Pa. let construction continue on a South Philly casino during the pandemic. Workers feel endangered.

Tuesday 7th April 2020

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Masino also named the police administration building on North Broad Street and an expansion of the Philadelphia Art Museum as projects that were not complying with CDC guidelines.

It is unclear if the other building trades unions would follow Local 19's lead. The Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council did not immediately return a request for comment.

Neither Local 19 nor Cordish Companies, which owns the casino, responded to a request for comment on the letter. The lead general contractor, Gilbane Inc., a Rhode Island-based company that bills itself as one of the "largest privately held family-owned construction and real estate development firms in the industry," also did not respond to a request for comment.

But a foreman on the site, who requested his name not be used because he didn't have permission to speak to the press, confirmed that one of his men had contracted the virus in March.

"We had already started practicing [social distancing] before, but then somebody came down with it," the foreman said. "Once we had a confirmation, we shut down for 15 days. We made sure that everybody was good, and the rest of the guys went back to work. Nobody that tested positive has come back yet."

In mid-March, after the worker on the casino site tested positive for coronavirus, Cordish faced another hindrance when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all "non-life sustaining businesses" to close. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney gave construction companies an additional week to make their sites safe, but the order was firm: All construction unrelated to immediate emergency needs needed to stop.

The state's Community & Economic Development Office (DECD) can grant companies waivers to stay in business through the shutdown. City officials confirmed that Cordish's South Philadelphia casino site won such an exemption from the state, a waiver that state officials and Cordish described as a safety measure.

"In the case of the casino project, the building is still exposed to the elements and requires critical enclosure and infrastructure work to be completed before construction work can be safely paused," said Joe Weinberg, the managing partner and CEO of Cordish Gaming Group in an email statement.

But the waiver was not explicitly limited "to buttoning up the site" as far as city officials know, said Karen Guss, spokesperson for the Department of Licenses and Inspections. City authorities have no direct power over the waiver process and a spokesperson for the mayor said that the administration is not involved.

Monday was the casino project's first day back online, with a greatly reduced workforce for safety reasons. In normal times, as many as 500 workers are employed on the site, which is the size of a city block. This week, there are only 50.

Real estate developers, general contractors and union leaders argue that their industry should be given wider permission to open back up, especially given that neither New York or New Jersey have shut down construction. New York and northern New Jersey remain the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic with the death tolls rising daily and projected to continue to grow.

But on construction sites, there is little risk of spreading the coronavirus, industry advocates say, because protective equipment can be worn and social distancing practiced.

Weinberg says the building trades unions and the general contractors association have put in place state-of-the-art workplace safety protocols based on guidelines from the CDC. These include social distancing requirements and additional handwashing stations.

"[We are] staggering trade operations on multiple shifts and with multiple start times to limit the total number of workers arriving at and occupying the job site at any one time," said Cordish's Weinberg in his email statement.

On Monday afternoon, the foreman on the casino site said the workers have masks and gloves and hand sanitizer use is mandatory. Everyone is under orders to wash their hands before meals and workers are not allowed to sit next to each other at lunch. Wrestling, hugs and other types of physical contact are also barred.

"It's a whole new way of working in construction right now," he said. "There's no handshakes, there's no brotherhood, there's none of that stuff anymore. It's all gone."

But Masino, the president of Local 19, does not think the general contractor had gone far enough. The union did not respond to questions about which conditions, in particular, they objected to at the site.

"The plan is to give the General Contractors managing these sites a few weeks to try and meet our requests before our members are cleared to return," Masino's letter reads. He also warned that his action might just be the beginning of "many other" job closures.

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