Jay Grant, a plumber for Richard P. Waltz Plumbing & Heating, wears protective gloves, glasses and a mask around his neck while receiving a work order from Operations Manager Dana Collins last week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine service contractors that do house calls are still available to respond to plumbing, electrical and other in-home emergencies, but residents are going to find that routine projects will have to wait until the coronavirus pandemic is under control.

Most heating, plumbing and electrical contractors are still in business despite the sharp cutback in work they can perform. But they are being forced to turn away nonessential work because of rules designed to limit contact among people and reduce the spread of the disease.

And they are taking other steps to keep their workers and customers healthy, from maintaining a distance from co-workers and homeowners to wearing latex gloves and face masks while on the job.

“That’s the hard part of being a contractor right now,” said Rusty Googins, who runs R.W. Googins Electric in North Yarmouth.

Googins said he’s had to talk some customers out of work because of health concerns. Earlier this month, before the state banned nonessential work, Googins said, an elderly couple wanted a ceiling fan installed. He persuaded them to wait because it wasn’t needed right away and he was worried his workers might unwittingly expose the couple to the virus, which seems to affect older people most.

He also encourages workers to wear rubber gloves, wash their hands frequently and use the hand sanitizer dispensers he’s made sure are in the company’s trucks.

“We’re all kind of working it out as best we can,” he said. “It’s all new for everybody. I’m 53 and I’ve never experienced anything like this in my lifetime.”

Googins and other service contractors are being forced to wrestle with existential questions in the midst of the pandemic.

Many cities and states have told all nonessential businesses to shut down and are asking people to quarantine themselves at home to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, which raises the question for many: Just what is “essential”?

The owners of Evergreen Home Performance, which upgrades insulation, installs new windows and makes other home renovations that make houses more energy-efficient, decided that, as important as their business is to them, it doesn’t meet the definition of essential.

The company, with offices in Rockland and Portland, has laid off more than two dozen workers and is struggling with how to stay in business during what the owners estimate will be a one- to two-month shutdown.

Elise Brown, one of three co-owners and the company’s executive vice president, said nearly one-third of customers canceled their projects in early March after they were laid off or lost income because of the pandemic. Evergreen then decided to shutter the business temporarily rather than potentially expose employees or customers to the virus.

Evergreen is applying for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan to “keep the ship afloat” during the shutdown, Brown said. The company is also sending out a weekly newsletter to the laid-off workers to keep them up to date on what’s going on with the business.

The company was formed in 2006, so the pandemic is the second economic upheaval the owners have faced, she said.

“We went through the recession and that was pretty painful, but we came through it,” Brown said, adding that the experience gives her hope Evergreen will weather another economic crisis, although this one has entirely different roots.

Jay Grant, a plumber for Richard P. Waltz Plumbing & Heating, wears protective glasses, gloves and a mask around his neck while preparing to depart for a job on Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Contractors said customers should still call on plumbers, electricians and other repair people for emergencies. But putting off nonessential work until the pandemic seems under control is essential for the health of customers and the workers, they said.

At Unitil, a natural gas supplier in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it was a pretty clear call to keep workers on, said Alec O’Meara, a spokesman for the company.

He said the company has canceled some projects to convert homes and businesses to natural gas, since those aren’t needed immediately, but otherwise it needs to have workers available to complete hookups and respond to emergencies.

Most of Unitil’s office workers are working from home, O’Meara said, and the company has been monitoring the spread of the virus and developing contingency plans for two months. He said workers who do have to go on calls practice social distancing by trying to stay at least six feet away from co-workers or customers.

Richard P. Waltz, a Portland plumbing company that’s been around since 1936, has always been oriented toward responding to emergencies, but now that’s all the company does.

Dana Collins, the operations manager, said the company’s concern for workers’ health and safety has been elevated by the pandemic.

“Supplies are getting low” for personal protective equipment such as latex gloves, respirators and face masks, he said.

The company is trying to avoid laying off workers and sometimes has plumbers “sweeping the floors” at its Portland headquarters to keep them busy and earning a paycheck, Collins said. One worker who felt ill was told to stay home, he said.

The restrictions on work come at a bad time, Collins said, noting that work during the winter was slow due to mild weather and the company was hoping for a rebound with the approach of spring.

Customers with nonessential work are understanding, he said, and the company’s concern goes both ways in its relationship with clients.

“It’s a tough nut to crack when you’re worried about people’s health and their families,” Collins said.

Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said officials are relying primarily on self-policing to enforce a ban on nonessential business adopted by the city manager last week. The ban is expected to be extended by the City Council on Monday.

Grondin said the city might get calls from residents if they think nonessential business is going on, such as a plumber working on a bathroom renovation rather than a burst water pipe, but that’s not the focus of the ban.

“I don’t think we need to rat out our neighbors at this time,” she said.

The goal isn’t to collect fines from businesses, Grondin said, but rather to keep people away from one another to avoid spreading an illness that is killing hundreds of people around the world.

Brown said businesses with which her renovation company works are helping. A landlord waived two months’ rent, she said, and the dealer the company just bought a truck from is working with Brown to restructure payments. That cooperative spirit gives her hope, Brown said.

“We’re all in this together and that’s a silver lining,” she said.

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