related businesses. He offered this scenario: Would a plumber be allowed to repair a burst pipe at a retail center not occupied by essential businesses?

“For the construction industry, confusion is spreading faster than the virus,” Woods said.

Problem is, local governments closed their planning and building offices for in-person permit submissions and consultations as part of general social-distancing policy during the pandemic, and staff who are on duty in the office or working remotely are focusing on housing and critical-infrastructure projects.

Santa Rosa is supporting inspections and permit reviews for housing under construction in the rebuild areas from the 2017 wildfires as well as for dwellings outside the burn zone, according to Jesse Oswald, chief building official.

“For builders executing on nonessential projects, we’re not supporting them with inspections or reviews,” Oswald said. “We’re not an enforcement agency.”

But the city isn’t accepting applications for permits other than those for emergency projects at essential businesses or activities, or for health-and-safety issues, and requests for inspections are being reviewed early each morning to see if they fit the federal, state and Sonoma County lists of allowed activities.

“In light of the technology challenges we’re having, we don’t have a way to filter out projects that may or may not qualify,” Oswald said. So this week the city plans to publish an online guide on the types — with examples — of permits that staff will continue to work with during the shelter order.

“There may be an essential-services facility like a bank with an HVAC unit that has the air-conditioning go out, and you think that air-conditioning isn’t essential but the unit supplies air to the building, and air circulation is necessary under the health code,” Oswald said.

These examples are being pulled from phone calls the city has received from contractors and property owners. For example, a broken water line even at a nonessential business location does affect the water system so it would be a life-and-safety issue the city must address, and a water heater replacement is required by health code requirements for residential hot water.

The city also is working to finalize this week how it will handle permits if shelter orders get more stringent and prioritization of deferred action on permits and inspections after the orders are lifted, he said.

Construction trade groups have been giving mixed legal interpretations as to how broadly Gov. Gavin Newsom’s and county’s orders allowing residential construction to continue should be interpreted.

“A lot of our builders are just shutting down until this is over,” said Woods of North Coast Builders Exchange.

But three weeks of uncertainty or inaction on projects could ripple through into milestones contractors are supposed to meet, he said.

“Some contractors have performance guarantees, and there are penalties if they don’t meet deadlines,” Woods said. “The question has been raised if these penalties can be waived or delayed.”

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers wine, real estate and construction.

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