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‘Life-sustaining’ casino? Construction continued in South Philly despite Wolf’s coronavirus shutdown. At least one worker tested positive.

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Construction work continues at the future site Live! Hotel and Casino Philadelphia in Philadelphia, PA on April 6, 2020.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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As the coronavirus spread across the region last month and Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a halt to all but life-sustaining business, construction workers on the site of the new Live! Hotel & Casino in South Philadelphia fretted that the general contractor wasn’t doing enough to protect them from being infected.

Gilbane Building Company, having obtained a waiver from the state, continued work on the $700 million casino, one of the most expensive projects in the city. Hundreds of workers traveled to the site on Packer Avenue near Citizens Bank Park — some from as far away as New York and Maryland.

Then a worker who had been on the job for two days in mid-March tested positive for COVID-19.

“Yesterday afternoon we were notified that a taper that worked on the Live! Hotel & Casino project tested positive for the COVID-19 virus,” Gilbane project executive Dan Kelley wrote in a March 26 email, listing people who might have had contact with the infected man.

Some workers responded by walking off the site, convinced that Gilbane was not taking the coronavirus seriously.

On Monday, sheet metal workers left after their union head said they were “in danger” because the company was ignoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention precautions.

“We were like, ‘We’re not working here,’” said a construction worker who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation. “Most of our guys felt this was bull crap. Some of these guys don’t care, but this spreads like wildfire.”

Then on Tuesday morning, workers were told in another email from Kelley that a first-shift medic who oriented new hires and did drug screening had tested positive for the virus. The medic had worked on site between March 11 and March 25, according to the email. Kelley advised those who’ve had contact with him to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Gilbane, an international development company, said it had been allowed to push ahead with construction by obtaining a waiver from the Wolf administration to continue operating. But the administration has given few details about how the waiver process works and has refused repeated requests to provide a list of which businesses applied to reopen, what they said their life-sustaining business is, and why they were approved or denied.

As of Monday, Gilbane said it was planning to keep building. But state officials now say the waiver is being misused.

“An exemption was granted to Gilbane Construction, but that exemption does not allow for casino construction,” Casey Smith, a spokesperson for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said Monday, replying to questions from the Inquirer and Spotlight PA.

The waiver was granted to Gilbane only for those “projects that pose [a] public safety hazard” and need more work to safely close down, “health care construction,” and, in one case, completing a much-needed Philadelphia school, Smith said.

“Per guidance, when a company receives an exemption in response to a request in which it specifically identified a particular element of the business as essential to health care or another life-sustaining operation, that exemption only relates to those specified life-sustaining activities,” Smith said.

Gilbane declined this week to answer questions about how many workers at the casino site tested positive or negative for COVID-19 or how it obtained the exemption to the state shutdown.

Nor did Cordish Cos., the Baltimore-based casino operator and developer that took control of the project developer, Stadium Casino LLC, in November 2018.

“In the case of the casino project, the building is still exposed to the elements and requires critical enclosure and infrastructure work to be completed before construction work can be safely paused,” Cordish said in a statement Monday. “The safety of all workers on the casino job and all construction jobs in the region is paramount.”

Gary Masino, president of Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 19, sent a letter to his members Monday informing them that they were being pulled from the casino site, as well as two other Philadelphia job sites — The Philadelphia Art Museum and the city’s police administration building — because union leadership felt general contractors there were “not complying with the CDC regulations and preventative precautions” regarding the coronavirus.

“We felt that the workers on those projects were in danger,” Masino wrote.

But Cordish said the company has adopted protocols consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including social-distancing requirements, handwashing stations, and staggered shifts to limit the number of workers on site together.

Those rules haven’t always been followed, workers say.

In an April 1 email to his employees, a subcontractor said he had been informed that day that a casino site worker had previously tested positive for COVID-19, but that workers were to return to the site on Monday after it was deemed safe.

“PPE (personal protective equipment) is extremely scarce as most understand at this point and we will continue to refine and change our program based on this,” wrote Michael Jackson, vice president of Philadelphia D&M, which specializes in framing, drywall, and carpentry. “We look forward to finishing this project with the vigor we started with, all the while keeping YOU, our employees and multiemployer trade partners as safe as we can in our current climate.”

Attached to the email were company “infection control procedures for projects where social distancing is not feasible,” as well as a flier from the general contractor titled “Gilbane Cares.”

The Gilbane flier said workers should not be on site if they feel sick, have a fever or breathing issues, have traveled outside of government travel restrictions, or have been in contact with someone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.

“If you answer NO to all of the above, please come to work,” it states.

Gilbane in a statement said: “The casino, when completed, will bring thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of new taxes to Philadelphia and the Commonwealth, at a time when both will be critically needed. While other gaming companies have cut tens of thousands of jobs in the Commonwealth and shelved planned investments, we are continuing to invest $1 billion in the region to create these new jobs and taxes.”

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is pushing a bill that appears to be on the fast-track for a vote in the chamber that would reopen all public and private construction activities in the state, as long as they can adhere to social distancing and other CDC-recommended mitigation practices.

Democrats in the chamber have decried the measure, saying it plays to politics and special interests, and have called it a threat to public health.

Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the city was not involved in Gilbane obtaining a waiver from the state.

Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies can cite businesses that stay open despite not providing a life-sustaining service or products, but the agency has handed out only warnings, 205 of them as of Tuesday, except for a few citations to businesses selling liquor.

“The posture has largely been to educate, to inform, to demonstrate to the business, perhaps through virtue of a copy of the governor’s order, what the criteria are,” Lt. Col. Scott Price, the State Police’s deputy commissioner of operations, said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

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