Work is stopped Wednesday at Millers River in East Cambridge, a Cambridge Housing Authority property with elderly and younger disabled tenants. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Gov. Charlie Baker’s office told Cambridge and other communities Wednesday that any local shutdown of construction projects conflicts with Baker’s order designating construction workers as “essential” employees, setting up a possible confrontation over the city’s March 18 order suspending most construction work.

The news of Baker’s position came in a letter from the governor’s legal office that said his order shutting down all but essential businesses “provides that construction projects ‘are to continue operations during the state of emergency’” with precautions to prevent Covid-19 infections.

“Local policies, regulations or directives that provide otherwise are in direct conflict with the Order and should be withdrawn,” the letter said.

The cities of Cambridge, Somerville and Boston are resisting the order or examining it before complying. Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville took a firm line: “Sometimes you have to put down your foot and say no. The construction stoppage will continue in Somerville,” he said Wednesday evening over social media. “We tried to keep [construction] open and it’s just not safe. The sites will stay closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Cambridge spokesman Lee Gianetti said at the same time that Cambridge’s construction suspension “will remain in effect” while the city’s solicitor and public health commissioner review Baker’s announcement. The city ordered work to stop on all but certain street, emergency and safety repairs, and one- to three-family buildings, to protect construction workers from getting infected and passing the virus to others. Construction sites don’t often have handwashing or sanitation facilities, and many jobs require workers to be in close proximity.

On Thursday, Baker seemed to soften his position, saying at a press conference on Covid-19 that he sympathized with Boston officials who don’t want to resume construction because they don’t believe they can enforce standards that assure safety for workers. Cambridge spokesman Jeremy Warnick said Wednesday the Cambridge suspension remains in effect while it’s under review.

Housing Authority concerns

The governor’s letter caused consternation at the Cambridge Housing Authority, which shut down work on five projects shortly before the city’s order because of fears for the safety of not only workers but residents in some of the buildings. “Right now we’re under a huge amount of pressure,” CHA chief counsel Sue Cohen said.

“We’re facing liability issues in relation to our own residents” as well as the possibility of default, she said; the Authority has complicated financial obligations and deadlines that have allowed it to upgrade much of its housing stock.

Housing Authority executive director Mike Johnston said some suppliers involved in the suspended projects notified it Tuesday “that they would no longer be able to supply” materials for the jobs. The shut-down projects include Burns Apartments in North Cambridge and Millers River in East Cambridge, both housing elderly and younger disabled tenants; 78-80 Porter Road near Porter Square; Roosevelt Towers, a family project in The Port; and St. Paul’s Residence, a single-room-occupancy building with two family units near Harvard Square.

Johnston said he was particularly concerned about Millers River and Burns because they house elderly tenants who have a high risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19. The letter from the administration “does seem to imply that Millers River and Burns would start up right away,” he said.

“Some of this stuff is crazy”

The letter included a document outlining “guidelines and procedures for all construction sites and workers at all public work,” covering Covid-19 precautions. Although the document said it applied to state projects and those being built under contract with the state, the letter said the administration “encourages all cities and towns to issue similar requirements” for private construction. At a press conference Wednesday, Baker said flatly that local officials would enforce the requirements.

The guidelines included a mandate that workers “self-certify” before beginning work that they didn’t have a fever or other Covid-19 symptoms and in some cases that supervisors check employees’ temperature. Another requirement was that workers remain 6 feet apart if possible, wear cut-resistant gloves, and wash their hands often with soap or sanitizer. For outside work sites without an indoor bathroom, the plan mandated a hand-washing station with hot water if possible.

“Some of this stuff is crazy,” Johnston said, implying it would be difficult if not impossible to enforce.


This post was updated March 26, 2020, with a comment by Gov. Charlie Baker made Thursday.

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