Social distancing? Coronavirus not stopping South Florida construction projects — for now

Until local building officials halt permitting and inspections, general contractors and subcontractors will stay on the job, they say

Peter Dyga and MiMo Bay Apartments construction site
Peter Dyga and MiMo Bay Apartments construction site

The concrete will continue pouring at South Florida construction sites. As other aspects of everyday life are shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the building industry is still forging ahead — for now, according to general contractors, trade association representatives and government officials.

Peter Dyga, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, said construction firms are prepared to shut down job sites but only see the necessity if local permitting agencies stop inspections or public health officials issue an order.

“Why should we shut down sites that public health officials say don’t need to be shut down?” Dyga said. “If they say it needs to be done, the industry needs to comply. I don’t think we should overreact either.”

Patty Abril, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said the county’s permitting and inspection center remains open, but officials are encouraging people to conduct business by phone or email. “Services continue as usual,” Abril said. “But it’s a fluid situation, and things are changing daily, if not by the minute.”

Building departments in Broward, Palm Beach and throughout Florida are still open too, Dyga said. “There have been no workforce reductions at South Florida construction sites, with the exception that sick employees are being sent home,” he said. “If inspections stop, construction jobs and the construction industry will be dead in the water.”

Dyga said it’s too early to forecast how badly the coronavirus pandemic will have on the building industry, but that construction would resume quickly if there were a short-lived disruption. He noted that the unemployment rate for Florida’s construction industry reached a record low of 5.4 percent in January before the pandemic swept into the U.S.

“If the disruption is short, the industry will quickly bounce back,” he said. “But nothing can withstand having people sitting at home idle forever.”

Dyga said many of the association’s members had already implemented contingency plans to prevent spreading the coronavirus among employees before the pandemic metastasized across the country. “I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of members who acted very quickly to develop internal action plans,” he said. “We are sharing what they have been doing so those who are lagging behind can be prepared as possible for the worst case scenario.”

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Plaza Construction, a New York-based general contractor and project management firm that is active in South Florida, has no plans to shut down construction jobsites or reduce its workforce, according to a company spokesperson. Plaza is currently building the Oasis at Wynwood and Las Marinas Residences at Sunny Isles in Miami-Dade, and Resorts World Casino New York and The Tin Building in New York City.

Plaza did enact new workforce guidelines on Monday that include a social distancing plan at all the company’s offices and job sites, according to a memo the company sent its clients, partners and employees.

“This plan allows for our employees to work remotely using technology platforms that have been built to support remote accessibility and mobility,” the memo states. “Our teams will be joining all meetings via phone and video conferencing, and will remain available to answer any questions or concerns as required.”

Project managers and project superintendents are also establishing two-week rotations for work crews, Plaza’s spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Skanska USA, a national construction firm that does institutional projects in South Florida, said the firm has also implemented a social distancing plan by postponing non-essential business meetings and events.

The company also created COVID-19 coordination response teams in every market Skanska is building projects. “These teams are tasked with monitoring this evolving situation, sharing information, implementing protocols, reducing exposure to the virus, and supporting our teams and operations,” the spokesperson said.

Joshua Atlas, a partner with Saul Ewing Arnstein and Lehr representing developers and general contractors, said construction firms are still pushing forward to minimize any potential delays from a government ordered shutdown. “They want to blunt whatever impact there is as much as possible,” Atlas said. “As it gets progressively worse, they are concerned about job delays and labor shortages.”

Atlas said some of his clients are instructing job site personnel to maintain a six-foot distance from one another. Others have stopped handing out paychecks inside job site trailers. “They are setting up direct deposit for employees,” he said. “And there are no more job site meetings. They are doing those electronically.”