Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like all the upcoming construction projects might overwhelm the region's workforce.

That was until the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, delayed some of those projects.

“We’re not getting any calls right now,” said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council. “I know it’s spring, but we should be getting calls. … We were worried about having workforce, but, boy, that sure changed in the last couple of weeks.”

Two men working at the Vision Northland project guide a piece of material into place as it is lowered by crane Thursday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Two men working at the Vision Northland project guide a piece of material into place as it is lowered by crane Thursday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Olson estimates that the indefinite postponement of larger projects like the rebuild of the Husky Energy refinery in Superior and other smaller projects throughout the region could cause 15%-20% of the union to be laid off.

“We have had members calling and saying that they’re not working all of a sudden,” Olson said. “We were looking at taking people off the benches to place. Now we’re having the reverse effect: We’re having to get called back, getting laid off.”

But after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday deemed construction workers "essential" while announcing his shelter-in-place order, some of the region’s larger projects will continue: Essentia’s Vision Northland, the third phase of Superior Street reconstruction and St. Luke’s expansions in Duluth and Two Harbors.

“Construction was deemed an essential service in Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order to stay at home, and thus our Vision Northland project continues,” Essentia said in a statement to the News Tribune on Wednesday evening.

Essentia is in the midst of a three-year, $800 million construction project in downtown Duluth that will bring a new 14-story hospital bed tower, larger surgical suites and clinic space to its campus.

Additional safety measures would be taken during construction to help curb the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing and health screenings before entering the work site, Essentia said.

“We are thankful that construction was exempted from the governor’s order, and we’re confident that our crews are taking the necessary precautions to protect workers and our community,” Essentia said in a statement to the News Tribune.

A construction work helps erect and fasten sections of steel rebar that will reinforce a poured concrete wall at the Vision Northland jobsite Thursday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A construction work helps erect and fasten sections of steel rebar that will reinforce a poured concrete wall at the Vision Northland jobsite Thursday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Kate Van Daele, spokesperson for the city of Duluth, said Mayor Emily Larson and others had been lobbying Walz’s office to consider construction workers "essential" so they could be allowed to continue as planned with the third and final year of Superior Street reconstruction and repair of streets throughout town.

"We were seeing so many different states lack consistency of what was deemed essential and what wasn't," Van Daele said. "We really were continuing to push on the local level for these construction jobs and projects to continue."

Reconstruction of Superior Street from Lake Avenue through Third Avenue West will begin April 6 and continue into the fall. Crews will first finish a section of Superior Street in front of Electric Fetus and Pizza Luce before tackling Superior Street and Lake Avenue. The Lake Avenue Bridge will also undergo upgrades.

And if many of the downtown businesses are already closed due to the governor's order, it will lessen construction's impact on businesses.

"If there's a positive with this project moving forward during the stay-at-home order, it's that we can really work on what I think is the biggest intersection of this project, which is the Lake Avenue and Superior Street intersection, and get that hopefully over with as soon as we can so that can be opened up," Van Daele said.

Work on repairing 18 miles of pothole-laden Duluth streets using the half-percent sales tax will also continue this year, Van Daele said.

Construction projects at St. Luke’s hospitals, including a $36 million construction of a new and expanded emergency room and catheterization lab in Duluth and a $17 million expansion project to connect the Lake View Hospital and Medical Clinic in Two Harbors, "have not been impacted at this point,“ a St. Luke's spokesperson said Wednesday.

For Olson and the union members, that’s all welcomed news, but those who are out of a job are eager to get back to work.

“Just like everybody else, you just kind of cross your fingers and hope this thing passes,” Olson said.

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