When many New Yorkers stopped going anywhere, in mid-March, construction workers stopped building many of the places to which people used to go. They stopped putting up movie theatres, casinos, car washes, and motels; they stopped building schools. Construction sites, where people lift, move, and arrange hundreds of pounds of material, were not safe, not because of the lifting but because workers did it in close quarters, huddled together. Much of New York’s private sector had been declared “non-essential.” So the workers who built those businesses stayed at home, too.
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In mid-May, though, several regions in New York began to build again. Those areas, which include the Mohawk Valley, the Finger Lakes, and the Southern Tier, had met the state’s criteria to begin a phased reopening of their economies. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who released the state’s plan on May 4th, has described it as slowly “opening a valve.” The first phase involves the resumption of construction, manufacturing, and curbside retail pickup. If all goes well, the regions will open riskier businesses, such as office parks, in Phase II; next come restaurants and then, after another couple weeks, houses of worship and concert halls. Essentially, over about two months, people will increasingly be allowed to go to the places that construction workers are building in Phase I. In the meantime, as upstate New York returns somewhat to normal, all of downstate New York, which has about seventy per cent of the state’s population, is either just beginning to reopen or remains closed.
Last Monday, Putrelo Building Enterprises, a small, family-owned construction contractor in the Mohawk Valley, returned six workers to the site of a future Mazda dealership in Yorkville, about a hundred miles west of Albany. In March, when Cuomo ordered inessential projects to shut down, the workers had been about to laminate the dealership’s walls with Sheetrock. Soon after, Putrelo laid off all its employees. One of them, Aaron Findlay, a carpenter, went home, filed for unemployment, and watched the governor’s daily briefings until they started making him anxious; then he did some yard work. Another, Sam Healey, who just turned nineteen and is an apprentice carpenter, and who hadn’t been working long enough to draw unemployment, went back to his parents’ house, where he did not do much at all. Jae Constabile, who is a father of three and also a carpenter, started building a deck for his house. Last week, the Putrelos called all three men and asked if they could come back, and they agreed. “I don’t like sitting at home,” Constabile said, as he installed Sheetrock, wearing a face mask and a neon-green Putrelo shirt. “I need to work. I get bored.”
Putrelo began rehiring its workers in mid-April, when it got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and when two of its other projects, a school auditorium and a private insurance building, were declared essential. Out of thirty or so workers, six said that they didn’t want to come back, because the unemployment checks, both state and federal, were pretty good. Most of Putrelo’s employees belong to unions, such as the carpenters’ and ironworkers’ locals, which set wages depending on skill level and location. Carpenters in the Utica area, where the Putrelos work, make $26.80 an hour, which is almost as much as they could earn in unemployment benefits, although they also receive $19.48 an hour toward pension, annuity, and health care.
“Some guys were happy to stay home,” Kris Putrelo, the company’s president, said. Kris, who has blond highlights, was at the Mazda site, and wore a pink vest, a hard hat, and a cloth mask. It was the first week of Phase I, and the lobby was not yet painted or floored.
“All the little projects you wanted to do, you could do,” John Sege, the site superintendent, said.
Nearby, Findlay and Healey were painting a wall. Both men wore masks. “It was very, very nerve-racking,” Findlay said, of the decision to return. He had thought about continuing to quarantine with his fiancé. “But then I was going a little stir-crazy, and I was kind of excited to get back to work.”
“If people don’t do what they’re supposed to, then they shouldn’t be allowed to work,” Healey said. “Everybody that I’ve worked with will do what they’re supposed to. We’ll be fine.”
Now that construction has reopened, the Putrelos are discovering that what people are supposed to do is almost entirely up to them. Kris knows that the state’s requirements are, at bottom, the government’s best guess as to what might work. “There is no protocol,” she said. “It’s so new.” So the family has been looking for advice. They called their lawyers, went to their insurance company’s webinars, consulted the local builders’ exchanges, and spoke with the Association of General Contractors. They looked at the state Web site, which provides a template plan and advice (which is based, in part, on recommendations from the C.D.C. and the Manufacturers Association of Central New York), as well as at county Web sites, and they relied heavily, at the federal level, on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Their final safety plan draws from all those sources. “OSHAonly gives you the minimum requirements,” Kris said. “So it’s up to you to take that and hopefully add to it. Safety is part of this industry, anyway.” In effect, a sector used to working with blueprints is now helping to create one for businesses everywhere.
