Updated 6:30 pm
Island contractors are slowly being cleared by building inspectors to return to their job sites in crews of one and two as long as they adhere to extensive health protocols.
At the end of March, towns began to consider the possible health and safety issues involved with large crews of construction workers, landscapers, and other contracted laborers in close quarters.
A construction ban was issued by all Island towns that essentially stopped any regular business associated with new or existing construction sites and forced many local companies into uncertain territory.
On April 16 and 17, Island towns approved having crews go back to work and set protocols for that to happen. Last week, the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association held a town hall meeting to go over protocols, which included requiring inspections of job sites.
Reached on his way out to a site visit, West Tisbury building inspector Joe Tierney said he will have conducted over 20 site inspections on Monday alone.
“I did 10 this morning and I am going to do 11 this afternoon,” Tierney said. Tierney said he is going to each site in West Tisbury and running down a checklist to make sure everyone is adhering to all the necessary safety criteria.
“Some are passing, and some are needing a little bit of help,” he said.
West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson said he will conduct a total of five site visits on Monday, and had already failed one site for lack of proper hand washing equipment.
Johnson said so far, site supervisors have been cooperative and amenable to all the health guidelines, and although workers recognize the reasoning behind the restrictions, they all say the same thing — “we need to work to feed our families.”
When asked whether workers appear to be concerned about getting sick while on job sites, Johnson said, “People seem to be very concerned about their work, that is definitely what they are focusing on. From what I can see, they are not as focused on the virus.”
As the summer season approaches, Doug Best, owner of D. Best Construction, says he and his crew are trying to get back to work in a way that is quick, efficient, and safe.
“We are following all the rules, and are going to do things the right way,” Best said.
Best has been involved with a working group of business owners collaborating with building inspectors and health agents.
The group has been working to prepare all contractors for the return to work, and Best said his company has been preparing to hit the ground running over the past month.
“I have been very much in the know about what needs to be done. We haven’t been allowed to go out into the field at all,” Best said. “About a month ago, when the virus hit, we started ordering all our personal protective equipment (PPE) and doing whatever we could to get plenty of masks in the hands of all our employees.”
He also said D. Best has been gathering disinfectant sprays, solvents, bleaches, and posters to put up at all job sites that list the proper health guidelines, of which there are many.
“There are about five different sheets in both English and Portuguese with everything from the hospital’s instructions on how to properly put on and take off a mask, to how to wash your hands the right way,” Best said.
All sites will be fitted with porta potties with handwashing stations and work teams need to have plenty of disinfectant, wipes, and bleach. Metal trash cans are even being placed at sites instead of plastic ones to dispose of alcohol based wipes and other flammable or corrosive cleaners.
“We will be sending in the checklist of all our protective equipment and sanitary materials this morning to each of the inspectors. We usually have anywhere from 20 to 24 sites going at any given time, but right now we are waiting for the go ahead,” Best said. “This is just adding one more element of juggling to our daily challenge. We recognize we are going to have to maximize productivity.”
But Best said he and his workers aren’t just following the proper protocols to adhere to the law, they want to protect themselves and the Island community as a whole.
“My workers have lots of mixed emotions, they are rather tentative. The last thing they want to do is put their coworkers, friends, and family at risk,” Best said.
He said his workers are dedicated to fully understanding the processes of signing in and out whenever they come and go on a site, and disinfecting regularly.
“We have to clean the site on the way in, and clean the site on the way out. Maybe the last person didn’t do it and the next person might not do it, so it’s just making sure everyone is doing what they can to be safe,” Best said.
Best thanked Island health agents for working together to bring about a common methodology amongst all the towns, and said he greatly appreciates all that the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association has done.
“Everyone is really stepping up to create a greater awareness, and establish more adherence to keep this virus to a minimum on the Island,” Best said.
As far as the future of construction work and life in general is concerned, Best said “this virus has changed things forever. Until there is a vaccine and some comprehensive planning, we are going to be dealing with these requirements for some time to come,” Best said.
And construction workers aren’t the only ones who are scrambling to make up for lost time — landscapers are looking to get back to work as well.
Bill Davies of Davies Landscape and Tree Services said his crew is following all the proper protocols, although it is frustrating when the vehicle occupancy restrictions (one person per truck) and other regulations make it difficult for his business to run at maximum efficiency.
“It’s a huge challenge for us to have one person per vehicle. We have 12 workers and eight trucks, so what are we going to do?” Davies said.
Davies said he hopes things change in the phase two rollout of health and safety regulations for workers.
“Maybe you could have people wearing respirators in the trucks. It’s frustrating because my crew starts their day together at the shop anyway. We send out two- or three-men mow crews. What am I going to do, have one guy drive the truck and another follow behind him?” Davies asked.
With such a close-knit group of employees that are used to doing lots of hands-on work with each other, Davies said it has been a huge adjustment.
“We are all practicing our six-foot distancing, and I am all for doing what we need to do to keep my employees and my customers safe and comfortable,” Davies said
For the most part, Davies said his clients have been understanding and compassionate about the plight that landscapers face, and the limitations they must work under.
“We maintain about 50 or 60 clients during the season, and we have had most of them for a very long time. So most people are very understanding of what we are dealing with here,” Davies said.
Despite advisories from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and town health officials, and rather vehement opposition from some Islanders, Davies said his clients are still planning on showing up to their summer homes, if they aren’t here already.
“I anticipate people are still going to come. A lot of them are already moved in,” Davies said. “I would say at least 30 percent of my clients are here already, and It doesn’t seem like the virus is slowing people down.”
In the future, Davies said he hopes things can return to some degree of normalcy, although he said he will comply with any advisories or guidance provided by the towns and the federal and state government.
“I’m 55 years old, I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want to get anybody sick. I am praying that things return to normal eventually and we find a vaccine,” Davies said. “Until then, we will be doing what we have to to keep everyone safe.”
Landscope Landscaping owner Fred Fournier said for the reentry phase, his crew will focus on being vigilant, healthy, and safe. Employees must answer a lengthy questionnaire to determine if they could have possibly been exposed to the virus. For the foreseeable future, Fournier said he is going to be taking workers temperatures as they come to work.
“You need to come to us healthy. If you do that, we will keep you healthy,” Fournier said. “We have spent thousands of dollars on protective equipment to make sure everyone is in good shape.”
Fournier said Landscope has about 20 trucks and work vehicles that have all been cleaned and sanitized, along with dozens of pieces of equipment such as mowers, trimmers, and blowers.
And according to Fournier, his employees are eager to start working again and are taking all the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their families.
“My employees have kids, they have wives. They are very cognizant of the fact that they need to be incredibly careful,” Fournier said.
Updated to include comments from Fournier. -ed