A second confirmed case of COVID-19 at Bath Iron Works has triggered calls from the president of the Maine State Senate and other lawmakers to use state authority to close the shipyard.

“Now that we have two cases there, it definitely is past time to stop it,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in an interview.

Gov. Janet Mills and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation reiterated on Friday their calls for the U.S. military to step up its efforts to keep shipyard workers safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the governor cannot force the shipyard to close because it has been deemed an essential business critical to the nation’s defense by the Trump administration, Mills’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said.

“The decision whether Bath Iron Works can or should remain open is a decision that the federal, not the state, government has the authority to make,” Crete said. “The governor is concerned about the health and safety of the workforce, and she has been in contact with BIW about measures they are taking to provide as safe a work environment as possible.”

The shipyard’s labor unions have been asking the company for weeks to shut down operations and give workers paid time off. Thousands of people work in close quarters at the shipyard, and many commute long distances from communities across Maine, raising fear of transmitting the virus far and wide.

“The thing about it for me, that is what the workers are asking for,” Jackson said about a temporary shutdown. “I feel very strongly that their concerns are the thing we should be listening to.”

The shipyard on Thursday said an employee who was last on its property Tuesday tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. BIW is one of Maine’s largest employers with about 6,800 workers.

In letter to employees Thursday, the company said those who were in close contact with the worker who tested positive are receiving guidance from the company’s medical team. An immediate and thorough cleaning is underway of all areas where they worked, it added.

Another employee who contracted COVID-19 in March has recovered and is back at work, BIW said.

The company said it has extended flexible work hours, created more space for breaks, changed work routines, stepped up sanitation and taken extensive measures to maintain physical distancing in the shipyard.

But it is not prepared to close. Normal business continues even though 25 to 30 percent of its workforce is not coming to work, according to the company.

“The Navy is clear on the need to maintain its operating tempo, and we must do the same. Our work here every day matters to the defense of the nation,” BIW President Dirk Lesko said in a letter to employees Wednesday.

But some lawmakers think the potential public health threat presented by BIW overshadows other considerations.

“It is the definition of insanity to keep that place open,” said state Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship. “We do not become stronger by letting those people get sick; we become stronger by protecting them.”

The governor and Maine’s four congressional delegates – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – issued a joint statement Friday asking the Department of Defense to give BIW the same guidance it gave to public shipyards to limit virus exposure.

“This new case only deepens our longstanding concern and hastens the need for the Department of Defense to provide much-needed flexibility so these shipyards can better safeguard the health and safety of their workforce,” the statement reads.

They called on the defense department to lessen financial burdens and loosen federal contract requirements to provide more stability to the business.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, supported similar measures in a statement.

“Workers travel to BIW from every one of Maine’s 16 counties, and the potential ripple effects an outbreak would have in our communities are grave,” Gideon said.

Shipyard workers are allowed to take unpaid time off until next Friday, and they qualify for unemployment benefits, said Chris Wiers, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6, the largest union at the company.

So far, BIW and its parent company, General Dynamics, have not said whether BIW will extend that window despite a statewide stay-at-home order issued by Mills that lasts until the end of the month.

Wiers doesn’t think there are any measures the shipyard could take to operate safely if it already has two confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“I honestly believe that it seems that no matter what efforts are put forward, they aren’t going to be enough,” he said. “This could be the beginning of something that could be very widespread and harmful to our workers at BIW and the community of Bath and the state of Maine.”

State Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, in an opinion piece submitted to The Times Record newspaper, said physical distancing measures mandated by the state, including keeping 6 feet from others, are needed to slow virus spread and prevent overwhelming the state’s health care system. If BIW cannot implement those measures to ensure worker safety, it needs to close, she said.

“Otherwise, it won’t have a workforce to build ships after we return to normal,” Vitelli said. “COVID-19 is already in our community. We know two BIW workers have tested positive for the virus. It’s only a matter of time until the virus spreads further in the yard and in the community beyond.”

In an email Wednesday to legislative leaders, state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, asked leadership and other lawmakers to consider a joint request that Mills exclude defense production from essential businesses and halt production for two weeks at facilities where universal, 6-foot distancing is not practicable.

Without widespread testing it is unknown whether BIW workers without symptoms are transmitting the virus and co-workers are carrying it to family, friends and home communities, Berry said.

He said he knows of four BIW workers at home with COVID-19 symptoms who have not been tested. It is encouraging that workers staying at home can get unemployment benefits, he said, but it would be better to close the shipyard.

“Right now, it is impossible to see the actual degree of risk for individuals who are showing up to work every day,” Berry said. “We have a new confirmed case, but we all know the risks increase with each new day of infection – the risk of infection is rising rapidly.”

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