By Thad Plumley
No one was immune. The coronavirus COVID-19 impacted everyone in some fashion. Regardless of your age, it is one of the most critical events to unfold in your lifetime.
Personally, someone you know may have been one of the hundreds of thousands to get diagnosed in those frightening days in March when the pandemic swept through the United States and around the globe. But even if you were fortunate in that regard, there is no doubt it changed the way you do business.
It did for everyone.
It was easier for some professions to keep going—those where a laptop computer and phone are the tools. The groundwater industry, though, was not so lucky.
Communicating with a well system customer at their house, installing a new tank, drilling at a jobsite, and even picking up products at a supply house are all things that had to be adapted—and on the fly.
But it happened. The groundwater industry persevered. It always does.
Let’s look at how some of the nation’s water professionals—water well system professionals, suppliers, manufacturers, and engineers—were American heroes who kept life-sustaining water flowing for their communities as a pandemic unfolded around them.
Early Days Offer Hints
It is now known the disease originated in late 2019 in China, but it was not until January 30 that the World Health Organization (WHO) surprisingly declared a “public health emergency of international concern” for just the sixth time in its history.
As the calendar turned to February, reports of cases started dotting the globe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on February 26 a California case where the patient had not traveled abroad, calling it the first case of possible “community spread” in the United States. That same day Vice President Mike Pence was put in charge of the nation’s response to the coronavirus.
Water Well Journal had a Safety Matters column titled “What You Need to Know about the Coronavirus” scheduled for the April issue. However, the publishing team emailed it to the groundwater industry via the National Ground Water Association on March 2 so the information could get in the hands of professionals wanting answers right away.
The column was also posted to the publication’s website that day where it was viewed more than 600 times in the first week.
March and COVID-19 Arrive
The month of March was when everything changed. On the first day of the month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a public health emergency and several states followed suit in the coming days.
The U.S. Congress passed on March 6 the first of three pieces of coronavirus legislation that month. The bill provided emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the outbreak as well as loans for small businesses.
President Donald Trump called the coronavirus a U.S. national emergency on March 13, two days after the WHO officially declared it a pandemic on March 11.
That had the professionals of the groundwater industry adjusting on the fly. A supplier in Pennsylvania reached out to its customers and encouraged them to order by phone and email instead of stopping by their facility. It also began putting orders on its porch for customers to pick up.
Crews from Bruce MacKay Pump & Well Service Inc. in Reno, Nevada, stopped getting signatures upon the completion of jobs and going to multiple locations during the day. Once a job was complete, crews headed back to their shop for the complete sanitation of their vehicles and tools. The vehicles, tools, and company office were completely sanitized each morning as well.
Frank Kurnik, president of Bruce MacKay Pump & Well Service, sent a notice to all customers outlining these precautions and several others at the start of the outbreak.
“Customers are comforted to know that we are taking steps to protect their health along with the health of our employees,” Kurnik says. “When a customer asks what protective measures we are taking with the COVID-19 outbreak, we are able to inform them of the procedures we have implemented so we can continue to safely offer our necessary services.”
NGWA debuted COVID-19 resources on its website on March 12. A news item titled “A message to NGWA members: What you need to know about the Coronavirus” eventually evolved into a full information center of resources ranging
from full-length articles, links to information, and more.
The Association followed up by sending an alert to those working in the industry titled “Contractor COVID-19 Checklist: Steps to Stay Safe During Home Service Calls” on March 16. The list featured the following tips:
- Only do the calls that need to be done.
- Sanitize hands on the way in and on the way out (like in a hospital).
- Limit interaction with the homeowner as much as possible.
- Don’t touch anything that you don’t need to.
- See if delivery of bottled water will satisfy the current water need.
- Don’t touch your face.
- Wear nitrile latex gloves and dispose after the call.
- Be aggressive and very careful in protecting yourself.
- Wear a face mask at a minimum when in the home doing any work.
- Maintain separation distance from others.
- Carry disinfectant wipes in your truck and wipe down every time you re-enter the vehicle.
