Continuing protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have impacted construction in several major cities around the U.S., including fires set at job sites and city-mandated project shutdowns. Some contractors have voluntarily shuttered sites or implemented greater security measures.
The city of Chicago indefinitely closed construction at all downtown work sites on May 29. In addition, some roads have been closed “out of an abundance of caution and to protect the health and safety of all Chicago residents,” said the city Dept. of Transportation in a statement. Chicago agencies “will continue to enforce closures for the time being while assessing when to reopen,” the statement continued.
CTA and Metra commuter trains have also been halted indefinitely as a result of ongoing protests.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago Dept. of Buildings said that, to ensure that essential workers have access to the central business district and Loop area, the city communicated directly with essential industries, organizations and businesses that workers with vehicles can gain access at multiple established checkpoints. But, while construction was considered essential infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic closures, it is not considered essential during the current public safety closure due to the protests.
“When we first heard [May 31] that essential personnel would be allowed back in at these checkpoints, we thought that was fabulous,” said Michael Meagher, president of the board of directors of the Chicagoland Associated General Contractors. “Then we heard it would be only first responders, medical personnel and others and that construction would not continue, we began the process of safely shutting all of our sites down.”
Meagher, who is also president of James McHugh Construction Co., said construction leaders are in contact with Chicago Commissioner of Buildings Judy Frydland and are hoping they can reopen their job sites soon. At 6 AM CST on June 2, the Dept. of Buildings reopened construction sites in the central business district and advised workers to bring company identification with them in order to gain admittance at the designated checkpoints.
No damage has yet been reported at work sites in Chicago, Meagher added.
The California Associated General Contractors chapter says some jobsites in the state have elected to shut down, while others are closing because they have not been deemed exempt from curfew orders, says CEO Peter Tateishi. “Because construction remained essential during the COVID crisis, projects were able to continue. We are, however, hearing from companies who are closing administrative offices and returning to remote-work for staff,” he says.
In Minneapolis, where protests began last week, a six-story low-income housing project burned to the ground on the night of May 27. Local business publication Twin Cities Business reported the $30-million project by St. Paul developer Wellington Management Inc. was set to complete next spring. Continuing acts of “arson, rioting, looting, and damaging public and private property” led state Gov. Tim Walz (D) to extend overnight curfews until June 3, he said in a statement.
Fire crews In downtown Columbus, Ohio, responded to a three-alarm fire early on Sunday, May 31, at the The Residences at Topiary Park, a mixed-use development with 64 residential units and ground-level retail that was scheduled to complete this summer. City Fire Chief Steve Martin said the cause of the fire was suspicious and under investigation, but he said fire crews started fighting the blaze at the center of the unoccupied four-story building and estimated damages at around $25 million.
Martin said the previous night, firefighters responded to six blazes in the same area, which was the scene of large protests. At another apartment construction site, he says a construction waste dumpster and pallets of roofing materials were set on fire. It remained contained within a staging area, adjacent to the structure.
In Washington, D.C., as protests intensified in Lafayette Square outside The White House late on May 31, a fire was started nearby at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce exterior renovation project site, according to D.C. Fire and EMS Dept. The $13-million project, set to complete next spring, aims to renovate the historic building’s exterior envelope. The fire originated in an alley at the base of the scaffolding, in or near a construction dumpster, says Vito Maggiolo, department public information officer. The fire was able to spread upward through a trash chute just above the dumpster. “That’s why the fire burned as quickly as it did because of that large plastic chute,” Maggiolo says.
Fire crews were able to extinguish the fire before it spread beyond the exterior scaffolding, he said. The alley is shared by the historic Hay-Adams hotel and an office building tcompleted by Clark Construction in 2019. Neither of those buildings suffered fire damage as a result of the scaffolding blaze, Maggiolo says.
Construction sites in protest areas, which are already working under new COVID-19 protocols, are taking extra steps to prepare for possible damage during protests. Davis Construction, which has multiple active construction sites in Washington, D.C., sent communication to its project sites on June 1 about securing sites and equipment.
Dave Chandler, vice president of environmental health and safety, says audits are under way at all sites and that site-specific communication plans have been established for each. Management has also ensured that all security cameras are functioning properly. Perimeter fencing and entrances are all being secured, as well as tools, cranes, hoists and offices. Hazards such as flammable liquids and dumpsters are being eliminated or limited. Chandler says crews have also been told to not interfere with demonstrators.
In New York City, looting of stores in lower Manhattan and mid-town that began before the weekend prompted calls to contractors for added security, with crews racing to install boarding and other barriers. Wooden planks now cover windows of the entire block-long Macy's department store and the Empire State Building's ground level, with added protection also installed at the Apple computer flagship store, Tiffany's and other high-end Fifth Avenue retail locations.
STO Building Group Chairman James Donaghey said protesters had been striking the Apple store temporary barricade with bats, according to security guard reports, and there was "minor damage" to its Macy's project site in Brooklyn.
With some protections breached and more looting in the evening of June 1, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and city Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered an 11pm to 5am city curfew extended to June 2 and starting at 8pm. The city's first curfew since the 1940s, according to NBC, It exempts essential workers. Cuomo urged protestors in peaceful demonstrations to take COVID-19 precautions to avoid a city infection rate spike that could jeopardize its planned June 8 phase-one reopening.
In Seattle, "public projects along the waterfront and most other sites did a careful job buttoning up before the protests to avoid potential damage,” says Julie Moore, supervisor for Seattle’s joint information center. “We have heard that some large jobsites that typically work over the weekend stopped Saturday afternoon/evening and have since resumed.”'
This story was updated at 7AM CST to reflect the reopening of construction in Chicago's central business district.