Retail and restaurants are definitely struggling during pandemic, but how are the trades faring?

Ray Daughton on a job site for Ekker Homes, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Ekker Design Build, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — While many businesses are shutting down, and some industries are reporting record unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction projects continue to move forward, and the trades and real estate are still seeing consistent work. However, some local professionals are saying only time will tell if that will continue.

While the work may be there now, many projects were scheduled before COVID-19, and there is some concern in the trade circles about acquiring new projects in the upcoming months given the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last.

ERA real estate agent Jennifer Davis told Cedar City News that in the immediate, she wants to help connect community members with reliable subcontractors for smaller in-home projects.

“It’s the little guys that we’re seeing struggle a little bit,” Davis said. “They’ve got work for the next week or two, and then they’re looking for something. I wanted to be able to reach out to people and say, ‘Those little projects that you’ve had a hard time finding a contractor to come do, get those done if you can. If you have the means to do that, let’s keep these guys busy.’”

Davis said homes are still being bought and sold, and community members are still having work done in their homes; however, it is currently more closely related to necessity than desire.

“We are still seeing people buy and sell homes, and it’s mainly the people that need to right now,” Davis said. “With the work that’s needing to be done, a lot of people are getting the work that needs to be done from a plumber rather than the wish-list items.”

A new home that is still under construction in Cedar City, April 10, 2020 | Photo by Kelsey Cooke, St George News / Cedar City News

Additionally, Davis has observed more concern from consumers regarding the question of financial stability than issues of social distancing when it comes to new projects.

“Their biggest concern is, if they don’t have a safety net then they don’t want to spend the money to get something done,” she said. “So it’s more the fear of the unknown than the fear of a contractor coming in. They can’t see how long this is going to last, or how short. … I think once it starts to settle, people will be back to scrambling to get a contractor over to get work done.”

However, it goes the other way as well. Davis said that because contractors may be experiencing difficulty lining up new projects, now is a good time for community members to get in touch with them. She added that subcontractors are a good option for smaller remodeling projects, as they specialize in those areas.

“You get more concentrated effort if you hire someone that specializes in flooring, specializes in interior paint, specializes in stucco – things like that – rather than a general contractor (who) calls those people that specialize in those individual areas,” Davis said.

“When you call somebody that is just to repair your stucco, you’re cutting out the big guy. The bigger contractors are not even taking little things like remodels or little jobs that we need around our houses; they’re busy. The subcontractors are a great way to go.”

Another trend Davis has noticed is that people are rethinking what they really need from their homes.

“With all the time that they’re spending at home, they’re realizing that there are things that might need to be done at their home, or their home is too small, or their home is too big,” she said. “This is a time for reflection where people are actually reevaluating what they need and what they don’t need and how to make their safe space, how to make it enjoyable.”

‘We might have some slow months, but I know the pendulum’s going to swing’

Brady Hall, owner of Legacy Flooring Center, told Cedar City News his business has not necessarily slowed down as of yet, but new projects are not currently being put on the schedule.

“We’re working on everything that’s in the pipeline, but we’re not refilling it with new projects,” Hall said. “Things haven’t tapered off as much as they could, but I’m a little bit concerned about summer months when normally things are real hopping, but if new construction isn’t starting new projects right now, then they’re not going to be ready for summer time.”

Flooring installed by Legacy Flooring Center, Cedar City, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Legacy Flooring Center Facebook page, St George News / Cedar City News

Hall said the majority of projects he is currently working on are related to ongoing construction projects, disaster clean-up and replacing flooring in student housing that is currently vacant.

“Those are probably the three main categories of work that we’re doing, but our showroom is really quiet,” he said. “Normally we would get a lot of walk-in traffic every day — those people have really dropped off.”

On a brighter note, Hall said even considering social distancing suggestions and the governor’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive, only one client has rescheduled a project recently.

