A stay-at-home order unanimously approved by five Island towns is getting pushback from the Baker-Polito administration.
The order, which was also approved in concept by Aquinnah, is an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Island leaders felt Gov. Charlie Baker’s advisory, which went into effect at 12 noon on Tuesday, was not enough, particularly on the Island. Baker has also declined to issue any kind of a travel ban to slow traffic coming to the Island on the Steamship Authority.
In a letter to Island town leaders, Robert Ross, the governor’s chief legal counsel wrote that while the Baker-Polito administration recognizes the “value of local decision making in most circumstances” it wanted to ensure an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis with “consistency and clarity of action.”
“A key requirement of any effective, statewide response will be that public officials avoid conflicting directives and duplication of efforts,” Ross wrote citing the Massachusetts Civil Defense Act which reflects the necessity for unified statewide directives in a time of crisis.
Ross also mentioned a provision in Baker’s Monday order.
“This order supersedes and makes inoperative any order or rule issued by a municipality that will or might in any way impede or interfere with the achievement of the objectives of this Order,” the order says in part. “(1) such municipal order or rule will or might interfere with provisions of this order ensuring the continued operation of COVID-19 essential services; or (2) such municipal order or rule will or might interfere with the free travel anywhere within the commonwealth of any person who is a member of any COVID-19 essential workforce where such travel is made in connection with the ongoing operation of COVID-19 essential services.”
Ross specifically mentioned construction projects which, under Baker’s order, are essential services. Towns concerned about health and safety concerns are recommended to continue operations, allow for social distancing protocols, and adopt the state’s “safety stand-down day,” a day designed to ensure all workers follow the guidelines.
Ross adds that any local policies or directives that provide otherwise are in “direct conflict with the order” and should be withdrawn.
“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,” Ross wrote. “For these reasons, construction projects should continue as long as they observe social distancing protocols and otherwise continue to operate safely.”
Island contractors were critical of the tight restrictions on construction in online comments.
Vineyard town leaders are joining together with Nantucket to ask for an exemption.
Speaking to The Times by phone, Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma said he just got off the phone with town leaders on Nantucket. The Vineyard has been asked to join in a letter with Nantucket asking the Baker to exempt the Vineyard and Nantucket. Donaroma said at the very least to support the two-week construction moratorium.
If the governor continues to move forward with essentially vetoing the Island’s decision then the towns would approach the builder’s association to consider cutting back or discontinuing any off-Island sub contractors for the immediate future, according to Donaroma.
“So at least it’s Island people meaning that we know that every contractor on the Vineyard does not want to lose a single employee to any sort of sickness,” Donaroma said. “When you start bringing in subs a job site can get overwhelmed.”
Several of the towns had also approved separate construction bans prior to the stay-at-home order.
“We don’t want to hurt construction, we want to protect people,” Tisbury selectman Jim Rogers said. Rogers said a letter is being drafted now to rebut Baker’s opinion. “Our letter is very similar to Nantucket’s,” he said.
“Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are writing the governor asking for an exemption,” Oak Bluffs selectmen Brian Packish texted. “We continue to ask people to follow the protocols put in place and if the exemption is denied by the governor follow them as a recommendation in an attempt to keep our hospital workers, families and friends safe.”
“The three Chilmark selectmen are [in support] of a letter similar to the Nantucket letter,” Chilmark selectman Jim Malkin said, “and will do everything we can to get our citizens to adhere to the stay-at-home guidelines that the town and the Island issued yesterday.”
“The construction ban is very important to halt the spread of the virus,” West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson said in support of a letter during a Wednesday conference call meeting.
At the same meeting, West Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to join with Nantucket in writing an appeal letter to the governor.
West Tisbury officials also voted unanimously to close all recreational areas in town save for the beach.
Reporters Lucas Thors and Rich Saltzberg contributed to this story.