COVID-19 Shows Value of Collaboration and Local Leadership Massachusetts Has Come Together with Kindness and Common Purpose

By Tamara Small

This column first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on Apr 5, 2020

Uncharted territory. Those are the two words that seem to be used when anyone tries to describe our current COVID-19 world. Children are out of school, entire economic sectors have been decimated, the global and local economy is in freefall – and the end is unknown.   

As the unemployment numbers skyrocket and the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow, it is difficult to find any positive news. However, here at NAIOP we’ve seen several local examples that we should all acknowledge and applaud.  

Public and PrivateSector Collaboration  

In Massachusetts, this pandemic is exposing the grace of who we are, as residents and businesses stand strong in the fight to save lives. We see this with the establishment of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub. As it quickly became clear that demand was outpacing supply at many healthcare institutions, the private sector stepped up.  

The Massachusetts Biotech Council, Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals and Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council came together, launching the Supply Hub to bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they could continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19 safely.  

In response to the call for donations, hundreds of companies from a wide range of sectors including janitorial companies, colleges, and construction firms stepped up to donate everything from masks and goggles to swabs and tubes. While we still have not caught up with demand, this effort made a dramatic impact and provided a streamlined way for businesses throughout the commonwealth to supplement the local and national supply chain. 

In another extraordinary example of community solidarity, the Boston Society of Architects has begun soliciting nominations for buildings, facilities or infrastructure that may be adapted to become alternative hospital sites. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health  has issued guidance to permit the use of alternative, acute inpatient care spaces to care for patients during this public health emergency. Working with cross disciple teams, the architecture, engineering and construction community is working with property owners to assist state government officials with identifying, evaluating, documenting, and retrofitting buildings or other facilities identified as viable hospital facilities. Preparing for the worst is an essential part of crisis planning – this work will save lives. 

Legislative Compromise  

The closure of non-essential businesses and the shutdown of most aspects of society have resulted in the need for executive orders and emergency legislation on a wide range of issues. Municipal governments have been particularly challenged since town halls are shuttered, Town Meetings are delayed, and annual budgets are uncertain at best. For real estate developers, navigating the permitting maze at the local level became more challenging as the permit application process, deadlines, and hearings became unclear.  

Responding to this new challenge, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA and NAIOP Massachusetts – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, worked together, drafting language that gave predictability and protections to municipalities and developers. As of this writing, the language, which is included in An Act to Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19, was passed by the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. 

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. 

This legislation provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are struggling to process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, the bill balances the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that current permits are not impaired by the emergency declaration. No town or developer wants to see a project that has received local approvals become a blighted, abandoned site, and this language ensures that projects can get up and going as soon as this crisis ends.   

Examples of Leadership 

Finally, Gov. Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, legislators and all the hardworking staff who support them must be recognized. They have focused on protecting the most at-risk residents, addressed business, health and public safety challenges and provided comfort during this unprecedented time.  

Throughout the commonwealth, we have seen local community leaders follow this example. From local food banks to neighborhood groups, we have seen unprecedented kindness and grace as everyone works together to flatten the curve and save lives. Restaurants are providing free meals for students in need, essential grocery store workers are keeping our food systems open and, last but certainly not least, every person working in the health care sector is working tirelessly to save lives.  

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As a former governor of Massachusetts once said, let our first instinct be kindness – and as Mayor Walsh said during his address to the city, there’s nothing we can’t do when we stand together. 

COVID-19 UPDATE: MAYOR WALSH EXTENDS ORDER PAUSING NON-ESSENTIAL CONSTRUCTION WORK IN THE CITY OF BOSTON

The following is a press release from the Office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (March 25, 2020)

BOSTON – Wednesday, March 25, 2020 – Due to the public health emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced he is affirmatively extending the City of Boston’s order to pause non-essential construction for City of Boston permitted sites. Mayor Walsh first announced this order on March 16, 2020, and sites should have been locked down for safety by March 23. Due to the public health emergency in Boston and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this pause is still in effect until further notice.   

“The safety and health of construction workers and all residents of Boston is my first priority, and I am not willing to put that at risk as the virus spreads throughout our communities,” said Mayor Walsh. “Large gatherings such as those at construction sites have been proven to escalate the spread of the virus, and Boston must do everything in its power to flatten the curve, and stop the spread of coronavirus.”   

Mayor Walsh is working with various partners including construction firms and the building trades to determine protocols that would allow these sites to safely re-open in Boston.    This policy only applies to projects permitted by the City of Boston. The City will still allow work that is essential to the safety and well-being of Boston’s residents at this time, particularly work related to the COVID-19 public health crisis.  

In addition to these construction projects, the City will, on a case-by-case basis, review requests for exemptions to the temporary construction moratorium. These may be granted by the Commissioner of Inspectional Services (ISDCommissioner@boston.gov) for building-related work or the Commissioner of Public Works for street-related work. These will be granted if they support increased public health and safety and precautions are taken to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among workers.    

Additional details about the order can be found on boston.gov. The guidance order is available online.  

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COVID 19 Update: Baker Issues Guidance Overturning Local Construction Moratoriums

Today, March 25, Governor Baker issued guidance clarifying that the March 23, 2020 Order “Assuring Continued Operation of Essential Services in the Commonwealth, Closing Certain Workplaces, and Prohibiting Gatherings of More than 10 People” supersedes and makes inoperative any order or rule issued by a municipality that will or might in any way impede or interfere with the achievement of the objectives of this order. “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects” are deemed essential.

Therefore, “the Order provides that all construction projects are to continue operations during the state of emergency, but to do so with allowance for social distancing protocols consistent with guidance provided by the Department of Public Health. Local policies, regulations or directives that provide otherwise are in direct conflict with the Order and should be withdrawn.”  

NAIOP had urged the Administration to issue guidance given the lack of uniformity across the Commonwealth on this issue and we are grateful for this clarity.  

Wondering how to get involved? Donate Supplies to Help Fight COVID-19

It’s incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to address the COVID-19 pandemic and aid the first responders and healthcare providers who are putting their health on the line every day to help patients. To that end, the business community is working to support the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub to help coordinate efforts to try and bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they can continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19.

NAIOP is asking our member companies to consider how they may be able to help, specifically in donating lab, testing, and diagnostics supplies, personal protection equipment (PPE), and medical and scientific expertise needed to combat COVID-19. Please fill out the following survey to let us know what you can donate: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TVP69NJ

In addition, please let us know if your firm is interested in providing other resources. We are happy to work with you to ensure the commercial real estate industry can be supportive during this challenging time.

With all of this information centralized, state government will be able to more efficiently match requests with available supplies. This is in no way meant to replace the current structure the state has in place for resource requests from healthcare institutions to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health but is meant to augment it.

Please join us in helping to ensure healthcare institutions across the Commonwealth have what they need to continue this fight.

Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.