May 19 2020 10:02 AM

Industry professionals cope with COVID-19’s impact on startup season.

As contractors prepared for what seemed like it would be a typical season startup in March, the novel coronavirus changed everything. The virus began spreading, and community-
wide shutdowns quickly followed.

The start of the busy season looks more different now than ever before, and industry professionals have dealt with it in different ways. Some closed voluntarily or established safety procedures for crews. The situation has seen continuous change, from which counties were facing a complete shutdown to which services were considered essential. Regardless of perspective, the virus has changed how many contractors are interacting with their communities.

Facing shutdown

Mark Lawrence, proprietor of Simply Yards in Anacortes, Washington, has been in contact with state representatives since early in February. He had been paying attention to what people were saying about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, especially given his heavy involvement with local Boys and Girls Clubs of America. As the situation became more serious, he started looking at how he needed to prepare with his lawn care operation.

When Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order, Lawrence felt there was only one thing he could do: Shut down.

“We have to be smart here,” Lawrence says. “We have to look out for each individual employee and our community.”

Before statewide shutdowns had started, Chris Burdick, owner of JC Landscaping LLC in East Wareham, Massachusetts, had already developed a plan. He determined what work was really essential for that time in the season, such as a drainage issue that was eating a foundation, “but the weeds and leaves can wait,” he says.

He had put back enough money in a “war chest” to provide for his whole team of four for two full weeks during a shutdown. The company also already owns all its own equipment and trucks, which makes it easier to hold off longer than some might be able to.

In early March, Wade Gerten, CEO of On Time Landcare in Blaine, Minnesota, got his management team together to discuss the best course of action, he says. They set up new procedures for staff and made plans for what a shutdown would look like.

On Time, which has about 140 on payroll including seasonal staff, initially shut down voluntarily for two weeks. About a week into that self-imposed shutdown, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued an order closing all nonessential businesses, which included lawn care.

“That changed some of our plans a little bit,” Gerten says. “It got a little more serious.”

Since that initial shutdown, Walz has cleared landscaping services as essential. Gerten reached out to his team to get them back off unemployment and ready to go for the next day.

As soon as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order for the state, George Pavlik, co-owner of Wintergreen II Lawn and Landscaping in Shelby Township, Michigan, gathered his crew and sent them home to prepare for the shutdown however they needed to.

“We immediately sent home everybody as soon as they announced the order,” says Laura Pavlik, co-owner of the company and George’s wife. “But that’s when the ambiguity started.”

Laura Pavlik spent days looking through the orders and reaching out to the governor’s office for a specific ruling on whether or not landscaping was considered an essential service, she says.

She emailed state representatives for the districts covered by Wintergreen and started reaching out to the Department of Agriculture in Michigan. When Whitmer held another press conference, specifically using landscaping as an example of a nonessential service, Laura Pavlik felt like it was in direct answer to all of her requests, she says.

“I thought she was speaking directly to me, because I had sent such a volume of different letters saying, ‘Please stop the ambiguity,’” she says.

U.S. Lawns in Bunker Hill, West Virginia, services customers in both that state and Virginia. Though West Virginia Governor Jim Justice cleared lawn care as an essential service, Virginia’s order by Governor Ralph Northam doesn’t specifically call out lawn care
either way, says Austin Elliott, general manager for U.S. Lawns.

The company serves a large number of multifamily residential properties that need to be maintained to keep the residents safe, as well as clients in industrial, manufacturing and transportation, Elliott says. Some clients have elected to reduce the amount of services, but his crews are continuing work where able.

When Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker initially announced a shutdown for nonessential businesses, Burdick was “all for it,” he says. The timeline for the shutdown went beyond his planned two weeks, but it was safer for the community overall.

Making a choice

When Massachusetts’ ruling shifted to officially include landscaping as an essential service, it gave Burdick a tough decision for his employees and his community, he says.

“I’m in a situation now where I feel like we have to go because everybody else is out there,” he says. “It’s when you’re going to start losing market share. People say, ‘This other guy can do it.’ So I feel like the legislation put us in a really bad position.”

Burdick restarted landscape operations in early April after the two-week downtime like he had originally planned.

