A crackdown on safety regulations for the Island construction and building industry is now imminent following a heavily-attended virtual town hall Thursday hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association with Vineyard health agents, building inspectors and tradespeople.
Mandatory masks, safety officers on job sites, random unannounced inspections and stiff fines for violations are all part of a 13-point set of guidelines that the six Island towns are expected to approve in the coming days, as the Vineyard grapples with a growing community spread of Covid-19.
On Thursday, Island health agents and building inspectors from across the Island joined an audience of 260 virtual participants to share the new guidelines and reiterate the importance of safe practices, both personal and professional.
“Tonight, in my mind is really about two things,” said Newell Isbell Shinn, president of the builders association, at the start of the meeting. “One is just getting crystal clear on what the rules are . . . The second thing is we’re going to commit to following them.”
Tisbury building inspector Ross Seavey, who presented the new guidelines, said the 13-item document closely mirrors phase two of the construction moratorium put in place Islandwide in April, which severely curtailed the number of builders allowed on job sites and set tight rules for social distancing and mask-wearing.
The restrictions mark the third set of back-to-work guidelines put in place for the Island’s construction and building industry since the pandemic began.
The new measures constitute a tightening of restrictions, aimed at curbing virus spread among trade workers, without instituting an Islandwide construction ban like that of the early pandemic, Mr. Seavey said.
“We are not out to get you all. The rules that we wrote are to help you so that you can stay open. That was the whole purpose of this is when we started — to end the shutdown that we were in,” he said.
Among the new guidelines is a strict mask mandate for all workers on job sites. The regulation is an extension of the governor’s recent emergency order for mask-wearing in all public spaces. The updated measures also require employers to report all positive cases among workers to health agents within 24 hours of diagnosis, Mr. Seavey said.
A safety officer will also be required at each job site to act as a liaison between enforcement agents and workers. The officer must be present during work hours for any site with five or more workers, Mr. Seavey said. The officer will be appointed by employers.
Phase two rules already in place, including mandatory mask-wearing inside vehicles, will remain on the list with renewed urgency, Mr. Seavey said. After multiple noncompliance infractions, violators of the rule will now receive one mailed warning, followed by a fine.
A 10-worker limit on all sites — except those pre-approved by inspectors — will remain in place. Other measures that have proven less effective for limiting exposure, like a daily cleaning log and morning inspections, will be removed.
The new restrictions come in the wake of an alarming recent trend of Covid-19 community spread on the Island, which has grown exponentially in the past two weeks.
Two Island towns — Tisbury and Edgartown — are now state-listed as high risk, or red zone communities. Both those towns are currently major hubs for construction projects amid an exploding real estate market.
Mirroring trends earlier in the summer on Nantucket, many of the recent cases have been linked to the Island’s construction and building trades — a hot-spot for virus spread, health agents said.
“We had a sense that the virus was establishing its first roots in the construction trades,” said Edgartown health agent Matt Poole. “When I said that, it almost seemed like a little bit of a stretch. But in the few days that have passed, it’s clearly, unfortunately no longer a stretch.”
Currently, nine contracting firms on the Island have reported one or more sick employees, Mr. Poole said.
Along with new rules, enforcement of the guidelines will be more consistent and more severe, health officials said. Violations of the new guidelines can result in daily fines up to $300 or even site shutdowns.
Enforcement will be handled by building inspectors, health agents, police officers or other authorized town officials and will take place on a regular, surprise drop-in basis, Mr. Seavey said. “The time for warnings is kind of over, we’ve given a lot of warnings. And you know, it doesn’t seem to quite be working,” he said.
Later in the meeting, gauging audience reaction, Mr. Isbell Shinn sent out a poll asking participants to assess their workplace virus preparedness and to give their opinion on any form of Islandwide construction ban.
According to the results, a strong majority of participants — many of whom work in the Island trades — said they would support a weeklong shutdown of job sites for violating restrictions. About 37 per cent of respondents said they would support an Islandwide construction ban, only if other industries shuttered as well, while 34 per cent said they were not in support but would abide by it.
The outlook on longer-term shutdowns was mixed, however, with 30 per cent of respondents saying a 30-day shutdown would devastate their business or their family.
The presentation also elicited comments from audience members, some of whom felt the industry was being held to a higher standard.
But Edgartown building inspector Reade Milne had another view.
“It’s not about regulating the construction industry more heavily than any other industry . . . it’s what we’re faced with and so it’s what we are doing,” she said. “Let’s do better than any of the other industries, let’s be the industry at the end of the day that kept on going through all of it.”
Another participant, Adam Hayes, asked about the case threshold for an Islandwide construction shutdown.
“I don’t think we’ve really set a milestone for what the trigger is,” Mr. Poole said. “We haven’t talked about that and I think our true aim right now is to avoid it.” He said he hopes to bring the Island’s daily positive rates down to the low single-digits.
“A lot of this is within reach, but we need to get into a game that we can compete in and win,” Mr. Poole said. “This game is out of control. Right now we’re getting slaughtered.”
The new guidelines are slated for approval from each town in the upcoming week or two, Mr. Poole said. Tisbury and Edgartown have already set Monday meetings to vote on the measure.
In the interim, health officials and building inspectors alike urged vigilance and caution in personal and professional spheres.
“Please don’t wait for us to show up to say something,” said Mr. Seavey, closing on a note of urgency. “Talk to each other, empower your workers . . .We’re all in this together.”