The novel coronavirus pandemic has reached the United States in full force. Given the swift increase in reported cases, government officials have begun adopting measures in order to stunt the spread of the virus. Many of these efforts directly affect the construction industry. For instance, earlier this week, Boston became the first major US city to suspend all construction work within the city limits. This may be the start of a trend for other cities to look out for.
Boston shuts down construction activities
This week, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh released a press statement declaring that all regular construction activities be suspended starting March 17th. This moratorium applies to all projects that require permits from the City of Boston. The press release reads as follows (emphasis ours):
Effective tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the City is suspending all regular activity at construction sites in Boston. Employers should maintain the necessary crews to keep their sites safe and secure, keep any materials from blowing away, and prevent trespassing. This work needs to be completed in the next week, by Monday, March 23, 2020. After sites have been secured, skeleton crews will be permitted for the remainder of this suspension to ensure safety. The only work that will be permitted moving forward will be emergency work, which will need to be approved by the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.
There is some essential (emergency) work that will still be allowed to continue. This includes utility and roadwork, the construction of healthcare facilities and temporary shelters, and other work deemed essential by city officials. All other work will need to be approved by the Commissioner of Inspectional Services or the Commissioner of Public Works, to ensure they are construction activities that support public health and safety. These measures are scheduled to be re-assessed in two weeks.
Other preventive measures affecting construction
San Francisco Bay Area shelter order
San Francisco enacted the first (and strictest) response to the virus this week by ordering a county-wide “shelter-in-place” order. This requires that all individuals (more than 7 million people) stay at home, except for work and activities that are essential for business and government services. For the construction industry, this means all projects need to be shut down. The only exception is for work on public infrastructure and housing projects.
Pennsylvania DOT project suspension
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has begun to take preventive measures that have impacted the construction industry as well. As of this week, all PennDOT construction projects have been suspended in every county within the state until further notice.
New York City may be next
In response to the announcement out of Boston to suspend construction activities, New York City might be the next in line. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been urging city residents to stay home as much as possible, and has already shut down bars and limited restaurant service. Despite this, work on private construction projects has been continuing to operate as usual.
Some safety protocols have been implemented to increase hygiene on job sites, but the industry has yet to be fully shut down. However, this may not be the case for much longer. City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca has recently been pushing for a city-wide moratorium on all construction work not related to crisis response efforts.
Furthermore, Mayor de Blasio has been cautioning New York City residents to prepare for a shelter-in-place order in the next few days. Yet Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to confirm the possibility of such an order.
Construction industry pushes back on shut downs
As these measures begin to pop up across the country, many in the construction industry have responded. Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), recently spoke out against unnecessary construction project shutdowns.
“Given the precautions in place, halting construction will do little to protect the health and safety of construction workers,” Sandherr said. “But it will go a long way in undermining the economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages they will need over the coming days. At the same time, these measures have the potential to bankrupt many construction firms who have contractual obligations to stay on schedule or risk incurring significant financial penalties.”
From a construction industry and laborer perspective, this is a tough pill to swallow. Most understand the risk associated with the virus, and have taken numerous measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their projects. However, their fear of the virus isn’t outweighed by their financial concerns. For an industry with tight profit margins and cash flow issues, many are concerned about having to shut their doors for good. Not to mention the concern regarding their ability to pay rent, and support their families. Around the country, construction companies should take steps to prepare for a potential shut down.