Construction projects continue in Peel alongside COVID-19 fears in an economic balancing act
This past week, Boston took the step of suspending all “regular activity” at construction sites in the city. It came alongside a slew of other measures, including lower transit hours, as cities across the United States fight to limit the spread of COVID-19.
While Ontario has seen much of the same response, one contrast with certain jurisdictions across North America is building sites that remain operational throughout the province — including those in Mississauga and Brampton.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a state of emergency in the province on Tuesday, forcing the closure of a series of different businesses and activities. Among those told to close were places of worship, daycare centres, bars and restaurants (excluding those that provide takeout and delivery), while movie cinemas, theatres and concert venues have also been forced to shutter, for now. Grocers, pharmacies, manufacturers, public transit and construction sites were all given the greenlight to continue operating.
Construction of the Eglinton LRT project in Toronto continues
The measures came as COVID-19, the pandemic gripping the world, continued to spread in Ontario. According to the most recent figures released by the Ministry of Health and Peel Region Sunday morning, there were a total of 424 separate infections across the province and 37 in Peel.
As of the province’s latest announcement, the development and construction industries in Peel are continuing with an almost business-as-usual approach.
A well known, local Brampton builder, whose company built City Hall which sits in the heart of downtown, says operations, as of now, are continuing.
“The unions call the shots,” John Cutruzzola, told The Pointer.
“We have to make sure workers are well educated. Some surfaces could carry the virus, so they are always wearing gloves, and they maintain a safe distance away from each other when they work.”
Cutruzzola says he will suspend any work the moment union leaders or government officials, on the advice of public health experts, signal to do so.
“Right now, we are continuing. I think it’s okay to have some economic activity. We’re paying workers, they need the money for their families and it shows everyone that certain things can still move forward, as long as everyone’s safety is put above all else.”
As for his supply chains and the ability to access building material for projects such as the new condo and office facility his company, Inzola, is building just a few blocks east of city hall, Cutruzzola says there has been no disruption yet.
Ford’s decision to allow construction to continue (leading to calls by provincial transit agency Metrolinx to keep workers on site at its massive transportation projects, such as Toronto’s cross-town LRT) might worry some, but it’s widely supported. Toronto Mayor John Tory was asked last week about the move, and he confidently said construction activity is a crucial driver of the economy and it will keep families who need the income safe. Tory said he has no concern that the decision puts workers at odds with the government’s central policy on fighting the spread of COVID-19, through social distancing.
One of many major downtown Mississauga construction projects
Workers are mandated to wear safety equipment and do not operate in close quarters with one another. Those who wish to wear a special protective mask are free to do so, although there appears to be no requirement by unions.
The industry represents a key question amid the broad concerns surrounding the threat of COVID-19: while society has to be kept safe, what economic activity should continue to prevent widespread hardship, anxiety, financial turmoil and even increased rates of suicide?
“I'm on the phone every day about COVID coping calls for our university, our psychiatry department. And it's very serious,” Elissa Epel, a stress scientist and psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, recently told National Public Radio.
Psychiatrists and psychologists across North America tracking broad public reaction to the pandemic have addressed the dilemma of assessing the greatest threats, as more and more people wonder if the fear, uncertainty and economic devastation are worse than the direct medical risk of this novel coronavirus.
Canada’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) tracks rates of suicide across the country.
It reports that “about 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide — an average of almost 11 suicides a day. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds.”
And while CAMH says suicide rates have been on a downward trend since the early to mid-’80s, COVID-19 represents a broad concern for overall mental health.
“The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), in addition to its physical health impacts on thousands of Americans, has disrupted the lives of millions more,” the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stated in a press release last week. “Many now face uncertainty over their medical condition and that of their families, management of their daily lives, social isolation, financial stressors, and other issues.”
“This is a very challenging and stressful time for Americans, and it can cause feelings of anxiety for many,” said APA President Doctor Bruce Schwartz. “In the face of this epidemic, paying attention to our mental health and those of our friends and families will help us persevere. Sometimes doing our best to recognize that some of our fears may be exaggerated is the best remedy.”
The majority of recent decisions from all levels of government in Canada, including wide-ranging closures, calls to work from home and the suspension of schools, are motivated by an attempt to keep people separated and safe. In order to curb the fast spread of COVID-19, instructions from all levels of government have been to keep in-person interaction with others to a minimum.
Premier Ford has expressed both a desire to keep society moving, where it can and should, while also mandating public health safety protocols, and the highly uncommon move to a provincial state of emergency.
"We are facing an unprecedented time in our history," Ford told reporters on Tuesday morning, when he made the move. "This is a decision that was not made lightly. COVID-19 constitutes a danger of major proportions. We are taking this extraordinary measure because we must offer our full support and every power possible to help our health care sector fight the spread of COVID-19. The health and wellbeing of every Ontarian must be our number one priority."
