Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Gorge, a construction site manager from the Bay Area, has been going to work every day at the 15 sites he oversees during California’s coronavirus lockdown. As recently as last week, people were still shaking hands and bumping fists with workers at other sites with as many as 50 people.
Site elevators have also become unavoidable bottlenecks, forcing close contact with dozens of others trying to navigate the site. And the limited number of porta-potties on sites has become an issue.
“I walked through a unit on this site, and there were five guys working in the living room on three different items,” said Gorge, who asked not to use his full name. “One of the dudes was coughing. No masks. No gloves in there at all.”
“We're all going to get it,” he added.
As the rest of the country slows to a crawl to contain the spread of the coronavirus, construction workers have been forced to make a dangerous and possibly fatal decision: work without the proper protective gear and safety precautions or risk losing their primary source of income. In cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Washington, many construction sites are carrying on as normal — even as supply shortages and a failure to adhere to social distancing guidelines threaten the lives of the people who work there.
The White House has also asked many construction companies to donate their stock of N95 masks to help alleviate shortages at local medical facilities. But the gesture of goodwill leaves workers exposed not only to the contagious respiratory illness but also to work-site contaminants like silica dust and lead, which can damage their lungs. And they’re not always being smart.
“Some are taking good precautions, like enforcing as much distance as we can and wearing gloves and masks,” Gorge said. “But most jobs are still full of dudes who are gun-toting good ol' boys who think this coronavirus is a bunch of horseshit.”
“One of the dudes was coughing. No masks. No gloves in there at all.”
For Noah Jacobs, who owns and runs Brightwood Design + Build in Washington, D.C., the shortage of N95 masks has altered much of his day-to-day work. In two weeks, he’s run out of personal protective equipment for both his subcontractors and himself.
“We've immediately had to realize that what we've taken for granted, being able to on a per-job basis go and purchase supplies to protect our lungs, is no longer there,” he said. “Every big-box store, every mom-and-pop hardware store in Washington, D.C. is empty. You can’t get them online.”
He’s since had to scrounge for whatever supplies he could gather from his family’s garage in North Carolina.
“I've got about 15 masks to last me as long as this crisis hits, or at least as long as the supply chain issue goes on,” he said. “It’s just a mess.”
Without the proper equipment, Jacobs has either finished outstanding projects himself or pivoted to outdoor-oriented projects like decks, patios, and exterior masonry to keep his contractors and himself safe.
“When you're doing interior work and you're confining as many as five to 10 people to small interior spaces, that’s pretty concerning from an exposure standpoint,” he said.
On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a stop to all of the state’s nonessential construction work, which includes residential and commercial jobs. The announcement came days after an electrician died of the coronavirus and an outcry of protests from New York laborers and their concerned families.
Until then, Brandon Ream, a 38-year-old electrician at a high-rise construction site in New York City’s Financial District, had been coming to work every day.
Ream didn’t share what company he works for, but he said that little had changed to protect workers — aside from providing liquid soap near the first-floor bathroom of the 50-story building. Masks, while plentiful on the site, weren’t as high-quality as the ones he’s used to wearing while working.
“We’ve spent more time discussing proper lifting habits in the last two weeks than we have the coronavirus,” he said.
“Pretty much all they’ve said is, if you don't feel good, don't come in,” he added. “That, of course, comes with the caveat of not getting paid.”
Friday was the last day that anybody would be working at Ream’s site until further notice on the governor’s orders. But he feared the stoppage may be too little, too late, considering he's been using public transportation and working alongside other potentially asymptomatic laborers.
“It’s impossible at least for the next couple of weeks to know who’s got it and who doesn’t,” Ream said. “I’m just thankful that if any of us have it or I have it, I don’t have to worry about spreading it to the couple hundred people that you interact with anytime you leave the city.”
Cover: Workers dig as construction continues at a site in Las Vegas, during the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)