COVID-19: An unprecedented crisis challenges North Carolina (and the nation’s) construction industry

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Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for af.mil. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)

N95 masks: Pence asks contractors to donate N95 masks to local hospitals

North Carolina Construction News staff writer

The COVID-09 crisis has put the overall economy and certainly North Carolina’s construction industry into a state of unprecedented turmoil. There have been other crises in the recent and more distant past, but it is hard to equate the situation with any experience we have experienced in our lifetimes.

If you have observations, questions, or experiences you wish to share, please file a comment to this article, or email buckshon@ncconstructionnews.com.

Vice-president Mike Pence is asking 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.

Meanwhile, many parts of the country, including Mecklenburg County, have issued “Stay at Home” orders. The question: should construction be considered an essential service and remain in operation — and if it does, can contractors and workers make sure their working environment is safe.

Perhaps in a unique expression of these challenges, N95 masks used on construction sites are being reapplied to medical and hospital functions, including at the request of Pence.

“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 on March 17 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.

Also that day, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh ordered construction projects in the city to be shut down for at least the next two weeks in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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.

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of the Carolinas has — along with the national Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America — have asked North Carolina officials to take a different stance — to keep construction sites operating even when other businesses are ordered to be closed.

“It does appear that construction and other ABC related industries will remain essential during this time,” ABC Carolinas wrote in a COVID-19 update memo. “We encourage folks to contact their local Mecklenburg County officials to seek clarification on a case by case basis. We will continue to monitor how this impacts Governor Roy Cooper’s decision on a state level, and advise our membership accordingly.”

In an earlier statement, several ABC of the Carolinas contractors made the case for keeping construction as an essential service.
“With the high level of importance of construction within our state, the low risk nature of construction related to the virus and a long-standing heavy emphasis and professional experience implementing health and safety protections for workers and the public, we urge you to recognize construction as essential services that should be continued during this time,” they wrote.
Nationally  ​AGC 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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