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SF orders construction sites to shut down

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Affordable housing and essential infrastructure will continue, but other developments are stuck spinning their wheels

A mid-rise SF building, half-constructed, with a huge construction crane on top.
Trinity Place, still under construction in Mid-Market.
Adam L Brinklow

San Francisco joined the rest of the Bay Area Tuesday in lengthening its shelter-in-place order, which pushed the citywide shutdown until at least May 3. The revamped order also extended the scope of prohibited business, including scuttling many, but not all, construction projects.

The order issued by Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, the health officer of San Francisco, narrows the definition of what the city considers essential business, noting that “the infection rate [of novel coronavirus] has not yet leveled off and more needs to be done,” like closing down many construction sites.

The new guidelines allow for some construction projects in the city to continue, but only if they meet one of the following criteria:

  • Projects deemed necessary for “essential infrastructure,” like airports, utilities, and public transit, as well as certain public works projects agreed upon by the health officer and city administrator.
  • Any construction related to healthcare services.
  • Housing projects that include at least 10 percent affordable housing.
  • Construction that provides “critical noncommercial services to the homeless,” elderly, or disabled. This also applies to shelters and temporary housing, but not hotels or motels.

There are exceptions included for any construction that must be concluded to keep sites stable before shutting down, and any work that will keep homes and essential businesses “safe, sanitary, or habitable” until building starts again.

The affordable housing exemption is a sticking point for some new projects; under city law, all residential developments of ten or more units must include an affordable housing element. But there’s a difference between building those units on-site and simply paying into the city’s affordable housing fund, Developers who opted for the latter may be stuck in limbo now.

The move to restrict new construction comes after Supervisor Matt Haney said earlier this week that he’s “heard extensive concern” from constituents about the number of projects still operating during the city’s shelter-in-place order, framing build sites as potential health hazards.

The new guidelines also close dog parks, playgrounds, and picnic areas, in a bid to stop people from congregating in popular spots on weekends. Parks and beaches remain open for now, but the order warns that these too could soon close.

Previously, any businesses that sold food or cleaning supplies could stay open, but now retail outlets must close unless essential products represent “a significant part of their business.”

The city has stopped short of ordering homeless shelters to implement full social-distancing guidelines. The city’s health officers urges shelter managers to keep residents apart, and even suggests establishing a 12-foot perimeter between tents in street encampments.

Aragón says that virus mitigation efforts “have had a positive impact” so far, but warns that stopping the outbreak demands further vigilance. As of Tuesday, the SF Department of Public Health reports 397 detected cases of COVID-19 in the city, and six related deaths.