The Country Closes
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on March 15 against gatherings of more than 50 people. Several states responded with even stricter limits. Those announcements sent a ripple through the groundwater industry.
The early months of the year can be called trade show season for many professions but sadly some events never got to open their doors. Two multi-state events, the New England Water Well Expo scheduled for March 13-14 in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and the Pacific Northwest Groundwater Expo, March 20-21 in Portland, Oregon, were cancelled. Combined, this impacted groundwater professionals in 11 states.
The Water Quality Association Convention and Exhibition, which was set for April 1-3 in Orlando, Florida, was also cancelled, and NGWA postponed a technical workshop scheduled for May in Boise, Idaho. The NGWA event is now July 30-31.
West Virginia reported its first case on March 17, meaning the virus had finally reached all 50 states. Trying to keep up, Congress stepped up again on March 18, passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided free testing, enhanced unemployment insurance, and much more.
Some major manufacturers began going outside of what made them household brands and started making products to help restock hospitals. Hanes, General Motors, and Ford agreed to make masks and ventilators. Vacuum cleaner giant Dyson created a ventilator in 10 days, made 15,000 of them, and shipped them around the world.
The next thing that followed, though, was what will be one of the lasting memories of COVID-19—the flurry of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders issued by governors around the country.
“So many of us have health-challenged parents and grandparents. We have no choice but to protect ourselves in order to protect them. Our premise was simple—everyone you meet is sick. Every surfaceyou touch is contaminated.”
Seventeen states issued such orders between March 19-24. Included in the groups were states housing the three largest cities in the United States: New York City, New York; Los Angeles, California; and Chicago, Illinois.
For the most part, America was told to go home, close the doors, and stay inside. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a notice on March 20 identifying several job sectors as essential to maintaining the country’s infrastructure viability. Water and wastewater were included, meaning groundwater contractors could work. The problem was there was growing concern on just how to do so.
Charles “Buddy” Sebastian of Sebastian & Sons Well Drilling Inc. in Springport, Michigan, had crews begin by addressing potential customers with the following:
To protect you and our employees I must ask you these questions. Please understand it is for the safety of both of us.
- Have you or anyone in your home been out of the country or traveled extensively in the last 30 days?
- Is anyone in the home immune compromised?
- Is anyone in the home running a fever?
- Does anyone in the home have a cough?
If the answer was yes to any of the questions, service was not provided.
At this same time, NGWA created a Facebook group called “COVID-19 Discussion Group” for groundwater professionals to share ideas such as this and say what they are doing during the pandemic. It quickly grew to have more than 300 members posting several times a day.
Among some of the insightful feedback was following up with customers two weeks after jobs to see if anyone in the house was sick or had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and having specific COVID-19 update meetings with staff every day.
Brock Yordy, a global drilling trainer and consultant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is one who kept his teams updated on the latest with COVID-19. He spoke to 45 to 50 drillers around the country with calls in the morning and evening.Discussed were possible COVID-19 hotspots near jobsites, how the contractors and their families were feeling, and reminders to look out for one another.
“It’s mental health as much as physical health,” Yordy says. “The job is complex and if you hear there were four more (COVID-19) deaths near you, it can be upsetting. We need to always watch each other’s back and make sure everyone is okay.”
Jeffrey Williams, MGWC, CVCLD, of Spafford and Sons Water Wells in Jericho, Vermont, shared a document with the Facebook group that he distributed to his employees shortly after the outbreak.
The “Expectation Agreement” was a document signed by Williams and each of his team members stating the companywill maintain safe facilities, properly screen customers, and disinfect all equipment to the best of its ability, while the employees agree to be diligent in their protection and avoid large gatherings of people.
“I think it’s really responsible,” says Yordy, who commented on Williams’ post. “It’s really no different than a drug and alcohol policy. Most companies are small to medium size and if a whole group gets sick, it can really impact a company.”
Williams and others shared protocols adopted by their firms to protect against contamination. A part of the new normal at Spafford and Sons Water Wells was staggered start times. Each team was provided their own truck and service bay and was responsible for making certain it was stocked and cleaned daily so teams could come in, get what they need, and get on the road.
