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Hard Restart

May 22, 2020
Since the first outbreak of the virus, more than 38 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

So where are we?

Most of us are now finishing up our second month of seclusion. According to the Center for Disease Control ( the country has suffered more than a million cases of COVID-19 resulting in more than 90,000 deaths. While there are reports of promising treatments, they are all still in the testing phase. There is as yet no vaccine, and not likely to be one for many months.

Since the first outbreak of the virus, more than 38 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The federal government has unleashed a wave of stimulus to help mitigate the downturn; at least $3 trillion at last count with more probably on the way.

The overall rate of new infections is declining in the US (although no state is yet infection-free and the rate is still climbing in some areas). Some big cities like Chicago and New York, which converted huge commercial areas into makeshift treatment facilities in anticipation of overloaded hospitals are now converting those areas back.

Right now we stand on the precipice. On the one hand is the fear is that if the country opens up too quickly it will lead to a spike in new cases. On the other hand every week, every passing day of the shutdown sees more of this nation’s wealth evaporate away—sees more and more people out of work, more businesses (some the work of lifetimes or even generations) destroyed.

Where does all of this leave the plumbing and heating industry?

Better off than many. As an essential business, plumbers have been able to go on emergency calls throughout the crisis. For many contractors, wearing PPE was always part of the job, and putting on a facemask to start the day is just one more piece of equipment. While a lot of larger construction jobs are on hold, that work isn’t going anywhere. While a lot of skilled technicians are now unemployed or furloughed, they still retain their specialized skills and will almost certainly be able to find work once work picks up again.

In place of our regular Book of Giants feature, this year we’ve done a series of interviews with large mechanical contractors to see how they are coping with these challenging times.

Our Giants are faring much better than mom-and-pop outfits. They have the resources to weather the storm. Most have made the investment in technology to stay in contact with both employees and clients, and to continue working in their fabrication shops. More importantly, many have the kind of institutional memory that can take a once-in-100-year crisis in stride.

Murphy Co. of St. Louis, for example, is 113 years old. The company has weathered the Great Depression, both World Wars, and was around for the nation’s last pandemic, the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. In the feature Patrick J. Murphy, fourth-generation owner of Murphy Co. states definitively, “After we get through the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be a better company.”

Let’s hope that we as an industry can learn from this crisis and then use that knowledge to improve our businesses—and that the lessons we take as a nation will lead to improved infrastructure, improved supply chains and improved healthcare systems for the betterment of everyone.

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