COVID-19: Can construction proceed safely in Florida?

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satellite view of the Baptist Hospital in Kendall
Satellite view of the Baptist Hospital in Kendall

Can construction proceed safely during the COVID-19 crisis? A recent article in the Miami Herald outlines some contractors’ safety measures, while revealing other challenges, including what happens when workers are infected, and complaints from neighbours trapped inside their homes because of the stay-at-home rules for the general population.

While several Miami-Dade cities, including Golden Beach and Key Biscayne, have banned most construction jobs within their jurisdictions, no such ban exists for Miami and the rest of the county, the newspaper reported, writing that no matter how many safety precautions are taken, construction sites remain a potential hot zone for spreading the disease.

Nevertheless, contractors say they are taking safety seriously.

“We are taking COVID-19 very seriously and our teams are actively monitoring the situation and directives from national officials and local jurisdictions,” a spokesperson for Suffolk Construction said in an email to the Herald. “The safety of our employees and trade partners remains our number one priority. Our safety protocols, training and check lists will continue to evolve in response to new developments and guidelines.”

Safety precautions from Suffolk and other contractors include minimizing in-person meetings and large gatherings, enforcing social-distancing guidelines of six feet or more, and surveying all individuals on job sites daily to ensure they are symptom-free.

However, Century Wholesale, which provides millwork and plumbing products, closed its doors after “two of its vendors, who had visited job sites around Miami-Dade, tested positive for COVID-19,” the published report said. “Since then, Carlos Pino, the company’s CEO, and another staff worker also tested positive.”

Pino’s brother, Sergio Pino, president of Century Homebuilders ceased work in late March work at a $100 million mixed-use project 850 LeJeune Rd. after two workers tested positive. The site was reopened on April 1 with a reduced crew of 44 workers, down from the original 200.

The Herald reported:

Now, Pino has decided to close all of his eight active sites indefinitely as of Tuesday. He is also imploring Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and county commissioners to order the construction industry to do the same.

“Most of the people who are working on my job sites are not mad at me,” he said. “The problem is that I am not exclusive to some subcontractors. They want to keep working because it’s not illegal to work. It will take a publicly owned company to set an example before the rest of the industry follows suit.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Pino sent a letter to Gimenez, calling on him to “make the tough and difficult decision to consider closing all construction job sites for 10 working days commencing next week since more and more workers in this sector are testing positive for the coronavirus.

“Over half of the construction workers are not going to work because they are either feeling symptoms of the virus or because they are afraid to contract the disease,” the letter states. “Maintaining the job sites open only prolongs the inevitable in that the people working the sites will continue to get infected … two weeks for everyone takes care of the problem in a two-week period. That is what the experts say.

“We understand that there is a push back from our industry and I understand it’s a huge financial cost,” the letter concludes. “But what is worse? There is no alternative. Mr. Mayor, we all know that this virus can impact the lives of so many, particularly our older population. With your leadership, we can carefully plan for a set date so that we all have an opportunity to pick up the tools and secure all job sites.”

The story is also challenging at health care projects, which are essentially important in the current environment.

“We’re following the guidelines of the CDC and government health agencies, as well as OSHA and other workplace health and safety experts,” said Robins & Morton spokesperson Joe Forsthoffer. The contractor is building a 120-bed expansion to Baptist hospital in Kendall.

“We have specific, documented COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including enhanced cleaning, disinfecting of commonly touched surfaces and tools, daily monitoring for symptoms, and reinforcing the CDC’s prevention guidelines to everyone working on the projects,” Forsthoffer said. “On top of that, county police are checking almost daily to ensure we’re working safely.”

Meanwhile, some residents who are adhering to the stay-in-place mandate say they are enduring d construction noise that they normally wouldn’t have to contend with if they were going to work as usual.

Buddy Varolo, 82, lives at the Arlen House condo building in Sunny Isles Beach with his wife. They’ve been staying inside their apartment for a month, but construction crews making repairs on the exterior of the building make so much noise, they are considering moving to their Long Island home until the pandemic is over.

“They are using jackhammers on concrete and metal,” Buddy Varolo, 82, said as crews work on exterior repairs to his condo building in Sunny Iles Beach. “It makes the entire condo shake. The work started in January, but before, we could leave the house during the day and get away from the noise. Now, we’re stuck in here, my wife is getting headaches and we can’t even open our balcony doors because they have them locked from the outside. They could stop working for a month. This building is not going to fall down.”

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