Written by Michael Goot in The Post-Star on May 26, 2020

WILTON — U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik on Tuesday toured houses under construction in the Sonoma Grove subdivision in Wilton to hear concerns about the toll the COVID-19 shutdown has had on the industry.

Belmonte Builders President Peter Belmonte said no houses have been sold since late March and work in the subdivision had to stop as the COVID-19 restrictions limited one worker per job site and it takes at least two people to frame up a house. He showed off sites where a foundation was put in and some preliminary site work completed.

Chief Financial Officer Michele Brown said she worried about what would happen in six months because normally that is when they would be closing on homes that they had started now.

“I think that’s when we’re going to be forced with some really hard decisions. We’re hoping we’re going to be busy enough then to have work for people to do,” she said.

Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, said she plans to vote in favor of legislation that would expand the period of eligibility for the Paycheck Protection Program from eight weeks to 24 weeks. This would help businesses in construction, hospitality and tourism, which will not see the full effect of the shutdown until after a lag.

“Because we’ve been on pause, New York hasn’t been able to utilize the funds like other states have,” she said.

In addition, she supports giving businesses more flexibility in deciding how to allocate the funds instead of the current requirement that 75% be used for payroll and 25% for other expenses.

Stefanik voted no on the most recent legislative aid relief package. Among the reasons was the extension of unemployment insurance until the end of the year.

Stefanik said she believes that is too long and there needs to be incentives to return to work.

Work in the Wilton subdivision restarted last week. Belmonte said it is difficult to ramp back up after a shutdown.

“People have been acclimated to collecting the unemployment or they have settled into life in a different way and you’ve got to get them ramped up and back,” he said.

Brown also suggested that the Paycheck Protection Program be extended to cover professional associations. She is a member of the COVID-19 task force for the Capital Region Builders and Remodelers Association, which has had to lay off one of its two employees because of this crisis.

Stefanik said she supports expanding the PPP to cover associations and chambers of commerce.

Different standards?

Belmonte also said he does not think it is fair that his projects could not have been allowed to continue. He said he would sit in his Clifton Park office and look out of his front window and there was a building under construction across the street that was exempt and allowed to continue during the shutdown.

Thirty workers pull up every morning and have coffee, smoke cigarettes and tell jokes before work starts, according to Belmonte. At 7 a.m., they are funneled through a 6-foot-wide door to begin work on the project. He asked what makes that safe.

Before the shutdown came about, he said his company was implementing safety precautions on sites including having 6 feet of separation between workers, washing hand frequently, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and limiting the number of people who work on job sites.

“We were operating just as safe then as we are now and we were shut down for that period of time, and there’s a project across the street going gangbusters,” he said.

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said there is a lot of confusion in the business community. The state-owned Watkins Glen racetrack can open without fans, but smaller race tracks cannot open at all.

Also, he said restaurants have to wait two more weeks before doing outside dining.

Stefanik agreed there is a lot of unfairness. Small garden shops cannot open, but there is a line every weekend at Lowe’s and Home Depot.

“There was not enough input from the business community,” she said.

Another topic of discussion was the need to encourage more high school students to go into the building trades. Stefanik said she supported extending Pell Grants to students who are going to trade schools.

During a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, Stefanik said she was optimistic that local businesses would rise to the challenge to get the economy moving again.

“They have very proactive solutions about how they can safely reopen and how they can update their operations,” she said.

Stefanik was also hopeful that the billions of dollars invested will lead to a COVID-19 vaccine, which, along with increased testing capacity, will allow people to feel safer. That is especially important if there is a second wave of the virus in the fall.

Stefanik said she hoped for passage of a bill called the Smart Act, which would provide $500 billion funding to state and local governments.

Reach Michael Goot at 518-742-3320 or mgoot@poststar.com and follow his blog poststar.com/blogs/michael_goot/.

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