Printed: November 30, 2021

Construction takes on new normal across Pa.

BY MARK BELKO PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has given the go-ahead for limited construction to resume May 1, but workers will be returning to job sites far different from the ones they left a month ago.

Under guidance issued Thursday by the governor’s office, workers will be required to wear masks, stay at least 6 feet apart except in cases where it could affect safety, and face limits on how many can be working at any one time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, the decision to allow construction to crank up May 1, a week earlier than the governor had contemplated, represents a bid of good news for contractors and developers who have seen projects stymied because of shelter-in-place requirements and orders closing all but life-sustaining businesses.

Whether all contractors and workers will rush back to job sites remains to be seen.

Jon O’Brien, executive director of the General Contractors Association of Pennsylvania, said Friday there may be some hesitance to return in areas hit hard by the virus, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In those parts of the state, “I’ve heard from clients there who are not comfortable starting,” he noted.

But in other areas, including southwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. O’Brien senses a desire among workers and contractors to get back to work.

“Every project is different,” he said.

In crafting the back-to-work guidelines, the governor’s office relied on recommendations from the General Contractors Association, which represents more than 700 union contractors in the state.

The group, in conjunction with the Master Builders Association of Western Pennsylvania, took a proactive approach in creating job site pandemic standards for those who were working on essential medical-related construction or who had obtained waivers to resume work even while most projects across the state were shut down.

“A lot of contractors got this plan and kind of used it as a template to work off of,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Under the guidelines released Thursday, all people at a job site will be required to wear a mask or face covering unless unable to do so because of health or safety reasons.

Workers must stay at least 6 feet apart unless there is a safety reason that prevents it, such as team lifting or drywalling.

In addition, hand-washing stations must be available at “appropriate locations” on-site, such as building entrances, break and food truck areas, offices, and trailers.

A “pandemic safety officer” must be put in place on each job to enforce social distancing and other requirements. Areas that are identified as high risk for possible transmission of COVID-19 must be routinely cleaned and disinfected. In-person gatherings must be limited to a maximum of 10 people, all of whom must stay at least 6 feet apart.

The guidelines also call for job site screenings to check for people who might be sick and to send those home who are experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19.

They also recommend the possible staggering of shifts and breaks and limits on tool sharing.

On residential projects, no more than four people can be working at the site at any one time, not including those who may need temporary access and aren’t engaged in actual construction work.

The same four-person standard is required for commercial projects totaling 2,000 square feet or less. One additional person is allowed for every 500 square feet above 2,000.

In a statement, Mr. Wolf said he made the call to allow construction activity to resume because there is evidence that stay-at-home orders and others designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 are working, and “we are flattening the curve.”

“As we start to take steps to reopen the state, we recognize that the construction industry is vital to Pennsylvania’s economy and may operate safely with stringent guidance in place that will protect employees and the public,” the governor said.

Mr. Wolf has faced some criticism about halting construction in the face of the pandemic when a number of other states have allowed such activity to continue. Developers and contractors have been able to apply for waivers, but the process has been criticized as unfair and secretive.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.