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South Florida Construction Is Humming Along. Some Worry About the Risk To Workers And Residents

Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Construction work continues across South Florida as other non-essential businesses have been ordered to shut down.

When Jesse Uzzell hops in his building elevator or picks up packages at the sprawling 16-acre Flamingo Point condominium in South Beach, he regularly encounters a construction worker.

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Since he began hunkering down in his two-bedroom unit as the COVID-19 coronavirus spread, he’s found workers outside his door painting and in his parking garage. This week, anxious neighbors who received a message from property managers that some residents were already quarantining in place after being exposed to the virus, snapped pictures of workers congregating around cars.

With South Florida leading the state in the number of infections, Uzzell and some residents at the Flamingo are asking if allowing construction in condominiums, where workers and residents can share tight quarters, is wise.

Credit Jesse Uzzell
A Flamingo Point resident snapped a picture of workers gathered in a parking lot this week.

“Common sense would say you don't bring a bunch of people into an active community with people actively exposed to coronavirus, you know, and then have them leave at the end of the day,” said Uzzell, who worries about his pregnant wife and elderly neighbor.

Construction has been deemed essential business in South Florida. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have all included ongoing construction site work in orders defining which businesses can stay open. In the Keys, where roadblocks started Friday to stop visitors, workers simply need to show a note from their boss. But residents wonder about sites’ ability to self-police.

On Thursday, developer Sergio Pino announced that two workers had tested positive at a condominium under construction on 42nd Avenue near Miami International Airport. In a statement, Pino said the mixed-use project, which will have 230 apartments and over 200,000 square-feet of office space, will be disinfected and not reopen until it’s considered safe. Any employee who visited the site was asked to get tested and consider putting themselves in quarantine.

The Associated General Contractors of America reported last Friday that 8 percent of workers had tested positive in a survey of its members.

Uzzell said he understands construction workers, like cooks, housekeepers, waitresses and a wide swath of South Florida’s hourly workers, are among the most vulnerable to economic impacts from the virus. But he and his neighbors say too little is being done to protect both the workers and residents from infection.

This week, residents sent a letter to Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, city commissioners and building department staff complaining that building managers weren’t enforcing distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

“Miami Beach now has a stay at home order, meaning that everybody has to do their part by staying at home and severely limiting in-person interaction with others - but somehow this doesn’t apply to construction or construction workers,” they wrote.

They asked the city to shut down work for at least two weeks. Miami Beach officials say construction sites must follow CDC guidelines. That means reporting sickness and travel, exposure to anyone who might be sick, complying with handwashing recommendations and distancing guidelines, Ana Salgueiro, director of the city’s building department, said in an email.

The city has been conducting regular inspections and can shut down a site if violations are found, she said. So far, no violations have been reported, she said.

After this story aired on WLRN, a spokeswoman for Aimco, the company that manages the Flamingo, responded to an earlier request for comment. Jamie Alvarez said workers are screened daily and have to sign forms acknowledging they understand guidelines each day they work. A task force created by management also walks the property daily, Alvarez said in an email.

“As the ‘home’ to ‘Safer at Home’ public health orders, we have made modifications to our operations,” she wrote.

The AGC has also issued guidelines warning workers not to share tools.

As cities have restricted other business, the association has also amped up efforts keep construction humming. Boston, Cambridge and the state of Pennsylvania have banned construction, although Pennsylvania has since relented and issued thousands of waivers. Days after the shutdowns, the association asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to explicitly include construction as an essential business to avoid shutdowns. The association’s director of safety and health services did not respond to emails.

At the Flamingo, residents began quizzing city officials about protocols after building management announced they were shutting down public areas, including the pool and gym, to limit the spread. The busy condo, with two 15-story buildings sandwiching a 33-story tower, is a hive of activity, Uzzell said.

Workers and residents alike have been sharing an elevator in the center tower. Residents were told last week that construction work was stopped in the central tower out of an abundance of caution, he said. But work continues in the north tower.

“They put the package room in the garage where all the construction workers go, and you kind of have to cut through the construction zone to to get to it,” he said. “So you know, we have incidental contact.”

Residents were particularly worried after an announcement on the changing rules included information about residents who might be infected.

“Some residents have already self-quarantined and we expect other residents will choose to self-quarantine in the future because they may have been exposed to the virus,” the notice said. “It's also possible that residents at one or more of our communities will contract the virus.”

In their letter to city officials, residents say ongoing construction of a luxury condo hardly seems like essential work. “There has to be some common sense to this,” Uzzell said. “This [building] is 33-stories high with all kinds of people from all different walks of life and, you know, it’s like a cruise ship basically.”