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OPINION

In a pandemic, porta-potties are risky business for construction workers

Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker have been at odds regarding the ‘essential’ nature of construction projects during the COVID-19 crisis.

All locked up at the Winthrop Center construction site. Construction in Boston has halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
All locked up at the Winthrop Center construction site. Construction in Boston has halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Why did Mayor Marty Walsh shut down Boston’s historic development boom?

Because at construction sites, workers not only share space. They are known to share water bottles, and their restroom facilities are porta-potties, sometimes shared by dozens of workers, with no running water for thorough handwashing. And in a pandemic, that puts health at risk.

On March 17, Walsh — a past head of the Building Trades Union — became the first big-city mayor to order a city-wide construction freeze, with some exceptions for hospitals and emergency work. Last week — after Governor Charlie Baker put out word that his administration considers construction an “essential service” that must go on — Walsh very firmly re-upped that freeze “until further notice.”

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For Walsh, it was a statement of values. “I’ve received calls from some development community people and some from the contracting world telling me they don’t fully understand and support my call for a full moratorium,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. To the mayor, the explanation is simple: “I’m going to put the life of the construction worker ahead of anything else.”

This is yet another symbol of the great class divide exposed by the coronavirus. Developers, architects, and project managers can work from the comfort and safety of their homes. Construction workers can’t build an office tower, luxury condo, or affordable housing project anywhere but on-site. Why should their lives be worth any less than those who benefit from their labors?

Still, a city-wide shutdown is a big deal. According to the Boston Business Journal, there are nearly 100 active projects in Boston, ranging from downtown towers to low-rise neighborhood projects, totaling 21.4 million square feet of new or renovated development.

John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction — the largest general contractor in the state — said he supports Walsh’s decision. “When the history of this is written, it’s important for the industry as a whole to look back and say we did the right thing, and the right thing is to do everything to protect the workers,” Fish said in a telephone interview.

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Fish said he has shut down about $4.5 billion worth of development work in Boston. For now, he is rethinking safety procedures so that when work starts up again, workers will be protected. “Our focus right now is on the day we’re able to go back to work," Fish said. "What do we do for our clients to recover the lost time?”

Lee Michael Kennedy, president and CEO of Lee Kennedy Co. Inc. said he, too, supports Walsh. “He’s got the safety of the citizens first. That’s his number one job,"Kennedy said. “It’s a complex situation that he’s trying to navigate. But at some time, people have to get back to work. "

Kennedy has shut down work at South Bay Center in Dorchester, a major mixed-use development project. But his company and others are still doing work at other Massachusetts locations.

Last week, Robert C. Ross, chief legal counsel to the governor, sent a letter to municipal officials reminding them of Baker’s order to designate construction projects as “essential services” and identifying workers engaged in construction projects as part of the state’s “essential workforce.” The letter from Ross also said that Baker’s order “makes inoperative any order or rule issued by a municipality that will or might in any way impede or interfere” with achieving those objectives.

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The letter caught Walsh off guard, and he quickly issued his own statement, extending Boston’s construction ban. After that, Baker said it was up to local officials to decide when to reopen construction sites. Cambridge and Somerville are sticking with their own tight restrictions. But across Massachusetts, construction sites, some with several hundred workers, are still operating — although there are now state-issued guidelines requiring handwashing stations with soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towels.

Why the push to keep these construction sites open? It’s about the value of life versus the power of industry. It’s about the value of a person who relies on a workplace porta-potty — versus the one who doesn’t.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.