LORINC: Ford Nation’s phony construction shut-down during pandemic

If you’d tuned in to the Ontario government’s daily press briefing last Friday, you would have seen a grim-faced Doug Ford presenting the sobering projections of the pandemic’s potential impact, based on three scenarios: the do-nothing estimates, which would have yielded massive infection rates (300,000 cases); a second scenario looking at current containment measures (80,000); and a third, incorporating stepped up public health measures, that could limit infections to 12,500, with (just) 200 fatalities by the end of this month.

“My government is prepared to take every step possible,” Ford said solemnly as he outlined tougher policies, including new sector closures. “I know businesses are struggling to stay afloat through this rough water, but lives are on the line.”

Turning first to construction, he said the province would halt “industrial construction” and add inspectors willing to shutter non-compliant contractors. “Only necessary projects, like hospital and transportation will continue. No new residential construction will start. Those few sites that will remain open will be placed under the highest level of scrutiny possible.” According to the accompanying press release, residential construction that is “near completion” can continue.

The media coverage echoed the press release and the premier’s statements. As Canadian Press reported, “The new business closures, which take effect on Saturday [April 4] at 11:59 p.m. and will be in effect for at least 14 days, include all industrial construction sites except for those on projects considered critical.”

The province’s senior public health official gave his thumbs up, CP added. “Dr. Peter Donnelly, president of Public Health Ontario, said the numbers clearly illustrate the gravity of the situation. ‘If we do everything that we can think of — everything that already has been done stays in place, all of the other measures that are being considered put in place — then I think we could reduce the death toll in Ontario to somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000.’”

So one could ask, five days later, why there’s scant evidence that the construction sector has had to down tools, as have so many other industries and professions. The question has been pinging around my head for days as I endlessly walk the dog around the city, past numerous busy condo and stand-alone residential construction sites, none of which could be described as “near completion.”

The actual wording of the enabling regulation — the link to which does not appear in last week’s dramatic press release — reveals the width of the gap between the premier’s rhetoric and his government’s actions. It’s worth quoting in full.

In Schedule 2, which enumerates the ostensibly narrower list of essential businesses, we find the construction provisions. As Ford indicated, healthcare, transit, energy and court projects are all deemed essential, as are undertakings relating to industries like petrochemicals and the production of personal protective equipment. (The construction of health care facilities meant to house COVID19 patients will be allowed to operate around the clock, Queen’s Park announced yesterday.)

Then we get to those residential projects deemed essential. They include:

“Residential construction projects where,

(i) a footing permit has been granted for single family, semi-detached and townhomes;

(ii) an above grade structural permit has been granted for condominiums, mixed use and other buildings, or

(iii) the project involves renovations to residential properties and construction work was started before April 4, 2020.”

Here’s the translation: In the City of Toronto, single family, semi-detached and townhouses tend not to require “footing” permits, which are typically issued to allow foundations to be dug and constructed. For these kinds of projects, the City mainly issues building permits. If a contractor has one and is even just beginning excavation, they’ve got a green light to continue until the dwelling is complete.

For mixed-use condos, the “above grade structural permit” is issued after the foundation has been completed, which can take up to a year. So if a project is even just poking its head above ground level, with just one or two floors done, the developer has a green light and can theoretically continue until the tower is finished.

What’s notable is that the reg’ does not contain the phrase “near completion.” Rather, it effectively grandfathers almost anything that’s underway, which means those sites will be populated by trades people, including those who have to ride up crowded lifts to get to higher floors, as well as the construction managers working in those cramped site offices fashioned from trailers or shipping containers.

None of this should come as a huge surprise. Ford Nation is tight with the development industry, whose lobbyists were evidently working the phones last week. As The Globe and Mail reported, “One construction industry executive who has been given advance notice about the government’s plans said all private-sector industrial, commercial and institutional construction work will be halted, but the plan is to exempt public-sector projects as well as some residential construction.”

I totally get why genuinely essential infrastructure projects should go ahead, albeit with close supervision in terms of workplace safety and distancing practices.

What’s anything but clear, however, is why business-as-usual should also apply to residential projects: luxury condos, or the sprawling design-build McMansion sites that populate the nether reaches of areas like Forest Hill. It’s also worth noting that the projects likely to be halted by this edict are the new affordable Housing Now developments that the City has pushed so hard to get to the starting line in the past five or six months.

I’ve been generally of the view that the Ford government has acquitted itself quite well through the pandemic, with the premier and health minister Christine Elliott seemingly prepared to defer to the government’s experts. His concern doesn’t strike me as an act. What’s more, I’d be willing to place a big bet that Ford himself has plenty of dedicated fans among the trades people who toil away behind all those hoardings.

Which begs the question: why is his government prepared to throw these guys in the path of a deadly pandemic when there are now so many ways for affected industries and individuals to ride out this storm and resume operations on the other side?

“Lives,” as Ford himself said just last week, “are on the line.” Including those of residential construction workers (and their families), who increasingly seem to be more expendable than essential.

photo by Mary Crandall

12 comments

  1. “What’s anything but clear, however, is why business-as-usual should also apply to residential projects: luxury condos, or the sprawling design-build McMansion sites that populate the nether reaches of areas like Forest Hill.”

    Your argument would be stronger without the classist rhetoric. Most residential construction underway is for condos and rental buildings, not McMansions as you call them. Design-build? Who cares? This reeks of bias.

