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Evers declares ban on gatherings of 10 or more doesn’t apply to construction (UPDATE)

Gov. Tony Evers on Friday explicitly exempted construction sites from a ban on mass gatherings aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.

The exemption came in an executive order revising Evers’ previous directive to ban most public and private gatherings of 10 or more people. The order comes as a coalition of Wisconsin construction groups signaled the industry will continue to work amid the outbreak, and after federal officials on Thursday stipulated that a variety of construction work is an essential function worth preserving throughout the emergency.

In light of Evers’ previous ban on gatherings, state and local officials have tried this week to keep construction projects on track, while urging contractors to follow practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, meanwhile, have shut down construction projects along with retailers and hospitality businesses.

“As you start to see construction slowing and stopping in other states, people are starting to panic,” said Chris Klein, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Wisconsin. “Wisconsin is doing a great job. It’s full steam ahead right now. But with everything moving so quickly, these things seem to change on a dime.”

Evers’ executive order exempts construction sites and projects, including public works and remodeling projects from restrictions on gatherings. It also exempts maintenance on energy and telecom infrastructure.

Similarly, on Thursday, a memo from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency included work on transportation, energy utility infrastructure, public works projects, water systems and building maintenance as essential functions that should continue throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nationally, the COVID-19 outbreak appears to have shut down or delayed some projects, according to a survey released on Friday by the Associated General Contractors of America. The poll of 909 contractors found 28% had seen work scheduled to begin in the next month halted or delayed because of the outbreak. Another 22% of contractors said materials suppliers had delayed or cancelled orders in the wake of the outbreak.

On Friday, 15 trade groups in Wisconsin released a statement that reinforced that the industry would continue with projects but would also take precautions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

The groups represent both labor and management interests in the construction industry, and include organizations such as the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, Construction Business Group and others.

Dave Branson, president of the Wisconsin Building Trades Council, said Wisconsin’s construction industry is ready to change course in light of new information.

“The situation is changing really fast,” Branson said. “It’s all going to depend on how much it spreads here in the state and what (state officials) feel the best practices are.”
Best practices

On job sites throughout the state, contractors are taking various steps to stop the slow of the virus, industry groups said in a letter released on Friday. The statement said most construction projects aren’t “densely populated” work areas, and that contractors have an ability to curtail close contact between workers.

Bob Bartel, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association, said the nature of much construction work means most employees aren’t working on top of each other – and he hasn’t yet heard of a construction worker falling ill. But contractors should be telling their employees anyway to follow social-distancing policies once they get home from work.

“We work in open air outside conditions,” Bartel said of underground contractors. “We don’t build buildings. We’re not inside. Crews are generally 5 or 6 people, and half are in the cab of enclosed equipment. By the very nature of the industry, guys do not work side-by-side, they work apart from each other.”

Still, as companies learn more about the illness, they may take further steps to limit contact, beyond keeping workers apart during lunch breaks, for instance, or cancelling many regular in-person meetings, Bartel said.

Contractors are working to instruct employees on the importance of frequent hand-washing and other steps they can take to avoid spreading the virus — including staying home when sick.

Companies are also paying close attention to the condition of jobsite toilets and hand-cleaning stations, and are instructing employees to clean shared tools before and after use.

The construction industry is also taking steps to follow social distancing recommendations on work sites, including:

  • Asking workers to stay 6 feet away from each other on job sites – including during pre- and post-work events
  • Saying at jobsites in an enclosed area, no more than 10 people can work in any one area
  • Telling contractors to use thermal-imaging equipment or laser thermometers to test employees for fevers, and will send home anyone who is running a high temperature
  • Having contractors modify planning and communication sessions to shrink or eliminate group gatherings, and are change procedures for material deliveries and other third-party jobsite visits

“These and other measures — which include remote work directives in office settings — have the full support of labor and management,” according to the letter. “We will continue to support and take the steps necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of our workforce and the public.”

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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