This article was originally published on March 27, 2020. With the quick-changing nature of COVID-19, this article is subject to updates and changes as the global construction industry adapts to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state of industries and social norms have changed worldwide in a drastic way in the past few weeks. Entire countries have encouraged people to stay home, borders are closing and we are bombarded with daily news updates about infection rates as the number of deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rise.
The construction industry is once again the odd man out among these changes. It’s not new for construction to be the unofficial exception-to-the-rule as the industry has been defying “norms” for a long time. From technological advances to health and safety, the construction industry has always been challenged in a unique way incomparable to other industries. This has not changed in the face of a global pandemic.
The reactions to business closures and social distancing measures have been unique at country, state and even city level. While some continue on as business-as-usual others are shutting down.
Here is an overview of how the construction industry is reacting and rapidly changing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These cases highlight the quilt-like makeup of the industry: many parts come together to make up what we deem “construction” and the industry is reacting in kind.
After two months of lockdown the domestic cases of COVID-19 in the Chinese province of Hubei have begun to subside. Once again, those with clean bills of health will be able to leave their homes as the government eases restrictions for thousands of citizens. Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected, is expected to see a lift in the lockdown on April 8.
90% of major public construction projects across China are expected to restart outside of Hubei and factories are also starting to reopen. While some restrictions regarding social distancing are still in place, Wuhan, Hubei and China will soon see the other side of the curve that other countries around the world are desperately trying to avoid.
Boston, MA was the first major city in the USA to close construction sites. The Mayor of Boston made the announcement mid-March, claiming that the ban on construction projects would be reviewed in two weeks. The only work which would be allowed under the ban could be emergency work such as utility hookups and street repairs.
At the same time that the ban took place, however, a b304-unit apartment building and neighbouring hotel have continued to be built. The land for these projects is owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, apparently making them exempt from the Mayor’s shut down.
Like in many other locations across North America, the Ontario government has declared that construction remains an essential service that will continue during mass closures in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
At the same time, Doug Ford, the Premiere of Ontario, encouraged workers to stay home if construction sites are not properly sanitized or safe to protect themselves against the virus. Many unions are calling on the government to close down projects for 14 days for the safety of workers and employers. The reason for this is that most job sites simply cannot meet the sanitation and social distancing standards in order to protect individuals from the disease.
Construction sites have been exempt from the orders by the British Columbia government barring gatherings over 50 people and have not been shut down. Although other provinces have issued orders to stop all non-essential work, the Health Officer for the province, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said that construction operations will continue with additional precautions to protect workers from COVID-19.
Complaints about inadequate washroom facilities, access to running water, hand sanitizer and soap as well as the presence of employees who appear to be sick on site have been fielded by the B.C. Building Trades Council. Additional sanitation facilities are being provided to sites.
All construction sites and companies are expected to follow hygiene guidelines, to encourage employees who are sick to stay home and to limit non-essential employees on site. Social distancing is still encouraged on-site as well.
The United Kingdom
Following the trends of most other countries, the UK – under orders from Prime Minister Boris Johnson – has banned gathering of more than 2 unrelated people and closed all but essential stores to the public.
Construction sites and workers were not included on this list. There was still confusion in the UK construction industry, however, as infection and death rates continue to rise. Some company owners and construction firms have taken it upon themselves to independently close construction dies and projects. This includes UK owned businesses that are operating outside of the UK in other European countries.
Florida State, USA
Reduction of large meetings and increased sanitization on construction sites has been implemented in the state of Florida but projects themselves remain uninterrupted if not slowed.
In Miami, this is clear as a few companies reduce non-essential personnel on-site, encourage office workers to work from home and work to enforce as much social distancing as possible while keeping projects moving.
Global Impacts on the Construction Industry
The lasting impact on supply chains to the industry could slow projects down in a way that cannot be controlled by project managers or governments. Even if projects do continue to work through this pandemic, the ability to secure materials to keep projects moving on time could get difficult – and costly.
Thinking Long Term and End Game
With many areas of the world at different points in COVID-19 pandemic response, there is much to be learned from how others are reacting and what the possibilities are. As we can see from Wuhan and China, the light at the end of the tunnel is possible.
The only thing we can know for sure is that what is “true” today may be different in a week, a day or even an hour. As a global community, it is our responsibility to work together to support each other – in the construction industry and outside of it. What’s important is to put the work in now, to protect those we can and to keep ourselves healthy and safe to ensure that we all come out on the other side of this illness.