COVID-19: Should work continue or stop as pandemic sets health and safety challenges for Florida’s construction industry?

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An image from the #Stopconstruction twitter feed showing workers far New York City construction workers not able to practice social distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for Florida’s construction industry, including questions about whether or how to continue working during the public health emergency.

Emergency regulations that require most non-essential businesses to close have exempted construction work; and job sites for several projects were still active throughout the state today.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told WPLG-TV that the exemption allowing construction work may not last much longer, following Boston’s example, where virtually all construction work has been shuttered.

“They are essential,” said Gimenez. “The order said they are essential and so they are allowed to run but they have to maintain social distancing.”

“Today we will be going to construction sites and enforcing that on a site-by-site basis,” Gimenez told the broadcaster on March 24. “Some sites are doing fine, some sites are not doing fine. I’m not going to put a blanket order to close everything but those businesses and those sites that are not compliant with the order, we will shut them down.”

Managers at some of the sites say they’re doing their best to provide places for workers to wash their hands and keep their distance.

However, at least one worker, who didn’t want to be identified, said in the WPLG interview that really wasn’t the case; not enough was being done and he has actually decided to stop coming to work, until this all blows over.

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In central Florida, meanwhile, construction has been halted at Walt Disney World.
Mark Wylie, president and CEO of the Central Florida chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc., said other Central Florida construction sites will also be shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended March 16 that events of 10 or more people be canceled or postponed.

“It’s already having a terrific impact on the economy,” Wylie said in a statement.

Building departments in Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and others across the state are still open, but officials are encouraging people to conduct business by phone or email.

The unemployment rate for Florida’s construction industry reached a record low of 5.4 percent in January before the pandemic swept into the U.S. Officials were originally optimistic that the industry would quickly bounce back from a short disruption. US

President Donald Trump has said he would like most people back to work by Easter, though many public health officials say this strategy is highly risky, and could result in a disastrous explosion in demand for medical care.

Contractors say contingency plans have been implemented at sites to keep workers safe in the face of the pandemic.

Plaza Construction, a New York-based general contractor and project management firm that is active in South Florida, has no immediate plans to shut down construction job sites or reduce its workforce, according to a company spokesperson. Plaza is currently building the Oasis at Wynwood and Las Marinas Residences at Sunny Isles in Miami-Dade, and Resorts World Casino New York and The Tin Building in New York City.

New guidelines are in place, including social distancing at the company’s offices and job sites, according to a memo the company sent its clients, partners and employees.

“This plan allows for our employees to work remotely using technology platforms that have been built to support remote accessibility and mobility,” the memo states. “Our teams will be joining all meetings via phone and video conferencing, and will remain available to answer any questions or concerns as required.”

With information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) being issued at a rapid pace, The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has assembled a page of links to helpful resources.

Vice-president Mike Pence has asked construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 face masks to local hospitals – and to stop ordering new masks – as the country attempts to supply hospitals with equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, and several businesses have responded.

“We would make one specific request, and that is we would urge construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 masks to your local hospital and forgo additional orders of those industrial masks,” Pence said at a White House briefing on the pandemic.

“Because of what the president asked to be included in legislation moving through the Congress today, those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for health care workers to be protected from a respiratory disease,” he added.
The industrial-strength masks are usually worn by drywall workers and painters to protect themselves from fine airborne particles. An N95 designation means the mask can block at least 95 percent of particles in the air.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s decision in mid-March to construction projects in the city to be shut down for at least two weeks in response to the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in mixed reviews. Several major construction employers and associations say the shut-down is excessive for an essential service, while some workers and unions say the decision is correct, since most construction work is not essential and it is hard to effectively manage social distancing and proper cleanliness on many job sites.

All projects must be stopped and work zones secured, the mayor said during a press conference, with the exception of emergency projects such as roadwork and gas hookups. Boston trade unions supported Walsh’s move, citing health and safety concerns.

“This is a worldwide pandemic and our public health community has made clear that social distancing is the only way to combat this virus,” said Brian Doherty, general agent of Building Trades Unions, an umbrella organization of the city’s unions.

In reaction, ​Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen E. Sandherr says the shutdown is a bad idea.

“Halting construction activity will do more harm than good for construction workers, community residents and the economy. Construction firms are already acting to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the face of the coronavirus outbreak,” Sandherr said.

“These new measures, which include increased hygiene and halting group gatherings of staff, are in addition to the fact construction workers already wear protective equipment, including gloves that will help protect them and their co-workers.

Since precautions already in place at construction sites, halting work will do little to protect the health and safety of construction workers, the statement said, but will “go a long way in undermining economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages they will need over the coming days.”

Sandherr warns shutdowns could bankrupt many construction firms that have contractual obligations to stay on schedule or risk incurring significant financial penalties and undermine recovery efforts in regions hit by natural disasters, and future efforts to expand hospital capacity.

“We understand the need for social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus,” he said in the statement. “But needlessly shutting down projects where workers are already protected will not help. Instead it will threaten the livelihood of millions of craft professionals, force many small and family-owned businesses to shut down, and undermine the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters, including the coronavirus.”

He urged construction owners faced with government-imposed shutdowns to continuing scheduled payments to contractors as a down payment for work to be completed on the project to help mitigate some of the potential economic impacts of construction shutdowns.

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