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Construction has screeched to a halt, but not everywhere

A construction site in Boston's Seaport was shutting down Friday because of the pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Across the Seaport on Friday, normally bustling construction sites sat empty. Tower cranes were still, bulldozers quiet.

But at one nearly done building on Northern Avenue, across from the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion, the job continued, with green-shirted construction workers still hammering, installing, and finishing despite Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s order last Monday that construction stop, to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Why? Because the project’s buildings — a 304-unit apartment building called Ora Seaport and a neighboring Hyatt Place Hotel — are on land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, and are therefore, apparently, exempt from Walsh’s shutdown.


It’s a technicality that highlights the patchwork nature of the construction shutdowns taking hold across the region. Walsh ordered work to stop in Boston — the first big city in the United States to do so — bringing billions of dollars’ worth of building to a screeching halt. Cambridge followed suit, shutting down all but the smallest projects as of the end of the day Saturday. But work continued in neighboring cities such as Somerville — under stricter new rules — Medford, and Quincy. In the suburbs, the situation was scattershot.

That has some calling for clear statewide guidance, most likely from Governor Charlie Baker.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that that hasn’t happened,” said John Moriarty, president of John Moriarty & Associates, one of the region’s larger general contractors. “The idea that a job is different in Cambridge than it is in Somerville than it is in Quincy is nuts.”

Baker said last week that he had “no plans” to order a statewide halt to construction, at least not at the time. Indeed, state-run infrastructure projects — including the Green Line Extension, the expansion of Terminal E at Logan International Airport, and road and bridge work — have continued apace, with Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials saying that such public works jobs are essential —and that they can be performed safely.


“The Commonwealth and its transportation agencies need to continue repairing and enhancing transportation infrastructure to make it safer and more reliable and plan to continue to do so as long as it can be done in a manner that is safe for both the construction workforce and the public,” MassDOT said in a statement.

Developers and contractors have applied that logic, as well, to more traditional projects that sit on state-owned land, like the Ora apartment building in the Seaport. The general contractor there, the construction giant Suffolk, has shut down a number of other projects in Boston, but CEO John Fish noted the Ora is exempt, and so work will continue, with extra precautions.

“We have procedures in place on every job where we’re still going," he said. "Very clear and specific protocols we started training on three weeks ago. We’re keeping things clean and disinfected, keeping workers at a safe distance, encouraging management to keep an eye on the health of their workers.”

Some contend that construction sites, compared to many other workplaces, are relatively safe when it comes to spreading something like Covid-19.

Big projects take place largely outdoors, especially in their early stages. Workers can stay fairly far apart and often wear protective gear such as gloves and safety goggles. At sites where the work is still going, soap and hand sanitizers are available and safety measures have been stepped up.


Still, the workers share bathrooms, trailers, and elevators. They often eat together. And, in some cases, they can move from one job site to another with relative ease, which risks transferring a virus picked up from one coworker to many others in another place. Those are big reasons why Walsh, himself a longtime leader of the city’s construction workers union before taking office, ordered the ban.

"I felt like construction was being overlooked in a lot of the conversation about workplace safety,” Walsh said. “I didn’t want to put workers, who could become carriers or get sick themselves, into harm’s way.”

Walsh moved quickly, consulting neither developers nor construction unions ahead of time, he said, just public health experts. Since then, the state of Pennsylvania has issued a similar ban, and California, as part of its shelter-in-place order, has halted construction on commercial projects, though residential buildings are exempted as essential.

Walsh, who said he’d revisit Boston’s ban in 14 days, acknowledged the economic toll of putting thousands of construction workers out of their jobs and hitting pause on his long-held goal of combatting Boston’s sky-high housing prices with 69,000 new units by 2030. But right now, he said, he has more important priorities.

“I know people out there are critical, but we’re trying to stop the spread of this virus and save lives,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

Some are trying to figure out how building can continue safely.


Moriarty said several big general contractors have been talking with the building trades unions — whose leadership declined comment for this story, other than pointing to a statement issued last Monday supporting Walsh’s decision — about procedures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They may require changing some work rules.

“We need to be able to take people’s temperatures at job sites. We need to be able to send people home if they’re sick,” said Moriarty, who estimated that more than 4,000 people were working on Boston and Cambridge sites that his firm was running. “This is about the safety of employees and their families.”

But for now, things are quiet. Sites across Boston were shutting down all week. On Saturday — the last day of construction in Cambridge — Kendall Square was eerily quiet, just a handful of workers wrapping up at huge towers in the works for Google and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even at places where developers were trying to keep things moving they weren’t sure how long it could last.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone on Friday issued an order allowing projects to continue — but only with detailed safety plans.

Curtatone said he’d rather have clear state guidelines. Absent that, he hoped the city could set worker safety rules while allowing projects to move forward. If that doesn’t work, he said, Somerville too may need to shut projects down.

“This is a very fluid situation,” he said Saturday. “This is where we are today. But it could change."


Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him @bytimlogan.