INGLEWOOD, Calif. — They arrived before dawn on Monday.
Hundreds of construction workers got out of their trucks and cars, put on their white hardhats and reflective orange and yellow vests and headed for work at the NFL stadium being built for the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers — on a day unlike any yet.
On Sunday, the company overseeing construction of the 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium confirmed a trade worker at the site had tested positive for COVID-19.
Less than 24 hours later, Tommy Cisneros, a painter, stood with a co-worker in a parking lot filling up next to the stadium.
“Everybody’s kind of spooked, on edge,’’ Cisneros, 60, told USA TODAY. “You know everybody’s scared about catching it. There must be a lot of pressure to get this (stadium) finished.’’
From the postponement of the Olympics to the NBA suspending its season to the cancellation of the college basketball tournaments, the sports world has been brought to a virtual halt by the coronavirus pandemic. But the construction of sports facilities continues, and it’s putting a spotlight on the tension between economic pressures and safety concerns.
In states that have closed most businesses, the construction of sports facilities is subject to the same test as other commerce: Is the project “essential”? Yet it’s not clear why some projects have been halted as nonessential while others have been deemed essential and allowed to go forward.
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Many contractors also try to observe standard COVID-19 safety protocol, such as staying six feet apart, but the standards aren’t always strictly enforced.
Last week, the companies overseeing construction of the Raiders’ new NFL stadium in Las Vegas and the Texas Rangers’ new Major League Baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas, each disclosed that a worker at their respective sites had tested positive for COVID-19.
Like the project at SoFi Stadium, work on those facilities continues, with about 2,000 construction workers on the job at the Raiders’ stadium site and a much smaller crew putting on the finishing touches at the Rangers’ new stadium.
The Rams, Chargers and Raiders were expected to be in their new stadiums for the 2020 NFL season, but they’d have to find temporary homes if construction cannot be completed in time. In addition to likely paying rent to play in other stadiums, the teams potentially would lose out on revenue, too.
SoFi Stadium, for example, is scheduled to officially open with pop singer Taylor Swift’s concert July 25.. The stadium is being built on a 298-acre development expected to generate millions of dollars of steady income thanks to a 300-room hotel, a 6,000-seat performing arts center and a host of other amenities.
At Allegiant Stadium, which will be the Raiders’ new home, Garth Brooks is scheduled to hold a concert Aug. 22. It’s uncertain if the concerts would be rescheduled if the stadiums do not open in time.
On Monday, as the construction workers arrived at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, most of the talk centered on the trade worker at the SoFi who had tested positive.
“It’s bad,’’ said Juan Sanchez, 53, a painter. “I don’t want to get the virus. I got my family. I don’t want to take this virus to my house.’’
But there Sanchez was, along with others painters and scaffolders and pipe fitters, as deadlines near.
Construction a boost to the economy
With the U.S. economy crippled by the coronavirus epidemic, construction offers a potential boost. The industry employs more than 7.6 million Americans and last year construction spending topped $1.3 trillion, according to federal government figures.
The two new NFL stadiums are being built at a cost of more than $4 billion combined.
SoFi Stadium, privately financed, was assessed last year at $2.25 billion, according to the Los Angeles County Assessor spokesman Steven Whitmore, who added that the building will be reassessed after construction is complete. The stadium is expected to generate $18 million in tax revenue for Inglewood in fiscal 2020-21 along with 12,000 permanent jobs, Inglewood Mayor James Butts said.
Allegiant Stadium is being built for about $1.9 million and the funds include $750 million in taxpayer dollars from Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. The stadium will have an annual economic impact of $620 million, according to figures released by the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee.
NFL teams aren’t the only big spenders on construction projects.
The Texas Rangers’ new stadium, Globe Life Field, will cost $1.1 billion in private and public money. Construction also remains underway on the $930 million renovation of the Seattle Center Arena, which will be home to Seattle’s new National Hockey League team in 2021; a $100 million renovation of Dodger Stadium; and at six other projects, ranging from a college football stadium in Birmingham to a soccer stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, being built at a combined cost of about $1 billion.
