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A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Special Coverage

Machine Learning

Mary Bidwell says hands-on training will always be critical, but the pandemic taught ACC about what can be accomplished remotely as well.

 

As pivots go, this one was pretty smooth, Mary Bidwell says.

But that’s fitting for an academic program built on precision.

It was almost a year ago — March 13, to be exact — when Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) sent everyone home, including students in its Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, which Bidwell serves as interim dean.

“We finished online through April and the end of May, and by the beginning of June, we were able to open back up,” she said, adding that students were able to finish their hands-on training in fields like welding and mechatronics on campus through the summer. “We were one of the first departments back on the ground.”

In the meantime, the program reinvented itself in some ways, turning to online content in ways professors and administrators hadn’t considered before, not only in classwork for the student body, but in community-focused courses for area workers seeking to boost their skills.

“We’ve pivoted well and created online content, we created hybrid models, we got students back in, and we’ve got good safety protocols in play — and we’re looking forward to getting even more students on the ground,” she told BusinessWest. “And now we have this whole portfolio of online opportunities we didn’t have before, and we’ve diversified what we can offer the community, which is great.”

Innovation and adaptation are not foreign concepts in the field of advanced manufacturing, or at ACC, which has become a robust collegiate pipeline into the manufacturing workforce.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has been around for almost a quarter-century, but it received a major overhaul four years ago with the opening of a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling its space to about 50,000 square feet. It includes an 11,000-square-foot machining lab with 90 computerized numeric control (CNC) and manual machines, an additive-manufacturing lab equipped for both plastic and metal 3D printing, a metrology lab featuring computerized measuring machines, state-of-the-art computer labs — and a whole lot more.

But the center’s most impressive offering may be its partnerships with area manufacturers, who have guided ACC in crafting its certificate program as a way to get skilled workers in their doors quickly — typically at salaries starting around $50,000 or higher.

The program has created work opportunities for both young people and career changers, and addressed what has been a persistent lack of qualified employees these companies need to grow. Normally, advanced manufacturers are looking for people with three to five years of experience. But ACC students are interning during their second semester and being hired for jobs immediately after, at good salaries. The reason is that the curriculum is customized according to industry needs.

Companies can then build on that training, hiring certificate holders, further training them up, and often providing additional education opportunities along with that full-time paycheck.

“People are always thinking about four-year degrees, but if your pathway is through community college, your debt can be so much less,” Bidwell said. “That’s such an opportunity: to start a career and have someone else pay for it.”

Even though the pandemic has temporarily slowed demand for workers at some companies, Bidwell and her team — and the industry in general — believe that’s not likely to continue, especially with an aging workforce in many corners.

“You still hear about the silver tsunami,” she said. “We need to have people ready when they’re needed.”

 

Working Through It

The pandemic has slowed the pace of business in industries like aerospace and at regional anchor companies like Sikorsky Aircraft, mainly due to supply-chain issues dating back to last spring, but students in all three of ACC’s advanced-manufacturing areas — welding, machining, and robotics/mechatronics — are finding jobs, Bidwell said.

“It seems like the staffing agencies have been a source lately that, at times in the past, we didn’t use as much because of our direct contacts,” she said. “But students are getting placed; they’re still going into companies we’ve always worked with.”

Enrollment in the program is about 60% what it usually is, she added. “We did lose students because people just don’t want to go online at all — they want to get back on the ground. Hopefully we’ll see that return for the fall and definitely next spring as vaccines roll out further.”

The numbers aren’t really a problem, though, because of capacity and social-distancing rules on campus. Students have engaged in a hybrid model this year, with some remote instruction and the necessary hands-on training on campus. As expanded vaccination hopefully leads to herd immunity, Bidwell is confident that those limits can be lifted next year, but the college will plan for all contingencies, including more hybrid learning.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

“We’ve proven we can do it, and people have been successful,” she said, adding that the marketing message has been, “people wear their mask and social distance, and you don’t have to stop your education. We’re here for you, and jobs are waiting. As we head into summer and fall, people who want to go to school and get that education, they can.”

While student ages can range from 18 to 65, the average age at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center during the Great Recession, when many more people were looking to switch careers, was around 45. Today, it’s under 30, but no matter the age, the idea is to equip students with a strong foundation from which they can grow into any number of careers.

That foundation begins with a hands-on approach to learning the machinery and techniques, from 3D printers, lathes, and surface grinders to welding and robotics labs — a healthy mix of manual and CNC machines.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Even in a healthy economy, the program still attracts a good number of mid-life career changers who see opportunities they don’t have in their current jobs. Meanwhile, high-school students can take classes at ACC to gain manufacturing credits before they enroll, and a second-chance program gives incarcerated individuals hands-on experience to secure employment once they’re eligible for parole.

It all adds up to a manufacturing resource, and an economic driver, that has attracted plenty of public funding from the state and from private foundations, such as the Gene Haas Foundation, which aims to build skills in the machining industry, and recently awarded the program a $15,000 grant to use for student scholarships for tuition and books.

 

Mind the Gaps

The program has also attracted attention of other kinds. The center was recently featured in the new book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, written by MIT Professors William Bonvillian and Sanjay Sarma. The book explores the gaps and problems in the U.S. workforce education system, while also spotlighting how programs, including ACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, help to mitigate deficiencies across the country to build a stronger workforce.

“We spent time visiting and learning about apprenticeship programs, about new employer training programs, and visiting lots of community colleges,” Bonvillian said. “We found that our community colleges are our critical, not-so-secret weapon in educating our workforce, so we spent time at many.”

While the two were researching programs, they learned from an MIT friend, who grew up in Enfield, about Asnuntuck’s program, and Bonvillian set up a visit to the college.

