Starting Friday, all construction businesses can resume work in Pennsylvania, marking a turning point for builders and contractors who, like thousands of others, had spent the last month salvaging for any work amid the coronavirus outbreak.
For some, it could be a thorny reawakening.
Although some builders said they would resume work immediately in this region, where development has been booming from Center City to thicketed open spaces in Philadelphia’s collar counties, others said clients had canceled projects, which could leave buildings unfinished indefinitely.
Even with the commonwealth lifting its moratorium on construction a week earlier than expected, firms and employees now have to contend with industry resuscitation in accordance with strict new rules, play catch-up with skeleton crews, and consider the possibility of a shortage in new clients in coming months.
“You’ve got to kick-start an entire business," said Greg Meizinger, president of Philadelphia-based Meizinger Construction Services, which takes on only commercial projects.
Though he declined to provide details, Meizinger said he had lost three projects since the outbreak began.
“We weren’t prepared for this," he said of his company’s finances. "Let’s just say that. I don’t know how you could prepare for this.”
Meizinger said some employees had opted to stay at home during the outbreak as a precaution, resulting in thin staffing, which could prove more problematic with large projects that need plenty of workers.
“People are making more money on unemployment right now than coming into work,” he said.
To add to the complications, local governments can now add their own set of policies on top of the directives by the state government, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said.
Before the moratorium was lifted, towns had largely deferred to the commonwealth, aside from taking permit applications by mail, reviewing building plans, and inspecting construction deemed essential or exempted to continue.
In Philadelphia, the Department of Licenses and Inspections modernized its antiquated system of accepting only paper applications for permits and finished its online platform for accepting permit applications in early April, days before the coronavirus pandemic forced all municipal buildings to close. That has changed.
"Local officials have been tasked with ensuring that construction businesses are aware that this guidance exists and notifying businesses that a complaint of noncompliance was received,” the Wolf administration said in an announcement Thursday.
Philadelphia is expected to issue additional details this week ahead of Friday’s reopening.
Nationally, the construction industry reported a severe negative impact from the coronavirus shutdown, with 78% of businesses citing project delays as the chief concern, according to a recent report from the architecture and home improvement website Houzz.
“I have residential projects that stopped and they want us to come back, and I’m like, we cannot,” said Calvin R. Snowden Jr., managing partner of the BDFS Group, a general contracting company in Philadelphia that does commercial and residential work. “I get it — you want your home finished — but I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable having people come in and out of my house.”
The second-highest concern among businesses, at 75%, was the decrease of new business inquiries, a reflection of clients’ primary worry, the Houzz report found. At 60%, clients worried about the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on a project’s timeline.
Construction businesses had to adapt to the circumstances, according to the report, with 57% of companies adopting extra safety protocols, 34% temporarily shutting down operations, 33% delaying hiring, and 30% using new tech platforms to still work with clients.
At 27%, according to the report, the last resort was companies canceling projects. Houzz collected its data from March 26 to April 8, basing its report on answers from 1,092 respondents around the country working in building and remodeling.
“I think the major thing is to get people back to work safely," said Joe Perpiglia, president of the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade association that represents workers ranging from general contractors to material suppliers. “Construction is the one industry that’s always concerned with safety.”
The Wolf administration said all construction companies would be obligated to ensure the safety of their workers with face masks, hand-washing, and social distancing.
Businesses would be responsible for appointing what the governor’s office called a “pandemic safety officer," and implement safety directives if they discovered a case of the coronavirus among staff. Only four people would be allowed at a time on a residential job site, although more workers could be at a commercial or nonresidential project depending on the size of the property.
Even so, Snowden, of the BDFS Group, said ample safety protocol might not be enough to combat paranoia.
“Some of those people are going to be afraid to go back to work," he said. “This is a new area for all of us."