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Boston Contractors, Unions Cautiously Prepare For Construction's Return

Construction companies that operate in Boston are preparing to restart their operations that have been idled since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March.


Suffolk Construction, Turner Construction, Shawmut Design and Construction and other Massachusetts contractors were the first contractors to be ordered to halt all nonessential projects as Boston and Cambridge enacted some of the tightest construction bans in the country.

But as the country gets set to enter its third month of coronavirus-related restrictions, local builders are preparing for what will happen when they are allowed to return to the sites they shut down in March.

Contractors plan on using a variety of high-tech strategies. Shawmut plans to use an app that allows workers and subcontractors to self-certify their health results and wearable technology that beeps when a user is too close to one of their colleagues. The company is also mandating the wearing of personal protective equipment such as N-95 masks, and for close work, a face shield.

"The coronavirus has very quickly required a drastic change to the world, and specifically, to our construction industry," Shawmut CEO Les Hiscoe said in a release. "Protecting our employees and everyone on our job sites [is] our top priority, so we are engaging in real-time, adapting to our new environment's requirements almost instantly, and never missing a beat."

Employees entering a Turner job site will be asked if they have recently traveled internationally and will be required to have their temperature taken, said Brian Chase, a Boston-based project executive for Turner. For Turner, it is a question of making employees feel confident they will be safe when they return to the job, Chase added.

Suffolk's coronavirus protocols include "thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting all at-risk areas and portable bathrooms multiple times daily; and establishing strict safety criteria for food trucks," the company said in a statement.

Restarting an idled construction project can take as long as several weeks, depending on the complexity of the project, Suffolk Senior Operations Manager Patrick Lucey said.

When the pandemic started, Gov. Charlie Baker classified most construction activity as an essential service, at odds with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who ordered all projects to shut down except those associated with education, healthcare and critical infrastructure. Neighboring Cambridge and Somerville enacted similar bans. 

Before embarking on his political career, Walsh headed the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, an umbrella organization of unions in the construction trades, so he has a deep understanding of the issues around the moratorium. MBTC President Frank Callahan said he was worried that having each company develop its protocols would create confusion.

"My concern is that there's going to be dozens and dozens of different protocols," Callahan told Bisnow. "We are trying to get some uniformity."                          

Walsh's office referred questions about the construction ban to his policy on the moratorium. Other unions, such as the Painters and Allied Trades Council District 35, have praised Walsh for his decision.

"We applaud Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and other municipal leaders who understood, early on, that normal construction activity, already a dangerous profession, was unreasonably unsafe due to COVID-19," Jeffrey Sullivan, the union's business manager, secretary and treasurer, said in a statement.

"Since that time, our office has worked closely with our contractors and members to ensure that work would only resume when it was safe."

Baker has extended the statewide stay-at-home order through May 18. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases recently spiked, meaning that any restart of construction projects likely won't happen anytime soon.

"The governor's office has the final call," Robert L. Petrucelli, the head of the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts, said in an interview. "Cities and towns can go stricter than the governor. They can't be less strict."

CORRECTION, MAY 6, 10:17 A.M. ET: An earlier version of this story misspelled Shawmut. It has been updated.