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Philadelphia Museum of Art halts construction over coronavirus dangers

A couple in protective masks walk past the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A couple in protective masks walk past the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The $228 million expansion project poised to transform the Philadelphia Museum of Art is on hold after a member of the art museum security team tested positive for coronavirus and a prominent local labor union alleged others working during the pandemic were at risk.

The decision, effective as of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, will stop work on the high-profile 90,000-square-foot museum addition for an undefined amount of time, according to a spokesperson for LF Driscoll, the general contractor overseeing the project.

“Effective today, work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been suspended,” said spokesperson Anne A. Buchanan in an email sent Tuesday. “This decision was made out of an abundance of caution and in light of the trade unions’ desire to shut down until April 20 … We stand ready to return to work when the time is right.”

The closure comes one day after LF Driscoll started work again on the site, after shutting down on April 2, when the security team member confirmed their positive test result. This week is poised to be a critical moment in the coronavirus crisis. The latest projections show Pennsylvania is on track to hit the pandemic’s peak on Saturday, April 11.

Construction laborers, security staff, and others were working at the Philadelphia landmark thanks to an exemption from Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 19 order to shut down all nonessential businesses. When the museum worker fell ill in early April, Driscoll chose to stop operations for one workday while the site was cleaned.

“In an abundance of caution, we are going to shut down the project immediately for a full disinfection,” reads an April 2 email from Driscoll project manager Bill Schaeffer to all the company’s subcontractors. “The project will reopen on Monday, April 6, 2020. As we have stated in previous communications, the resumption of work is voluntary for companies and individuals.”

After a commercial cleaning company was brought in over the weekend to cleanse the facility, construction workers returned to the building on Monday, April 6.

That same day, a labor union representing some workers at the site, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, sent a letter to its members condemning the general contractors at the Art Museum. Also named: the contractors managing the construction of the new Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 400 North Broad St., and the company overseeing work at Live! Hotel and Casino in South Philadelphia.

The union president, Gary Masino, said all of his members would be removed from the three projects.

“Keep in mind that we are closely monitoring the projects that have reopened and remain open in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware to ensure the general contractors are making every effort possible to place our members’ health and safety above all else,” Masino’s letter reads.

The Art Museum confirmed that they are putting the project on hold in accordance with Driscoll’s recommendations.

Work also stopped at new Philadelphia Police HQ

The general contractor for the new police headquarters, Keating Building Corporation, has also ceased work at 400 North Broad, despite its waiver. Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, attributed the shutdown to “a few different staffing and operational issues.”

“There is not yet a clear timetable for when work will resume on the new police headquarters,” Cox said.

It is unclear whether work will continue at the casino project named in Masino’s letter.  The general contractor, Gilbane Building Company, received a waiver that they believe covered work “buttoning up” the casino project site.

While “casino construction” does not meet the state’s criteria to continue operations through the pandemic, the exemption was granted to Gilbane because of the company’s claim that the site needed to be properly secured before it could be safely shut down, according to Casey Smith, a spokesperson for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“However, all work on the project should be halted once the infrastructure stabilization work is done,” Smith said.

The state’s policy for granting waivers to non-life-sustaining businesses has been criticized as opaque by many across Pennsylvania who see some businesses shut down while competitors get state approval to keep operating.

Currently, the state has no single list of businesses or projects that have been granted waivers.   But all waivers granted cover “projects that pose public safety hazard due to current condition, need for life safety completion, or meet health care needs.”

In one case, a waiver was granted to “complete a K-8 school in Philadelphia that is desperately needed to eliminate overcrowding and improve the level of education granted,” Smith said.

Smith said the application deadline ended on April 3, and by then the state office had received 42,380 requests for exemptions. The agency estimates that the total represents about 4% of Pennsylvania’s businesses.

As of April 5, 6,980 waiver requests had been approved and 13,055 denied.

In Masino’s letter alleging that the general contractors on the sites were not complying with Center for Disease Control and Prevention rules, he made clear his union would be watching other sites too.

“These projects which have been shut down may only be the beginning of many other site closures where we may decide to pull our members from if the GCs do not live up to our requests in regards to protecting the safety of our members,” his letter reads.

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