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Construction on Penn Medicine’s new $1.5 billion patient tower escapes the shutdown

3 years ago
Charlie Sprang

Andrew Maykuth, Updated: March 20, 2020- 6:37 PM

Most construction projects across the region will shut down at 12:01 a.m. Saturday to comply with Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus, putting thousands of jobs on ice, but the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s $1.5 billion Pavilion patient tower will be allowed to continue as a “life-sustaining” project.

The Wolf administration on Friday relaxed its total ban on statewide construction projects, issued Thursday, to grant an exception for health-care facilities, including Penn’s ongoing work to complete the 17-story, 500-bed patient pavilion. The Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents union workers, pressed the state to allow the Penn project to proceed, arguing that its completion was critical to public health

The labor organization agreed to put in place a set of strict procedures to screen the 700 union members employed on the site and to spread out the work to three shifts to reduce the density of people at any one time. Workers will not be allowed to enter the job site if they have recently taken a cruise, traveled to countries affected by the COVID-19 virus, been designated persons of “potential risk,” or show signs of a fever.

“It’s a pretty scary situation, but our guys believe they have a job to do,” said Wayne Miller, business manager of Sprinkler Fitters Local 692, one of the unions whose members are working on the site. “They don’t want to bring something home to their families.”

The Penn project was among many whose sponsors requested waivers to the governor’s Thursday shutdown order, which required all non-“life-sustaining” businesses to shut physical locations. Numerous businesses in sectors the governor ordered to close pushed back, arguing that their missions were life-sustaining.

“The question is, what is life-sustaining?” said Ryan N. Boyer, business manager of the Laborers’ District Council, which represents from 75 to 90 workers on the Penn project, and many others elsewhere whose jobs will now be suspended.

“It’s a fluid situation,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our members and the public safe.”

Though hundreds of union workers will continue to work on the hospital project and others will continue to work servicing equipment in existing buildings, most work will be suspended indefinitely because of the public health emergency, said Miller.

“This is going to be devastating to all of us,” he said. “We’ll get through it, like everyone else, but there’s going to be a lot of sacrifice.”

One project that will have to shut down is the contentious Mariner East pipeline project, which had been allowed to continue under Wolf’s previous order allowing “essential” businesses to remain open. It failed to make the cut on the more limited list of “life-sustaining” businesses.

The pipeline, which carries natural gas liquids like propane across the state to an export terminal in Marcus Hook, will shut down construction activity, though the state is allowing Sunoco Pipeline, the project’s sponsor, several days to stabilize the project.

“Residents may see some continued activity as Sunoco and other permittees work to shut down construction activities and stabilize these sites,” Gregory A. Kauffman, the company’s director of legislative affairs, said in an email Friday to stakeholders.

He said the state is working closely with the company to ensure that sites are being stabilized “with appropriate care and speed.” Work should be done in accordance with social distancing measures “to the extent possible,” he said.

“We are working to safely comply with the governor’s order regarding the temporary suspension of our ongoing construction activities,” Vicki Granado, spokesperson for Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer LP, said in an email. “This includes working in accordance with the exemption process outlined by the administration to give us the necessary time to safely suspend active construction over a reasonable period of time, as some activities have a longer shutdown process.”

Sunoco and other pipeline operators are allowed to continue any work to maintain existing pipelines that supply natural gas, natural gas liquids, and petroleum products. In addition, the governor’s rules allow natural gas exploration companies to continue to drill wells to maintain energy supplies, though drilling activity has already subsided over much of the state because of depressed energy prices.

Photo Credit: Handout/Penn Medicine