Non-essential construction in most major American cities was put on pause about a month ago, with Boston leading the charge and implanting a freeze on March 17. New York State followed two weeks later on March 30, though a carve-out for “essential” work allowed the construction to continue for bridges, hospitals, affordable housing (including affordable housing attached to luxury condo towers), homeless shelters, and other exemptions.
Construction is an industry known for cramming people together in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods, a particularly volatile combination when trying to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Now, though, cranes and cement trucks are slowly rolling back onto city streets, but not without extra precautions meant to curb the spread of coronavirus. As the New York Times notes, 5,200 construction sites in New York City are reopening while trying to grapple with the question of how to protect their workers.
That includes taking temperatures before entering a job site, maintaining a six-foot distance from others, and wearing masks even when not necessarily needed. Handwashing stations are being added to construction sites as well, and tools are reportedly being sanitized when not in use. The Times also reported that labor groups are pushing the city for 24-hour construction, which would space out workers over the course of the day.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such suggestions will be implemented; even during the worst parts of the pandemic to-date, construction workers voiced their fear over working in unsafe conditions, and the shift to industry-wide change could be a long one. Still, companies are trying to tackle the problem from all angles, including using artificial intelligence and cameras to enforce social distancing.
Meanwhile, work is picking up again elsewhere too. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is reportedly meeting with industry groups to figure out how to safely restart construction, while work is still going on in California, as Governor Gavin Newsom never implemented the same kind of rigorous shutdowns seen elsewhere.
Still, as long as coronavirus poses a threat, how we view construction may change. An increased use of assembled-off-site modular options, lengthier project timelines, and sparser sites could be the new industry norm.