Crackdown on commercial construction may be coming amid coronavirus crisis

Construction crews were working at the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City during the coronavirus shelter in place. March 25, 2020 (Office of Dave Canepa)

At least one Bay Area lawmaker is upset at the sight of commercial construction crews still busy at work on what appears to be a gym and a hotel in Daly City -- activity that he believes is non-essential and violates the spirit of the shelter-in-place orders. 

San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa told KTVU that he is looking to see how his board might be able to put some more teeth into the strict rules regarding construction that his county mandated on March 16. That order was issued collectively with five other Bay Area counties, whose rules were substantively the same.  

“I’m deeply disturbed, the only construction that should happen is a hospital,” Canepa said. “We are all to shelter-in-place and the reason we need to do that is we’re facing a pandemic.”

He said that he is looking into whether his colleagues might agree to fining non-compliant general contractors an “excessive amount” if they don’t adhere to the rules.

The item has not been formally put on the agenda at this point, but Canepa and the county’s legal team are quickly trying to figure out what their options are on commercial construction crackdowns. 

At issue is some confusion between local rules and the state ones. The Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place orders are pretty clear. Only construction that is for “essential infrastructure,” meaning housing and hospitals, is allowed. 

But when California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an amended order on March 22, he later allowed for all construction to take place. Newsom then verbally said that construction companies should check in with local governments first to see what their rules are.

The challenge is, some construction crews are and some aren't.

Scott Govenar, a lobbyist for the Construction Employers Association, said that he is telling all his contractors to contact local public health departments before proceeding on commercial building.

“Their orders supersede the governor’s executive order,” he said. “And most are being told no.” 

However, that’s not how Tim Murphy, CEO of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, sees it.

“We’re adhering to the governor’s order,” Murphy said. “All construction is permissible.”

It’s obvious that the issue is heating up.

In an email Friday obtained by KTVU, Ed Evans, a representative of the Nor-Cal Carpenters Regional Council Union Local 217, urged San Mateo County leaders not to shut down public construction in the Bay Area. He said that construction is vital to the economy and that his members are “trained to work safely.”  

Evans cited work on hospitals, roads, refineries, airports, research offices, and laboratories as all being critical during the coronavirus pandemic. 

But those are not the projects that Canepa is focused on. 

His staff took photos last week of bulldozers and crews out at the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City, a site that will be home to a movie theater, workout facility, hotel and retail space. 

The company managing the project did not get back to KTVU after multiple email and phone requests.

But in Canepa’s mind, it’s completely inappropriate for crews to be out working on what his county has deemed non-essential. 

“So one is a gym and one is a potential hotel and a parking lot,” he said, noting the irony that gyms are now closed because of the pandemic. “These are not essential services. And so, the last thing we want to do, pains me to see this, because of my Italian ancestry. We don’t want to be Italy.”

Canepa said that contractors need to take a pause, even if they are feeling the financial pressure of being on deadline to finish work and the responsibility of their crews’ incomes. 

“If it’s critical infrastructure that’s needed, or if it’s a hospital, that’s the only thing I would say falls under critical infrastructure that’s something that needs to be built,” Canepa said. ”Everything outside of that, I would say to those companies, we really need to shelter-in-place.”

Aside from wanting to prevent commercial construction, many observers have noted that there have been construction crews of all kinds, even those deemed essential workers, who have not been following social distancing rules. 

Construction crews were working at the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City during the coronavirus shelter in place. March 25, 2020

One worker, who asked to remain anonymous, sent in video of his crew standing shoulder to shoulder with no masks or gloves on the sidewalk in San Francisco about to do work on an approved housing project.

Another construction worker, who also asked to remain anonymous, said he is working on a luxury residential project elsewhere in San Francisco. He said last week he saw crews of six or more huddled around architectural plans and four people getting into a small elevator at a time. He said he also observed a worker sneeze on a bottle of hand sanitizer and then laugh about it without wiping it off. 

Canepa said that he realizes these are unprecedented times and the economic hardships can feel unbearable. But he said that if non-essential work doesn’t stop, and if social distancing doesn’t occur, that things will get markedly worse. People will get sick and others will die. 

“We need to make tough decisions,” he said. “But in the long run, if we do that, if we sacrifice early, then we’ll be able to stop the surge. Make no mistake about it, the surge is coming.”

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez 

Greg Lee is a political reporterfor KTVU.  Email Greg at and follow him on Twitter@GregLeeKTVU