Austin has six COVID-19 clusters in construction industry, new safety measures now in place

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin can now take workplaces to court if they have multiple violations of the city’s emergency rules designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott issued those emergency orders Tuesday evening. They allow the city to issue a fine of up to $2,000 or declare a workplace a “nuisance property” if there are violations.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said if there are multiple 311 calls about one place or person, the city will respond and first try to get the site or person to voluntarily make changes and follow the rules.

She said, “Initially our goal is to get voluntary compliance. That is our hope for everyone.”

Hayden continued, “In the event things are not implemented, we will move forward and provide a citation to them and take those individuals to court.”

How this affects construction sites

According to Austin Public Health, from June 25 to July 9, there were six COVID-19 clusters within the construction industry — meaning six sites had three or more cases.

Even before the newest orders went into effect this week, construction sites were already following safety measures.

“We’re all getting used to a new normal,” said Scott Turner, owner of Riverside Homes and a member of the Austin Infill Coalition.

Turner explained the new normal of wearing masks, staying six feet apart and staggering shifts actually started in April when the state allowed all types of construction to continue.

“Our company limits it to one trade at a time, so we don’t want the plumber working right next to the electrician,” he said. “And really, that’s two different companies, two different subcontractors, and we want to make sure our subcontractors stay safe and follow all the rules.”

About the new penalties in place, Turner said, “There are always folks who skirt the rules, and so there does need to be some enforcement. You need both education and enforcement to make it effective.”

Frank Fuentes with the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association said he’d rather see all of the city’s energy focused on education. He wants there to be public service announcements on television and radio that actually reach those most affected.

“But don’t do it in a way that they’re going to run the messaging at three in the morning when no one is watching it, you got to do prime time,” he said.

Fuentes added, “We’re going to go in and fine you. We’re going to go and punish you. Don’t do that. Use those opportunities to educate.”

He said the city should also actively send out educational materials to all open, essential businesses.

“Whether it’s bodegas, whether it’s grocery stores, whether it’s janitorial services, whether it’s nanny services, our families are all interconnected with all these industries under one roof,” he told KXAN. “The city has a list of all the businesses that are in the city, and it just surprises me that no one has just taken this information to [the businesses] and say disseminate this important message [to] your workers.”

Austin city officials said:

“We are continuing to test and do targeted testing in the construction industry in areas of town where there are upticks in people testing positive. We have done several initial rounds of testing for the construction industry and are working closely with community groups to continue that testing.”

The Home Builders Association in Austin said in a statement:

“Safety is the utmost priority for our members. During the City’s last stay at home orders, we saw a flattening of the curve, while residential construction continued as an essential business. This demonstrates that builders can conduct their businesses safely. We will continue to partner with organizations like the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association and others to ensure that our members and their workers are informed and educated on the importance of social distancing, hand washing, staggering of workers, and other job site safety protocols.”

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