A health official in Texas has reported a surge in coronavirus cases among construction crews after a decision was taken last month not to close sites.
No figures have been released, but on Tuesday, 5 May, Mark Escott, the director of emergency medical services for the city of Austin, expressed concern to the city council about the numbers of construction workers testing positive for Covid-19.
"We’ve seen a significant number of construction workers as well as family members of construction workers who are in that positive group right now," he said, reports Austin television station, KVUE.
He added: "The people who are getting sick right now are generally people who are working right now. That risk is going to increase the more people who are working."
Additionally, the Austin American-Statesman reported on Tuesday that construction workers in Travis County, which has a population of around 1 million people, and contains state capital Austin, have emerged as a top group among people infected by the coronavirus, along with health care and grocery store employees.
Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, allowed construction to continue, however Austin Mayor Steve Adler warned in early April that if construction workers "do not mitigate well, and if workers are passing the virus between them, then the total hospitalisations in our city could be three times higher than it would be without construction activity".
The city of Austin’s health department has issued a series of guidelines for construction sites, including advice on limiting the numbers on site, daily health screening of workers, disinfecting shared tools and banning water coolers.
It also advised that employers should "take no adverse action against a worker who declines to work at a construction site if the worker believes in good faith that the site presents an imminent health risk to the health of the worker or others due to coronavirus". Â
The warning by Mark Escott will clash with the urge in other quarters to open up the Texas economy as soon as possible.
Yesterday, Texas lieutenant-governor Dan Patrick held a video press conference on the findings of the task force he established in early April on re-starting the economy.
"We strongly believe that the Texas economy can be safely and effectively reopened and restored to 100% in the not-too-distant future," he said.
As of Wednesday, 6 May, at least 34,422 Texans had tested positive for the coronavirus and 948 had died.
The latest figures for the US as a whole show a death toll of around 71,000, with more than 1.2 million confirmed cases.
In most US states, projects have been allowed to continue despite the pandemic. In others, such as California, counties initially closed many sites but some have since allowed them to reopen with safety protocols in place.
- Update 8 May 2020:
An earlier version of this article described concerns about safety protocols expressed by Emily Cohen, executive vice president of United Contractors, a trade association representing heavy civil engineering construction firms in California.
Ms. Cohen’s comments addressed recent coronavirus protocols issued by seven San Francisco Bay-area municipalities ahead of the re-opening of all construction in these localities. They did not describe ongoing essential construction in the state as a whole, which she maintains has managed Covid-19 risk effectively.
She has written to GCR:
"California is not suddenly re-opening construction. Construction in our state has been proceeding, safely, for the past 8 weeks. Construction of roads, bridges, utilities, airports and more continued with little to no Covid-19 incident or spread. It is because our industry was already widely recognised for effective safety practices that more flexible policies were approved.
"Every project has a qualified safety representative. Our contractors monitor and document the enforcement of site-specific Covid-19 safety plans including social distancing, jobsite personal hygiene, sanitising, PPE, and other Covid-19-related safety requirements.
"In California, we take seriously the opportunity to lead by example and are confident in our industry’s ability to work safely through Covid-19 because we’ve been doing it all along."
Image: Downtown Austin, Texas (Sk5893/CC BY-SA 4.0)