Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made a tough, but ultimately correct, call last week to hold firm on the city’s coronavirus construction freeze.
Gov. Charlie Baker issued new guidance clarifying an earlier executive order that lumped the state’s businesses into “essential” services, that could remain open in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and “non-essential” ones, which had to close their physical doors to all employees and visitors. Construction, it said, was one of the former. At press conferences last week, Baker said his chief concerns were housing and infrastructure projects.
“To completely lose, potentially, all of that new housing for the commonwealth, housing stock, would be a tremendous loss,” he said.
Solutions to the state’s housing crisis, however dire it is, should never come at the expense of workers’ legitimate health and safety concerns.
Baker’s directive appeared to overturn a freeze on city-permitted construction projects that Walsh had put in place as the coronavirus descended on the city on March 16. Walsh was concerned that building sites’ lunch trucks, limited sanitation facilities and periodically close quarters could become hotbeds of coronavirus transmission.
Walsh’s freeze and those subsequently issued by Cambridge, Somerville and Watertown weren’t without cost. Dozens of construction projects worth billions of dollars, representing scores of housing units and thousands of square feet of office and lab space, were put on hold. For some, particularly affordable housing projects, the delays could threaten their financing.
After Baker’s directive, Walsh fired a shot across the bows of every developer active in his city, declaring Boston’s building ban would be in effect “until further notice.” Cambridge and Somerville officials followed suit. The next day, Baker appeared to back down, telling reporters he was “very sympathetic” to the mayor’s point of view, and that any decision to reopen a construction site was contingent on local officials’ view of their capacity to enforce safe working conditions.
Both men made the right call. We applaud Walsh for standing up for everyone’s right to a safe workplace. Baker was wise in not trying to use the full – and borderline-tyrannical – extent of his emergency powers to overturn these construction bans when public health and democratic norms are at stake.
Solutions to the state’s housing crisis, however dire it is, should never come at the expense of workers’ legitimate health and safety concerns. As for the remainder of the projects put into suspended animation, anyone who cheered the apparent overturning of these construction freezes would do well to remember this is no longer the 19th century. This country has supposedly left behind ideas that workers’ lives are suitable sacrifices for Mammon’s altar.
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