Construction industry stakeholders feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are applauding the Ontario government’s recent announcement to expand the list of certain businesses and projects allowed to reopen and proceed, calling it a cautious but prudent decision.
“About 50 per cent of our industry was shut down because it operates in private land development, so they are doing earthworks, excavation, site servicing and site prep work. All of that work got pulled off the table,” explained Patrick McManus, acting executive director of the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association.
“This announcement was really big because what we were seeing was contractors working on municipal projects were allowed to keep working but those working in municipalities doing kind of the same work on private land developments weren’t allowed to work. This brings equality back to our industry.”
He called the government decision well thought out.
“What it’s really doing is creating conditions that are going to allow for other construction jobs to open up down the road because all of this site preparation work really has to be done now to make sure we have land available to build houses and commercial properties towards the fall and into next year,” said McManus.
While many construction projects were deemed an “essential service” by the government throughout the pandemic and allowed to remain operational, some were shut down. On May 1, additional essential construction projects could reopen including shipping and logistics; broadband, telecommunications, and digital infrastructure; any other project that supports the improved delivery of goods and services; municipal projects; colleges and universities; child care centres; schools; and site preparation, excavation and servicing for institutional, commercial, industrial and residential development. The list also includes other businesses and sectors. They were allowed to reopen as of May 4.
Clive Thurston, president of the Ontario General Contractors Association, said the government’s expanded list of what is considered to be essential encompasses more than originally thought.
“We were anticipating a slower startup, so this was a bit of a surprise, but it is certainly welcome because our members want to get back to work,” he said. “A lot of our guys have been heading out to sites to start prepping them to allow workers to get back to work safely and that’s the key. It’s very important that the safety protocols and processes be in place and that everybody follow them.”
Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, agreed it’s important that all employers and workers continue to follow the government’s health and safety guidelines.
“From the data I’ve seen to this point, the parts of the industry that the government defined as ‘essential’ have performed remarkably well,” said Cunningham in an email to the Daily Commercial News. “This presumably led the government to open up projects relating to communications, logistics, schools and post-secondary institutions. Going forward, much more testing has to be done in order to identify and effectively manage the outbreaks that may occur.”
The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association said the resumption of more normal construction activities will allow the industry to meet housing needs.
“Building new communities and residential housing is a multi-step and lengthy process,” said Dave Wilkes, president and CEO of BILD, in a statement. “Given Canada’s climate, much of the work is seasonally dependent and the construction season for foundational activities is short. Extending the prohibition of critical work for much longer threatens the entire construction year, turning the GTA’s housing supply crunch into a full-blown crisis and undermining one of the province’s most important economic engines.”
Richard Lyall, president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario, said they are in the process of getting a legal opinion on some matters pertaining to the new list because some things remain unclear, including what exactly is meant by excavation.
“You don’t really excavate unless you’re going to do something else too, especially on highrise projects,” explained Lyall.
“When you excavate for a highrise you don’t just excavate, you have to shore it and start putting foundation in. You don’t want to leave a big gaping hole in the ground.
“You can’t excavate houses because you can’t go beyond that point and you can’t leave a pit open.”
Construction is not an industry that can get back up and running overnight and it could take anywhere from two to four weeks until they are fully operational, he added.
“A schedule would have been nice, but I am not going to be critical of the government on how they are managing it because that doesn’t get you anywhere, we need to work with them,” said Lyall. “They are being cautious because when we open up the economy we can’t go back.”
With more construction sites allowed to operate, supply of PPE is also a concern, Thurston pointed out, adding contractors will need some time to get back onsite.
“If we are ramping up all these projects it is going to put some strain on the supply chain,” he said. “Until we have that equipment and until we have our sites ready to go to work, we can’t allow people back on them.”
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