WASHINGTON — U.S. shipyards are adjusting to meet the new coronavirus threat, but work continues across the country.
In the wake of news that Fincantieri’s shipyards in Italy has suspended operations for two weeks to help stem the spread of the illness, US shipyards have responded with more modest changes: suspending international travel, limiting domestic travel and suspending participation in conferences and trade shows for shipyard employees.
Yards are also changing leave policies to allow workers time to adjust to restrictions that have closed schools and businesses across the country.
While to date the changes have been minor, several company officials told Defense News that the situation was evolving and more could be coming down the pike as the government responds to the unfolding crisis that has rocked the country over the past week.
Huntington Ingalls Industries’ president and CEO Mike Petters addressed employees in a video message posted to the company’s website Monday. Peters said he is meeting regularly with division leadership and the company has posted links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he urged employees to check for the most accurate information.
Employees who are experiencing symptoms or believe they may have been exposed should let the company know, he said.
“Now more than ever we need to work as a team and look out for each other,” Petters said.
Also on Monday, HII's Newport News Shipbuilding division president Jennifer Boykin extended "liberal leave" policies through second shift on March 20. In a post on the company's website, Boykin added that work would be "minimized" during the weekend and that with some exceptions, parking lots at the yard – the nation's only aircraft carrier manufacturer – would be open through Friday with no reserved spaces.
Newport News Shipbuilding spokesperson Duane Bourne said the health and safety of workers remained the primary focus, calling it "premature to speculate on the impact of COVID-19 on our contracts."
"We are having ongoing discussions with our customers and will continue that dialogue in preparing contingencies and future plans," Bourne wrote in an email.
Fincantieri’s Marinette shipyard in Wisconsin has suspended all international travel, all noncritical domestic travel and has suspended intracompany travel to prevent any potential spread between shipyards, said Eric Dent, the company’s spokesperson.
However, to date the company has seen no delays in operations.
“So far, we have experienced no production delays,” Dent said. “Obviously like other businesses and shipyards, we have to balance force health protection and production as we work through this.”
At General Dynamics’ shipyards, both Bath Iron Works and submarine builder Electric Boat are continuing work, though they – like all the other yards – are allowing anyone who can work from home to do so, said Jeff Davis, a GD spokesperson.
GD has likewise curtailed travel and ceased company participation in trade shows, Davis said.
Electric Boat spokesperson, Liz Power, said the submarine builder is following all government recommendations.
“Electric Boat remains open for business,” Power said. "Our ongoing mission is to provide our Navy with the high-quality submarines they require to complete their missions.
“We have initiated all government-recommended measures to mitigate spread of the disease and continue to work closely with our employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders and our community to keep them informed.”
The ship repair industry is also taking precautions.
Colonna's Shipyard Vice President Bob Boyd said the company is also asking its estimated 700 employees to follow the CDC's guidelines and advising anyone who feels sick to stay home. The company is doing additional screening with non-employees at its entrance, asking about recent travel and contacts, and talking with subcontractors about policies, Boyd said. With schools closed throughout Virginia, Colonna's "just taking it day-by-day."
Dock landing ship Gunston Hall left Colonna's Shipyard in Norfolk last week and the company is currently working on Coast Guard vessel as well as Military Sealift Command's expeditionary fast transport ship Burlington, Boyd said. He said he couldn't speculate on what an order to stop work to counter the spread of the virus could mean for federal contracts.
“Obviously, if they’re shut down or we’re ordered not to perform work, then you know, we’ll follow those orders and resume work once we’re cleared, but you know, it hasn’t happened,” Boyd said. "We can’t speculate that it will. So, we don’t really know what will happen if and when those types of decisions are made, but so far they have not. "
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.
Courtney Mabeus is a senior writer at Navy Times. Mabeus previously covered the military for The Virginian-Pilot, in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier.