In most US cities, construction work continues as shutdowns loom
UPDATE: March 20, 2020: A “stay at home” order enacted in California last night does not pertain to current construction projects in the state, while a similar measure in Pennsylvania does.
“The California State Public Health Officer and Director of the California Department of Public Health is ordering all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence, except as needed to maintain continuity of operation of the federal critical infrastructure sectors, critical government services, schools, childcare, and construction, including housing construction,” it reads.
The order, the most widespread in the U.S. designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, is in effect until further notice. AGC of California CEO Peter Tateishi told Construction Dive that while work on current construction projects in the state can continue, it’s unclear whether new projects are allowed to begin. The association hopes to have more information on that today.
The association is also seeking clarification on whether Newsom’s measure supersedes more stringent shutdown mandates in other parts of the state, most notably the Bay area.
“There is still some ambiguity that we have to work through,” he said. “But we’re telling members who ask if they can go to work today that if they’re on an existing project, they’re exempted.”
In related news, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday sent a letter to President Trump, urging his administration to issue guidance that would clarify terms such as essential infrastructure and essential businesses and services.
In addition, Chamber CEO Thomas J. Donohue’s letter requested the federal government to recommend exemptions that allow workers to leave their residence to provide any services or perform any work necessary to the operations and maintenance of essential infrastructure, including public works construction, residential construction and operation of roads and highways, among other activities.
While saying that business closures are important in helping to reduce the threat of the virus, Donohue stressed that governments should provide clear guidance on their mandates.“It is important that these orders do not inadvertently harm businesses and services that support the essential infrastructure needed to successfully combat this pandemic,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate to close all nonessential businesses effectively stops construction work.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s announcement earlier this week halting all but essential construction work in the city has left contractors in other areas of the country wondering if their jurisdictions will also order a temporary stop to their projects.
While Boston, and now neighboring city, Cambridge, have been the only U.S. cities to officially stop all construction, other areas are under orders that ban nonessential services, causing some construction leaders to wonder whether their work is considered essential or not.
In Las Vegas, the Allegiant Stadium construction site is open for business, even though Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has issued a 30-day statewide closure of all nonessential businesses as of yesterday. Contractors are still on the job in New York City and Northern California, too, even though those areas are among some of the hardest hit by the virus. The shelter-in-place order announced for six San Francisco Bay area counties Monday allows all housing projects to continue — market rate, affordable and mixed-use — while commercial construction projects must temporarily shut down, according to the San Franciso Chronicle.
About 400 workers are at Gilbane’s Foxconn project jobsite in Wisconsin and in North Texas, developer Bill Cawley told The Dallas Morning News that Dallas-Forth Worth area contractors are aiming to stay on schedule with projects in process but that most new jobs have been paused for the time being due to economic uncertainty.
“I think it’s going to change day to day depending on what reality is — this could be long or short; we just have to see,” he told the newspaper.
At least one megaproject has been put on hold by owners. Construction of Bechtel’s multibillion-dollar cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, was shut down yesterday by Shell Chemicals in order to protect the safety of its 6,000 workers and the surrounding community.
“The decision to pause was not made lightly,” Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals Vice President Hilary Mercer said in a statement. “But we feel strongly the temporary suspension of construction activities is in the best long-term interest of our workforce, nearby townships and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Contractor reaction to the threat of potential construction shutdowns has been mixed, with some saying stoppages are the only way to protect jobsite workers and others arguing that with the right precautions work should continue. (Click here for Construction Dive’s map of areas and projects that have been shut down.)
DPR, which has had to shut down projects in Boston and the San Francisco Bay region, supports the decisions of local governments made based on their discussions with heath officials in their areas and is prepared to pause its other projects if asked, according to DPR spokesperson Jay Weisberger, who noted that even if jobs shut down, some company activity will continue via the use of remote, technology-driven collaboration.
Associated General Contractors’ CEO Stephen Sandherr said in a statement that the association is against mandatory construction shutdowns, which he said do little to protect the health and safety of workers. Instead, he wrote, construction halts undermine economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages over the coming days.
“These measures have the potential to bankrupt many construction firms who have contractual obligations to stay on schedule or risk incurring significant financial penalties,” he said.
Despite the economic ramifications, some elected officials are pushing for more jobsite closures.
New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca has called for a moratorium on construction work across the city and Brad Lander, the council’s deputy leader for policy, took to social media to show his support for medical facility construction, but not other projects.
“It is essential right now to build new hospital capacity,” Lander tweeted. “It is NOT essential right now to build new condos.”