  2. It is understood that everyone will eventually get COVID. What we are doing now is to allow capacity in hospitals. The death rate for those under 65 with no prior complications is around 2% of deaths. With both of those stated, I don’t see any reason for construction sites to shut down. Public health officials expect all the construction workers to get the virus, even if the sites were shut down. It is only a matter of when. Because of the nature of the construction industry’s product (i.e., homes for people to live in), it is a fair choice to have the sites open.

  3. You say “development industry” but the sector of development you’re discussing is actually the “housing industry” and remember that we are still in a housing affordability and supply crisis that will only get worse as people lose jobs by the thousands. Maybe rents will flatten out for a bit but the new housing supply pipeline is so constrained as compared to net migration to Toronto, that I do not see a major reduction in housing costs any time soon. This government has made it a key focus to fix or improve the supply problem and I understand why they hesitate to take the foot off the gas now.

  4. My livelihood depends on my trade right now. If I wasn’t working I might not be able to make a mortgage payment next month, and me and my family would be looking for a new home. This virus is hardly more deadly than the common flu. Ya I’ll risk the .02 death rate of me and my damily against the risk of losing my home. I risk my life every time I drive to work, more people die every day from cancer and I get exposed to those risks also on a daily basis. Many people will be losing their businesses and jobs from this economic shutdown. I’m thankful my job is still considered essential.

  5. I’m inclined to think it’s more the contractors and investors that are to blame. Given our families experience, they will try anything to continue to make money. It falls on the trades to protect themselves from the money grubbing owners of these construction companies and their investor. Their priorities do not lay with the workers and the workers have every right to request layoffs, without penalty or threat to their jobs. It’s all a matter of priority and protecting themselves. There are ulterior housing options for those who need it.

  6. What this article does not discuss, is the commercial construction that also continues, putting lives at risk, particularly as these complex jobs cannot be carried out without the trades being in direct proximity to each other. My son, a plumbing foreman, is executing non-essential upgrades to an office building that houses IBM and one of the big five bank’s’ employees. Provisions have been made to keep the bank’s call centre agents distanced and safe, but what about the various tradespeople? It’s no wonder that they feel grossly under appreciated.
    I worry about my son every day that he goes to work, while I, and his lovely wife, work safely work from home.
    Who actually gives a damn about these folks, some of whom have elderly parents living with them? Not the landlords, nor the contractors and definitely not Premier Ford.

  7. Places of industry, ie. glass manufacturing, are using the essential service clause that they COULD BE supplying glass to a hospital to keep their doors open and risking employees health for profit. However, none of the orders sent in ever have an end destination for the glass, rather it’s just a commodity that was ordered from an existing supplier that then sells to an end customer. But if no one is holding these companies accountable, then it’s business as usual and who cares about the employees health. There is too much room for executives to play with when it comes to the term essential service and if you take a drive to Etobico St, and Rexdale Ave. just blocks away from each other, you’ll see the Pandemic only counts if you’re forced to follow the same rules and not hide in the grey area.

  8. Residential construction is not typically cramped especially on stand alone jobs. Construction workers are not idiots and hate working close together under the best of circumstances. On the other hand construction workers typically bring in 3 to 4 times even more depending on trade then what the government is offering in wage subsidies 500$ a week is a drop in the bucket. Every guy Ive been talking to is grateful to be working because the financial devastation in 6 months to a year from now is going to make pandemic look like a walk in the park. Just saying

  9. You have an axe to grind. Ford is doing a great job during this time and we all need to understand that. Do your part, stay home but if you need to work do it responsibly.

  10. Not sure how familiar people are cement finishers and how the process is done🤔 Well I am very familiar with cement finishing as I am a cement finisher.

    Well it’s impossible to remain 6′ or even 2′ from each other, as whoever is on the slab will gather amongst each other to rank in the concrete, to begin the process.

    They say no tools are to be shared, but yet here every one is sharing rakes, or Darby poles. The solution they came up with is ok wear a cotton bandana when you guys are around each other.

    If the trucks come steady that’s hrs among each other. None of the guys want to even wear the bandana’s, as if they will actually work, who knows as of yet?

    But there’s 10 guys around each other, and then that’s just one job site. So than the cement finisher goes to another project, not even knowing he just was in contact with someone who has Covid-19.

    So than that’s now passed on to another project, like Doug Ford is obviously paid for support by the big construction companies. Nothing has changed, even before this pandemic hit us, every single construction worker will tell you these companies don’t give a 🤬 about us, we are just numbers.

    Honestly this pandemic shows that they don’t care about workers health and safety, all they care about is production.
    Something big will hit the construction industry with this virus soon. Then maybe these dummies who are in charge of the country and Provinces/States, will realize what we did in the beginning just caused us more $$$$$ in the long term.

    That’s about the only way these people will understand the severity of this, when losses of $$$$$ start hitting the books.

  11. I can almost guarantee that Ford has invested in those constructions sites and might lose his investment or profits and that’s why he got his government to be very vague with what is essential. How is this going to stop if there is still a lot of workers out there working? I’m a construction worker myself and didn’t think twice of my family’s safety. If you think that Ford is sincere about fellow Ontarians your wrong. He’s just trying to save his political career and really don’t care about anybody else but himself. Look he’s got a cushy job not having to go and work countless hours outside in the winter, he’s in a warm place all the time and makes three to four times that a construction worker make in a year. I don’t know how he can sleep at night letting all construction workers got to work. It’s only fourteen days maybe a little bit more to at least stop this virus. Am I wrong?

  12. a meager $20 off the monthly hydro bill and one time maximum $250 cheque to welfare folk is an insult to hard working Ontario taxpayers😪

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