The Winthrop Town Council met remotely on Tuesday, April 7, via the video conferencing platform Zoom. The dominating theme of the meeting was whether Council had the obligation to postpone the construction that began in the Center Business District (CBD) on Monday.
In attendance were all Town Councilors, Council Clerk Denise Quist, DPW Director Steven Calla, Town Manager Austin Faison, and Winthrop Board of Health member Meredith Hurley. Councilors were split on whether or not to delay the massive project until after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The long-awaited construction to the CBD began on Monday, April 6, under contractor P. Gioioso & Sons, Inc. Town Manager Faison stressed the importance of the project.
“This is a critical infrastructure project necessary to the future viability of the CBD,” he said. “It’s of the utmost importance due to climate change over the past few years.”
Board of Health member Hurley reported that Gioioso & Sons will be in charge of keeping its workers safe during the construction project. Their safety plan includes checking temperatures, maintaining social distance, and sending home workers who develop symptoms. In addition, the contractor will provide hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and trash disposal. Safety monitors will be installed on site to be sure workers are complying with the guidelines.
“We are in a good place. We have a capable contractor,” said DPW Director Calla. “If things go in another direction, I will go to [Faison] and tell him to reconsider.”
He added that with many of the stores being closed, the impact to the community could be less than originally planned. In addition, he announced there would be no interruption in water service to residents, which was previously a concern.
“I feel it’s safe,” said Council President Boncore. “I think [Faison] and [Calla] are doing a great job. The minute we see it’s not safe, it will be closed.”
But not everyone at the meeting felt it was prudent to continue with the construction.
“We should not go forward at this time,” said Councilor Robert Demarco. “If we do this at the peak, the worst case scenario is that somebody gets sick or dies.”
“I’m disappointed we’re being reactive and waiting for something to happen instead of being proactive and doing the right thing,” said Council Vice President James Letterie. “[Postponing] is morally the right thing to do.”
He added that construction workers would be brought into town for eight hours a day during the peak of the virus and that these out-of-town workers from all over the state would be patronizing businesses in the CBD that remain open.
Councilor Peter Christopher echoed those sentiments, stating, “My biggest concern is the safety of people in the community.”
“Residents calling me want this project shut down for a period of time,” said Councilor Richard Ferrino. “There would be no hindrance to our health or wellbeing [in shutting it down].”
Councilor Tracey Honan didn’t address the CBD project specifically, but urged her colleagues not to give in to fear.
“Feelings are not facts,” she said. “Panic is contagious and can spur others to panic.”
During the public comment period of the meeting, residents were quick to state their opposition to the CBD project moving forward.
“There seems to be a state of emergency everywhere except Winthrop Center,” said one caller. “This seems to be under the leadership of [Council President] Phil Boncore.”
Speaking directly to the Council President, the caller said, “This period will be your legacy.”
“We’re at the peak of the virus and everything has been shut down,” said a resident who lives close to the CBD. “I hope the rest of the councilors will step up and make the [decision to postpone].”
““I agree with [Councilors] Demarco and Letterie,” said another caller. “We have major construction going on at the peak of the virus. I can’t understand why this is happening.”
Faison said he spoke to the Town’s law consultants regarding any legal ramifications for postponing the project.
“We can’t say if there would be financial concerns or not,” he said, adding the health crisis may not rise to the level of force majeure—an “act of God”—which would traditionally nullify the terms of a contract.
He also stated postponing the project would be a “slippery slope.”
“The community has invested a lot of sweat equity in this project,” he said. “It would behoove us to continue forward at this point.”
No action was taken by the Council so the project is still proceeding as planned. There is also a trained archeologist on staff if a need arises during the excavations