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Baker wants construction work to continue, despite the pandemic

Governor says it would be ‘a tremendous loss’ if much-need housing isn’t built

Governor Charlie Baker says adequate safety measures must be in place at construction sites to protect workers' health.
Governor Charlie Baker says adequate safety measures must be in place at construction sites to protect workers' health.Matt Stone/Pool

While Boston, Cambridge, and several other municipalities have halted construction projects to help stop the spread of coronavirus, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that he believes most such work should continue.

Baker pointed to Greater Boston’s long-running housing shortage — and the high prices it creates for renters and home buyers — as reasons to allow as many projects as possible to keep moving forward. He said the state plans to issue guidance soon to help ensure added worker safety measures are in place at construction sites during the coronavirus crisis.

"There’s a lot of new housing being built right now,” said Baker, who has set a goal of adding 135,000 new homes in the state by 2025. “To completely lose potentially all of that new housing for the Commonwealth would be a tremendous loss.”

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His stance is at odds with the position taken by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who last week ordered a temporary halt to construction in Boston, citing concerns about workers spreading the virus on sometimes-crowded job sites. Cambridge quickly followed suit, and several suburbs have enacted or are considering similar bans.

Elsewhere around Greater Boston, however, construction work continues.

Somerville on Friday said it will require detailed safety plans and frequent site inspections, but allow most jobs to proceed. Other cities are largely business as usual, with some contractors redeploying workers from their shut-down jobs to build faster where they still can.

Also, the Baker administration has maintained that construction for the state Department of Transportation and Massachusetts Port Authority will continue as essential infrastructure work — a ruling some builders of even non-infrastructure projects, such as an apartment building on Massport-owned land in the Seaport, say exempts them, too, from the city’s shutdown.

The decision to keep building has drawn fire on social media and in news reports from construction workers and others worried about spreading coronavirus on job sites, where workers often eat together, share portable bathrooms, and sometimes work in confined spaces.

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Compounding their concern, workers often move from job to job, raising the possibility that someone infected on one project could spread the virus to workers at another.

“People are scared, and they’re justified in that,” said Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. "To us, the safety of our workers is the most important thing.”

If work continues, said Callahan, whose group is made up of unions representing about 75,000 construction workers across the state, there must be consistent rules to ensure safety, as opposed to the current mishmash from town to town and job to job.

“With everything being so different, it creates a lot of confusion,” he said. “We need clear guidance here.”

Meanwhile, contractors that are still building are working out safety plans of their own. Callahan Construction, a large builder based in Bridgewater, is installing more hand-washing stations, regularly cleaning job site trailers, and holding onsite meetings in open-air settings when possible.

“The industry continues work throughout the majority of Massachusetts and is implementing enhanced systems and processes to increase overall safety and wellness,” said president Pat Callahan (no relation to Frank Callahan.)

Baker on Tuesday said that clear statewide guidance would be coming soon. His administration exempted construction from the stay-at-home advisory it issued Monday, listing it among essential industries, and is working with industry officials to come up with clear rules for how best to build safely. It’s not clear whether statewide rules would override local bans, like Boston’s, but a Walsh spokeswoman said City Hall is consulting state officials as they review the policies.

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Given the billions of dollars in development underway in Massachusetts and the risks in letting projects sit idle for too long, Baker said, he was loath to stop construction entirely.

“The thing to remember about shutting down construction is you’re not just shutting it down for a few days,” he said. “In many cases, you may be shutting it down permanently.”



Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.