On March 27, Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down all non-essential construction in the state by executive order following many complaints to both Southampton and East Hampton town supervisors, Jay Schneiderman and Peter Van Scoyoc. Van Scoyoc had written him a letter requesting immediate action just one day before. Contractors and homeowners cited for violating the new rule face up to $10,000 per violation. Van Scoyoc had stated, “We have a large number of workers, traveling together in work trucks and vans, coming into East Hampton each day from other towns. On job sites, they are working in groups, side by side, in close proximity without protective gear.”
It has caused a hailstorm of frustration and anger within the industry that officially is not considered essential. According to Cuomo’s executive order “All non-essential construction must safely shut down, except emergency construction, (e.g. a project necessary to protect health and safety of the occupants, or to continue a project if it would be unsafe to allow to remain undone, but only to the point that it is safe to suspend work).”
“Imagine when you were declared nonessential, your government took no responsibility for your well-being?” —Frank Dalene
The governor announced last week that once criteria for opening has been met, construction will be included in the first phase of opening.
When questioning if building or improving one’s home is essential, we learned that builders were ready to leverage their standing in a community where construction is one of the region’s most important sectors.
Construction accounts for thousands of jobs and branches of economies such as the trades, real estate, and mortgage brokerages. The state has declared which are essential and which aren’t, citing disappointment in the local government’s inability to defend one of its most profitable and most job-producing markets.
Brothers Frank and Roy Dalene are equal partners in Telemark, one of the most omnipresent building forces on the East End, both starting their careers as laborers and carpenters. Roy, chief operations officer, holds a civil engineering degree, and was recently invited to the East Hampton Advisory committee formed to help re-open businesses post-COVID-19. The brothers submitted what may be the standard for the construction industry, a combination of OSHA Regulations and CDC Guidelines. Frank runs the day-to-day operations and spoke with The Independent about what his company was going through.
“It was devastating to me, who founded our business over 41 years ago,” said Frank Dalene, taking the halt-order as a direct hit. “Let’s make this personal. Imagine if one day your government told you that you, as an individual, were nonessential? How would that make you feel? Worse than that, your friend the next block over was determined to be essential. Imagine if what determined you to be nonessential and your friend is essential was irrational? Wasn’t based on science or fact? It was seemingly arbitrary. How would that make you feel? Imagine when you were declared nonessential, your government took no responsibility for your well-being?”
Dalene took it further. “Businesses are individuals. They have life and they can die. After working through three major economic cycles, due to no fault of our own, we found ourselves fighting for our lives. Who in our government has the right to determine what businesses live and what businesses die without a rational reason? Those people who make those decisions are mediocre people at best, who we elected, who got far too much power, they got drunk on that power. We need to make certain this can never happen again.”
Dalene’s words were published in the National Association Of Home Builders on March 28. He stated that those who brought COVID-19 to the Hamptons were from “ground zero, partied like drunken sailors, filled every restaurant, stripped all grocery store shelves, hoarded everything imaginable. We were in their homes, we are eyewitnesses. The demands they made on our business was unbelievable, like they were here in high season, having parties and not isolating themselves whatsoever. The order for a 14-day quarantine for everyone who came from NYC was two weeks too late. ”
He suggested what many are thinking in the industry, that during pandemics such as COVID-19, everyone quarantine in their primary residence. “It allows us to do our job without them here stressing our infrastructure and making senseless demands on us. The opposite happened now, and has strained all infrastructure, even causing class warfare,” he continued. “The infrastructure around their primary residence is better prepared to address their needs, not that of a resort community. All resort communities are suffering, Rhode Island is telling every car with a NYS license plate to go back home.”
At the beginning of the outbreak, Rhode Island Governor Gina Riamondo asked all New Yorkers coming to the state to quarantine themselves for 14 days. They could risk a fine or arrest if orders were not followed.
High-end builders support many trades, thousands of people through jobs and health benefits. Their disappointment is palpable. “We are not hearing anything from town supervisors on what they’re doing on our behalf of the building industry,” said Michael Davis, one of the most important builders in the region. “We’re in a state of suspended animation.”
“Construction is the lifeblood of the Hamptons economy. Frustration is growing when certain trades, such as window cleaning, are considered essential, yet we are not allowed to build new homes in a more controlled environment,” Davis said. “We understood the need to stop work and pause. It’s unfortunate not all businesses followed the direction of our governor. Even in New York City some construction is back at work.”
“It is perfectly possible to conduct social distancing in construction, particularly at this time of year when you can have windows open,” Davis continued. “If you’re working inside, you can easily limit the number of people to rooms. Outside work shouldn’t be a problem either, and should be the first scope that should be allowed to return to work. Everyone can wear masks and gloves. We could easily install handwashing stations on job sites. It’s up to the entire construction industry to continue to put the health and wellbeing of the tradesmen first.”