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April 2020

Essential Construction Projects In California: Can You Keep Working And How?

April 8, 2020

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its severe impact on the construction industry, work on Essential Projects is permitted in certain instances, depending on the location and the type of the project. The question of what work is “essential” is key. Not surprisingly, the designation of Essential Construction is evolving and different requirements now exist at the state and local level which has led to confusion.

The following provides an overview of the current orders and local regulations affecting major metropolitan areas of California as well as the trends as a result of these orders. Those with additional questions beyond the information presented in this article are recommended to consult with a licensed attorney with construction law experience to achieve your compliance and workplace safety goals.

The Federal Guideline

The Department of Homeland Security for the Federal Government produced Guidelines identifying 16 sectors deemed “Essential” Businesses. These Guidelines are only recommendations - it is up to the individual local jurisdictions to draft their own ordinances.

Under the Guidelines, several areas are clearly covered as “essential” including infrastructure construction and restoration (fiber optic cables, wireless facilities, and other communications-related areas); work supporting the manufacture, distribution and provision and construction of computing-related services); business infrastructure; financial transactions/services; web-based services; and critical manufacturing.

For more information on the federal guidelines, please visit our prior article on this issue. 

California State Guideline

On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom’s Office issued Executive Order N-33-20 ordering all residents to “Stay at Home,” except as needed to maintain continuity of essential critical infrastructure sectors, including those designed by the State Public Health Officer. On March 22, 2020, the State Public Health Officer designated a list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” to help state, local, tribal, and industry partners as they work to protect communities, while ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security. The State Public Health Officer’s list of designated “essential” workers includes but is not limited to:

  • Construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)
  • Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, construction material sources, and essential operation of construction sites and construction projects (including those that support such projects to ensure the availability of needed facilities, transportation, energy and communications; and support to ensure the effective removal, storage, and disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste)

San Francisco County and Bay Area (Marin, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa)

The San Francisco County and City ordinance is instructive as the counties in the Bay Area have worked together and been on the forefront of developing the definitions of Essential Projects. The same standards apply to Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara Counties.

The Order provides that only certain, limited types of construction are permitted to continue, including the following:

  • healthcare projects directly related to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic
  • housing and mixed use projects that includes at least 10% affordable housing
  • projects that provide services to vulnerable populations projects required to maintain safety, sanitation, and habitability of residences and commercial buildings
  • construction necessary to secure an existing construction site that must shut down

The Health Officer may issue guidance requiring construction site-specific health and safety plans. The Order also provides for San Francisco to limit public works construction to essential public works projects as determined by the City Administrator in consultation with the Health Officer.

All other construction is prohibited. Essential projects are further defined as:

Projects immediately necessary to the maintenance, operation, or repair of Essential Infrastructure;

Projects associated with Healthcare Operations, including creating or expanding Healthcare Operations, provided that such construction is directly related to the COVID-19 response;

  • Affordable housing that is or will be income-restricted, including multi-unit or mixed-use developments containing at least 10% income-restricted units;
  • Public works projects if specifically designated as an Essential Governmental Function by the City Administrator in consultation with the Health Officer;
  • Shelters and temporary housing, but not including hotels or motels;
  • Projects immediately necessary to provide critical noncommercial services to individuals experiencing homelessness, elderly persons, persons who are economically disadvantaged, and persons with special needs;
  • Construction necessary to ensure that existing construction sites that must be shut down under this Order are left in a safe and secure manner, but only to the extent necessary to do so;
  • and Construction or repair necessary to ensure that residences and building containing Essential Businesses are safe, sanitary, or habitable to the extent such construction or repair cannot reasonably be delayed.

San Francisco also recently developed guidance for construction “Best Practices” and “Field Safety Guidelines” for COVID-19 job site safety, including submission of Site-Specific Health and Safety Plans that conform to the guidelines. These guidelines are likely to be adopted by the Bay Area counties and beyond. Contractors and construction professionals should consult with an attorney on how to comply and submit the necessary plans to safely resume operations.

Los Angeles County

While the County of Los Angeles has not provided specific construction-related guidance, the City of Los Angeles has developed protocols for COVID-19 Safety for Construction Sites. The City’s plan requires a comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control plan, which includes control measures such as social distancing; symptom checking; hygiene; decontamination procedures, and training. Failure to comply with this guidance shall be deemed as creating unsafe conditions and may result in withheld inspections or shutting down the construction site until corrected.

Unlike the San Francisco ordinance, the City of Los Angeles’s guidance does not distinguish between different types of essential construction and instead relies upon the state and federal guidance principles. However, the protocols for construction sites includes directives to maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from other workers at all times, provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, goggles, face shields and face masks, and stagger the trades as necessary to reduce density and maintain minimum 6-foot separation. These types of workplace conditions will continue to affect job sites throughout Los Angeles. Notably, some cities in Los Angeles County are looking at their own, more stringent regulations on construction projects.

San Diego, Orange, Riverside County

San Diego, Riverside, and Orange Counties presently do not have independent guidance or reporting requirements beyond those provided by the State and Federal Guidelines. We continue to monitor for additional updates, but expect these Counties to adopt some standard protocols, reporting requirements, and construction site and job guidance like those from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Sacramento County

San Diego, Riverside, and Orange Counties presently do not have independent guidance or reporting requirements beyond those provided by the State and Federal Guidelines. We continue to monitor for additional updates, but expect these Counties to adopt some standard protocols, reporting requirements, and construction site and job guidance like those from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Key Take Away: Keep Up To Date And Monitor Your Projects

Clearly, a high premium has been placed on housing. Originally San Francisco was in line with the Federal Guidelines and was allowing all housing construction to go forward. However, as it has begun tightening up on permissible activities, San Francisco now requires an affordable component to allow the construction to go forward. It will be interesting to watch as other areas make decisions on this issue whether the trend will be towards being more restrictive in allowing residential construction and how “affordable” is defined.

The Federal Guidelines are more developed with respect to Public Works and Infrastructure work. However, the document is meant to give guidance to the local agencies who may choose to follow San Francisco’s lead and specifically designate what projects can go forward rather than leave it open for interpretation.

It is important for the Construction Industry to pay close attention to what work is permissible during this crisis and what work must be delayed. Unfortunately, we anticipate that the trend will continue to be more restrictive until a better comfort level is achieved with the future of the virus. This means close attention should be paid to each project and to carefully evaluate if notices of potential delays should be issued and to evaluate if the contractor can obtain any relief for affirmative extended general conditions, efficiency claims, or other additional compensation or remedies.

Los Angeles Construction Site Safety Guidance, (March 31, 2020)
Orange County Amended Health Order and Guidance, (March 18, 2020) 
Sacramento County Stay At Home and Essential Services Order, (March 19, 2020)
Santa Clara County Order of the Health Officer, (March 31, 2020)
Alameda County Order of the Health Officer, (March 31, 2020)
Contra Costa County Order of the Health Officer, (March 31, 2020)
Marin County Order of the Health Officer, (March 31, 2020)
Riverside Essential and Criticial Services Guidance, (March 22, 2020)
San Diego Social Distancing and Sanitation Protocol, (April 2, 2020)
San Francisco Guidance for Construction Related Essential Business, (March 31, 2020)

Visit our COVID-19 Hub for ongoing updates.


Nicholas M. Krebs
William J. Peters