Construction began again on Atherton’s long-awaited $31.6 million civic center project after a three-week shutdown – despite feedback from one council member that the town should wait until the number of COVID-19 cases in the area has peaked.
Work restarted on Thursday, April 9, in a limited capacity on construction of the town’s police department, which, City Manager George Rodericks explained at a meeting last week, is in a building "which is falling apart rapidly."
The City Council voted 4-1 at the Wednesday, April 8, council meeting to continue construction, with guidelines set forth by the town’s project contractor, S.J. Amoroso Construction, explaining how it can continue construction while maintaining a safe working environment that would limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Although the council unanimously agreed that the project falls into the category of essential construction due to what they say is the poor condition of the police building, council member Bill Widmer argued that estimates show California will reach its peak daily deaths and hospital usage around April 15 and construction should continue to be suspended until the number of cases have decreased.
“While I am interested in getting the project done and for the costs anticipated, I am concerned with where we are in the disease’s spread and the processes developed suggested to me that a further delay would be prudent,” Widmer said after the Wednesday meeting. “I believe we should wait until the curve is declining for a couple weeks and then select certain projects where personnel contact can be minimized. That is the formula that almost everyone else (is) following. I felt that stepping out now could potentially put the workers and their families in jeopardy.”
The council paused nearly all construction projects townwide on March 18 in response to the countywide stay-at-home order that was instituted to slow the spread of the virus. The latest order, which was issued last week and lasts until May 3, allows for essential government construction.
When the project is completed, estimated to be in 2021, the new mission-style building will house police offices, town administration, building and planning offices, and a council chamber/emergency operations center. A public courtyard will connect the civic center to the new, modern library.
The contractor's guidelines include staggering construction workers' breaks and lunches to reduce the size of any group at any one time to less than 10 people, maintaining a distance of six feet between workers, requiring workers to stay home for 14 days if they may have been exposed to the virus, waiting 7 days to return to work after recovering from virus and surveying employees on symptoms before they start work for each shift, according to a report prepared by town staff. Workers will be provided with eye protection and gloves, according to the report. Workers will also be offered paid sick leave if they’ve been exposed to the virus or are sick with it, said Bob Erskine, Northern California President of S.J. Amoroso.
Workers may wear masks depending on the required level of personal protective care for the task, according to Rodericks. Due to Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) requirements, "I do know that contractors have their own supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) given the nature of work - full respirators, gloves, and masks depending on the type of work being completed," he said.
S.J. Amoroso said the guidelines are based off of a document created by a law firm, which distributed it to large general contractors in Northern California. The document was made in coordination with the state of California and San Francisco Health Department, Erskine said. The contractor will be required to have a medical professional review the guidelines, but the guidelines have been reviewed for compliance with OSHA's COVID-19 protocols, Rodericks said.
The contractor “will be constantly evaluating” the protocols and modifying them as requirements change from the county health order or other health agency guidelines, Rodericks said.
Mayor Rick DeGolia said the contractor’s guidelines are thorough and that the project is essential. Nearby jurisdictions will be able to look to the safety guidelines in their own projects, he noted.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said she’d like the construction to resume, but “with extreme (safety) measures” in place.
The council also gave the contractor the go-ahead to restart work on the city hall portion of the new civic center building, deciding that it also constitutes an essential government construction project. The police department parking lot is being used as a staging area for construction, but actual construction activity is 10 or more feet away from the fence line that borders the current police station facility, Rodericks said.
The council also asked staff to notify it immediately if someone onsite has a suspected case of COVID-19.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.