There is no such thing as social distance when it comes to international trade, travel and business. What damage the coronavirus pandemic will cause to the global economy—and construction—should be considered. So too should responses by the world's governments so far.
Although some countries have gone into total lockdown as a precaution and at least one major U.K. construction project has temporarily halted due to virus exposure, only one major jobsite in the U.S. so far, a university dormitory project in Snohomish County, Wash., has temporarily stopped work. That project suspended construction after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. The only other place where small projects may have stopped is in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, where movement is restricted.
That said, design and construction employers are grappling with the immediate effects of the pandemic and anticipate facing more—including disrupted workflows and business development processes, canceled meetings and networking events, emptied offices and employee distractions related to income, family health and concern about what the future will bring.
How and when, for example, will crippled business sectors such as aviation and tourism recover and what will the fallout be for construction? United and Delta airlines have already each announced $2-billion cuts in capital investment.
China’s initial response speaks for itself. As the world’s workshop, it occupies a preeminent place in the global construction supply chain—leading in production of steel and solar panels and other vital building materials and components. Weeks were lost as China’s repressive government sought to suppress and steer coronavirus news. It promoted publicity for the rapidly built temporary hospitals, but whistle blowers in that country who sounded the alarm then disappeared from view.
Although China’s clampdown on information now has been shown as both a supply-chain and world health risk, we don’t believe that by this time in 2021, other countries will have wrested its advantage away as a low-price supplier.
The Trump Administration has hardly distinguished itself during this pandemic. There was some wisdom in cutting off visitors from other countries with growing numbers of coronavirus cases. But the failure to anticipate that hundreds of U.S. citizens would rush to return and get stuck standing shoulder-to-shoulder in crowds at O’Hare, Dulles and other major airports—exactly what is to be avoided to stop the spread of the virus—is just one of several bad errors.
There was far too much nationalist nonsense coming out of the White House in the initial weeks, including talk of a hoax and exaggeration by foreign enemies and domestic opponents.
Why has the administration instead not focused on important policy issues, such as possible future mandatory minimum paid sick leave during pandemics, to discourage those who potentially have the virus from coming to work because they badly need the pay? And as far as the lag in testing and preparedness in general, the dissonance between the president’s proclamations and comments by his own health chiefs has been telling.
The March 14 announcement to ramp up coronavirus testing through a public-private partnership that would involve a Google health affiliate and top pharmacies such as Walmart, CVS, Target and Walgreens is interesting. But the scope and timing remains a mystery. Suddenly, private companies have become lead players in the vital coronavirus testing program push. At this point it is impossible to trust that such improvisation will ever amount to an effective and coherent test effort.
Until the testing is made on a broad scale, construction employers and workforces—and every element of life and commerce in the U.S.—proceeds under a shadow of uncertainty. As an industry that by its nature deals with complicated risks, the new ones introduced by the pandemic, including delays to current projects and postponement of planned new ones, have been made worse by the unconvincing federal response.
Washington can do much to limit damage to the construction industry by delivering on its promises and putting an end to all the doubts about its crisis management competence.