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FORT WALTON BEACH — While the world around it has all but come to a screeching halt, a construction site near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Memorial Drive is bustling with activity.
Residential and commercial building, and the many ancillary businesses that support the industry, are considered essential to the state and federal economy, and developers have been given a free hand to continue what they were doing pre-coronavirus.
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In Okaloosa County the pace of construction activity had been steady until last week, when permit and development applications for the first time dropped a little, according to Elliot Kampert, the director of the county’s Growth Management Department.
Earlier this week, though, Kampert predicted further slowing in the short term, particularly in light of the dire projections emanating from the White House and seemingly every other corner about a “worst week yet” for the spread of COVID-19.
“Today was slowish, but not dead,“ Kampert said Monday. ”I would be amazed if we didn’t see a drop off, just because of the messaging that it would be the worst week.“
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In Walton County, there has actually been a slight uptick in applications for construction in the last month, according to county planning director Mac Carpenter, who, along with his staff, is working remotely during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Permit inspections are continuing without delay. We are continuing to receive development order applications of all flavors,” Carpenter said. “Our development and construction industry continues to want to develop and build in Walton County. We’re here virtually to support them and keep our local economy moving as best we can during this crisis.”
There is a segment of the population, though, that doesn’t see the essential nature of building huge new rental homes in communities like Inlet Beach, Alys Beach and Seagrove during a coronavirus pandemic.
The stated reason that Washington and Tallahassee have given for allowing residential construction and continuing work at active construction sites is to address a national — and state and regional — housing shortage.
That might be what’s happening in storm ravaged Panama City, but it’s not what’s going on in Walton County, said Rich Jaffe, president of the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association.
“In Walton County they’re building multi-million dollar mini hotels,” Jaffe said. “If it was affordable housing that would be one thing, but it’s unaffordable housing.”
The subject of continued construction on “mega-mansions” in Walton County has been vigorously debated on a Facebook site called “Walton County Ideas for Visioning and Quality of Life.”
Some who have contacted the Northwest Florida Daily News to express their concerns about the continued construction of beachfront rental homes have said they fear for the safety of the on-site workers.
“Do you really think anybody is going in there and disinfecting the Porta-potties?” Jaffe asked.
The way the orders that have come down from Tallahassee read, the intention of making home construction essential is to address the needs for “additional housing units,” Kampert said.
“It doesn’t say affordable housing and we’re not supposed to discriminate,” he said.
Carpenter said developers he’s talked to assure him they’re actively working to prevent the spread of disease among employees.
“Those I’ve spoken with are practicing social distancing and other CDC recommendations on the job site to protect their workers,” he said. “Workers vacate the site when inspectors come.”
At the construction site in Fort Walton Beach, crews are working under the supervision of general contractor Pinkerton and Laws, an Atlanta-based company, to build an assisted living facility called Bay Port of Fort Walton Beach advertised as “resort-style senior living.”
Crews don hard hats and bright vests as they enter the fenced-in job site, just as a sign at the entrance instructs them to do.
Pinkerton and Laws has also taken into account the threat of the coronavirus, according to company spokesman Grant Ward.
We are following CDC Covid-19 guidelines and OSHA regulations for our industry,” Ward said in an email. “The health and safety of our employees and subcontractors are extremely important to us.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’s shelter in place order, the same one that declared the construction industry essential, also gave law enforcement officers the authority to insure that workers are abiding by social distancing regulations, said Fort Walton Beach spokesman Doug Rainer.
“If a police officer is on patrol, part of the process is to look at these sites,” he said. “If they see a gathering, absolutely they will get out and tell them what is recommended in the governor’s order.”