While he understands the arguments against it, Elliott says he does feel like landscape services are essential. For those multifamily homes that have children around more than usual right now, lawn maintenance also means wildlife maintenance, such as ticks or fleas. And for other services that are still open, pathways need to be clear of trip hazards and other dangers. U.S. Lawns has stopped some of its other services, such as construction.

JC Landscaping works with coastal communities on the south coast of Massachusetts, where the population is on the older side and paying attention to safety during the pandemic. Most of his clients were very supportive of his decision to close, Burdick says.

Wintergreen’s clients are eager to see the company get back to work, says Laura Pavlik.

“My clients are saying, ‘Get out here and get working. We see other people out working,’” she says.

It’s a tougher situation for Wintergreen, as its clients are all commercial, says Laura Pavlik.

“We’re going to have commercial clients that are going to run into a public health hazard with customers, just because we maintain a lot of city sidewalks and easements,” she says.

Elliott’s team was proactive about reaching out to clients as the pandemic began to ramp up, discussing ways to reduce the scope of services without canceling altogether, he says.

“Rather than doing weekly services, let’s look at spreading maintenance out to a biweekly service,” he says. “So when things do go back to normal, we’re not as far behind. A lot of our clients have been very, very appreciative of that.”

Changing procedures

For On Time, the changes started before its actual shutdown. The sales team was required to do conversations with customers with videoconferencing. The crews had staggered starting times in the mornings, so only a few crew members were in the garage at any one time, says Gerten. The team also received “cheat sheets” translated into multiple languages for cleanliness procedures that could be printed or pulled up on a cell phone.

Gerten has tried to find a safe plan for reducing the number of crew members per truck without adding an impractical number of trucks to the plan. Even the best plan to lower the amount of crew interaction could be thwarted by the crew members being pragmatic. “We realized that probably half our workers would end up carpooling to the site in their own cars,” he says.

Elliott staggers his crews in the mornings and provides cleaning solutions to decontaminate the trucks, which also have handwashing stations now, he says.

If Wintergreen had a stock of masks, “I’d be dropping them off at the hospitals, because those people are on the front lines,” says Laura Pavlik. “We’re an industry that can stay away from each other as we work.”

Most of Wintergreen’s crew leaders are on salary, so they’re remaining at home with full pay for the full term of the stay-at-home order, says Laura Pavlik. Many of the crew members have still been on unemployment from the snow season. During the peak lawn season, the company keeps 50-60 on staff.

“We just keep telling them to be ready to come back,” she says. “We could probably go another three weeks if we needed to. We’re just going to keep adjusting.”

While Lawrence has payroll covered for his crew for several weeks, going beyond that could be more difficult, he says. Some choices about staffing might need to happen, but he’s trying to be proactive about that as well.

“I’ve already made those hard decisions,” Lawrence says.

Shutting down removes a lot of expenses, since Lawrence doesn’t have crews going out and running trucks to job sites, he says. Simply Yards owns its building and maintains enough cash flow, so he’s hoping to weather the storm with his team.

“I told them, ‘You’re my family, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to help my family,’” Lawrence says. “On a personal note, it just breaks my heart, and I’ve never been so sad ever in my life.”

Some parts of Wintergreen are still able to be run by remote office staff, and George Pavlik goes to the office regularly to pick up mail. While the company isn’t running any landscaping work, the Pavliks are preparing equipment for when crews are able to start again, including securing thermometers and hand-washing stations.

Many properties will have a significant amount of organic material to work through, so starting up again won’t be immediate, Laura Pavlik says. Wintergreen is staying in contact with customers to keep them updated on any company news.

As the U.S. Lawns crews continue to work, the teams have several policies in place to keep them as safe as possible, Elliott says.

“The guys are happy to be working,” he says. “We put together a game plan to make sure our employees know that we care about them. We care about their families. We want them to keep working as long as they can.”

Elliott has made it clear that crew members who are feeling any symptoms need to let someone know, then go home. He’s paid a few reporting crew members for the rest of their day to let them know that they won’t be punished for talking to a supervisor about it.

Working with his team, Burdick has been clear about staying vigilant for symptoms. Any crew member who feels the slightest bit sick should speak up and let the manager know.

“If someone starts to show symptoms, we’re going to shut down immediately,” Burdick says. “The real key is keeping everyone healthy, keeping everyone moving.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.