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Baker, Walsh are at odds over coronavirus construction ban

The governor says work should continue statewide, but the mayor insists Boston projects will remain idle during the health emergency.

Work at the Waterside Place site in the Seaport District was temporarily halted after a worker reported feeling ill. Work has since resumed, according to the Suffolk construction company.
Work at the Waterside Place site in the Seaport District was temporarily halted after a worker reported feeling ill. Work has since resumed, according to the Suffolk construction company.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a rare rift, Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh appeared increasingly at odds Wednesday over whether construction work should continue amid the state’s coronavirus crisis.

The Baker administration Wednesday sent a letter to city and town officials across Massachusetts emphasizing its stance deeming construction an “essential service” that should continue despite the stay-home advisory Baker issued earlier this week. Specifically, the letter, signed by Baker’s chief legal counsel, Robert Ross, appears to override local bans like those put in place last week by Boston, Cambridge, and a handful of other communities.

“Unitary management in this crisis will be essential,” Ross wrote. “The economic disruption and interruption in critical services and functions that could result from halting construction projects abruptly would be felt statewide and not simply in the locality where a particular project sits.”

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Despite that, a few hours later, the Walsh administration released a statement of its own, extending the 14-day construction ban the mayor enacted last week “until further notice.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more than to have construction moving forward in the city of Boston,” Walsh said in an interview. "But this is about protecting workers against coronavirus and it’s about preventing the spread of coronavirus. Just like an office building, restaurants, other gatherings, the risks at a construction site are the same.”

Wednesday evening, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone tweeted that he also planned to keep that city’s tight restrictions on building in place despite Baker’s order, and the official Twitter account of the City of Cambridge ― which shut down nearly all construction on Saturday — said that its moratorium “remains in effect at this time.”

The public disagreement between the governor and mayor is unusual, especially on an issue — housing and development — where the two are typically aligned. Baker said Tuesday that the state’s housing shortage is so severe that he can’t risk shutting down construction projects that might never resume. In becoming the first big-city mayor in the United States to shut down construction because of the pandemic, Walsh ― a longtime leader of Boston’s construction unions — cited worker safety and the risk of spreading the disease.

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The dispute between the two leaders flared as work was temporarily stopped on one of the few projects still underway in Boston. Construction company Suffolk confirmed that a worker at the Waterside Place apartment building being built on Congress Street in the Seaport felt feverish yesterday and pulled himself off the job. His doctor told him to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and, while he has not tested positive, several co-workers were sent home and asked to self-quarantine, said Suffolk spokesman Dan Antonellis.

“The safety of our employees and trade partners on our project sites is our most important priority,” Antonellis said. “We have implemented increasingly strict protocols and standard operating procedures on jobsites and we are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”

Two people familiar with the project said work was stopped for several hours as a result of the illness, though Suffolk said Wednesday that it is ongoing. Waterside Place is one of two apartment buildings underway in the Seaport that are exempt from Walsh’s construction ban because they are on land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The mishmash of conflicting rules has caused confusion among construction companies and developers, who have been asking the state for clear guidelines. Baker’s letter aimed to provide those ― by requiring jobsites that stay open to install hand-washing stations with hot water, for example, and to clean high-contact surfaces at least twice a day. State-run projects will “stand down” for a day this week to review safety procedures.

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“And if you feel sick, don’t go to work,” Baker said Wednesday when asked about construction site safety. “There are some very basic things we all need to keep in mind here.”

Still, confusion may only worsen if the state is saying one thing about construction and its largest city — home to billions of dollars of ongoing construction — is saying something else.

Baker, at his news conference Wednesday, seemed to allow Boston some latitude, noting that its ban proceeded his order by more than a week. “They just need to make a decision at this point” on what to do now, he said.

Walsh sounds like he already has.

“Projects in Boston are not moving forward,” he said.

Andrea Estes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.




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