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Public Works crews embrace social distancing as routines shift

With many Minnesotans staying at home, the streets are emptier than usual right now. In some ways, that makes the pandemic the ideal time for some street repair.

A Public Works employee shoveling pothole asphalt fill.
A Public Works employee shoveling pothole asphalt fill.
Saint Paul Public Works

With many Minnesotans staying at home, the streets are emptier than usual right now. In some ways, that makes the pandemic the ideal time for some street repair. If they can keep their workers healthy, Twin Cities’ Public Works crews will be out there filling in the millions of potholes that are everywhere on the streets after a long winter.

“They are like the rest of us, coming in to work, doing the things they need to do,” explained Ted Schoenecker, the director of public works for Ramsey County. “They’re a little anxious over what this all means, but as a whole they’re pretty resilient bunch.”

With the shutdown in place, the need to limit contact and contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus is shifting work routines for public works crews. Departments are adapting to new rules around social distancing and public health. For example, to decrease contact between staff as much as possible, Ramsey County has moved to two shifts instead of one. Half the crews begin their day at 5:30 a.m., while the second shift finishes up at 10 p.m.

“In addition, we’re picking work that can keep them distanced naturally,” explained Schoenecker. “You can keep your distance as you’re working out there: one person in a sweeper, one person in dump truck in front of them, one in the follow truck. Plus we’re doing things like signal timing or sign installation, picking work types where they don’t have to congregate closely together.”

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But with some other infrastructure, staying distant is not always possible. As larger projects begin, like the massive bridge replacement effort that has just begun at Dale Street and Highway 94, crews are having to figure out ways to keep their distance while they work a crane.

Construction has begun on Ramsey County’s Dale Street bridge replacement project, at Dale and I-94.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Construction has begun on Ramsey County’s Dale Street bridge replacement project, at Dale and I-94.
“[In those cases], we keep the same crews together,” Schoenecker said. “If you have a two- to four-person crew, we keep that group together to keep the employees separated that way.”

Altered routines

Just up Dale Street at the St. Paul Public Works headquarters, the usual morning stretching routines have shifted from one large group to a solo activity. Likewise, the usual swapping of vehicles and machines has been cut. Instead, workers are using the same vehicles as much as possible, to reduce any possibility of contamination.

“Whenever possible, people report to their truck directly, so they’d go from their personal vehicle into the garage and stay away from everybody,” explained Beverly Farraher, the department’s operations manager. “They get their job assignment, stretch by their truck, and never come in to the office building. That keeps the very few folks who are still in the office building away from them, and away from surfaces in the office building.”

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In St. Paul as in most workplaces, a lot of staff have been able to shift to working from home. But because of the nature of streets, a lot of employees remain “in the field” or working in new locations. Most notably, in order to keep social distancing, the city’s ordinance inspector has moved into a tiny windowless nook called “the snow emergency room.” Packed with notifications waiting for a blizzard, Farraher admits that the small cinderblock nook is “not luxurious.”

“Across all our facilities, we have instituted a deeper cleaning protocol,” Farraher said. “Surfaces are getting disinfected each day, doorknobs, places where people can’t avoid doing the work. That has been going very well.”

St. Paul Public Works would like citizens to stop flushing anything other than toilet paper down the sewers.
St. Paul Public Works
St. Paul Public Works would like citizens to stop flushing anything other than toilet paper down the sewers.
Especially, now, with the the Burgess Street asphalt plant working overtime producing bituminous pothole filler, making sure that crews can stay safe is important if the city’s streets are going to stay in good shape.

Over to the west, the 280 people in the Minneapolis Public Works street maintenance and repair division are making similar shifts in their daily routines.

Lower traffic volume helps

“With the street sweeper, there’s one person in it anyway, so that works out well,” explained Mike Kennedy, who heads the division. According to Kennedy, the lack of heavy traffic has made it easier in many places to get things done.

“There are some places where we can sweep that we typically may not be able to,” he explained. “For example, downtown and in business corridors and places like that. Most of what we are sweeping now are the main arterials, and sweeping at night, with fewer cars out there, we can get to the curb lines more than we typically could.”

The lack of traffic also means that detours are less of a problem, posing fewer delays. That means fewer frustrated drivers cutting through neighborhoods and speeding down residential streets. In addition, the lower traffic volume means it’s easy to repair a traffic signal or test other equipment without causing major disruption.

“It’s safer for everybody,” Ted Schoenecker agreed over in Ramsey County. “When our maintenance folks are out there on a shoulder closing down a lane, it’s safer to be out there with less traffic. There are things we would have to do off-peak or in the evenings, and we can now do doing the day.”

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Public engagement goes online

On the other hand, public engagement meetings became early casualties of COVID-19. For example, last month, St. Paul’s in-person public meeting on the redesign of Ayd Mill Road, a short city-owned freeway spur, was replaced with an online Youtube video. According to Lisa Hiebert, who manages public relations for the department, the video and comments reached far more people, and generated more comments, than the original meeting.

In similar ways, the changes to the process around pandemic prevention might lead to some new routines and tricks for departments.

“This is challenging for us, admitted Schoenecker.” There are a lot of things in here that we can look at and say, it’s difficult for us to deal with this pandemic. But there are also a lot opportunities in there for how we can change our business, and do it differently, that may carry on into the future. There are some positives that will likely come from this too.”