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Construction officials push for safe reopening of industry in Pennsylvania

R.L. Reppert had to stop work on its Bridge West project (now called Singleton, Hitch & Maida Houses) at Lehigh University in Bethlehem because of the statewide business shutdown. (PHOTO/SUBMITTED)

Amid the statewide shutdown that has slowed the economy to a crawl, some construction officials say their industry should reopen.

In neighboring states, governors have deemed construction an essential business.

Pennsylvania should do the same, industry leaders tell Lehigh Valley Business, noting that work can continue safely. Stalled projects exposed to the weather elements could be damaged and create hazardous conditions, they argue.

“We have a lot of projects that are out there just sitting in the elements,” said Richard Reppert Jr., president of R.L. Reppert Inc. of Emmaus. “With this quick shutdown, it was very difficult to secure the projects.”

Overall, R.L. Reppert, which employs about 80 workers, has about 15 projects affected by the shutdown, which went into effect March 19. Shutting down building sites and construction projects inevitably results in opening projects to the weather conditions, which could be a potential hazard to the community, and add costs for the project, he said.

With its Lehigh University Bridge West project (now called Singleton, Hitch & Maida Houses) in Bethlehem, Reppert’s company had to shut down the building, creating the potential for the drywall to crack.

While his company is following the governor’s orders, he said it is imperative that these projects resume to a certain extent to allow completion, but also to eliminate hazards.

A spokesperson from the state Department of Community & Economic Development said the governor’s highest priority remains protecting Pennsylvanians’ health and safety as the state works to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Residential construction must be suspended but limited activities may continue to the extent necessary to stabilize the site, temporarily prevent weather damage and make emergency repairs,” said Rachel Wrigley, spokesperson for the PA DCED, in a statement.

Additionally, she said residential construction projects that are substantially complete could continue. For all other residential construction projects, limited activities could continue to the extent needed to stabilize the site, temporarily prevent weather damage, or make emergency repairs only.

The state considers those projects issued a final occupancy permit as substantially completed.

The state does not allow new residential construction projects to begin.

In addition, workers must suspend non-residential construction unless for emergency repairs or health care facility construction, Wrigley said.

States such as New York, California, New Jersey, and others listed construction as essential, Reppert said. While projects would need to maintain CDC guidelines and require special circumstances to ensure employees are protected, construction is an area of work where these precautions can happen and will be easily achievable, Reppert said.

This would also cut down on the unemployment rates, which have skyrocketed, Reppert said.

When the shutdown occurred, Reppert had to lay off all employees. A few projects have continued, such as those that involve nursing homes and hospitals, but all others have stopped.

“It’s going to be hard to bounce back from this in a timely manner,” Reppert said.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors Association has requested a meeting with the governor to ask that all construction resume. The chapter is pushing its message on social media, and has joined a coalition of 20 organizations to create a safety task force, of which ABC would take the lead, said Joe Perpiglia, chapter president and CEO.

“What’s paramount for our group is that we are promoting a safe return to work as quickly as possible,” he said. “We understand that’s not a simple thing.”

He wants all organizations in construction to join them, regardless of labor affiliation.

The governor is not considering this option of having a safety task force at this time, Wrigley said.

Perpiglia said he is concerned about the shutdown, currently set to end April 30, extending into the summer.

“It’s gonna cripple the economy, people are already suffering,” he said. “There is extreme concern now.”

Brian Pedersen
Contact the Editorial Department at editorial@lvb.com

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