Designated essential, building industry worked through shutdown

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Sandy Benson, owner of Custom Audio Video, meets with her technicians via a video conference, demonstrating their remote access availability for customers. KEVIN AYLMER

From entryways to window designs, the effect of the COVID-19 shutdown on the building industry ran the gamut.

Some experienced a surge of business; others felt the strain of a slowed supply chain. Deemed an essential industry by Gov. Henry McMaster, those businesses were permitted to continue operating under the pandemic guidelines.

"For the most part, because our industry is essential, everyone was able to keep working, but with modifications," said Meg James, Hilton Head Area Home Builders executive officer. "The remodeling industry was the hardest hit from what we could gather immediately. Folks were putting projects on hold because they didn't want contractors in their homes; contractors didn't want to send their crews into homeowner-occupied projects."

That was one of the situations experienced by Doug Gilman or Gilman Floors.

"We saw a fair amount of people who postponed jobs for an indefinite period of time. Some of them have already reinitiated the projects that will start in June or July, and others will probably postpone until the fall when they see how this all play out," Gilman said. "Most of the companies are a little concerned but they're still staying busy. Nobody wanted us to stop our projects, especially like kitchens that were under way when the restaurants were closed."

Sophia Schade of Prestige Stone & Tile had a similar response from customers.

"From late March and month of April, they wanted nobody in their homes. During that period of time everything was quiet and we were not seeing customers call," said Schade. "They are spending more time at home and they are looking at things they want to change. It was scary for the first eight weeks, and now they are anxious to get back to normal, but very cautious."

Many of the remodeling companies kept store hours, seeing customers by appointment only.

"The initial part of the shutdown, we had our showroom open by appointment, but we didn't have too many people come down," said Gilman. "Really, the last four weeks, it's been a gradual increase of people coming by on a daily basis. And, of course, we're being careful of having our showroom open. It's a really hands-on experience, so we're asking people to wear gloves, masks. And we're all still trying to get those things and our supply is dwindling."

One of the issues confronting business owners was keeping employees and keeping them occupied. Sometimes that meant adapting the product to the need. For Jennifer Kirkland, owner of Carolina Window Designs, that included making facemasks.

"My shipping and receiving guy's wife works for the Hilton Head Hospital Emergency Room. That is how I found out about the need for masks," she said. "The nurses are wearing them over their N-95's to help prolong their use. We made the first couple dozen, using fabric leftovers and delivered them several weeks ago."

That led to a request for the store's mailing address for a thank you note and Kirkland offered to make more if they needed them.

"They accepted and we sent over a couple dozen more last week. Both of my seamstresses worked on those masks together," said Kirkland. "We have continued to work on custom orders, but at a very limited volume. Some of our suppliers are slow filling orders, but they are still sending them."

Others have faced challenges of supply issues.

"The one challenge has been transportation, and based on where the manufacturing is - in New York or New Jersey - they couldn't get the product to us," Schade said in regard to the first weeks of the emergency. "Now things are different today."

Mark Paxton of EntryPoint Door Transformations experienced that, also.

"My biggest problem was getting product, but it's starting to come in now. I've had five pieces of glass in two months but I have ... 15 pieces coming now," Paxton said, who has been open the whole time. "I have plenty of sales, just not enough product. We're just trying to do the best we can."

Paxton did say he was down 50 percent in sales; Kirkland is down 40 percent and Gilman said they were probably down 70 percent from last year.

"We have had almost no inquiries for new work, the only exception being repair work. All of our workers are on reduced hours," said Kirkland. "We were lucky enough to keep everyone working, but at one-half or less of their regular hours. Obviously this has impacted everyone's income."

Gilman said his company had a pretty good backlog of work when everything happened in March.

"We spent the first month finishing up the work we had to do, and then the last four weeks we had been pretty much getting new work, but not a ton of new work," he said. "People are starting to come out again and over the next couple of weeks we'll start getting their orders filled and scheduled. We probably had a six-week period of being pretty quiet."

Dave Gaal, owner of Gaal Custom Homes and Remodeling and president of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association, has his main market on Hilton Head Island.

"When this all started to hit what I got really concerned about was number one, whether we were going to be able to finish projects in progress, and number two, the concern of working in people's homes who live there," said Gaal. "We have a lot of absentee homes and people were living there. It was hard to get PPEs and sanitizers. We were able to do it because the state recognized the construction industry as essential business. So we never stopped working, but we had to modify our approach to jobs."

Projects that use a number of contractors to complete the job had to schedule the individual trades to show up one at a time or in such a way that they did not conflict with the CDC guidelines of people per space and other requirements.

"We tried to limit the number of people on a job site at a time, even going to only one contractor at a time, plumber or electrical or another. What that does is stretches the time line out further, but it seemed to be working out OK, Gaal said. "We were also trying to monitor the people, making sure nobody's showing any signs of illness and trying to reinforce good sanitizing habits during the day."

Gaal also experienced supply chain issues.

"For example, we had a whole list of kitchen appliances in one order, and one or two items would be delayed. That's frustrating for the customer," he said. "Even though it's been paid for, you can only do so much until the next step happens. You have to do one thing at a time, especially now. And then there is rescheduling the contractors coming in to do the next step."

One industry that can operate remotely is information technology. It's also one industry that has experienced a genuine surge in work.

"We have people who work with us from Georgia as well as South Carolina. When this began, we had to make sure that they knew that if they got stopped that we are operating under what is called an 'essential critical infrastructure worker' during the COVID-19 response by the Department of Homeland Security," said Sandy Benson, owner of Custom Audio Video. "We maintain, establish and install systems that allows people to operate remotely."

Nearly every household has smart phones, laptops, tablets, computers - some sort of advanced technology - but homeschooling and working remotely revealed a number of weaknesses in home systems.

"When this all happened, there were a lot of people who had a home network, but it wasn't super robust because the demands that we're putting in networks now are multiple the amount of demands we had put on them before we were all working at home," Benson said. "With everybody at home, working remotely, it puts a demand on their systems that in some cases people weren't prepared for. A lot of people had to bump up their services, too."

Benson said her company does the equipment portion, and the stay-at-home orders have kept her company very busy.

"We put in the robust network components, but the providers - like Spectrum, AT&T, Comcast, Hargray - they actually are just as busy because they have to increase the clients' bandwidth in a lot of cases," she said.

Not every job needed technicians at the location, Benson said.

"Some people just needed service on the phone. We had a support staff here at the store as well as field technicians that could go out and troubleshoot if we needed to," she said.

Benson said they got to the point that they had to hire, and "that doesn't happen in these situations.

"The biggest thing during this whole thing, I think a lot of people weren't ready for all this remote access where they were going to actually have to have kids online doing these things," she added.

Gilman said it was probably a little bit stressful on everyone, especially when it all started in March.

"I feel tremendously bad for anyone in the hospitality and restaurant business because of all the layoffs and no business coming in. We're keeping our people employed doing stuff, coming to work every day. We did get our stimulus money which helped us stay, because otherwise we'd have had to lay people off," Gilman added. "We all have to step up and heighten our practices so we don't end up in a bad situation, but I saw for the most part, everybody was trying to the best thing for not only their own employees but their subcontractors as well."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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