With a third of the United States on lockdown, including the three largest cities (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), something is continuing unabated—construction. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom labeled construction as an “essential service” alongside things like healthcare and food service. And while some construction projects are easily labeled as essential—things like road repair, and maintenance of water and transit infrastructure, it may be hard to understand what is so essential about the construction of housing or commercial projects.
Developers, contractors, and labor unions have all made cases for why it is essential to keep construction going through the COVID-19 outbreak, including engineering needs, hygiene logic, and societal necessity, but the main case is the economic expediency of everyone involved.
“Builders say shutting down a job site is less like shuttering a restaurant than firing the chef while the roast is in the oven. If you abandoned a project halfway, materials like insulation and exposed wiring degrade in the elements,” wrote Henry Grabar in Slate.
“There’s a sense that a 100-year-old building will deteriorate but continue to perform its job,” said Ehren Gresehover, a structural engineer in New York. “But when you start opening things up, start demo’ing a little slab, you might unbrace a column, and that column has temporary shoring, or perhaps it’s only temporary braced, and that’s less stable.” What’s safe for a weekend might not be safe for several months unattended.
There is also the issue of the massive shortage of skilled labor. If a welder is stopped from completing a job, it may be two months before you can get another welder on the job site to finish the project. Delays break contracts, triggering expensive legal battles and jeopardizing the leases that future tenants have signed.
There is also the issue of financing: unlike a typical real estate loan where the building itself is the collateral of a secured loan, a construction loan uses some other form of collateral because a bank doesn’t want to repossess a hole in the ground.
And the good news—according to some—is that construction is one industry that can maintain social distancing while getting the work done. Workers typically do not come within six feet of each other for safety reasons anyway, and it is easier in an outdoor, open-air environment to avoid infection—a jobsite is not the infection incubator that a white-collar office can be.
Not every agrees, however. In the industry website Construction Dive, New York area superintendent James Lang wrote that most sites should be shut down immediately. “Lost revenue and schedule slip are not nearly as valuable as making sure you have a healthy, reliable, skilled workforce in the coming months when there very well may be actual construction emergencies that need to be staffed.”
Ultimately, there are no easy answers, and the issue will probably scrutinized for decades to come after COVID-19 has run its course. There may be lawsuits and fallout, and the eventual clarity of hindsight to make conclusions that are not as apparent right now. For now, all we can do is make the best decisions we can with the information we have.