“The crews were split into two-man teams and assigned specific vehicles. We moved one crew off site and brought in separate bathroom facilities,” Williams says. “Everyone rose to the challenge and accepted things for what they were immediately. There was no pushback whatsoever. I am proud of them.”
James Cornette, PG, CWD, of Applied Resource Management Pc in Hampstead, North Carolina, noted among several precautionary steps his firm instituted was assuming everyone you see is sick, no longer doing any in-house work, and vehicles dedicated solely to particular employees.
“As a company, we came together as a group and figured out how best to protect ourselves,” Cornette says. “So many of us have health-challenged parents and grandparents. We have no choice but to protect ourselves in order to protect them. Our premise was simple—everyone you meet is sick. Every surface you touch is contaminated.”
Among the first states to issue a stay-at-home order was Ohio, where NGWA headquarters is located. NGWA sent an email to those in the industry on March 23 stating despite Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announcing residents should stay at home that NGWA is able to still be open and work on behalf of its members and the groundwater industry.
NGWA sent another email to groundwater professionals the next day containing a downloadable letter that identifies employees are essential workers during any Shelter-in-Place orders. It encouraged the letters to be printed on company letterhead and shown if workers were stopped by law enforcement officers going to or coming from a job.
Several groundwater businesses—from contractors to manufacturers to environmental consulting firms and more—followed by reaching out to their customers to let them know they were still working and there for them.
No medals will be handed out this year as Japan postponed the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were slated to be held in Tokyo starting on July 24.
One day later, Congress passed a sweeping stimulus bill in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. For small businesses—like those that make up the heart of the groundwater industry—it provided employee retention credit, a paycheck protection program, pandemic unemployment assistance, and much more.
The Grundfos Foundation, owner of Grundfos, an international pump manufacturer, announced in late March it is donating $29 million this year with some of the funds helping fight COVID-19.
More stories of generosity followed. Consulting firms donated gloves, safety googles, and masks to area hospitals. Calls from industry professionals went out on social media for businesses to check their storage cabinets for any extra supplies that could aid strained hospital staffs.
World Water Day came on March 25, and it served as a much-needed chance for everyone to stop briefly and celebrate water and the professionals who work with it every day. NGWA CEO Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC, had this to say about the industry working so hard in unprecedented times.
“On World Water Day, NGWA would like to express our sincere gratitude for those working every day to provide us with clean and safe drinking water,” Morse said in a post shared on social media. “It’s a hard job and its importance is often overlooked. With the current COVID-19 pandemic and public uncertainty about the future, we should all take a moment and have the peace of mind knowing the work these individuals provide us day in and day out will keep clean water flowing.”
Trump announced on March 29 that the federal government’s social distancing guidelines were extended until April 30. The following day the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort, complete with 1000 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms, docked in New York City, an area leveled by the pandemic.
The last day of the month featured a news story where health professionals were hopeful that social distancing was working and possibly the cause of some slowing positive diagnosis results in particular areas around the country.
However, as the Water Well Journal staff reaches the deadline or this issue, no one knows the ending to this story. No one knows when they’ll take their child to a sporting event or movie again or even when their child will next sit in a classroom.
It’s as if a pause button has been pushed on life.
To aid families trying to help their children with schoolwork, the Groundwater Foundation, which is owned by NGWA, began releasing a series of free online lessons to educate students at home on the science of groundwater.
The first lessons cover basic groundwater terminology, groundwater usage, how groundwater becomes contaminated, and how everyone can help protect it.
“The groundwater industry has been deemed an essential service and we take that responsibility seriously,” Morse says. “These lessons are an extension of our service to communities and I’m proud that we’re able to provide these to the public at no cost during these uncertain times.”
The lessons marked one more way groundwater professionals adjusted to this temporary new world.
“The industry adapted pretty well,” Williams says. “Emails updating us from NGWA, social media, and the COVID-19 discussion page (on Facebook) certainly has and will continue to help give us a forum for the sharing of best practices. The industry is tough; we have to work smart, but we’ll get through this.”
Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.