Government is pushing ahead with its plans to reopen Cayman’s construction industry through a phased approach beginning next week, Premier Alden McLaughlin announced Friday.
It’s the first major move from government toward economic recovery as Cayman downgraded from Level 4 – high – to Level 3 – moderate – of its coronavirus suppression measures.
Under the new plan, all 110 projects under way in Cayman could get the green light to resume work by 1 June once 40% of Cayman’s more than 8,000 construction industry employees are screened for COVID-19.
However, with eight positive cases from recent tests reported in two days, all of whom were already in isolation, McLaughlin urged caution on opening the economy too fast. As of Friday, Cayman had a total of 94 positive cases.
“We do need to reopen the economy slowly as we are doing,” the premier said. Stressing the need for caution, he pointed to other countries which had “rushed” into easing restrictions because they needed to “rescue their economies”, and subsequently were forced to lock down once more as COVID-19 started to take off again in the community.
This, he said, is something government is trying very hard to avoid in Cayman, “hence the reason why, despite the very, very encouraging results, we are still proceeding with considerable caution”.
In a statement issued Friday evening, Planning Minister Joey Hew said, “The best way forward is a phased approach that allows the sector to gear up, as workers will need to be tested prior to commencement. Projects with final inspections pending requires the least amount of manpower and preparation to re-commence”.
According to the Planning Department, between 25 March and 13 May, it received 72 new applications for planning permissions, and 159 new applications for permits. The department performed 660 permit-related and 158 planning-related plan reviews. A total of 93 permits valued at approximately $23.5 million, and 64 grants of planning permissions valued at approximately $33 million were issued.
Opening begins with near-completed projects
McLaughlin said finding the right path to reopen the construction industry “fairly and at the same time in a way that minimises the public health risk inherent in a sector with more than 8,000 workers” has caused government “a great deal of trouble”.
Considering there are 1,968 entities with Trade and Business Licences operating in the construction and development sector, he said, “if that was the starting point, we would not be able to provide the required testing to that number of persons in relatively short order”.
Therefore, McLaughlin explained, planning authorities have identified 45 projects with just over 100 staff that fit into an initial category of being close to completion, only needing final inspections. All of those employees are being tested for COVID-19 before going back on the job.
“Once they get final inspection and sign-off, that triggers payment for the contractor and the contractor is then in better position to be able to pay [sub-contractors],” the premier said.
The second category for the reopening, he said, was commercial and multi-family dwellings, of which there are 65 projects across Grand Cayman under “active” construction.
“Active means the project has received an inspection since January this year,” McLaughlin said. Restarting those projects would put some 3,000 workers back on the job. Companies within this group are being contacted by email today [Friday] requesting that they send names of the workers on each project to the planning department to schedule COVID-19 screenings.
The screenings will be done on a first-come first-served basis, he added.
“Workers will be exempted by the competent authority after the testing is completed,” he said, adding that “if all goes according to plan, construction work for this second group could begin as early as next week”.
The third category for the reopening covers single-family dwellings and duplexes. The premier said companies involved in constructing such projects would be contacted about scheduling screening of their workers during the week of 25 May.
“Once again, those individuals would need to ruled COVID-19-free before they can return to work,” the premier said.
He said there were a total of around 8,000 people working in the construction industry, across all three of these categories, and it is anticipated that 3,200 of them would be tested within the next two weeks, starting 18 May.
Once 40% of the construction sector population had been tested, and if the results are as anticipated, the rest of the industry could get back to work, commencing 1 June, he added.
“Dr. [John] Lee has indicated they will continue testing even after these exercises are done. There will be a number of field testing on a random basis that will ensure that we continue to have the best possible readout on what the virus is doing, or not doing, in the broader community,” the premier said.
Public Health will be carrying out inspections without notice on projects that have restarted to ensure that proper protocols are being observed – such as the wearing of masks and, if possible, social distancing between workers – and there are adequate sanitation facilities for frequent washing of hands.
He added that there was particular concern over the transportation of employees, which he said must be done in a “careful, thoughtful and safe a manner as circumstances will allow”.
McLaughlin stressed the need for caution, especially “because of the nature of work, people come in close contact with each other unavoidably”.