“Our policy has been if we’re doing a remodel and we’ve had it on the schedule, we usually just call and say, ‘Are you comfortable with us still coming to your house to do this work?’” he said. “If they are comfortable, then we continue on. If they’re not, then we hold off and reschedule. I talked to some other stores around the Salt Lake area, and they said they’ve had a ton of people reschedule, but I have only had one person.”

Hall added that he feels much of the Southern Utah economy is driven by people moving to the area from more populated states and cities, and the COVID-19 pandemic could play an interesting role in that trend.

“With the coronavirus happening, it might even have the effect of people wanting to get out of big urban areas and go to smaller towns where they’re not as at risk for pandemics and other things like that,” he said. “I think this will awaken a lot of people.”

Hall also remains optimistic about moving forward when the pandemic subsides.

“There might be some downturn, we might have some slow months, but I know the pendulum’s going to swing the other way,” he said, “and eventually we’re going to have more work than we know what to do with.”

‘We have to do everything that we can to preserve those operations’

Shawn Ekker, owner of Ekker Homes, told Cedar City News the primary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic he has noticed in construction are related to suppliers and larger projects, as well as how people interact with each other on job sites.

“As far as the nuts and bolts of the activities and the actual work, we haven’t noticed a change,” Ekker said. “As this goes on, and as we get more comfortable with these new protocols, I think there’s a sense of normalcy that’s returning to the working environment and I think we’re all getting more comfortable with that every day.”

Ekker said he is still moving forward with jobs in an effort to stay on schedule and is encouraging subcontractors and employees to maintain social distancing practices on job sites.

“I’ve been impressed with the evolution of protocols,” he said. “I think that in the construction trade, we have been a little bit slower to adapt, but that adaptation is coming. … Maybe it’s because we don’t work in as close quarters as somebody, say, in an office building or a dentist’s office or the grocery store. I think that we’ve had the luxury of kind of determining our own protocols and distancing requirements.”

Ekker said his working relationships with others in the industry haven’t really changed, and if anything, there has been more of a desire to do the work.

“I think a lot of people are unnerved right now because of the uncertainty,” he said, “and our subcontractors are bending over backwards to perform for us because they want to keep their jobs. They want to keep things going.”

However, he said, there has been some difficulty getting items from suppliers.

“We’ve had some suppliers close down temporarily,” Ekker said. “Some of our suppliers have not been able to get us the things that we need in a reasonable amount of time. They still say they’ll get it to us, but things are taking longer to get.”

Although larger projects that are more likely to have corporate investors have been postponed, Ekker said most projects are continuing to move forward as planned with precautions in place for the health concerns. However, he echoed Davis’ and Hall’s concerns for lining up new projects.

“We’re worried about what’s in the pipeline — we’re worried about that being canceled or moth-balled indefinitely,” Ekker said. “Because our business is unique in that we will develop our workload for sometimes a year out and more, we haven’t seen a slow down as of yet. What I am nervous about is what’s going to happen with job planning for the next three to six months.”

An in-progress construction site in Cedar City, April 10, 2020 | Photo by Kelsey Cooke, St George News / Cedar City News

Ekker said the virus has the potential to substantially impact the construction industry.

“It’s my opinion that if this coronavirus thing kind of subsidies and the curve levels off, I think we’ll be just fine, and I think that plans will resume,” he said. “But if it keeps up and the economy kind of takes a nosedive or continues to nose-dive and unemployment is high, that’s when I think we’re going to see some project cancellations, which will dramatically impact our business.”

Ekker also remains positive about moving forward and said communication is crucial to maintaining support for important industries in the area.

“If you’ve got a homeowner that wants a remodel done, and they are nervous about contracting the virus through that action, you’ve got to communicate with them and apply the proper protocols to make them comfortable with your presence in their space,” he said. “Communication is so important with whoever you’re working with and around.”

Ekker added that it is important to try and maintain the construction, trade and real estate industries within the area, calling them a “prevalent part of the economy in Southern Utah.”

“I think that we have to do everything that we can to preserve those operations and to preserve the confidence for both clients and those of us in the trades that we can do this safely and that we can do this with minimal interruption to our protocols and procedures.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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