“I was very impressed by the programs they presented in advanced-manufacturing skills that reached not only community-college students, but students from area high schools and incumbent workers at area companies,” he said. “In the book, we called this the ‘trifecta’ — Asnuntuck was using its flexible programs, its year-round schedule, and its new advanced-manufacturing center with its up-to-date equipment to reach three groups: workers and high-school students, as well as more traditional community-college students.”

That outreach is a constant challenge, Bidwell said, noting that, while outdated perceptions about today’s manufacturing floors — which many older people believe are dirty and unsafe — are changing, they do persist, and work needs to be done to get young people interested.

“I think it’s better than it was, but we’re not there 100%,” she said of the perception problem, adding that many companies market themselves online with videos taken on their clean, high-tech floors. “We are getting a younger population than we did years ago, but we’re still going around the state, trying to educate as much as we can. Guidance counselors are a big piece in high school. We need guidance counselors talking up manufacturing, and they have to understand it themselves. We’ve definitely made strides in that.”

Educating parents about what these careers really entail is part of the process as well, she added.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

“There’s a big push in high school now, but we want to get the middle schools, to get young people aware of manufacturing and create those career pathways. We’re looking at the inner cities, where there’s a lot of population, and the message is, ‘these are viable careers where you can sustain a family and have a good, livable wage.’”

Bonvillian believes Asnuntuck and similar programs can help satisfy the demand for educating a workforce that has been impacted this past year, and not just in manufacturing.

“The COVID crisis is hitting hard at some important sectors like retail and hospitality, and workers there may well need to find new work,” he said. “The U.S. needs to prioritize training more workers more quickly than the country’s current disconnected approach to workforce education allows.”

 

Opportunity Awaits

The connection that First Lady Jill Biden has to community colleges — and her advocacy for them — is important, too, in changing perceptions and helping people understand college and career opportunities they might not have considered, Bidwell said.

“We want more people to take advantage of all that community colleges have available. We see it in manufacturing, but also IT — there’s a big need for IT professionals, and for healthcare professionals.”

And she doesn’t expect any dip in opportunity for students — young or older — who want to explore the modern manufacturing world.

“There’s really a lot of energy in Connecticut, and in Western Mass., right over the border,” Bidwell said. “The plan is to get out of this [pandemic] and keep growing, and be ready for the demand when things turn around.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Taking Shots

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home, gets vaccinated in January. For the public, the process has been thornier.

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

 

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

“Even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

 

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage

Taking Shots

By Joseph Bednar

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar at businesswest.com

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

By Highlighting and Supporting the Under-recognized, He’s Changing Lives

Leah Martin Photography

For almost three decades, Harold Grinspoon has built an impressive network of philanthropic endeavors by asking a key question: who deserves more help and recognition than they’re currently receiving?

The most recent major piece of that network, the Local Farmer Awards, are a perfect example.

“Farmers have a really hard time making a living, and they work so hard,” he told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, a farmstand he frequents in the Berkshires, whose proprietor once told him about her difficulties getting water from a nearby mountain to her farm.

“Selling corn at fifty cents an ear doesn’t leave too much extra for a pipeline,” he said. “She gave me an idea — what can we do for the farmers? Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

Since the 2015 launch of the Local Farmer Awards, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) has given 375 awards — of up to $2,500 — to about 200 farmers in Western Mass. to aid with capital projects. In doing so, the foundation and its team of corporate partners has invested more than $885,000 in local farming.

“Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

“We don’t do anything alone,” said Cari Carpenter, director of the Local Farmer Awards and the Entrepreneurship Initiative, two key programs of the HGCF. “Big Y came on board right at the start because they’re such advocates for local products and wanted to support the local farmers.”

Other program partners — Baystate Health, Ann and Steve Davis, Farm Credit East, HP Hood, and PeoplesBank — have signed on over the years as well, making the Local Farmer Awards an ideal representation of what Grinspoon tries to accomplish with each of his charitable programs (and we’ll talk about several of them in a bit). That is, partnering with like-minded individuals, foundations, and businesses to not only support worthy causes, but stimulate philanthropy across the region.

In other words, making a difference shouldn’t be a solo performance.

“From my point of view, if you made the money in the Valley, you’d better give it back to the Valley,” he said. “You have to give back. This is where you made your living, and these are the people you need to support.”

In the case of farmers, that support is more critical now than ever.

“To show you just how significant the need is, we just closed out our application cycle on January 31, and we had 170 applications,” Carpenter said. “These are 170 unique projects in our region, and when you read through them, the words ‘COVID’ and ‘pandemic’ were repeatedly mentioned, and how they’ve really had to change their whole strategy of ‘how do I even deliver products to customers?’

“We just feel we’ve met a need in good times, and it’s even more of a need now during this pandemic,” she went on. “We really want to help the farmers reach their full potential. It’s a hard business, and by giving them these awards to help them purchase a tractor implement or netting to cover their blueberry bushes so birds won’t get at them, or whatever the project is, it’s to help the farm reach their full potential.”

Harold Grinspoon congratulates honorees at the Local Farmer Awards (top) and the Excellence in Teaching Awards.

Harold Grinspoon, now 91 years old, has been helping people — and communities — reach their potential in myriad ways for decades now. He’s a Difference Maker not only for where he directs his money, but for the thought and passion he puts behind each initiative — and for planting the seed for others to get involved, too.

 

Giving Back

Grinspoon made his fortune as a real-estate entrepreneur, founding Aspen Square Management almost 60 years ago and watching the company bloom into a nationally recognized housing group managing more than 15,000 properties across the country.

In 1991, he established the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, focused on enhancing and improving Jewish life and culture. The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for a number of educational and entrepreneurial activities in the Western Mass. region, followed soon after.

As he worked his way up in real estate, he told BusinessWest in a 2008 interview, he developed a great sense of appreciation for the average blue-collar worker, and for the opportunities this country has afforded him, and felt a real responsibility to give back.