While bars, coffee shops, many retailers, dentists offices, many other services, including day care facilities (placing additional strain on parents) close, other industries have also either decided to or have been forced to suspend operations. Everything from arts and culture organizations, entertainment and advertising entities to giant auto sector operations such as Brampton’s Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant, have suspended activities.
Brampton's massive Fiat-Chrysler plant, where almost 3,500 employees earn their livelihood, is currently closed because of COVID-19
But the construction industry seems, for now, to represent a resilient part of our economy, one that supports tens of thousands across the province.
Construction workers on projects run by regional transit body Metrolinx continue to show up to work together. In Mississauga, the Hurontario LRT, slated to break ground in the spring, remains on schedule despite the spread of COVID-19.
“At this point in time, work on our construction sites are moving forward as planned,” a spokesperson for Metrolinx, which is also in the process of constructing a new parking facility at Cooksville GO station, told The Pointer. “Our contractors are taking the appropriate measures to protect their staff and ensure their well-being. This is a very fluid situation, one we are monitoring closely. Adjustments will be made if required and we will proactively communicate those changes.”
The City of Mississauga, also in the midst of a series of ambitious projects, is keeping its sites open too. Examples of ongoing projects include the Churchill Meadows Community Centre and a multimillion dollar renovation of the city’s Central Library.
“We are continuing to provide this type of service as usual,” city spokesperson, Catherine Monast, said in an email. “We are taking our direction from the various health organizations and applying this information to our policies and procedures accordingly. This situation is very fluid and is ever evolving [...] part of the work ahead will also be reviewing our work plans.”
The City of Brampton also confirmed its construction was pressing ahead, saying the final decision to suspend a project lies with contractors. “Our construction projects are proceeding in a healthy and safe manner,” a spokesperson told The Pointer. “As always, safety is paramount, and we encourage all contractors to follow public health guidelines in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19.” The province could also mandate the suspension of construction activity under the sweeping powers of its emergency declaration, but Ford has not signalled any such move.
Projects such as the Hurontario LRT have already faced setbacks, with the light rail project already pushed back by two years. As Peel’s cities continue their rapid growth, any setbacks to projects needed to accommodate newcomers would put stress on many services already stretched to the limit. Residential construction in a region desperate for housing is crucial to meet demand, otherwise a series of related problems could arise.
Hourly workers and small contractors working within the development industry can be particularly vulnerable to the economic damage COVID-19 is causing. It’s likely that difficult decisions will have to be made as the pandemic spreads. In many communities, various online campaigns have sprung up to help support neighbourhood restaurants that can now only offer takeout and delivery options.
Other tough economic decisions will likely have to be made at the individual and governmental levels, in consultation with health experts.
“There are two sides to this whole decision making cycle,” Professor Tamer El-Diraby, from the Department of Engineering at the University of Toronto, told The Pointer. “On one side is public health and the safety of people, on the other side, [is] the economy. There will, of course, come a point where public health concerns will trump everything — I think Italy, for example, is at that stage. [...] They [Ford] decided construction is one of the activities that should not stop. You have to remember that construction labourers are quite vulnerable in terms of their finances; many of them are living pay cheque to pay cheque. I do not envy the public health professionals who have to make these decisions.”
Construction sites and development projects operate under strict contracts, generally related to delivery timelines, with a series of different companies involved. Within most contracts is something called a ‘force majeure,’ essentially a clause allowing for delay or abandonment through unforeseen circumstances. According to law firm Osler, many — but not all — major construction contracts allow for epidemics or pandemics to bring in accommodations for contractors.
The ‘force majeure’ clause would allow contractors to avoid compensation claims for late delivery or failure to complete their job, they would not necessarily compensate them for a loss of revenue. As such, if a series of workers were forced to self-isolate, leaving companies with a labour shortage, it is likely they would avoid penalties, though they would likely not see lost revenue recouped.
Asked if measures are in place to protect construction workers forced to self-isolate as sites remain open, a spokesperson for the province told The Pointer it is “clear that support from all levels of government in Canada will be required” to help impacted individuals.
The spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour added: “Workplaces seeking specific advice about health concerns in their operations are encouraged to contact their local public health unit to learn more about the precautionary protocols that should be put in place to help support and protect their employees.”
Subdivision construction in places such as Brampton will continue, for now
Additionally, the value of the construction industry in both Brampton and Mississauga is no secret; nor is the power of developers. In 2019, the City of Mississauga handed out construction permits valued at $1.79 billion, down a fraction from 2018’s $1.85 billion total. To the north, Brampton construction permits in 2019 were worth $1.8 billion dollars, with 2017 valued at $1.48. In 2015, residential construction alone in the city was worth more than $2 billion dollars.
As it stands, construction workers in Mississauga and Brampton will continue to turn up to work even as thousands of others either work from home or don’t work at all.
Developer Mattamy Homes is introducing “handshake free zones” and “practicing social distancing” at its sites and offices.
Right now, construction represents one crucial activity COVID-19 has not shut down. Tough decisions could lie ahead that might have to reconcile broad public safety concerns with all the other fallout from a crisis the modern world has next to no experience with.
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