In the middle of a building boom, Boston officials are shutting down all construction in the city over mounting concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

[For ENR’s latest coverage of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here]

Starting March 17, contractors and builders across the city will be required to shut down all work on construction sites, in some cases leaving skeleton crews to secure materials and monitor the sites, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced in an afternoon press conference. At press time, it was the first such shutdown in the nation.

A former construction worker who rose to become the city’s head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Walsh estimated the shutdown order could throw “tens of thousands” of ironworkers, carpenters, electricians and other tradesmen and women out of work.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency couldn't estimate the number of construction workers currently working on approximately 97 BPDA-approved projects under construction across the city, "Since projects are at various different phases in the construction process."  The agency said the projects will combine to total approximately 21.4 million sq ft of new or renovated development once completed. “It’s massive, massive,” said Walsh, shaking his head after being asked by a reporter at the press conference in front of Boston City Hall how many construction workers will be affected. “We are the middle of a building boom in Boston right now.”

“It is a difficult decision to make,” Walsh added.  “Construction is at the core of our economy here in Boston. This is something that is very personal to me and to a lot of us.”

Walsh said the shutdown order will be revisited in two weeks, though he cautioned the coronavirus crisis is so fast-moving it is hard to predict what issues the city will be grappling with at that point.

Gilbane Building Co.—which ranks 11th on ENR's list of the Top 400 Contractors with $5.8 billion in 2018 revenue—is shutting down 14 jobsites in Boston. Ryan Hutchins, an executive vice president at the Providence, R.I.-based firm, says the firm "fully supports Mayor Walsh’s decision." Hutchins also said, "As with everyone in the industry and the world, we are taking this one step at a time and continue to evaluate the next steps in conjunction with the CDC, local officials and our clients."

A spokesman for Boston-based contractor Suffolk says the No. 23-ranked firm on ENR's Top 400 Contractors with $3.4 billion in revenue will also comply with the ban. "We will be prepared to safely mobilize our teams and resume onsite work on our projects once our teams are allowed to return to the jobsites," the spokesman said. "The spread of COVID-19 remains unpredictable so we will continue to monitor and assess the situation on an ongoing basis.”

Matthew Consigli, the president at Consigli Construction Inc., says "We will continue to maintain the appropriate crew members to keep the site safe and secure. These are unprecedented times and we are working together with the city to navigate this together.” The Milford, Mass.-firm ranked No. 60 on the Top 400 with $1.3 billion in revenue. 

The Boston mayor also appealed to the city’s big construction employers to “do the right thing” and lay off workers – presumably so they can collect unemployment – and not fire them.

Walsh noted his decision to shut down construction activity comes with the number of identified coronavirus cases in the city having grown to 33, adding “we expect those numbers to climb.”

Construction is one of the last sectors to shut down in Boston, with restrictions announced Sunday on bars and restaurants and Boston schools having shut down, as of Monday afternoon, for six weeks.

“The decisions we make are not easy but out of an abundance of caution,” Walsh said.

The bevy of construction activity across the city includes several luxury condo and hotel towers taking shape on Boston’s skyline. The city’s population, after stagnating for decades, has rebounded in recent years with the building boom and is now just under 700,000. In 2019, the BPDA gave a green light to 10.2 million square feet of new construction, including 4,794 units of new condos and apartments.

All the construction is taking place in one of the country’s smallest major cities in terms of land mass, with Boston encompassing just 90 square miles.

Contractors, construction companies and project owners will have until next March 23, to secure their sites, said Walsh, who urged developers of wood-framed projects to post around-the-clock security.

Only emergency street and utility work will be permitted during the construction shutdown, Walsh said.