Masks are about to join hard hats as hallmarks of construction sites throughout Pennsylvania.
All public and private construction sites can reopen May 1, as long as they adhere to safety precautions meant to protect workers and the public from the spread of the coronavirus, according to guidance Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration outlined Thursday evening.
On job sites, construction businesses must keep workers 6 feet apart when possible, provide handwashing stations throughout, regularly clean and disinfect areas that are high risks for spreading infection, limit necessary gatherings to no more than 10 people socially distanced, stagger employees’ shifts, limit tool sharing, prohibit sick workers and unnecessary visitors, and ensure workers arrive separately and wear masks.
Wolf said Thursday that the nature of the work, including the ability of workers to operate at a distance, makes construction a “reasonable place to start” in reopening the economy. The new order applies to all construction businesses, including residential and commercial, new construction, renovation, repairs, and design.
The Wolf administration said local governments are free to impose stricter rules in their jurisdictions. Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia’s managing director, said Fridaythat the Kenney administration is discussing what staff the city would need for construction sites to reopen.
The city attracts half of the construction in the state, according to the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia.
Most states had deemed construction essential and exempted it from stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. New Jersey allowed many types of construction, including the building of housing for low-income residents, work on health-care projects and certain schools, and construction needed to let residents move into units they legally agreed to occupy.
For about a month, the Wolf administration has barred Pennsylvania construction that is not work on a medical facility, emergency repairs, or on “substantially completed” residential projects with final occupancy permits. Until this month, builders and contractors could apply for waivers to Wolf’s orders, but it was unclear how the administration chose which projects merited exceptions.
On April 20, the governor vetoed a bill that would have reopened more businesses in the state, including construction.
The Pennsylvania Builders Association welcomed the reopening of construction, but CEO Dan Durden said the group wants more direction specific to residential construction.
Ryan Boyer, head of the Laborers’ District Council, which represents construction workers, estimates that “99.5% of our members" are “chomping at the bit” to work.
Gary Jonas, vice president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia and president of The HOW Group, said construction should have been open with safety precautions for the last month. “We truly do believe our industry was one of the ones that could safely be open,” Jonas said.
Skanska, an international construction company with U.S. operations based in New York City, works on projects primarily in health care and life sciences, so it has continued some operations during state shutdowns, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
It has been following protocols Wolf has laid out, including providing running water with soap on job sites. The company also checks the temperatures of workers when they enter job sites.
Todd Lofgren, general manager at Skanska, described the “detail-oriented process” of planning logistics for working safely during the coronavirus pandemic, including managing the flow of workers into and out of job sites.
“If companies rush back, you have the potential to create uneasiness with everybody at work at the job site,” Lofgren said. "We want to create an environment where people are comfortable and safe coming to work.”
For the last two weeks, Peter Rotelle, owner of Rotelle Development Co., based in Chester County, and his team have been preparing safety policies for the eventual restart of construction.
"When next Friday comes, we are going to hit the ground running with staff that is fully educated, excited, and motivated to come back,” he said.
The company primarily builds single-family houses, many of which sat half-finished during the shutdown. He said he’s talking to the trades about starting a six-day workweek to try to make up for lost time.
He has about 50 sites under construction across the region and plans to break ground on a townhouse community in Berks County soon after the construction ban lifts.