The Mohawk Valley, like much of upstate and western New York, has been spared the worst of the virus. Two months into the pandemic, some of the area’s six counties, home to corrugated landscapes of dairy farms and strawberry fields, had fewer than a hundred cases, compared to more than fifty thousand in Brooklyn alone. But the region’s economy was flattened just the same. Oneida County lost seven million dollars solely from the closure of the Turning Stone, the Oneida Nation’s casino. In March, a half month of closures resulted in a twenty-five-per-cent decrease in sales-tax revenue. “We haven’t seen April,” Anthony Picente, the county’s executive, said. “And I don’t want to see April.”
Some officials, including Picente, had hoped that local leaders would get to decide when and how to reopen their economies. On April 28th, Mohawk Valley and central New York sent Cuomo their proposed reopening plan, which would have opened real-estate offices, campgrounds, and R.V. parks in the first phase, and everything else, at half capacity, in the next two phases. Several other counties sent Albany regional reopening plans. Meanwhile, county leaders were on daily three-hour conference calls, discussing how zoning laws, for example, could be modified to let restaurants turn their parking lots into dining space.
In the end, though, the counties “had no role at all” in drafting the plan, according to Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. Less than a week after the counties submitted their proposals, Cuomo issued a statewide plan, New York Forward, by which every county would have to abide. (County leaders, as well as mayors and labor leaders, sit on state-appointed regional “control rooms,” which are monitoring the reopening process.) “I can’t criticize him,” Acquario said. “He wanted to make sure that this was done safely. So do the counties.”
The Mohawk Valley, where Donald Trump won in all six counties, in 2016, shares a border with the Capital District, but it is in other ways very far from Albany. Kris Putrelo identifies as an Independent: “I believe in Democratic ideals, but, tax-wise, it kills us,” she said. Picente, a Republican, has been on more conference calls with the President (two) than he has with the governor (none), and mostly finds out about new executive orders, including the regional reopening plan, by watching Cuomo on television. (Officials from the governor’s office do talk with local officials in regular conference calls, as well as in control-room meetings.) “I do find it hard to understand why he wouldn’t find the time,” Picente said. “But we’re past asking for advice and direction.”
Like the Putrelos, county officials have found that, though the state has given them a blueprint, it’s their job to refine the reopening process on the ground—and to fill in the plan’s blanks, when needed. “If one of our residents has a question, they’re not going to call Albany,” Picente said. “They’re going to call us. And I can’t say, ‘Call Albany.’ This is what we do.” Early on, the blanks were mostly what could and couldn’t reopen—in which phase did libraries, horse stables, zoos, and sovereign Native American nations fall? (Most of those questions have been answered, which is good news for the regions that reopen later.) A continuing blank is how to enforce requirements in a way that balances the costs of noncompliance with the fact that small businesses are already cash-poor, and suddenly bearing unusually complicated responsibilities. The Putrelos, like all reopening businesses, self-certified their compliance on the state’s Web site; now, like most other businesses, they are effectively self-policing. “We are not policing every single one of them,” Robert Palmieri, a Democrat and the mayor of Utica, said. “It’s going to have to be self-regulated. And ninety-nine per cent of people have done an excellent job.”
John Sege, the Putrelo site superintendent, anxiously watches his workers, in case one of them takes off his mask. (The face coverings are annoying to wear while breathing heavily, which tends to happen when doing manual labor.) Sege is worried about being reported to the state by a cop, a building inspector, or even a smug competitor. “Then OSHA shows up,” Sege said. “And we’ve gone through all this—insured that we have all the safety equipment—and got into trouble.”
Scott Scherer, the sheriff of Herkimer County, in the Mohawk Valley, has been on daily conference calls with the state’s fiftysomething other sheriffs about managing the reopening. Scherer thinks that the most promising enforcement strategy is repeated warnings, followed by civil interventions such as revoked licenses or fines. “The last thing we want to do is hit someone with a criminal offense,” he said. (The governor’s office, which issued guidance on violations in early April, has suggested options ranging from a verbal warning to a criminal misdemeanor charge.) Since the start of the pandemic, Scherer said, the county has received a hundred and thirty complaints through the state system, twenty-nine of which were found to be violations. Scherer recently drove by some roofers who weren’t wearing gloves, so he pulled over to explain social distancing to them. “When you eat lunch, don’t sit on the same truck,” he said. Then he drove on, hoping that the workers, more than anyone else, would keep themselves safe.