As shelter-in-place directives and orders took effect across northern counties in California, contractors and local and state officials are trying to decipher the definition of “essential” in the unprecedented response to curtail COVID-19.

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Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Sonoma counties all issued shelter-in-place directives or orders. An orders requires residents to stay home except to obtain or provide essential services, which currently includes construction affecting public works and infrastructure, while directives are a recommendation.

San Francisco’s shelter-in-place ordinance allows work to continue on construction of public works, housing, airport operations, water, sewer, gas, electrical, oil refining, roads and highways, public transportation, solid waste collection and removal, internet and telecommunications. Work must comply with social distancing standards where possible.

March 17 was business as usual for most Bay Area construction firms, says Peter Tateishi, CEO of Associated General Contractors of California, but he said many are confused by the directive’s lack of specifics and are questioning whether governments will clarify the definition of essential work.

In addition, questions abound as to whether shelter-in-place orders allow workers to cross city and county lines to work in areas with different directives.

Generally, residents who live in a county subject to shelter-in-place orders must stay home, except to travel to essential services, including work that provides one of those services, says Daniel Engler, partner at San Francisco’s Cox Castle and Nicholson who specializes in real estate transaction law.

“It’s fairly case specific and business specific, so it’s hard to answer generally – for any particular business or industry or job site, you need to figure out exactly what is being done and what is permissible or not permissible under the order and go from there,” says Engler.

“Employers are making judgement calls,” says Tateishi. AGC of California members are concerned about the impact of possible project delays caused by reduced city permitting staff or the closure of businesses not deemed essential.

Dave Valentine, project development director for contractor Hensel Phelps in Northern California, says the majority of its work in affected counties falls under essential services for public works projects, including those at airports, hospitals and a new county emergency operations center.

“Our job sites are working on a case-by-case basis, dependent on whether the projects fall under ‘essential services,’” says Valentine. “We know the environment will continue to evolve, but as long as we effectively communicate with our people, clients, design partners and trade partners, we will adjust and adapt to whatever comes our way.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a March 17 press conference that a shelter-in-place order is not imminent for the city and that construction is essential and will continue. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to questions for additional comment.

Officials in San Francisco’s mayor’s office and public works department were not available for immediate comment for clarification.