At least three construction workers who are renovating the Smithsonian’s prized Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., have contracted COVID-19, stirring fears among the workforce that they are risking their health for a project that could wait until the pandemic passes.
The general contractor on the job ― a joint venture between the construction firms Clark, Smoot, and Consigli ― informed its subcontractors of the COVID-19 cases in recent days and confirmed them to HuffPost. A fourth worker also received a positive result from a so-called rapid test, and has been asked to undergo a more reliable lab test.
The illnesses have prompted the general contractor to temporarily close portions of the site for deep cleaning, and required workers who’ve been in close contact with the sick to self-quarantine. A spokesperson said all the workers who contracted the virus were asymptomatic while working, and none of have been onsite since April 30.
One worker on the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because employees aren’t allowed to talk to the press, said the anxiety has led some crews to call out sick rather than risk contracting the virus, with some workers out for days at a time. The majority of his colleagues, he said, believe they should not be working at a time when the U.S. death count due to COVID-19 has surpassed 70,000.
The Smithsonian and construction firms have continued with the years-long revitalization project even though the entire Smithsonian system is closed to the public due to the pandemic.
“We’re talking about a few months here in a very long project,” said the worker. “There are 400 working people on this job. Are they willing to risk all their lives and their families’ lives? That’s a really unnecessary risk in my opinion.”
He added, “They just don’t understand why they’re working in a museum that’s shut down to the public.”
A Smithsonian spokesperson said the project was allowed to continue because construction has been deemed essential under the District of Columbia’s stay-home order, and provided a legal memo from the Smithsonian declaring the project “mission critical.”
A spokesperson for the three construction firms told HuffPost the companies have done contact tracing to identify any other workers who may have been put at risk. They have also done regular cleanings, installed hand-washing stations, and required the use of masks on site.
“The health and safety of our team members, their families, and our communities is [our] highest priority,” the spokesperson said. “We are working closely with the Smithsonian Institution and our trade partners to share accurate information as it becomes available and remain committed to safely operating in accordance with guidance from government and public health officials.”
The COVID-19 cases among the Smithsonian crew highlight the dangers steelworkers, ironworkers, steamfitters and other laborers face across the country as they continue to work through the pandemic. Many work in close proximity to one another and often travel through the same choke points to access construction sites.
In many states and D.C., construction workers have been declared “essential” even on projects that don’t appear time-sensitive or critical for the public, like condominiums and long-term renovations. The stay-home order put in effect by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser includes a blanket carveout for the industry, declaring it part of the “essential infrastructure.”
They just don’t understand why they’re working in a museum that’s shut down to the public.
Construction worker at the Smithsonian site
WAMU and DCist have tracked the predictable results of that policy, reporting that more than a dozen COVID-19 cases turned up among workers on a residential construction site in the city’s booming Navy Yard neighborhood. Clark also helms that project. The possibility of other confirmed cases prompted the temporary closure of a construction project at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
The Air and Space Museum renovations have been underway since late 2018. The facility’s doors remained open to the public during that work until the Smithsonian closed all its properties to guests on March 14 due to the pandemic.
According to the Smithsonian, the Air and Space revitalization project includes refacing the museum’s outdoor cladding and updating old mechanical systems. Congress is funding the renovations through appropriations.
Big projects involve a number of employees working under different subcontractors, who rely on the general contractor and other firms to let them know about infections among their crews; there are more than a dozen subcontractors working at the Air and Space site. Clark, Smoot, and Consigli have asked their subcontractors to notify them about any workers who are tested for COVID-19.
The worker who spoke to HuffPost said working through the pandemic has fostered a climate of mistrust on the site. Before the coronavirus, it had been one of the best jobs he’d experienced in years.
“That has completely changed since this all went down,” he said. “It’s turned into one of the more hostile jobs I’ve ever been on.”