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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Lupton Building is seen on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Thursday, May 7, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Work had to be halted at a construction site on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus last week after a construction worker tested positive for COVID-19.

EMJ Construction has been leading the renovations of Lupton Hall, formerly Lupton Library, into administrative offices and classrooms for months. On Wednesday, April 29, a subcontractor notified the company that an employee had tested positive, according to EMJ Construction President Jack Bowen.

The next day, an EMJ employee also tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We decided it was best to close the job down for the week," Bowen said. "What's going on on the job site right now is a result of us having a plan. We implemented our plan."

When the coronavirus first started spreading across the country, Bowen said EMJ developed contingencies for situations like these, as well as safety measures and social distancing guidelines to enforce on work sites.

"On all of our jobs for a month now, we've been fully masked, gloved," he said. "Social distancing has been enforced in addition to having hand wash stations."

Initially EMJ wasn't concerned about the number of employees, 50 to 80, who were working the Lupton Hall site — one of five active job sites the company is working in Chattanooga.

"The reality is, on a construction site, most people aren't working shoulder-to-shoulder," Bowen said. "It's relatively easy to enforce social distancing on a construction site."

The site itself is fenced off, and EMJ has control of the building and the neighboring parking deck. Pedestrians cannot come into contact with workers, and workers have a place to eat.

UTC officials confirmed that at least five EMJ employees had been sent home last week and said no UTC employees have been affected. The renovation work is on schedule to be finished in August, a UTC spokesperson said in an email.

UTC's campus has been closed since March, when the majority of classes were moved online at most colleges and universities. Less than 10% of employees are currently on campus, officials said. UTC Chancellor Steve Angle launched a task force that is reviewing how to re-open the campus this fall, but plans have not been officially announced.

EMJ plans to re-open the site on Monday, May 11. The company plans to hire a third party to conduct temperature checks on workers entering the job site each day, a measure it has implemented already at other sites with 100 or more employees.

The company is also working on a second site at UTC, renovating the school's Fine Arts Center. The employee who had tested positive last Thursday is the only known positive case of an EMJ employee, Bowen said.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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