“I always knew, if I made it, I was going to give it away. I didn’t want to spend the entirety of my life making money,” he said at the time. “Philanthropy has, in many respects, set me free.”

Perhaps the best way to examine his collective impact is through his foundations’ individual programs, such as the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, a collaboration among 14 area colleges and universities.

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos of his large, colorful sculptures created from dead trees, many of which can be seen around the region.

Since 2003, the program has recognized and awarded more than 1,000 students for their entrepreneurial spirit and business ideas, while its entrepreneurship education, competition, and celebration events have reached well over 10,000 students and members of the community.

“That’s very close to my heart,” he noted. “Every college and university in the Valley is involved with that.”

The program actually offers four awards each year, each aimed at a different stage of the startup experience: elevator-pitch awards for compelling ideas, concept awards for startups in the pre-revenue stage, Entrepreneurial Spirit awards for companies that have begun to generate revenue, and alumni awards for later-stage successes.

“Elevating the stature of entrepreneurs has been incredibly impactful among these college students,” Carpenter said. “It gives them the sense this could be a viable career option. On top of that, it recognizes the importance of creative thinking — one of Harold’s beliefs — to help people realize the importance of being curious and using their creativity, and that’s what these entrepreneurs are doing.”

The Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards debuted the same year, and with the same idea: to recognize, inspire, and help a critically important group of people.

“Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

“To be a great teacher is amazing,” Grinspoon said. “They’re molding children at a very impressionable age, and we’re recognizing them for the outstanding work they do. I think someone should stand up and applaud the teachers.”

Applaud he does, at three separate banquets each year, to accommodate all the winners and the friends, families, and colleagues who come out to support them.

“If you know anything about Harold, he wants to recognize under-recognized people,” said Sue Kline, who spearheaded the Excellence in Teaching Awards for many years. “He thinks of his own path and the difference that teachers made in his own life, and he saw an opportunity where not enough was being done.”

These days, the program recognizes more than 100 teachers each year from about 45 school districts. “Like everything he does, it has evolved over time,” Kline said, noting that, in addition to the $250 cash prize, each honoree has the opportunity to apply for a Classroom Innovator Prize to bring some form of project-based learning into the classroom.

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop with fellow artist Alicia Renadette.

“This isn’t really intended for teachers about to retire, although districts can nominate anyone they feel is outstanding,” Kline said. “It’s meant to encourage mid-level teachers who want to do more. That’s what the project-based learning part does — to help them do something they’ve always wanted to try.”

It’s an extra touch that separates these awards from other recognition programs, just as the Local Farmer Awards ceremony invites each winner to bring $50 worth of products, to create ‘harvest swap bags’ that all guests receive at the end.

“These things represent his own creative thinking, his own energy — the way he cares about children and teachers, or about farmers not being well-supported,” Kline said. “That depth doesn’t come from every ordinary philanthropist, but it is reflected in everything his foundation and his charitable foundation do.”

 

Global Impact

Though Grinspoon, understandably, wanted to focus his recent interview with BusinessWest on the local efforts of the charitable foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — the arm that focuses on Jewish life — has quietly become a powerhouse across the country and around the world. For example:

• JCamp 180, launched in 2004, helps build the capacity of nonprofit Jewish camps through mentorship, professional-development opportunities, and challenge grants;

• PJ Library (2005) connects people to a colorful world of Jewish history, tradition, and values by delivering Jewish-themed books to hundreds of thousands of children and their families around the world each month;

• Voices & Visions (2010) is a poster series eliciting the power of art to interpret the words of great Jewish thinkers;

• Life & Legacy (2010) helps Jewish day schools, synagogues, social-service organizations, and other Jewish entities across North America build endowments that will provide financial stability; and

• PJ Our Way (2014), the ‘next chapter’ of PJ Library, provides tweens (ages 9-12) the gift of Jewish chapter books and graphic novels.

Several years ago, Grinspoon’s vast array of work attracted the attention of Warren Buffett, who invited Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, to join the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest indivduals to dedicate at least half their wealth to philanthropy.

“I met some fantastic people through the Giving Pledge,” he said, and reiterated why he was already well on his way to fulfilling the pledge even before joining it. “I don’t understand how people with wealth don’t give it back. It’s foreign to me. And I’m not just talking about giving serious dollars; I’m talking about giving your time and energy.”

These days, Grinspoon has more time to work on his art — his large, colorful sculptures created from dead, reassembled trees can be seen throughout the region — while he enjoys seeing decades of work in philanthropy take root in other, very real ways.

“For me, it’s about developing your legacy,” he said. “Who do you want to be known as? Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

In other words, anyone can be a Difference Maker — just look to Harold Grinspoon for inspiration, and get to work.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2021

He Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease Live Healthier, More Confident Lives

Leah Martin Photography

Chad Moir calls his mother his greatest teacher.

“She really, truly lived by the mantra that you never look down on someone, and that you always stick your hand out to help them,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be put in a position where I can help people while honoring my mother, and I can do it in a fun and exciting way.”

He’s referring to DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, the business he started six years ago as the culmination of a tragic event — the premature passing of his greatest teacher, who was stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s and was gone five years after her diagnosis.

Moir took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression,” he told BusinessWest when we first spoke with him two years ago. “I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word ‘Parkinson’s.’ But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

Today, DopaFit members, all of whom are at various stages of the disease, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga; from spinning to punching bags, and much more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

“It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed.”

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Exercise is the only proven method to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease,” he told BusinessWest. “It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed. The goal is for people not to progress, or progress slowly, but if we can reverse some of those symptoms, that’s a big win.”

Members are typically referred to Moir from their movement-disorder specialist, neurologist, or physical therapist. “A lot of times, for our older members, it can be one of their kids who finds us; their parent was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they want to do anything they can to help, and they come across us online.”

