Tempers flare as Miami-Dade construction sites take COVID-19 precautions but stay open

While the construction industry in Miami-Dade scrambles to raise safety standards to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, public and private sentiment that the job sites should shut down continues to grow.

Residents who live inside buildings where cosmetic repair work is being done agonize over the non-stop noise. Other people living near construction sites are stuck in their homes, where they can’t escape the ear-piercing beeps of heavy machinery.

“We are so upset,” said Carole Brendel, 67, who lives with her husband, Jurgen, 75, on the 29th floor at 2020 North Bayshore Drive in Edgewater, next to the site where developer Mill Creek Residential is building the 28-story luxury condo tower Modera Biscayne Bay.

“We’re not sleeping,” Brendel said. “We are stressed. The construction started six months ago, but back then we weren’t trapped inside our home 24/7. Now the beep-beep of the cement trucks wakes us up at 7 every morning and doesn’t stop. I’m so desperate, I’m thinking about throwing eggs at them. Maybe that will help. Why can’t they stop until this is all over?”

Although several Miami-Dade cities, including Golden Beach and Key Biscayne, have banned most construction jobs within their jurisdictions, no such ban exists for Miami and the rest of the county.

But the demand is growing. Although most developers and contractors declined to comment on the record for this story, some experts warn that no matter how many safety precautions are taken, construction sites remain a potential hot zone for spreading COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the virus.

Workers at the Miami Worldcenter site on NE Second Avenue and NE Eighth Street in downtown Miami on Thursday, April 2, 2020.

“We are taking COVID-19 very seriously and our teams are actively monitoring the situation and directives from national officials and local jurisdictions,” said a spokesperson for industry giant Suffolk Construction in an email. “The safety of our employees and trade partners remains our number one priority. Our safety protocols, training and check lists will continue to evolve in response to new developments and guidelines.”

Among the precautions being taken by Suffolk: minimizing in-person meetings and large gatherings, enforcing social-distancing guidelines of six feet or more, and surveying all individuals on job sites daily to ensure they are symptom-free (including giving them an identifying band to signal they have been checked).

Coronavirus spreads

But the evidence argues that might not be enough. On Friday, Century Wholesale, a mill work and plumbing wholesaler, shuttered its doors indefinitely after two of its vendors, who had visited job sites around Miami-Dade, tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, Carlos Pino, the company’s CEO, and another staff worker also tested positive.

Pino is the brother of developer Sergio Pino, who is the president of Century Homebuilders and issued a call on March 31 to the industry to shut down all construction sites for 14 days in order to stop the spread of the virus.

On March 26, Pino was forced to cease work at the $100 million mixed-use project 850 LeJeune Road after two workers tested positive. The site was reopened on April 1 with a reduced crew of 44 workers, down from the original 200.

A construction crew puts up steel work at the 400 Biscayne Boulevard site on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The building, when completed, will rise 49 stories.
A construction crew puts up steel work at the 400 Biscayne Boulevard site on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The building, when completed, will rise 49 stories.

Now, Pino has decided to close all of his eight active sites indefinitely as of Tuesday. He is also imploring Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and county commissioners to order the construction industry to do the same.

“Most of the people who are working on my job sites are not mad at me,” he said. “The problem is that I am not exclusive to some subcontractors. They want to keep working because it’s not illegal to work. It will take a publicly owned company to set an example before the rest of the industry follows suit.”

Plea to Miami-Dade Mayor

On Tuesday afternoon, Pino sent a letter to Gimenez, calling on him to “make the tough and difficult decision to consider closing all construction job sites for 10 working days commencing next week since more and more workers in this sector are testing positive for the coronavirus.

“Over half of the construction workers are not going to work because they are either feeling symptoms of the virus or because they are afraid to contract the disease,” the letter states. “Maintaining the job sites open only prolongs the inevitable in that the people working the sites will continue to get infected … two weeks for everyone takes care of the problem in a two-week period. That is what the experts say.

“We understand that there is a push back from our industry and I understand it’s a huge financial cost,” the letter concludes. “But what is worse? There is no alternative. Mr. Mayor, we all know that this virus can impact the lives of so many, particularly our older population. With your leadership, we can carefully plan for a set date so that we all have an opportunity to pick up the tools and secure all job sites.”

Healthcare specialists

Many major developers are doing whatever they can to maintain safe work environments. Robins & Morton, the national construction firm specializing in healthcare, is currently working at Baptist Hospital in Kendall on an expansion that will add more than 120 critical-care, patient and surgery rooms.

“We’re following the guidelines of the CDC and government health agencies, as well as OSHA and other workplace health and safety experts,” said Joe Forsthoffer, spokesperson for Robins & Morton.

“We have specific, documented COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including enhanced cleaning, disinfecting of commonly touched surfaces and tools, daily monitoring for symptoms, and reinforcing the CDC’s prevention guidelines to everyone working on the projects,” Forsthoffer said. “On top of that, county police are checking almost daily to ensure we’re working safely.”

Two workers at the Monaco Yacht Club and Residences construction site in Miami Beach carry a generator on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Two workers at the Monaco Yacht Club and Residences construction site in Miami Beach carry a generator on Thursday, April 2, 2020.

Ryan Shear, managing partner of Property Management Group, said his company ordered 1,000 N95 masks from China to distribute to workers at his three active sites: The 49-story 400 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami, the 34-story 301 SW First Ave. in Fort Lauderdale and another building in Phoenix, Ariz.

Workers at the 400 Biscayne Blvd. site are given self-screening documents, logistical maps of the site that stress safety concerns and are encouraged to wash their hands at extra stations posted around the site.

“I don’t know any site that is taking this as seriously as we are,” he said. “There are some times when workers need to stand near each other, such as when they are tying reinforcement steel. We can’t violate construction safety rules. But we’re being pretty strict about sharing information with our workers on how to build while avoiding spreading the virus.”

Torture at home

Some residents who are adhering to the stay-in-place mandate are now being driven batty by construction noise that they normally wouldn’t have to contend with if they were going to work as usual.

Buddy Varolo, 82, lives at the Arlen House condo building in Sunny Isles Beach with his wife. They’ve been staying inside their apartment for a month, but construction crews making repairs on the exterior of the building make so much noise, they are considering moving to their Long Island home until the pandemic is over.

“They are using jackhammers on concrete and metal,” Varolo said. “It makes the entire condo shake. The work started in January, but before, we could leave the house during the day and get away from the noise. Now, we’re stuck in here, my wife is getting headaches and we can’t even open our balcony doors because they have them locked from the outside. They could stop working for a month. This building is not going to fall down.”

A row of hand washing stations at the PMG construction site at 400 Biscayne Blvd., where the company is building a 49-story apartment building.
A row of hand washing stations at the PMG construction site at 400 Biscayne Blvd., where the company is building a 49-story apartment building.

The near-constant screeching of construction drills right outside her window has made self-isolation almost unbearable for Sarra Adnani, a resident at Nirvana Condominiums on Northeast 63rd Street.

Adnani, whose South Beach yoga studio, Atmananda Yoga Miami, was shuttered by Miami Beach as part of a sweeping closure of “non-essential” businesses, said the loss of income has already made the pandemic a personal crisis.

But now she’s losing her cool.

“I do yoga and I meditate every day. I’m a calm person. But this would drive anybody crazy,” she said. “The balconies are locked. We’re in confinement. It’s stressful enough.”

She called on the city and county governments to shut down construction sites until the pandemic ends. The property managers have told residents construction cannot stop until an order comes from above, Adnani said.

“Since the city hasn’t told them to stop, they don’t have to stop,” she said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Aaron Leibowitz contributed to this report.