“Major sports venues are really important to the economy,’’ said Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions that represents about three million workers. “When we get to the point where we’re going to be able to watch Little League games and college and high school athletics, up to the pro ranks, it’ll be a really important emotional lift for the country.’’
‘I got to feed my family’
Cisneros, the painter at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, helped explain why thousands of workers keeping showing up. He said he makes $36 a hour — if he works.
“I got to feed my family,’’ he said. “I’ve got to pay the bills.’’
Turner Construction, which is overseeing the construction of SoFi Stadium, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding safety protocols, such as requiring workers to stay six feet apart and wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment, company spokesman Chris McFadden said.
“We work extremely hard to create a safe workplace, enforce protocols, and protect workers,” McFadden said by email. “We actively listen to workers and protect workers.”
Cisneros said that while he and others are often six feet apart, he received no face mask and no gloves to protect him against the coronavirus. Other workers arrived with what appeared to scarf-like coverings around their mouths. (Later in the week, a construction worker who asked not to be identified because he had not been authorized to speak to the media said nonsurgical masks had been distributed.)
Speaking of construction workers in general, McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, said, “Are they concerned? Absolutely. Do they have health and safety concerns? Most definitely, like everybody in this country. They also have economic concerns.”
What is essential work?
With federal social distancing guidelines in place until April 30, and stay-at-home orders in effect in more than two dozen states, construction projects are subject to the new test of “nonessential’’ vs. “essential’’ work. With states and cities making the decision, nonessential workers are sent home and essential workers are asked to stay on the job.
In Austin, Texas, work on a $240 million pro soccer stadium was deemed “nonessential’’ last week and so construction was expected to end. But among sports projects, that appeared to be the exception of the rule.
Facilities earning “essential’’ status were moving forward. Those included: Protective Stadium, a 45,000-seat football stadium for the University of Alabama at Birmingham being built for $179 million; West End Stadium, a Major League Soccer team in Cincinnati being built for $250 million; and $118 million renovation of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, home of the Syracuse University football team.
Though the companies at those sites have not reported that any of its workers have tested positive for COVID-19, there’s clearly a risk. Two members of the North America’s Building Trades Unions have died from the coronavirus, said McGarvey, and construction companies in at least 12 states have confirmed workers on their sites have tested positive for COVID-19.
But McGarvey said there’s been a much higher rate of confirmed positives and deaths related to COVID-19 among first responders.
“I think the numbers are something that we worry about, but compared to the other critical operations that are still going on, our numbers appear to be OK,’’ he said.
He also said he’s confident construction workers will stand up for themselves..
“There’s been a couple of job sites across the country where the men and women on the job site weren’t satisfied with what the owner and contractor had put in place for safety protocols on the project, and they walked off the project,’’ McGarvey said. “And guess what happened? The protocols were put in place.’’
McGarvey echoes the sentiment of the companies overseeing construction of the two NFL stadiums — that sufficient safety protocols are in place for construction to continue. But uncertainty lingers.
Last week, the day it was announced that a worker at the Raiders’ new home, Allegiant Stadium, had tested positive for COVID-19, the state of Nevada issued a letter of warning.
During intermittent surveys of active work sites in Nevada, it is “visibly obvious that employees are still being directed/allowed to work in close proximity (less than six feet of separation) from other staff,’’ according to a copy of the letter issued by the Nevada Occupational Safety and Heath Administration. The letter also stated that any construction project violating the emergency guidelines would be subject to penalty or closure.
Teri Williams, a public information officer for Nevada’s Department of Business and Industry, said she could not provide information about specific job sites. Steve Hill, chairman of the Raiders’ stadium board, said he thinks the project is in full compliance with the new guidelines.
In Inglewood, longtime resident Diane Sambrano expressed concern while noting that the sports world has been shut down because of health risks stemming from the coronavirus.
“So if the players can’t play together and other construction comes to a halt, I’m not sure why stadiums get an exception,” he said. “We’re all being asked to stay in to limit exposure, and yet that doesn’t seem to apply to the sports (construction projects).
“There must a reason that other industries have been limited in their gathering other people together, and somehow I don’t think construction workers by virtue of their job description have a much greater immune system set up.’’