Updated March 23
Two towns — Chilmark and West Tisbury — have banned construction and another Island town — Oak Bluffs — is considering the shutdown of all non-essential businesses to mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
The Chilmark and West Tisbury bans cover all non-emergency construction at new or ongoing worksites starting this Monday at 9 am, until Monday, April 6.
At a selectmen’s meeting Saturday, Chilmark officials decided to fall in line with West Tisbury’s temporary suspension of all regular activity at construction sites. The town building inspectors and other related officials will determine exceptions to the ban, and will determine what emergency construction is allowed to take place.
Meanwhile, Oak Bluffs is looking at a proposal to close non-essential businesses, selectmen chairman Brian Packish told The Times in a text message. “The construction moratorium tied to building permits is a knee jerk reaction to try to limit passengers commuting on the ferry by Nantucket. Our workforce is very different. Therefore the policy voted by [Chilmark] and [West Tisbury] do little to nothing to legitimately tackle the task of social distancing, it is full of gaps,” Packish wrote. “The board of health is meeting Tuesday [morning] to formulate a recommendation or the [board of selectmen] to move forward with at our Tuesday meeting. It is clear that we need to flatten the curve and people need to choose safer choices; it’s mind boggling to see play dates and outings all over social media. The only responsible way to do it is to close all businesses and services with exception to essential services like groceries, gas and medical.”
Starting Monday, as part of the Chilmark emergency order, construction crews must secure active job sites, and all sites must be completely clear and secured by Wednesday, March 25.
The moratorium specifically focuses on construction sites and restricting permitted activities, because it is within the board of health and the board of selectmen’s purview to do so.
After Wednesday, only “skeleton crews,” will be allowed on construction sites to make sure they are safe and secure.
Online some construction workers are questioning the rationale behind the bans saying workers don’t come in contact with each other and drive to job sites separately.
Some Vineyard builders have already stopped work while others continue, working as safely as possible, Newell Isbell Shinn, president of the Martha’s Building Association (MVBA), told The Times.
“Many of our members voluntarily suspended operations last week,” he wrote in an email. “Most of those that continue to work are attempting to follow best practices to protect workers and the community, though this is difficult to do perfectly.”
When he reached out, Shinn found most of his members were onboard with halting work for a while. “Although there isn’t unanimity, the majority of MVBA members I’ve talked to support a construction moratorium across the island for at least the next two weeks until the full impact of the pandemic on the island’s health infrastructure is known,” he said. “The MVBA is engaged with health agents, boards of health, and select boards across the island, working to navigate the weeks and months to come as safely and sensibly as we can.”
Those who run companies in the building trades companies can no longer forecast and plan as they once did, he wrote. “All of us as employers are struggling to understand and respond to the short term and long term public health and financial impacts of the virus for our community, employees, and ourselves,” he wrote. “These impacts are unknown and unknowable, though the short term becomes clearer day by day. Our priority must be protecting the health and safety of our island.”
Both Edgartown on Monday and Tisbury on Tuesday are expected to consider similar bans, but Aquinnah won’t.
“We are not considering at this point shutting down construction for one simple reason, we don’t have a lot going on here,” Town administrator Jeff Madison told The Times.
He added that he supports the other towns and their efforts. A West Tisbury resident, he noted seeing a house under construction in Chilmark that was crawling with contractors. “There were six trucks in front of that house. They must have been tripping all over each other inside,” he said.
In a letter to the Chilmark board of selectmen discussed during the meeting, the Chilmark board of health suggested that this action, although inevitably detrimental to the Island workforce, is necessary to safeguard the health and well-being of the Island community as a whole.
“We believe one of the most important preventive measures is a halt of construction for two weeks. Construction sites are the only business activity on Martha’s Vineyard that have not made modifications, yet the exposure risks are obvious and extensive,” the letter read.
Officials also noted that, along with sanitary conditions at some construction sites, the often crowded conditions elevate workers’ risk levels well above those of retail or office workers who have regular access to clean facilities.
Nantucket approved a two-week moratorium that the Island towns are following as a reference. That island community later issued a stay-at-home order.
Town counsel Ron Rappaport advocated for unity of language among the Island towns, and said that the moratorium is amendable by the towns at any time.
Selectman Jim Malkin agreed, and said that all the towns should sign onto the same document, for simplicity sake.
He also said the town will have enough time to meet with interested parties, including the builder’s association, in order to address definitions and conditions issues raised by folks who are going to be “dramatically affected.”
One of those issues was how non-permitted work, such as landscaping, would be handled.
John Keene, of John Keene Excavation, said at the meeting that some landscape crews “pile into a work truck with six workers,” and are passing rakes and shovels back and forth, creating a massive opportunity for infection. On Friday, Keene laid off his workers.
“It’s going to be really hard to regulate this if you let some types of companies come to a job or not, as far as trying to stop the spread,” Keene said. “The best way to control this is for everyone to just stop.”
Katie Carroll, a member of the board of health in Chilmark, agreed with Keene, and said that the town should send a strong message to landscapers that they should take measures just as cautious as construction companies.
Doty suggested the board meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss any changes to the work stoppage based on the decision of other Island towns.
Rappaport said Edgartown is discussing the matter on Monday, and Tisbury on Tuesday.
Currently, Rappaport said the only business that is restricted in the existing document is business related to construction sites.
“If landscapers are involved with construction sites, they would be regulated by this,” Rappaport said.
Selectmen agreed to start organizing a working group that would establish health protocols for workers on construction sites, and consider restrictions for non-permitted workers, such as landscapers.
Rich Saltzberg and George Brennan contributed to this report. Updated to include comments from the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association. -ed