New York has narrowed the definition of "essential" construction, closing most projects in the state following concerns about worker safety as numbers rise related to COVIS-19 cases and deaths.
"All non-essential construction must shut down except emergency construction," the Empire State Development Corp. said in guidelines issued March 27 following a revised Executive Order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As of March 30, New York reported more than 60,000 COVID-19 cases and 965 deaths statewide, with 35,000 cases in New York City and 776 deaths there.
ESD said that "essential construction may continue and includes roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters."
ESD added that the guidance "was effective immediately, but allows time for non-essential, non-emergency projects to continue to a point where they can be safely stabilized to protect the health and safety of occupants."
It does not specify a deadline to stabilize sites or state how long non-essential work will remain closed down.
Contractor sources told ENR that dates have been a subject of discussion between Gov. Cuomo's office and NY construction group officials, and said an April 21 date that was discussed as the shutdown closure end was not finalized.
One industry source said more detail on dates could be set this week pending the outcome of still ongoing talks.
The guidelines also addressed protecting workers from the novel coronavirus:
"At every site, if essential or emergency non-essential construction, this includes maintaining social distance, including for purposes of elevators/meals/entry and exit," the ESD directive says. "Sites that cannot maintain distance and safety best practices must close and enforcement will be provided by the state in coordination with the city/local governments."
Those who violate the rule would face fines of up to $10,000 per violation, ESD said. But details on enforcement were not provided.
Lou Coletti, CEO of the NY Building Trades Employers Association, told ENR on March 29 that he was not aware of an end date for the new mandate but that the New York City Dept. of Buildings is developing closure protocols, which could be issued as early as March 30 or March 31.
In social media posts, workers and unions had expressed concern over work conditions that could elevate COVID-19 risks. In one post, the New York City District Council of Carpenters had urged officials "to significantly narrow the definition of what work is considered essential in the city."
Said the union: "Our members lives are at stake."
The COVID-19 situation in the New York City metro area has been reflected in jobsite staffing, say contractor executives.
"We saw a big drop off in manpower on Monday, plus or minus 50%," said the CEO of one nonunion building CM firm, "but it did rebound a little as the week went on. We had one site close for a short period to do deep clean after an onsite worker tested positive. But all our other sites are working."
Said a site manager at a major city transportation project: "Currently we are seeing around 80% of workers showing up to work."
Cuomo's "New York State on PAUSE" executive order signed March 20 did not specify whether any types of construction projects were considered non-essential.
In effect until April 17, it did specify "skilled trades such as electricians, plumbers" and "other related construction firms and professionals for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes."
Related to the project shutdown, the project manager for one construction management firm with eight active city projects, several of more than 1 million sq ft each, said the firm "started COVID-19 protocols a couple of weeks ago, which included safety awareness training, added bathroom facilities and hand washing stations, and bringing in outside vendors to spray down sites with CDC approved antiviral solutions."
The firm also limited worker numbers on hoists, staggered start times and took workers’ temperatures before they entered sites, and other measures.
"Workers were grateful for the measures that we took and sent thank you notes daily to our teams," the manager said, but fears "this shutdown will have a profound impact on all of us. On an average day, our sites employ close to 2,000 union and non-union workers. The layoffs started this afternoon already."
Linda Foggie, senior vice president of CM consultant Turner & Townsend and head of its New York City office, says that "In recent days, we began to see trades and subcontractors walking off job sites temporarily or unable to supply sufficient labor force to keep projects moving forward.
She notes that "many of our [owner] clients are concerned with obligations outside the scope of their project that will be impacted by the schedule challenges they will face, "
Foggie says that "we’ll look to see new case law precedent set as force majeure clauses are enacted. Some, if not most, contracts may not specifically call out a pandemic or outbreak as a trigger."
But in In New York, the executive order suspending some types of construction as a non-essential service may qualify projects for relief.
A New York City building contractor CEO noted "more clients that were announcing layoffs, with the potential of awarded contracts being terminated or re-evaluated at a later date."
He said his firm was not laying off employees "as of now, but no company will not be impacted as work has dropped and invoices and payments are immediately affected."
The executive added that "much more of this is expected over the next two to three weeks," noting the potential of bankruptcies of smaller firms "to be watched closely."
Added the CEO: "Prudence in running a business in a sustainable way is required."
Thousands of New Beds
Cuomo also announced at a March 27 briefing the completion of a 1,000-bed temporary hospttal at the Jacob Javits convention center in Manhattan to house non-COVID-19 patients from city hospitals, with three other facilities "underway" by the US Army Corps of Engineers in Westchester County and at two Long Island SUNY campuses for a total of 4,000 beds.
Cuomo added that the state is "scouting sites" for another 4,000 beds at existing sites in New York City's five boroughs, as well as in the four suburban counties closest to the city, and that it seeks Trump Administration approval "immediately so construction can begin." Space conversions also are set to include now closed colleges and hotels such as the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge hotel, he said.