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Sisolak: Construction essential amid virus outbreak, provides jobs

Updated April 13, 2020 - 9:21 am

With the coronavirus spreading fast around the country, Massachusetts’ biggest construction labor group had a message for the governor: Suspend projects statewide.

“The only way to protect the health and safety of our members, their families and of the general public is to keep people apart,” Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, said in late March. “It is impractical and, in many cases, impossible to safely work on a construction project right now given the current state of affairs.”

Construction has been allowed to continue across the U.S., including in Nevada, during the pandemic while casinos and other businesses have been ordered closed to help contain the virus’ spread.

Bucking the trend, Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York have ordered construction curtailed amid the public health crisis, as tracked by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Construction wasn’t completely shut down in those states. But restrictions are needed, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC radio, because “we need to protect people.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak, who deemed homebuilding and other construction “essential” lines of work alongside hospitals, grocery stores and others during the crisis, last week cited one reason in particular why he let construction keep going in Nevada: jobs.

The state has been rocked by record job losses. Sisolak, speaking at a news conference, noted he also kept mining and manufacturing open, and he doesn’t want “another 100,000 or more filing for unemployment if I can avoid it.”

He also said job sites have adopted increased protocols, and “it seems to be OK, but we’re reviewing it on a regular basis.”

At least five construction industry workers in Las Vegas have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus: three at the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas hotel-casino project, and two at the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium.

‘Vital and essential’

State officials have released guidance saying Nevada construction sites should ensure workers remain 6 feet apart, restrict meetings and gatherings to no more than 10 people and conduct daily surveys of workers’ health conditions.

Public health experts told me job sites can be operated safely amid the outbreak if extra precautions are taken. Big trade groups also have pushed for the work to go on.

Last month, North America’s Building Trades Unions and AGC issued a joint statement “urging” government officials to exempt construction from shutdowns, saying it should be treated as “vital and essential” to industries that need to remain open.

They also said construction industry officials were working to ensure a safe environment “for those on the job.”

‘Protecting the worker’

At least some leaders — especially, it seems, in Massachusetts — want job sites to go dark over fears of the virus.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh suspended all regular activity at construction sites in his city last month.

“It’s about protecting the worker and preventing the spread of the coronavirus,” he said at a news conference.

The executive board of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council called on Gov. Charlie Baker to suspend regular activity at job sites statewide, except for emergency and essential work such as fixing gas leaks.

Baker’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Tom Flynn, former executive secretary-treasurer of the Boston-based North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, said in a letter this month that as coronavirus cases and deaths rose sharply, it became apparent that “working on construction sites in Massachusetts is abnormally dangerous.”

He directed members to stop working, except on health facilities being built to address the pandemic, “until it is safe to do so.”

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

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