Updated 5:30 pm
Chilmark and other Island towns are considering a construction ban in order to limit potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
“For me, this is the most troubling decision to make,” selectmen chair Warren Doty said during a meeting Thursday. “The idea that we are going to stop guys who are at work banging nails from working here — I’m not saying I don’t support it, but this decision hurts everyone in the community.”
Doty wondered whether certain exceptions to the moratorium could be made for smaller groups of workers that wouldn’t be working in close quarters. “I understand 22 people working together in a house, but there are also two people shingling a roof,” Doty said. “I would like to discuss this further with town counsel, but I would like to explore possible exceptions.”
According to selectman Jim Malkin, the boards of health in several Island towns are considering including a halt to construction in their emergency declaration. “I don’t know the details of when that will take place, but it is to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within the community,” Malkin said.
Malkin notified the board that Nantucket recently issued an emergency moratorium on construction until April 6. Aside from emergency utility or building work, such as repairs to healthcare facilities and shelters, Malkin said all other construction would be banned. “We don’t know how town counsel will draft this thing, but I think it would be best to support this concept,” Malkin said.
Malkin made a motion to endorse the concept of a moratorium on construction that was unanimously passed, and he said the board should make a final decision after they review the draft produced by town counsel.
Selectmen decided at a meeting Friday that they would continue the discussion on whether or not to enact the ban at 4:30 pm on Saturday, and most likely make a decision then.
Edgartown board of health agent Matt Poole said the moratorium is a work in progress, although no towns have officially adopted it. “Based on initial research that Ron Rappaport [town counsel] had done, it was determined that the boards of health and the selectmen can vote to stop building and other construction permits,” Poole said.
Poole’s initial concern over ongoing construction was job site exposures. He said there are more projects underway in Edgartown than he has ever seen, and he worries about the close proximity of workers, especially in a small, enclosed space. “There can be three or four trades, all working simultaneously in a confined space. You can have HVAC, carpenters, painters, and sheetrockers all together in one space,” Poole said.
Poole said he is also concerned about some of the living conditions of tradesmen on the Island, and what those conditions might mean for the spread of disease. “We have the best workers in the workforce living in less than ideal housing situations,” Poole said. “If you end up with congregate living in what’s supposed to be a single-family dwelling, this is going to get really out of control.”
Many of these dwellings, according to Poole, are tight spaces with six to eight occupants sharing a one and a half bath, creating a huge possibility for the transmission of diseases.
“I understand this will have a huge impact on personal income, but if we don’t take this measure today, I think we will look back and wonder why we didn’t take this step,” Poole said. “There’s no time to wait, this is a freight train coming at us.”
Selectmen postponed town meeting and the local election until May 26. At that point, the town moderator can postpone that meeting for 30 days if need be, Doty said.
Town elections are slated to occur on Thursday, May 28.
In other business, Chilmark Police Chief Jonathan Klaren said call volume Islandwide is down, and the diminishing amount of traffic allows officers to limit personal interactions with the public.
“Everyone is healthy on-staff, and we are operating at full staff while covering the amount of hours we normally would this time of year,” Klaren said.
Klaren said his biggest concern during the outbreak is, that with only five full-time officers, if some or all of those officers end up in quarantine, “we are done, or pretty close to it.” “We are in a holding pattern while also preparing for tomorrow,” Klaren said.
Malkin, who also represents the Vineyard on the Steamship Authority (SSA) board as its chairman, said they are unable to keep people separate on the boats, despite ongoing attempts to suggest social distancing. “We can only make suggestions, and we are using signs, messages, and verbal statements. But there are people who congregate on the ferries, and we cannot legally stop them,” Malkin said.
Updated to include meeting from Friday. – ed.