Two towns ban construction; O.B. considers broader closings

Chilmark and West Tisbury call for an end to non-emergency construction.

Chilmark town hall. —MV Times

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


  1. A person working alone at an unoccupied property should – of course – be exempt.
    An individual should not be restricted from performing services solo at a vacant domicile.

    • If different people come in to work solo on different days, it is not safe for anyone. The virus lives on different surfaces from hours to many days, depending on what the surface is— metal, plastic, cardboard, etc.

      • Droplets of the virus stay in the air for 30 minutes, too. So if one infected person is working in one area, leaves, and 20 minutes later an asthmatic person comes in alone to work on floors and breathes the air, he or she is exposed, and it’s potentially lethal.

      • I work alone doing interior finishes. No one but me.
        The house I’m working in right now is unoccupied and the painters are not scheduled until late April. The plumber and electrician are scheduled for their finishes after the painters,most likely mid May.
        Why can’t I keep working?

        • I’m in almost an identical situation – installing a kitchen, floor, trim etc all by myself in an unoccupied house. I’ve not even scheduled any other trades yet. Owners have said they can wait indefinitely, luckily. So, of course you and I will keep working. We’re not rare exceptions either; I’m aware of several others in similar circumstances… landscapers especially doing spring cleanups by themselves, alone on vacant properties with no other workers scheduled and homeowners a long ways away. Common sense!

        • I see your point, Fielding. There may be exceptions, but I don’t know if the Governor will care. I hope so, and I apologize for not seeing there are gray areas.

  2. This is ridiculous.A typical construction crew consists of three or four guys working either outside or spread throughout a house which is the doors and windows open in most cases. Basically it’s natural to maintain the regular suggested 6 feet of space! My God, is the only type of activity that actually is safe to perform under these conditions! And they insist that it comes to a complete halt? It’s absurd. This is a false premise used to make sure that workers don’t come from off island. If they wanted to regulate that they should just say so. The one safe thing that you actually could do. The one thing that could be productive during this time. I mean do people really want this to be worse than it is? It seems like if the virus doesn’t kill us then we will kill ourselves, shoot ourselves in the foot. Who the hell would even think there’s a need for this? Once again I will say this is just camouflage a good excuse to keep non-island resident workers from coming across. So they should just make that rule. Because this rule makes no sense. Ridiculous

    • A typical person understands the gravity of the situation and takes appropriate action. However, not everyone is “typical”.Therefore rules need to be put in place to cover everyone.I work construction and on the best of days it is far from sanitary.This action is likely to literally save lives.

  3. Most construction and landscape workers Do not have Any employment insurance. Instead of a shutdown education also works. Require mask and hand sanitizers on the job site.

    • Common sense doesn’t seem so common in the mad dash to put everyone out of work. Are those advocating shut-downs going to pay your rent or mortgage on April 1?

  4. Everyone needs to be safe. but, there needs to be a level playing field of ALL contractors and crews if this is going to happen.
    The unlicensed and unpermitted contractors need to abide by this as well. The landscapers, painters, and others with large crews need to heed this.
    The boats are already seeing a huge reduction in off-island worker ridership. They are canceling the boats and amending their schedules due to this.
    So, the question is who is going to police this?
    Commenters with NO skin in the game should not be responding to this. feel gooders need not reply

  5. Speaking of skin in the game, do the government officials who are stopping us from making a living intend to give up their salaries and benefits?

    • Good idea – if we’re “all in the same boat” then town employees should have their salaries donated to a common relief fund everyone can draw from.

  6. Are towns paying Rappaport for this sage advice? He and his side kicks wasted millions on frivilous lawsuits – the money we need now to help workers.

  7. Banning construction? Why don’t we all just take poison? We are going to kill our island economy by doing this. who is going to pay the mortgages and rents of these suddenly unemployed people. I guess we can work at the grocery store because apparently it isn’t an issue to have that many people inside a building shopping and working (sarcasm).
    This is ridiculous.
    Also, it’s pretty grim if you think all this will last through the summer? No one knows and you shouldn’t be spouting this fear mongering, it is scary enough out in the world.
    This isn’t the plague, where everyone will die if you get it…..people need to realize this too. We will get a vaccine, the brightest people on the planet are working on it 24/7.

  8. I’m all for social distancing and believe in its goodness. But, to just put down a blanket blockage on all work is a bit ridiculous and reckless. We have a 4 man landscape crew, all use our own tools and transportation and can work at 4 different job sites, OUTSIDE and IN THE WOODS. What harm can we possibly cause to others. I’m thinking of putting a tin can out in front of town hall, so somebody can help with my bills, food and, more importantly, rent. And please don’t tell me how I should have saved and been prepared. Billion dollar companies work on leverage and borrowing, so how is a normal hourly worker suppose to prepare for this?

  9. Life or death for many…. I commend you for keeping the media-driven frenzied environment going
    if you are susceptible to illness and have a compromised immune system you should be more than careful.
    Everyone should be careful.
    You don’t need to be spouting stuff like it’s life or death for many. Come on,
    You could die getting hit by a car way more percentage-wise.
    Turn your TV off, go read a book. Stop with the sky is falling routine, chicken little.

  10. Yeah, let’s stay home and cozy up to the germs we picked up at the pharmacy, or maybe the ones from the liquor store or the grocery store. Let’s practice social distancing so we can “flatten the curve.” Will start by closing down one of the grocery stores so everyone can be herded into the same area. Not much concern over that. There are no completely safe places. But there is, most likely, no safer place to be than a construction site typically in the middle of nowhere. Building sites are not places that people gather so they can hang out. In fact, they want to be as far away from those places as possible. Do we all ride to work together? No way! Do we share tools on the job site? Not anymore. Not for at least the last two weeks. Common sense has taken a backseat to the decision-making process. As was suggested before, some out of work people would probably appreciate getting some part-time work with a builder, landscaper or painter. All occupations where “social distancing” has always been in effect for efficiency purposes.

  11. Only the lawyers are going to get a payday if anyone attempts to enforce this new regulation on the building permits from the health department. The Governor has the power to limit travel and business activities and not the local board of health. This is all based on an opinion of one lawyer.

  12. I am in the same situation as Fielding Mellish. Only me, going from my home to my job back to my home. 2 week job that is scheduled. My clients are not arriving until late May. I and many others have Handyman work situations like this for our income that is greatly needed after winter months. I literally could not get anyone sick because there is no one around me. (thankfully I am healthy)

  13. Sad state of affairs when we are relying on the counsel of lawyers as if they are some type of “humanitarian safety whisperers” when they have proved over and over again the only thing they care about is their friends and our money.
    Be safe, educated and thoughtful.

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