COVID-19 among construction workers threatens on-time opening of new Salt Lake City International Airport

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Crews continue their work in the first phase of construction of the Salt Lake City International Airport, May 20, 2020. The first phase of the rebuilt airport is scheduled to open in mid-September, although COVID-19 has kept some construction workers off the job.

Officials say one thing threatens to stall the on-time opening in two months of the first phase of the new $4.1 billion Salt Lake City International Airport: COVID-19.

“The greatest risk factor to opening on Sept. 15 is the health of our [construction] trade workforce,” airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt warned the Airport Advisory Board on Wednesday.

For example, just before the July 4 holiday weekend, seven construction workers had either tested positive for the virus or were in quarantine after being in close contact with someone with the disease — which concerned managers.

“But all of a sudden we saw it jump from one week to the next and we had about 75”— a tenfold increase, said Mike Williams, the airport redevelopment program director.

That is 75 workers out from a workforce 1,600 to 1,800 construction trades people at the airport — meaning sometimes nearly 5% of workers were sidelined (and more were threatened) at a time when they are trying to rush toward the finish of the project.

“We saw those numbers begin to spike as Utah began to spike,” Wyatt said. “It feels as though that has flattened out a bit.”

With the big increase in the number of workers out, Williams said contractors and the airport management team began reinforcing social distancing, mask wearing and other protective rules. Workers arriving have their temperatures taken and are questioned about whether they show any symptoms or have been near people who have.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Signs encouraging social distancing and level of risk are displayed due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19 as crews continue their work in the first phase of construction of the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

“Those numbers have trended back down already,” Williams said. “We are in the low 50s now of folks who are either off-site or quarantined.” He said 20 to 25 are nearing the end of quarantine and are preparing to return.

“So, we think we have stabilized what was starting to occur,” Williams said. He adds that some more workers have gone into quarantine, while others come out. “We’re hoping we can continue to trend down.”

Williams added that construction workers have been “extremely responsive” to protective steps against COVID-19. “They really, really want to be here,” he said. “They reacted just like we did [to the increase in cases] — that this is not a good thing, and it’s impacting what they want to be doing — their work.”

Wyatt said he has observed that compliance with masks and social distancing at the worksite is high, and he said contractors and others are also urging workers to use safe practices when they are away from work.

The coronavirus also is slowing delivery of some materials needed at the airport, with suppliers having problems either because their own workforces are depleted with COVID-19 or because supply chains have been disrupted. Williams said the biggest problem has been obtaining stainless steel and some light fixtures. He said airport officials even visited a stainless steel factory in Texas to work out ways to speed delivery.

“Some of that will be right down to the wire,” Williams said. “We’re hopeful that everything will look fine when we open. If we have to substitute some light fixtures, that’s what we’ll do.”

Otherwise, Wyatt said construction is on time and on budget. Many parts of new facilities are complete and some moving in will begin in a couple of weeks. The airport has extensive moving plans so that it can literally switch from old facilities overnight on Sept. 14 to using the adjacent new terminal and concourse on Sept. 15.

Meanwhile, Wyatt reported that airport traffic is still way down but finally is showing signs of a return.

He noted that 7,000 local people were expected to depart the airport on Wednesday — compared to the 30,000 that is normal this time of year. “But it’s certainly better than the 1,300 on one day in April,” he said.

“Delta [Air Lines] is anticipating in the month of August flying about 75% of the pre-COVID network in Salt Lake City. Those are planes and not people,” he said, noting the airline is flying at only about 60% capacity to allow social distancing aboard aircraft.

Delta provides about 70% of departures at the airport because of its hub operations. Wyatt said Delta officials told him that Salt Lake City is its fastest-growing hub due to the redesign of its services and routes stemming from COVID-19.

For example, Wyatt said that Portland, Ore. — where he once served as airport director — used to have global service. But the farthest east Portland-based flights now travel is to Salt Lake City, where passengers must make connections. He said other airports in the West face similar situations, which is leading to increased traffic and transfers in Salt Lake City.

Data shared with the airport board show that domestic passengers were down by 86% from normal in May. For the year through May, passengers were down by 45%.