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Construction workers carry their lunch back to a work site in Toronto on March 24, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A group representing thousands of unionized construction trades across Ontario is calling on the provincial government to shut down the industry to protect the health and safety of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford ordered all non-essential workplaces to close by Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, but exempted the construction industry from the mandatory order.

The Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC), an umbrella group representing unionized carpenters, painters and other trades, said the government should suspend activity in the sector for 14 days.

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“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee, yet construction sites are expected to continue operations and they can have hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other,” OCC executive director Phil Gillies said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr. Gillies’s group has joined a growing chorus of voices calling for a shutdown of construction work. However, the industry is far from united.

Mr. Ford echoed BILD, which represents 1,500 home builders and land developers in the Greater Toronto Area, in saying the industry must remain open to meet demand for new housing.

“Across the province, thousands of families are waiting to move into new homes that are days or weeks away from completion," Mr. Ford said at a news conference on Tuesday. “When it comes to necessities of life, shelter is at the top of the list.”

BILD chief executive David Wilkes said it is essential to keep the sector up and running to meet the housing needs of families while balancing the health and safety of workers.

“The health and safety of employees, suppliers and customers is the industry’s top concern,” Mr. Wilkes said in a statement on Tuesday.

Some labour groups have complained that there is no running water or hand sanitizer at many construction sites. Mr. Wilkes said residential builders have taken “pro-active steps” to improve sanitation, reduce staff to a bare minimum and practice social distancing.

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Part of the $5.3-billion Eglinton Crosstown light rail project in midtown Toronto – the biggest transit line being built in Canada – has been shut down until next week for disinfecting after COVID-19 was detected among the workforce.

A spokeswoman for Crosslinx, the consortium building the transit line, said Tuesday evening that one employee who works at the West Portal part of the project, at Black Creek and Eglinton, has tested positive for COVID-19. A second employee at the site who is presumed to have the disease is awaiting test results.

The location is undergoing a deep clean that will take days, Crosslinx spokeswoman Kristin Jenkins said in a statement. Colleagues who may have been in contact with the workers are being notified, she said.

The news marks the first known case of the disease in Ontario’s construction sector and came the same day London stopped construction on its £17-billion Crossrail mega-project.

The Premier announced the broader shutdown of the economy on Monday, the same day Quebec imposed a near complete shutdown of its economy, including the construction industry.

Mr. Ford stopped short of saying on Monday whether he plans to force construction companies to idle their cranes and send workers home. But that same night, the government released a list of essential businesses, including construction projects in the health, transit and energy sectors, as well as those in the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors.

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The OCC’s Mr. Gillies said exempting hospital projects would make sense rather than an “all-encompassing” exemption for the entire sector.

Mr. Gillies’ group has joined the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, which on Monday evening called on the government to temporarily halt all construction in the province. The council represents over 30,000 men and women in carpentry, drywall and other skilled trades.

“The situation, which exists on most job sites, means that work simply cannot go on as normal,” Tony Iannuzzi, executive secretary treasurer of the council, said in a statement. “Many job sites have no facilities for workers to even wash their hands using soap and hot water, and ‘social distancing’ is just not possible.”

Other labour unions have also complained that the health of construction industry employees is at risk because their working conditions do not allow them to follow basic hygiene and safety regulations that health authorities say are crucial to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

At his news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Ford said dozens of inspectors from the Ministry of Labour have fanned out to numerous large construction sites to ensure proper protocols are in place to protect workers. “Let me be clear: If the industry does not take every step necessary to look after their workers," he said, “I will shut them down.”

With a report from Oliver Moore

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