Coronavirus and Construction

John Hill
20. March 2020
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Architects are working from home to deter the spread of COVID-19, but what about the construction workers carrying out their designs? The construction industry has been slow to respond to the pandemic.

As I write this, at home in my cramped New York City apartment, construction workers are still busy erecting buildings across the five boroughs. According to the New York Post, "workers are still showing up for work — sometimes even while sick — putting new pressure on City Hall to close down job sites as it battles the spread of coronavirus." The city's Department of Buildings has instituted rules to "drastically reduce walk-in traffic to DOB offices," but it shows no signs of temporarily stopping construction around the city.

If NYC were to shut down construction sites, they'd be behind Boston, whose mayor suspended all construction projects on Monday. "These decisions that we make are not easy but they’re out of an abundance of caution," said Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose city, like many around the world, is in the midst of a construction boom. 

Manuel Pestalozzi, writing on the Swiss-Architects platform, explains that the cantons of Geneva, Ticino, and Vaud ceased construction, but the drilling and hammering continues in Zurich. There, unions have petitioned the government to halt construction. Looking elsewhere, such as Engineering News-Record, which has compiled its coronavirus coverage in one place, the headlines are much the same: construction is stopping in some places but continuing in most others. 

But if architects and other office workers are considered "non-essential" — unlike doctors, nurses, grocers, delivery drivers, etc. — should the same thinking extend to construction trades? Do the open-air conditions of many job sites, and the fact construction workers already don face masks as part of their jobs, actually make them safe from spreading the disease? What effects would construction halts have on the economy, given that such workers cannot migrate to home-office scenarios? Such questions are being debated around the world as every measure to stave off the spread of COVID-19 is considered.

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