Whatever the case, Moir and his team will meet with the individual and often a family member and discuss symptoms, their story, and how DopaFit might help.

“We have about a 99% success rate of people who try it and stay,” he said. But getting in the door — or online, as the case may be in this challenging time — is only the beginning.

 

Recognizing a Need

Moir’s own beginnings in a career focused on this deadly disease was a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. He ended up collecting about $6,000, and started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

Chad Moir says membership was climbing

Chad Moir says membership was climbing steadily before the pandemic, and it has been a challenge to keep everyone engaged, whether in person or virtually, over the past year.

While attending classes at American International College, he saw a need for a Parkinson’s exercise group in the area. “There is a lack of Parkinson’s services in general. I really, truly believed that if I built it, they would come. That was our motto, and I stuck to that motto through the hard times, and it certainly has brought us here. We thought there was a need, and we’ve proven there was a need.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, then opened the first DopaFit gym in Feeding Hills in 2015. He moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later, and then to the current location, at the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton, in 2018 — a site with more space, ample parking, and a handicapped-accessible entrance. He also launched a second, smaller DopaFit location in West Boylston.

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. One includes people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group requires a little more assistance.

“With the group-exercise portion, that’s where we have to be very imaginative and come up with fun and different ways to work with you because there are different levels of disease progression,” he explained.

Programming has continued to expand. “Our goal is to provide every non-pharmalogical therapy that you can in one place for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Moir said. “So we have yoga, tai chi, our exercise classes and movement program, and the Art Cart.”

That latter piece, a nationally recognized creativity and movement program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, was launched by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid, who nominated him for the Difference Makers award.

The Southampton center is DopaFit’s third Western Mass. location, but Chad Moir envisions a larger space down the line, with more Parkinson’s treatment services in house.

“Chad is truly the definition of a Difference Maker,” Shahid wrote. “He has provided countless hours of free educational services for patients and assisted-living and nursing centers that provide support to people with Parkinson’s, and has spoken at a variety of seminars with the simple goal of spreading awareness about Parkinson’s and the importance of exercising for disease management. His dedication and love for others is seen in his daily efforts.”

Moir is always open to new modalities as well, such as a recent addition, ‘laughter yoga.’ A member brought the idea to him, and it turned out one of the practice’s leading instructors lives in East Longmeadow, and was happy to teach a class.

“Everybody loved it,” Moir said. “People said it made a difference that day, and in the days after, to be able to laugh again.”

Indeed, the past year has brought unforeseen stress to the lives of everyone, including business owners like Moir and the folks with Parkinson’s disease he serves.

“We had been growing exponentially prior to the pandemic; we had a little over 100 members, and we’d see about 80 of those members every week, at different sessions,” he recalled. And when COVID-19 shut down the economy, including DopaFit’s facilities, Moir had to pivot — fast.

“Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

He quickly moved to an online model, starting with prerecorded exercise videos, daily e-mails, and phone calls. Zoom classes followed, which were more engaging and interactive than the videos, and trainers could work with members to make sure they were doing everything correctly.

“We did our best to keep our members engaged,” he added, through efforts like webinars with movement-disorder specialists to make sure members stayed current with the latest information. “Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

While the West Boylston facility remains shuttered and programs are run completely virtually, DopaFit’s Easthampton site opened about four months ago to small, scaled-down classes — two groups of no more than four people each — who work out separated by distance and dividers, and all surfaces and equipment are sanitized between each use.

“People who come say they feel 10 times safer here than they do going to the grocery store,” Moir said.

Through it all, he had his worries about surviving such a difficult time.

“The rent didn’t stop. The space was closed, but the bills were still here. But we’re blessed with a tremendous community,” he said, noting that local groups ran fundraisers to support DopaFit, and he was able to keep the business in operation and pay employees through the pandemic. “You truly see the impact when it’s taken away. Even people who don’t come here but know what we do wanted this service to stay available to the people in this community.”

 

Moving Ahead

Through it all — the expanded membership, and then the obstacles posed by COVID-19 — DopaFit’s outreach in the community has only grown, Moir said. “We’ve made some great connections with the local physical therapists and neurologists in the area, which has helped tremendously. We are now well-known as a very viable and necessary option for someone with Parkinson’s disease.

“When it comes to being innovative and trying new things, that is something we will always do,” he added. “The world is ever-changing, and there are so many great people who do so many great things that can help someone with Parkinson’s disease.”

With that in mind, the next goal is a larger, standalone building that offers not just a big exercise room, but plenty of rooms for other services, from education to support groups to social work. In short, Moir wants to take what he’s learned in the past six years and build a truly one-stop destination for people with Parkinson’s disease to access the resources they need.

Some things he’s learned have been unexpected — like mastering Zoom.

“I helped so many people navigate Zoom, many of them older people,” he said. “I figure, if this doesn’t work out, I can go to Zoom and work for their technical support. I’ve got that down.”

Fortunately for so many, his day job seems to be working out just fine, despite the recent challenges. And he’s grateful his members have a place where they can come and, well, just be themselves.

“It pains me to hear someone stopped talking to their friends because ‘I don’t want them to pity me.’ Or, ‘we used to go out to dinner every Thursday, but I stopped going because I shake too much and don’t want people looking at me.’

“But after spending time here with other people with Parkinson’s disease, they come back and say, ‘you know what? I felt confident to go out and have dinner with my friends, and I felt better than I’ve felt in 10 years,’” he said. “So the exercise is a beneficial part of this; it can physically make someone better. But being able to feel better and be more confident gives them so much empowerment in other ways.”

That’s yet another difference Moir wants to make in people’s lives, as he continues to honor the legacy of one great teacher.

“Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life, just a little bit of difference, means the world to me,” he said. “It’s the fuel that keeps me going through the day. And that we’ve been able to figure out how to do it on a bigger scale is just very exciting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

In Demand

Tanya Vital-Basile

Tanya Vital-Basile with a common sight — a ‘sold’ sign.

Tanya Vital-Basile recently sold a house in Longmeadow to someone who might not have considered buying it a year ago.

But life changed — and so did the residential real-estate market. Considerably, in both cases.

Specifically, the buyer had lived in Boston for many years, and still has a job there, but she has been working remotely, and plans — like so many others these days — to continue doing so.

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it,” said Vital-Basile, who heads a team at Executive Real Estate. “We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

It’s a story BusinessWest heard multiple times from area Realtors.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment,” said Kathy Zeamer of Jones Realty. “A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it. We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

Call it the new normal wrought by a still-raging pandemic.

“COVID has a lot to do with it,” said Lesley Lambert of Park Square Realty. “People are working from home, and they’re realizing their home doesn’t work for their life. I’ve spoken to so many clients who want to continue working from home, even once all this clears, and they’re looking at their space and saying, ‘we thought we wanted a big, open floor plan, but what we actually want is a music room, a study, a home office.’”

All this demand — for a different home, but especially one far outside the metro areas — has created a serious imbalance with supply in Western Mass., creating a seller’s market like few this industry has experienced in recent decades.

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three. It’s crazy,” Vital-Basile said.

The most recent statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. In December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. Hampden County led the way (sales up 32.0% and median price up 11.5% from the previous year), but Franklin County (26% and 10.6%) and Hampshire County (20.4% and 9.1%) weren’t far behind.

Kathy Zeamer

Kathy Zeamer says the current climate is a supply-and-demand issue — with several factors driving that demand.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market, Zeamer said. “It’s all about supply and demand. The inventory is really low, and we have new people coming into the area, so we don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand we’re seeing.”

A few factors play into the supply challenge. Many families who might be thinking about moving out of the region are hunkering down instead because of uncertainties related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

As for demand, “I think people are trying to escape more urban areas,” she added. “We have people coming in from other parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston area. Most of my sales this year involve people from New York, California, Las Vegas, Chicago — more so than ever before. I’ve had several New York sales this year, which is more than I would typically see.”

 

Escaping the City

The lifestyle shifts driven by the pandemic aren’t the only factor driving demand, Vital-Basile said, noting that interest rates are still at historic lows, creeping below 3%.

“The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” she told BusinessWest, adding that sellers from the Hub find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment. A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“We’ve had a lot of buyers from Boston. My last three sales were from Boston — cash buyers. A lot of people are realizing they don’t have to work at their company’s location any longer; a lot of companies are letting them work from home. And this is a cheaper area — instead of a little condo for $700,000, you can get a good-sized house for $700,000.”

Zeamer said she’s also seeing an increased desire for multi-generational living experiences, which typically require a larger home than the buyer currently occupies. “They might have older parents or grown children, and they need more living space or in-law apartments.”

But the main driver for more space is simply the fact that families are spending much more time at home. “Because of the pandemic, they want more space, and different types of space,” Zeamer said. “Some people are moving because they feel cooped up in their existing homes; it’s too tight with the kids being home and partners working remotely from home.”

The pandemic has also generated a desire in some people to live more sustainably — to grow more food at home, for example, instead of relying totally on grocery stores, she noted. “They want to have a nice garden, and they’re thinking more about providing their own food sources.

“And I do think people are looking for more private outdoor space, where they can gather with their people, in their pod, without exposure from the neighbors,” she went on. “A lot of condos are coming on the market, perhaps because people in close living arrangements are looking to be more isolated.”

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale)

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale) says prime properties can get dozens of offers quickly — and over the asking price.

 

Lambert said the Berkshires and the Northampton/Easthampton area are both notable hotspots right now, but all of Western Mass., much like Cape Cod, is being seen as an attractive alternative to life in a metroplex.

“If they want to get out of their cities, it’s a good time, as a lot of companies are going with mobile workers. I think the brick-and-mortar concept is going to take a hit, and we’ll see more people realizing they don’t have to live where they work.”

Zeamer agreed. “I think Western Mass. is really appealing to a lot of urban types of buyers,” she said, noting, as tourism boards and chambers of commerce have for generations, that this region offers an urbane, progressive mindset in many corners, plus the kinds of cultural and recreational amenities city dwellers appreciate, but in a quieter, morte scenic setting with myriad ways to enjoy the great outdoors.

And, as noted, there are more seekers of such homes right now than sellers. As an example, Lambert recalled one house she sold last fall. “It was a lovely house, not a crazy McMansion. I had 50 showings in two days, and 15 offers — all over the asking price. From what I’m hearing from my teammates and fellow Realtors, it’s like that for everybody.”

 

Buying Time

While that makes for an exciting home-selling experience, it can be frustrating on the other side.

“There’s so much competition that people are struggling to secure a home,” Zeamer said. “And that’s keeping them from putting their own home on the market. It’s a great time to sell, but then you have to buy, and that part is very challenging right now.”

One of her colleagues at Jones recently got 18 offers on a property, some with cash in hand. “It’s hard to compete if there’s a cash offer in the mix. In urban areas, people are liquidating properties and have lots of cash in hand, and the prices here look pretty attractive compared to what they’re used to.”

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three .”

Also suppressing supply is the fact that some homeowners eyeing a move simply don’t want people in their houses during the pandemic, so they’re delaying a move, Vital-Basile said. “I ask sellers, ‘what makes you comfortable? Do you want a one-time showing, an open house with three families at a time, and after that, I’ll go and clean everything?’ It depends on the client.” Meanwhile, it can be especially tricky to sell a house with tenants if those tenants don’t want visitors due to COVID-19.

