Contractors facing tough choice after province limits construction activity

With new rules limiting construction projects that can remain in operation set to kick in at midnight on Saturday, Ottawa contractors are faced with the choice of whether or not to stay open.

Ontario shutting down parts of industry amid efforts to contain COVID-19

The provincial government has limited the kinds of construction activity that can continue beyond midnight on April 4. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With new rules limiting construction projects set to kick in at midnight Saturday, Ottawa contractors are faced with the choice of whether or not to stay open.

Steve Barkhouse, owner of Amsted Design-Build, said his company continued working on its 19 home renovation projects over the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 rose across the region.

As of Sunday, however, that's all changing.

"We've tried to fight the good fight," said Barkhouse. "[But] Premier Ford made it pretty clear that he wants people at home, and that we're going to step it up another notch. And we're taking that to heart."

The province is limiting the types of construction projects that can remain in operation — even with physical distancing measures in place — after public health officials released projections Friday showing previous actions taken by the Ontario government had dramatically reduced the number of deaths and confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Only construction related to health care and critical infrastructure, residential projects with permits, and home renovations already in progress can continue after midnight.

Physical distancing measures took toll

Barkhouse said he plans to speak to his clients and start winding down operations in the coming days.

While his business qualifies as essential, he said it's become difficult to manage projects as physical distancing measures took their toll on the industry.

"Small companies that we work with, subcontractors and cabinet makers and things like that, were slowly shutting down because they weren't able to get materials, or their staff weren't comfortable crossing the border or travelling," said Barkhouse.

In addition, Quebec's shutdown of the construction industry two weeks ago led to disruptions in the supply chains Amsted relies on for windows, cabinets and other building materials.

Fares Elsabbagh of Ottawa General Contractors, seen here in 2017, says his company has some 40 projects on the go — and they plan to continue working beyond the midnight deadline. (Hallie Cotnam)

Halting half-finished projects 'very problematic'

Fares Elsabbagh, president of Ottawa General Contractors, said workers at his company will continue working.

His company currently has over 40 projects on the go. 

"That could be very problematic to just stop a project right in the middle of construction," said Elsabbagh.

"Somebody in that home might need their kitchen finished or their secondary dwelling where an elderly parent or the child … are supposed to move into."

When asked why the government continued to sanction home construction and renovation, Premier Doug Ford said 45,000 Ontario families were weeks or months away from moving into a new home.

"Nothing would be more dangerous than having a whole bunch of families on top of each other, living in the same house because their house isn't ready," said Ford. "We're trying to minimize construction to the best of our abilities."

Elsabbagh said he's also trying to his best to balance the needs of his business with his responsibility to keep his workers safe.

"We've put safety protocols in place to try to mitigate the risk with regards with what's going on," he said.

"Ultimately, we want to get through this as fast as possible, because this uncertainty makes it really difficult to navigate a business like ours where there's a lot of moving parts."

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