City focus is on helping, not fines

Dion Irish

Various departments of city government have been waiving fees and permits online for merchants planning to reopen this week, according to Dion Irish, commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department (ISD).

“The mayor has asked us to work collectively and collaboratively to ease burdens on businesses and help them reopen while also guiding them to do so safely,” Irish said. Others involved include the Licensing Board, the Transportation Department, the Public Improvement Commission, and Public Works.

“Things have been going quite well, we’ve been able to adapt pretty quickly. We’ve invested in mobile computers so staff can take things home and we’re updating our website frequently,” said Irish, who noted that “field inspectors already had some mobile technology that has allowed them to get working to provide services.” 

ISD enforces building, housing, health, sanitation and safety regulations mandated by the city and the state. It also oversees the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA), which inspects and reviews buildings for zoning compliance, and regulates the rules behind what can be built, and where, in Boston.

The full board has not convened since the state of emergency was issued in March. “We’re looking at announcing something for the full board – likely a virtual meeting – in late June,” Irish said this week.

“We’ve obviously discontinued in-person ZBA hearings and going forward we wanted to make sure we found a safe way to continue that keeps the public’s trust and confidence,” he said.  “For that reason, we have not had a full board hearing, but we did have a subcommittee hearing using a virtual platform. That agenda had about 15 small projects and it was a good opportunity for us to gain some confidence.” 

Subcommittee recommendations are advanced to the full board for approval. “We’re at a point where we are looking at ways to have a full hearing with small project matters on the agenda,” Irish said.  “But we need to do that in a way where we are addressing participation concerns, equitable access, and language access needs.” 

He noted that there are roughly 100 applications pending in the pipeline— all filed since the state of emergency began. 

“These cases also need to go through a community process, so we want to get to a point where we are having these meetings safely in a virtual manner, and so that people feel comfortable that they can effectively participate.” 

Irish said he is confident that the board will be able to catch up on backlog with virtual meeting agendas. 

ISD recently re-opened its Planning and Zoning Division to the public, with 30-minute appointment-only time slots, and with restricted hours. Irish said that this division, which reopened last Friday, was immediately booked out.

“We’ve been evaluating our services on a weekly basis to see where the demand is for services that have been paused,” he said. “Some folks are effectively applying for permits and making payments electronically, but we noticed that there is a small subsection of folks that need to physically drop off or pick up project plans.” 

He said that ISD is making adjustments to meet that demand, reducing appointment time slots from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. 

“We encourage folks to use our electronic services, but understand that some need to come in, so we’ve made those appointments shorter and will be able to service more people.”

In terms of enforcement, Irish said fines will be issued in any instances where ISD might see repeat offenses of rules or guidelines. But, he added: “Right now, our focus is not on fines. We’re focused on creating guidance to educate folks so that they can develop plans that are COVID safe.”

To protect employees, Irish said that ISD is developing guidance and training sessions and rotating schedules for office staff as well as for field staff entering construction sites. 

“We’re providing guidance and training at construction sites so they understand what we’re looking for and doing that same extensive training session for our staff that will evaluate re-opening construction sites,” he said. “Buildings are being sanitized, staff will have the appropriate PPE, and we’re staggering schedules to keep a minimum number of people in buildings at one time.” 

The Licensing Board voted last Thursday to pass an emergency amendment to its general rules, taking steps to streamline existing processes and remove restrictions to help small businesses and restaurants during the reopening process. 

The board also lifted the preexisting condition of “alcohol with food only” on outdoor space or any other similar condition that prohibits the sale and service of alcohol on outdoor space without the service of a food item. 

“We’ve said from the beginning that Boston’s reopening process must take a cautious approach that puts science and public health at the forefront of our discussions,” said Walsh. “It’s my hope that these updated protocols will help ensure proper social distancing, and give much-needed assistance to the small businesses that are the lifeblood of Boston’s neighborhoods.”