“Very rarely are you seeing open houses anymore. I can’t speak for all Realtors, but I switched to doing 3D home tours, where you can sit at your desktop and ‘walk’ through the house,” Lambert said, noting that in-person walk-throughs are reserved for houses the buyer is especially interested in.

In addition, “we can’t meet with clients like we used to,” she said. “We have to do a lot more remotely, talking on a phone call of Zoom call.”

The challenges of buying a house right now — both logistical and competitive — reinforce the need to have strong representation, said all the Realtors we spoke with. And to use common sense.

For instance, Vital-Basile said, some potential buyers are waiving appraisals and inspections to get a leg up, but she doesn’t recommend that. “I tell everyone, ‘don’t force the buy; you don’t want to be in a bad situation. Even if it’s the right house at the right price, don’t force it. Always have the agent negotiate.”

Lambert is certainly an advocate for the agent-client relationship — and not just any agent. “I tell them they need the strongest buyer’s agent they can find, and not just work with your cousin because he got his license six months ago. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this market, you have to know what you’re doing.”

That includes securing preapprovals and discussing beforehand what a competitive offer should looks like. “If the first time you talk to a buyer is when the boots are hitting the road, they’re going to freak out. It’s got to be a strategy you’ve developed with them regardless of the house they find.”

And it means, in many cases these days, being prepared to offer more than the asking price right off the bat, before someone else invariably does.

“I have a team of trusted affiliates who take great care of my clients, and when my clients listen to my well-erned advice, we have smooth sailing,” Lambert said. “I’m not the only realty team like that, of course. But it’s important to have advocates on your side right now.”

That said, the “crazy prices” sellers are getting don’t seem to be slowing up, Vital-Basile said. “I don’t think the market will tank anytime soon,” she said. “But a $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize. Right now, though, there are too many buyers out there, ready to move.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Uncertainty on the Menu

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

The weekend before March 17, Fitzwilly’s was gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day the Northampton St. Patrick’s Assoc. gathers for its annual breakfast, and then about 200 of them march on down to Fitzwilly’s and spend most of the day there.

“We have Irish bands, and we were sitting on 20 kegs of Guinness beer and a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for a great big party — and it got pulled right out from under us,” owner Fred Gohr said.

Remember March 16? That’s the day restaurants — and most other businesses in the Commonwealth — were forced to shut down, on just two days notice, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It was awful,” Gohr went on. “We had a staff of about 75 people, and I had to tell them all, ‘we’re closed, and you guys have to go on unemployment for a while, and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happened, all across Hampshire County’s robust dining scene, has been a series of starts and stops, hope and despair, and especially two themes that kept coming up as BusinessWest sat with area proprietors: uncertainty, but also evolution.

“We were closed completely for a month or so, then we opened and started doing a little bit of curbside,” Gohr said. “And, honestly, when that’s all you’re doing — at least for us — it’s not very profitable.”

But takeout service, never a major factor in the business, has since morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales. Other restaurants have relied even more on pick-up service, because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has (more on those later).

“Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’”

“It’s been such a whirlwind for small businesses the past 10 months, trying to get our bearings with all the changes,” said Alex Washut, who owns two Jake’s restaurants in Northampton and Amherst. “Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’

That’s because there was no ‘last time’ — no comparable pandemic in the past century, anyway. “Everything was out the window,” Washut said. “We asked, ‘who are we going to be this week?’ Then there was a bunch of changes, and we had to conform to those, and then it was a new restaurant the next week.”

Like Fitzwilly’s, evolving to a takeout model early on was new territory for Jake’s. “We were never a takeout restaurant; maybe 3% of our gross was takeout food,” he said. “So we had no system for it.”

The various systems that area eateries developed, in the weeks last spring when takeout was the only option, involved details ranging from what containers to use to how to present food attractively and, for restaurants that opted for delivery, how to keep it warm in transit.

Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass with some of the supplies used in Galaxy’s takeout business, which has been its dominant model for almost a year.

“We were able to pivot quickly,” Washut noted. “From there, we moved to outdoor dining when that was allowed, but we had never had outdoor dining before” — and questions had to be answered regarding permitting, staffing, health and safety factors.

The positive, he noted, is that, if 2021 follows a similarly bumpy trajectory, “we know what’s expected, and we know how we’ll react in the spring, how we’ll react in the summer, and how we’ll react once the fall and winter come along.”

Indeed, the establishments that survived last year’s storm are, if not stronger for the experience, at least a little wiser, even as many are barely hanging on. The hope, of course, is that 2021 is nothing like 2020. But in this industry, so critical to the economy and cultural life of Hampshire County, nothing is certain.

 

Survival of the Fittest

“We’ve evolved a lot.”

Those were Casey Douglass’ first words when asked what this year has been like at Galaxy, the restaurant he’s operated in downtown Easthampton for the past five years.
The first evolution had to do with meeting customer needs. “We’re part of the food chain,” he said. “We have a lot of customers who don’t go to the supermarket. And we were like, ‘they’re going to be putting themselves at risk going to the supermarket as opposed to getting to-go.’

“So we went to the radio station and created an ad talking about ‘Casey’s comfort food,’” he went on. “And we switched to all a la carte, basic stuff — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, meatloaf — and we were cranking.”

So much that, when he secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, he first thought he wouldn’t need it. “Then a couple weeks went by, and we said, ‘thank goodness we got that.’ It changed so quickly.”

Sales dropped to about 45% of what they once were, but he kept 70% of the labor on board, because that’s the main purpose of the PPP program. That money got Galaxy through the end of June. Then things got rough.

Jake’s owner Alex Washut

Jake’s owner Alex Washut says it might be a while before his two locations (this one in Amherst) are packed with patrons again.

