New York City is looking at a possible June 8th reopening of the Big Apple and a reopening of non-essential construction projects in the coming days and weeks that were previously put on hold.
“New Yorkers have worked so hard for this progress, but we must remain vigilant in this fight. I know we are all eager to return to normal, and the guidelines for phase one are the first step on that path,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We will support business so they can reopen while staying safe.”
While most forms of development were halted after the March shutdown, affordable housing and transit projects were still being erected or improved, according to James Whelan, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).
“Construction that was deemed essential was ongoing and we were working with the Building Trade Union, the Construction Trades with Gary LaBarbera and his locals, as well as BTEA the Building Trades Employers’ Association, the umbrella group for union contractors,” said Whelan. “We’ve been putting in place a set of protocols to promote safety and the health of workers. We’ve spent a lot of time these last few weeks further improving those protocols with the state and city.”
The city and state will use those protocols as a guideline for the recommencement of more construction projects, according to Whelan.
Some of the safety practices where guidelines that subcontractors, contractors, owners and workers created to function during the pandemic, according to Zachary Steinberg, the vice president of Policy and Planning.
“Some of the lessons is that it is possible to run these construction sites in a safe way and keep people safe,” said Steinberg. “Relatively few people are getting sick and the jobs are moving forward because of good safety practices.”
Essential projects that remained ongoing included the renovation of Grand Central Station at 1 Vanderbilt, the redevelopment of Penn Station, the 15 Hudson Yards apartment complex, and LaGuardia Airport.
LaGuardia Airport had to temporarily shutdown construction when 22 workers became sick and had to later self-quarantine, according to the Port Authority in April.
Safety protocols include face coverings at all times; enhanced cleaning and disinfection; limitations on people at any one place at one time to reduce density; staggered shifts with different departures; arrivals and lunches. Health screenings that require daily temperature checks are also part of the plan.
“I think they put in pretty rigorous protocols that have been pretty effective in helping these sites maintain operations,” said Steinberg.
The city has also informed construction workers to call 311 to file a complaint on work sites that don’t follow proper protocols.
“What’s coming to New York City, for a lack of a better term, is the resumption of non-essential construction that was underway, but had to be put on pause in early March,” Whelan said. “We are not at the point for new projects.”
Phase 1 projects include the resumption of delayed construction developments, manufacturing and curbside retail, according to Whelan.
“Market rate housing, condos development — that worked had stopped and will restart,” said Steinberg. “There is a lot of work in existing buildings to spit out the work for tenants and turning over space — a lot of it had stopped but will be resuming.”
Other work that stopped were projects on single-family homes, according Steinberg.
When it comes to the guidelines that the state has issued, Whelan believes it will ultimately be up to the city to enforce them, but he believes that developers for their own interest would be smart to stay on top that as well.
“If we are in a situation weeks from now and you are coming back to us with stories about a spike in workers getting sick, an increase in cases of workers with the virus – what’s going to happen — you’re going to shut down,” said Whelan. “It’s not in people’s interests to have an environment that’s not promoting health and safety.”
New York remains the epicenter o the COVID-19 pandemic with more than 375,000 recorded cased and nearly 30,000 fatalities. Despite that, and spiking virus rates around the country, Whelan is optimistic about the state of New York and its approach to social distancing that has led to daily cases dropping to 138 on May 27 from a high of 6,365 on April 6, according to nyc.gov.
Whelan is, however, also mindful about the probability of a second wave of infection here in New York City.
“The industry and our partners in labor and our partners in government are mindful of the advice put out by government experts,” said Whelan. “These guidelines that we are going to be using going forward is based on these expertise, so they are designed to reduce the possibility of a second wave.”
Whelan will be carefully watching how things pan out in the next three months after Phase 1 kicks in shortly.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s something that we need to constantly monitor and improve,” said Whelan. “Normalcy, is going to be defined by not just what people do locally, but on the macro-level in terms of vaccines, treatments and the like.”
Whelan has also considered the future of the construction and real estate industry after the pandemic.
“I think this is going to have the benefit of putting in place a more thoughtful approach to worksites in terms of health and safety,” said Whelan. “If we are smart about the way we approach this and we all work together, I think we will be in a good place in the near future.”