Written by Michael Glazer (SEE Regional Advisors) and Tatjana Halapija (Nada Projekt) – EECFA Croatia
UPDATE ON 30 APRIL 2020: During the first phase of Croatia’s response to COVID-19, the country’s construction industry was not as tightly locked down as some others (e.g., the hospitality sector). While construction firms were not as free to operate as, say, grocery stores and food processing plants, projects of national significance, some projects considered important by municipalities and other sub-national governments and some private-sector projects continued to move forward. Construction companies were also called on to assist with the cleanup effort following the March 22 Zagreb earthquake. This provided some liquidity to the sector, or at least to those lucky firms involved in the projects on which work continued. Now that the Croatian government is lifting the strictest limitations on business, including those on construction work, construction activity is likely to increase considerably.
This, though, may be a double-edged sword. Social distancing is difficult to enforce on construction projects even with the best will in the world, and anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cases there is not even an effort to do so. For example, groups of workers have been seen traveling to and from construction sites seated close to one another in vehicles with enclosed cabins, and of course there are the frequent “supervisory meetings” where several workers gather to monitor the one working. If one or more construction workers causes an outbreak at some point, the sector as a whole could suffer real consequences.
On March 20, the Croatian government imposed stringent restrictions on movement and business activity in order to combat COVID-19.
- They included prohibitions on travel outside one’s place of residence or across international borders unless for trips defined as necessary (e.g., to transport goods to stores that remained open or internationally), closure of educational institutions and nurseries, cultural and sports facilities, prohibition on the operation of all but essential businesses and limitations on the size of gatherings (initially no more than 5 people, ultimately no more than 2)
- Work-from-home requirements were imposed
- Public transport was suspended
Mid-April, the Croatian government permitted travel within counties, while on April 20 restrictions were extended to May 5 but their strictness was reduced.
On March 22, a 5.5 (Richter)/5.3 (MW)/VII (MMI) earthquake struck Zagreb.
- It damaged 26,197 buildings of which 1,900 were rendered unusable. A number of hospitals, museums, churches, schools, government offices, historic buildings and other culturally important structures (including graves) were badly damaged
- No specific regulatory measures were immediately promulgated other than that many sidewalks were closed due to the risk of debris falling from roofs and facades
No strict ban was imposed specifically on construction, but the industry was restricted by the broad limitation, from which it was not excepted, to working from home.
- That said, it appears that work continued on a number of construction projects, including those of the City of Zagreb and politically connected private firms and the Pelješac Bridge, either in violation of this limitation or pursuant to special exemptions
- Also, after the Zagreb earthquake a number of firms with the appropriate equipment were permitted to clear debris and blow things up
We are planning to issue the new EECFA Croatia Construction Forecast Report on 29 June 2020. Sample report and order
Anticovid measures in construction
- We are not aware of any construction-sector-focused anti-COVID-19 measures
- Construction firms are benefiting, though, from general measures that the Croatian government took to limit the economic consequences of COVID-19
- These measures include relief from taxes and governmental contributions (primarily payment deferrals for three months but some forgiveness), payroll support payments (minimum net wage of EUR533 for three months), loan payment moratoria (three to six months), debt enforcement moratoria (during the period of extraordinary measures), liquidity loans, sector-oriented loans (for the tourism and other export sectors) and credit lines for MSMEs in the tourism and hospitality sectors (although the minimum loan amount is EUR100k, which makes them ill-suited for micro and even small businesses)
Factors limiting the construction sector’s performance
- There is no lack of construction materials, particularly in view of the fact that most building has ceased
- Most tourism-related construction for the coming season has been completed, since that season is at hand
- But other construction projects are not moving forward except for those considered essential. (“Essential” can have a variety of definitions, depending on the government responsible for defining the term. Some politically connected private projects are proceeding.)
- Croatia’s heavy dependence on tourism, and the likelihood that tourism will not recover for years, means that construction, and the Croatian economy in general, will be very negatively affected for a significant period of time
Croatia’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been unexpectedly, indeed startlingly, good. It flattened the curve rapidly and has already achieved an R0 of less than 1. Much is due to the chance replacement of an ethically tainted Minister of Health by a highly competent appointee shortly before the crisis broke. But much is also due to the professionalism of Croatia’s public health services and medical personnel.
It remains to be seen if Croatia can continue its stellar performance. There are signs that segments of the populace are beginning to ignore social distancing measures. But the government seems alert to the possibility of R0 rising and willing to act rapidly to bring it down again.
It is clear, though, that Croatia’s quick and effective response to COVID-19 will lessen the severity of the economic effects of the crisis.
Croatia will be hit by a reduction in remittances from its citizens abroad. There may also be political consequences, since many Croatian ex pats are returning, and their political views may have been affected by their time abroad.
It is possible, but by no means certain, that the weaknesses in Croatia’s healthcare infrastructure, and possibly increased EU funding for healthcare infrastructure generally, will lead to significantly greater hospital and healthcare facility construction. That said, healthcare tourism, and so private healthcare construction is likely to be badly damaged long-term by COVID-19.
Construction in Zagreb, though, looks likely to increase dramatically in volume for years to come as reconstruction work of a minimum value of EUR6G will be needed.