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Chicago Construction Firm Works Around the Coronavirus — in 101-Floor Tower

Chicago Construction Firm Works Around the Coronavirus — in 101-Floor Tower

With Building Projects Exempt From Governor’s Stay-at-Home Mandate, McHugh Carves Out New Safety Plans

Michael Meagher spent most of the past weekend talking to James McHugh Construction Co. project teams and subcontractors about the company’s strategies to keep major Chicago projects such as Vista Tower up and running during the coronavirus pandemic. It's just another challenge when your workplace stretches more than 1,000 feet in the air.

With a new safety plan in place, the president of the Chicago-based construction firm went to the Vista site Monday to test drive the plans designed to keep workers away from each other in a sanitized job site on the lower floors of the 101-floor tower.

McHugh is the lead contractor on Vista, which was designed by Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang for Magellan Development. When the multifamily project at 363-401 W. Wacker Drive is completed, it will be crowned the city’s third-tallest building.

“We contacted all our subs and told them the game plan and our expectations,” Meagher said in an interview, adding that only about 25% of the usual workforce showed up Monday with at least double that expected Tuesday.

“We’re trying to create an environment in accordance with the CDC standards to keep a safe social distance and a clean environment,” he said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a series of guidelines Americans should be following to keep at a distance from others to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading.

Meagher, like the rest of the construction industry, found out late Friday that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mandate to residents and workers to shelter in place until April 7 exempted “essential infrastructure;” that includes construction.

The action comes as the greater Chicago commercial real estate industry is riding a decadelong renaissance that the spread of the coronavirus and its effect on the nation’s economy puts at risk.

“With more than 7 million square feet of office space and nearly 19 million square feet of industrial under construction, the Chicago metro area relies heavily on jobs produced by the completion of these projects,” said Denes Juhasz, senior market analyst in CoStar’s Chicago office.

“From construction workers building the buildings, to the employees who will fill these properties, to landlords, banks and REITs that are responsible for financial backing and loans on these projects, the food chain is large and affects everyone, not just on a city or statewide level, but a global level,” he added.

Pushing Safety

The Chicagoland Associated General Contractors, a 10,000-strong trade group representing general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, has been proactive in promoting safety standards that go beyond the CDC’s.

“We don’t interact with the general public as a function with our job sites,” Tom Cuculich, executive director of the group, told CoStar. “And many sites are outdoors and well ventilated."

“While many contractors are supportive and wanting to keep the industry going, they also recognize that the liability is not with the government or the unions, but with the contractors themselves,” Cuculich said. “Their priority is to keep the employees safe and healthy. If they can’t do it, then they’re cutting back on the amount of work or shutting down some sites temporarily.”

To that end, his group has created a coronavirus research center on its site and has issued guidelines that mimic the CDC’s but are also industry specific.

“This is unprecedented and somewhat inspiring at the same time,” McHugh’s Meagher said about the governor’s stay-at-home order. “It’s a very complex situation when the government decides you’re an essential service.

“People welcome that because many would rather be working than not working. But there’s a certain percentage of tradespeople who are deciding they do not want to work at this time."

“We are strongly stating that we do not want any employees on-site who don’t feel comfortable being there,” Meagher said, a mantra Cuculich said is being repeated throughout the industry.

Among the strategies that McHugh is putting in place to keep social distancing for the workers at Vista is staggering hours to free up the loads on the lifts. “The congestion point on a site is the vertical transportation,” Meagher said.

Typically those elevators would hold as many as 25 workers who are getting off on different floors to do anything from concrete and drywall — work that requires teams — to plumbing and electrical that doesn’t.

By starting some groups at 6 a.m. and others at 7 a.m., 8 a.m. and even 9 a.m., the number of people per elevator falls to five, all of whom are wearing masks and gloves. McHugh has even hired a hygienist to review personal encounters and cleaning procedures to ensure the firm is on top of every aspect of safety. The company also is working on transportation issues to get its crews to the job site in a safe manner.

“We’re talking to people about their experiences and what we can do to make it feel safer and we’re learning a lot,” Meagher said. “If anytime we feel like a project is being operated in an unhealthy manner, we will shut it down.

“It’s a really collaborative experience and truly altruistic because of so many people who are doing things that are in the best interest of the industry,” he said.

Moreover, he added, these safety precautions, coupled, of course, with Pritzker’s exemption for the construction industry, is keeping thousands of people employed. “It’s a lot of families that are putting food on the table,” he said.

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Source : By Jennifer Waters CoStar News March 24, 2020 | 6:22 P.M.

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