As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down nonessential businesses in late March, leaving many Montanans unemployed while foreshadowing an uncertain economic future, construction companies remained in business with seemingly little interruption.
Westcraft Homes President Brenda Wilkins said she noticed an initial pause when the stay-at-home order was initiated, but construction business quickly picked back up from where it left off before the pandemic began.
“We haven’t seen a slowdown,” Wilkins said. “Our market is similar to what it was last year, which was a fabulous year for us.”
With low interest rates and an interrupted housing demand, Wilkins says that despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic uncertainty, she hasn’t seen much of an impact in the construction sector, and she’s noticed a mixture of both local and out-of-state clientele.
At Glacier Bank in Kalispell, Market President Bob Nystuen has also seen an increase in construction lending among clients, both local and out of state.
“I think part of it is because people want to relocate in Western Montana,” Nystuen said. “We’ve had more people interested in being here in Western Montana than perhaps living on the East and West Coasts, and I will say that people are interested in lower interest rates.”
Hammerquist Casalegno LLC, a residential contractor in Kalispell, has several projects ongoing through the pandemic, including the Woodlands senior-living development in Kalispell and Alta Views townhomes in Whitefish. But Director of Field Operations John Casalegno says one project, which was supposed to start in April, was halted due to the pandemic. And since the company subcontracts with painters, staircase and door makers in Washington and California, who faced strict directives, Casalegno says some other projects were delayed because of state border-crossing logistics.
“We’ve had to rock and roll with the things that have occurred when the state of Washington totally shut down,” Casalegno said.
While construction in Montana remains an essential service, it’s considered nonessential in Washington, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Vermont and Pennsylvania as of April 24.
In a survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), construction employment had declined in 20 states and Washington D.C. as of April 17. But Wilkins says Westcraft has maintained a full staff, with some office employees working remotely while the jobsite crews remain in the field.
With established social-distancing rules, Wilkins says the framing crews usually only have four or five members working far apart on a jobsite while the shift supervisor works later in the evening to minimize contact.
“We’ve made every adaptation that we can,” Wilkins said. “At first it was challenging, but everyone has adapted really well.”
About 22 crewmembers, and 80 people total when including subcontractors, are working on Hammerquist Casalegno’s Woodlands project. Casalegno says all employees carry sanitation bottles in their toolboxes to wipe down equipment when they are finished.
“We also participated in an AGC-sponsored nationwide ‘Safety Stand-down’ where we shared AGC COVID-19 toolkits and handout information with our employees, subcontractors (and) supplier stakeholders and their employees,” Hammerquist Casalegno CEO Michael Jackola said. “We participated in this national stand-down on every one of our current projects under construction.”
Casalegno says that while there are many people on a worksite, it’s a large area where people aren’t working in the same space.
“There’s different people coming through at different times,” Casalegno said. “Every now and then you walk down the corridor and it’s not six feet … but we’ve been able to keep up fairly good.”
And as stay-at-home directives are lifted, Wilkins says Westcraft intends to maintain safety precautions in their offices and on jobsites to ensure employees’ safety.
“We have no intentions of changing any social distancing,” she said. “We’re just going to continue on.”