After losing a couple of cooks to unemployment, the restaurant cut back from five days a week to four, and when summer rolled around, fewer customers wanted takeout, but outdoor dining wasn’t a draw, either.

Fall brought a reprieve of sorts, with the milder, less-humid weather boosting outdoor dining, but the winter has been exceptionally tricky. Indoor dining didn’t prove to be a workable option; in a space that seats fewer than 50, the governor’s current 25% capacity mandate is especially onerous, and Douglass and his team also felt indoor dining might not be safe — or, at least, feel safe — for a clientele that skews older than some restaurants.

So as winter wears on, Douglass is pressing on with takeout only — now a hybrid of the comfort-food concept and the creative American meals he’s known for — a bank loan, and plenty of grit.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point,” he said, noting that costs like food, loan interest, utilities, and equipment leases don’t just go away when sales are down. “We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

However, he insisted, “I do think the spring will increase sales a couple thousand dollars a week, and that’s all it takes. We’ll be fine.”

Evolving to a takeout model was jarring at first to Washut, especially since his two locations — an 1800s-era building in Northampton and a new, modern structure in North Amherst’s Mill District — are so different, with a different set of clientele, and not cookie-cutter businesses like quick-service chains.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point. We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

“We didn’t know how to be a takeout restaurant. We were making $50 in sales a day — we were in shock,” he recalled. So he shut things down completely through April, secured a PPP loan and other grant funds, and reopened for takeout in early May, then outdoor seating a couple months later. Armed with the PPP, he was able to bring back the whole staff, and the breakfast-and-lunch establishment added dinners to generate more business. When funds ran dry, dinner went away.

These days, with takeout and limited indoor seating, Washut is bringing in about 30% of typical sales, and the combined staff is down from close to 50 to around 15.

Throughout all the changes, he has prioritized safety. Even if the governor’s 25% seating rule changes tomorrow, he said, “I’m not going to increase my dining room beyond 25%; my staff and I don’t feel that’s appropriate right now. There may be things we’re allowed to do but, in reality, we choose not to do.”

Gohr had a few advantages last year when it came to keeping people safe while generating business. One was a large parking lot next to Fitzwilly’s that he rented from its owner for tented outdoor dining. He could seat 70 there, while the city of Northampton’s decision to turn parking spaces on Main Street into dining space added about eight more tables to the restaurant’s existing sidewalk seating.

“We really had a great summer,” he told BusinessWest. “Through the summer, we had a capacity of 100-plus guests, the majority of them outdoors.”

Gohr’s other advantage is a large indoor space with a normal capacity of 280. The 25% mandate has hurt this winter, for sure, as did Baker’s 9:30 p.m. curfew, which was only recently lifted. But seating 70 — separated by plexiglass barriers — is better than seating a dozen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of room in here, and we’re able to distance people. These places that have even 50 seats — and there’s a lot of places in town with just six tables — but even the ones with 50 seats, now you’re down to letting 12 people in. You can’t survive. So we’re fortunate given the size we have. Seventy people gets us by. We can survive on that if it doesn’t change.”

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return to its go-to dining status in Easthampton once it’s safe to eat out again.

A mild winter, weather-wise, helps as well. “If you start getting snowstorms on weekends on top of all the other stuff, then we’d be in trouble. But we’ve had pretty good weekends.”

A PPP loan and other grants also helped, and he’s applied for a second PPP loan, with this round capping the disbursement for certain hard-hit industries, including restaurants, higher than the first, so he’s hopeful for another influx to carry him to the spring. He’s already in talks about renting the parking lot again, and the city has discussed moving outdoor seating into Main Street again as well.

 

Pressing Through

Still, Gohr, like every other restaurant owner, knows 2021 could be another year of upheaval. “We’re hoping everyone gets the vaccine and we get back to normal. But I don’t think it’s going to be real quick.”

He’s appreciative of customers eating in the restaurant, and said gift-card sales were strong over the holidays, although not to the level of a typical year, when more people are out shopping. And he does believe outdoor dining will be a hit again. But it’s harder to pin down when customers will flock to restaurants at pre-2020 levels.

“My gut tells me it’s not going to be in the spring; it’ll be late summer or fall before we get to that point,” he said. “The mindset that I see in the public is all over the place. I know people — friends and some of my regular customers — that have not been anywhere since March. And then there are others, the minute we opened the doors, they were back. Everybody’s obviously more careful, but everyone’s comfort level is completely different. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Douglass senses real community support for Galaxy, noting that some regulars stop by three times a week, and others drop big tips and cheerlead for the establishment among their peers.

“I feel like, at least in this community, [the pandemic] hasn’t hurt on a big scale economically,” he said. “We haven’t had factories shut down. I’ve heard people are paying their rents. And I think, come the spring, people are going to be pouring out. As much as people are still nervous, if the service staff has been vaccinated, if a majority of customers have been vaccinated, people will be coming out in droves. I think people are going to hunker down all February, and then in March, with the outdoor dining, people are going to be like, ‘sign me up.’”

If that’s especially optimistic, Douglass balances the thought by saying he’s had some dark days as well, wondering if it’s worth the effort to stay open right now, and fretting over the possibility of a snowy weekend that could wipe out almost an entire week’s worth of revenues. It’s his staff who have been most enthusiastic about staying open, believing it’s important to stay in the public eye, so that Galaxy is a go-to destination when people start emerging from winter hibernation.

Still, he said, “everyone wants to go back to what normal is, but if this goes on long enough, does normal shift?”

It’s a good question, and one Washut asks himself as well. “Every day, I’m thinking about my business, trying to find that crystal ball,” he said, meaning no one really knows how 2021 will go. But he’s hopeful.

“Once it gets warm again, once the outdoor dining opens up for food-service establishments, I think the initial rush of business will be great. Unfortunately, with restaurants, it’s really hard to be proactive; we’re constantly in a reactive mode.”

