'They're All Just Waiting To Get Sick': Construction Sites Raise Concerns In Coronavirus Pandemic

Download Audio
ElevateBio’s building in Waltham, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
ElevateBio’s building in Waltham, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Construction has become a divisive issue in Massachusetts during the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Charlie Baker has classified much of the state's real estate development as an essential service, and says it can continue. But some mayors — including Boston's Marty Walsh — have ordered most work to halt in their cities.

There are risks in keeping going and other risks in stopping. The tension is forcing companies and workers to make some difficult decisions.

Between the dust and the portable toilets, construction sites have never been known as the cleanest places. But with coronavirus cases in Massachusetts continuing to rise, the sanitation stakes are now extra high.

"My husband is very nervous about getting sick; he's very nervous about bringing illness home," said Michelle.

WBUR is withholding Michelle's last name because she and her husband fear speaking out could jeopardize his construction job. It's a job he needs to support their family, so he keeps going to work. But Michelle said it's hard to keep six feet of space between workers on a construction site, as health experts recommend.

"I'm trying to treat him as if he's contaminated all the time," she said. "There's no hug and kiss hello. I mean, you can't even get a hug from the people that you care about because you're so afraid."

Michelle is most afraid for her elderly mother, who lives with them.

But if keeping construction workers on the job could spread the coronavirus, there's also a chance it could help fight the virus, said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for commercial developers. She noted that some construction sites are future sites for medical research.

"Potentially we could find a cure for this — could be developed in one of those very buildings," Small said. "We hope that state and local officials are really thinking about how those projects can move forward."

As it happens, one of the projects Michelle's husband is working on is a shared lab space for biotech startups in Waltham. The owner is venture-backed ElevateBio, and one of the companies in its portfolio is developing a potential treatment for the coronavirus.

Construction on the project proceeded until this week, when the governor tightened his definition of essential construction. He explained at a news conference that the change reflected federal guidelines.

"What they said was non-essential was office buildings, retail and hotels," Baker said Wednesday.

ElevateBio declined an interview request but said it's paused construction to seek clarification from the state. The company hopes to resume soon.

Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said work can go on — as long as it's done safely. But some local officials in other parts of the state have told developers to stop virtually all construction, regardless of the state's guidance.

"Boston has a temporary pause on non-emergency construction projects, and that still stands in the city," said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, after receiving a letter from the governor's top lawyer last week.

The letter went to every city and town, and asserted that Baker has emergency authority to overrule any municipal construction ban. Attorney Tad Heuer, a partner at Foley Hoag in Boston, said Baker does have this power.

"It's clear that the governor's essential services order supersedes any local orders to the contrary," Heuer said.

Industry groups said developers are confused by the mixed messages but have mostly decided to comply with local bans to maintain good community relations.

Meanwhile, they continue to build where they can. All housing construction remains on the governor's list of essential services. And that's the way it should be, according to Matt Anderson, president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts.

"Construction is an essential part of our economy, and it's an essential part of daily life for so many people," he said. "It would create a complete disruption in somebody's life if all of a sudden we're not allowed to finish their home."

Anderson runs his own construction company in East Sandwich and is glad to remain in business. But developers and their employees aren't necessarily on the same page. The Massachusetts Building Trades Council, which represents roughly 75,000 workers, has called for a statewide halt on non-emergency construction.

Unless such an order comes, Michelle said she'll keep giving the same order to her husband when he comes home from a construction site: "Get into the shower right now. Take the hottest shower that you possibly can stand. Use as much soap as you possibly can stand."

Michelle hopes good hygiene will protect her family. But she said her husband and his coworkers are still worried.

"Every day he comes home he's like, 'Well, I think I got it today,' " she said. "They're all just waiting to get sick."

This segment aired on April 3, 2020.


Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



More from WBUR

Listen Live