Despite outbreaks, officials say Silicon Valley construction sites are safe
Union tradesmen work on a housing development in Palo Alto. Photo courtesy of Rick Solis

Across Santa Clara County, restrictions on a wide-reaching shelter-in-place order are loosening, employees are getting back to work, residents are dining out again and new buildings are rising.

But the slow reopening of the region — a constant balancing act between mitigating the damage of keeping the economy shuttered versus reducing the spread of the coronavirus — hasn’t been seamless.

So far, four construction sites across Santa Clara County have shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks, and another nine have had at least one confirmed case, county officials announced this month. The news came about a month after the county’s top health official, Dr. Sara Cody, allowed all construction in the South Bay to resume.

Despite the outbreaks, many construction companies and county officials say that’s not a sign that loosening the restrictions is dangerous. County officials have not released information about which construction sites have been shuttered, only that two in San Jose, one in Mountain View and another in Milpitas were closed.

“It is important to remember that these construction companies acted responsibly and self-reported the cases, allowing Public Health to do proper contact tracing to prevent further spread,” county officials said in a statement to San José Spotlight last week. “We appreciate the members of the business community doing their part to operate as safely as possible.”

When DavisREED Construction Inc. found some of the contractors it had hired to work on the Shashi Hotel in Mountain View had tested positive for COVID-19, construction shut down immediately, said Bryan Atwater, the company’s general counsel.

The San Diego-based company had done everything right, based on local, state and federal safety guidelines, he said. The daily precautions on the site include mandatory temperature checks and staying at least six feet apart as much as possible.

Still, the contagious illness found its way to 10 people working on the site and the county this month investigated 30 more people who had potentially been exposed, though Atwater said other employees on the site did not test positive for the virus. In the three other sites, three to five employees tested positive and voluntarily shut down, according to the county.

Atwater said the processes in place to identify the infections were effective.

“I personally believe the game plan is working,” he said in an interview. “We’re not seeing crazy outbreaks at any site and the small ones that happen, like this, are handled appropriately.”

Mike Dickinson, owner of San Jose-based Dickinson Cabinetry, said his company was also “following all of the safety guidelines recommended by the county health department,” when an outbreak happened on one of the San Jose construction sites that shut down.

An official with knowledge of the shut downs said that Gilroy-based GB Group Inc. was the second construction company in San Jose whose employees tested positive for COVID-19, though company officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the outbreaks, county leaders said they agree the safety measures in place to prevent outbreaks are working.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese advocated for construction sites to reopen in the current iteration of the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order that was first issued in mid-March.

He wasn’t happy to hear about the outbreaks, but he still believes construction sites are safe for workers.

“Everybody knew there’s no way you’re going to open up hundreds and hundreds of construction sites, and thousands of construction workers in the Bay Area … (without) infections,” Cortese said. “There’s going to be some positive tests.”

For him, the key is to keep the virus from spreading beyond the workplace through preemptive measures that detect infections as well as detailed contact tracing once a worker tests positive, he said.

“It seems like it’s working,” Cortese said. “What wouldn’t work is if we just started having outbreaks at construction sites all over the place.”

Though state officials have released guidelines for reopening, county health officers are allowed to adjust their health orders faster or slower based on local trends. Cody was one of the first in the nation to issue a shelter-in-place order in March and has since moved slower than health officers in other counties to loosen restrictions after Santa Clara County emerged as an early hotspot for the virus.

But she allowed construction workers to go back to work in early May as long as the sites follow a long list of protocols to halt the spread of the infection. Cities are watching construction sites closely to ensure companies follow the rules.

County officials have evaluated existing restrictions on a two-week basis, which corresponds with the virus’ incubation time, before announcing new orders to allow more people back to work and opening more public amenities.

But officials are urging residents and business owners to stay vigilant, even as businesses open and more people venture outdoors.

“As more companies open up for business, there will inevitably be new COVID-19 cases and this is not specific to the construction industry,” county officials said in a statement. “We will continue to educate our business community on the proper way to socially distance when open to employees and the public, as safety needs to be everyone’s number one concern.”

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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