Specifically, it’s tough to staff up for a rush that might be around the corner, but restaurants also don’t want to be caught flat-footed if things pick up quickly. And things might not pick up much at all in 2021.

“This will be with us for a lot longer than we want to tell ourselves, and at some level, we have to come to terms with that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be hosting 60 to 80 people in our dining rooms this year; we won’t have that level of business for a while.”

Yes, the combination of warm weather — and outdoor dining — come spring, and the prospect of rising herd immunity from the vaccines, might inject some life into the industry, but next winter could be just as difficult as this one, depending on how the pandemic’s endgame goes — if an endgame even materializes in 2021.

Meanwhile, Washut appreciates any community support he gets. “If you only come in for gift cards, awesome. If you only get takeout, awesome. Maybe we’re not in a financial position to pass that goodwill on in an equal manner, but I’ll be damned if we won’t later on. If we all keep that attitude in every level of our life, we’ll get through this for sure.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

Growth Market

Elly Vaughan

Elly Vaughan with some of the trees that will blossom with life — and fruit — when the weather warms up.

Elly Vaughan knows a lot about the global food system — and the myriad problems it has posed over the decades.

“Local food is so important for so many reasons,” she said. “The global food system has a lot of issues — environmental issues, workers’ human-rights violations, the way the global agricultural food system tends to strip people of their water rights in some countries.

“Globalized food — a large, centralized food system — can really damage the environment and communities, and when we buy local, we break that cycle,” she added. And, as owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, she’s certainly doing her part.

“We’re delivering money directly from the consumer to the farmer, so that eliminates the middleman — the consumer gets a fresher product, and the farmer gets a better price point,” she said. “The farmer can pay their workers living wages and can be conservative about environmental resources, which affects climate change, while offering affordable, high-quality food to local communities and families. That’s what a local food system does.”

Taking notice of how Vaughan has grown and diversified Phoenix since purchasing the property in 2017, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce gave her the Leader in Innovation Award at its 2020 A+ Awards, “for being instrumental in cultivating relationships with other local businesses to improve the economic climate of Belchertown.”

That’s gratifying for someone whose business motto is “fruit with a conscience.”

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years,” she told BusinessWest. “You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.

“But I think that local food is a model for an alternative to that,” she went on. “Producing food and feeding people doesn’t like to look like this. It does not have to be actively harming the environment; it does not have to be actively exploiting workers and excluding low-income families from being able to afford healthy food. Small farms don’t have to struggle to compete in a wholesale marketplace when they can deliver directly to their community.”

 

Community Focus

Vaughan became interested in farming as a career while in college, and she worked on various organic vegetable farms for about a decade before becoming the orchard manager for Phoenix, which was then owned and operated by Amherst-based Atkins Farms.

When Atkins decided to sell the Belchertown property, Vaughan bought it, and renovated the 1935 horse barn on the property as her residence.

“When I first bought it, it was apples and peaches — and those are still my largest crops,” she said. “But I have replanted and started diversifying.”

New crops include more varieties of apples, as well as table grapes, strawberries, and other fruits. In 2018, she planted new blocks of peach, nectarine, and pear trees, and she’ll see the first harvest of peaches and nectarines from those trees this spring, with the pears coming along in subsequent years. She’s also begun planting more vegetables, including asparagus, tomatoes, kale, onions, and basil. “I want to ramp all that up, now that I have a store and an outlet for a diverse market garden.”

The nearby store on Route 181 was a dilapidated garage with no foundation, plumbing, or … well, much else, actually, when she decided to turn it into a country store.

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years. You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.”

“It was just a shell of a garage,” Vaughan said. “It was a major, major undertaking to get it to where it is now. But it’s really starting to catch on, I think.”

Since opening in July 2019, the store sells locally produced fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, bread, baked goods, and coffee, as well as prepared foods, like grab-and-go wraps, side dishes and soups to heat up at home, and plenty of pantry staples. “You can grab everything you need to make a meal for your family in the store.”

That’s been a plus for patrons who don’t want to go in supermarkets these days; in response to COVID-19 anxieties, the store launched curbside pickup last year and expanded its product lines — with items like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and more staple foods — to minimize the need for shoppers to visit large stores.

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store has been growing in popularity since its opening in July 2019.

“It was an effort to create a more comprehensive, one-stop grocery experience. They could get a lot of what they needed from us,” Vaughan said. “I think people really appreciated that.”

While offering an outlet for other local food producers, the country store is a critical element — along with a growing business in pick-your-own apples and peaches — in selling Phoenix’s own products directly to customers.

Vaughan wholesales apples to Big Y and a couple of smaller stores, for about $30 a bushel, because she produces too many — on more than 20 acres of apple trees — to sell on her own.

“But when I sell them in my store, I can get $50 to $60 for that same case because I’m eliminating the middleman, selling direct to the consumer, all while giving them a reasonable price point; it’s not a super expensive apple,” she explained. Direct consumer sales, in fact, are “the difference between me paying my bills and not paying my bills. As a medium to small-sized farm, it’s important to be able to market directly to people in a community-based system like this.”

Not that people should abandon the supermarket, she added. “You need to go to the supermarket for some things. You need paper towels; you need a big case of ramen noodles or whatever. But if you go to a local farmstand and get as many items as you can there instead of the store as part of your weekly or monthly routine, that makes a huge difference. And I wish people knew how much impact they can have just by including more locally oriented shopping in their routine.”

One benefit, of course, is fresher produce; while local chains like Big Y do buy from local farms, many of the fruits and vegetables they sell are not local, and, in many cases, not even in season in Massachusetts. So people are eating produce that’s been in transit for a week or two.

Switching exclusively to local produce requires some changed habits from consumers, she added, and occasionally some sacrifice.

“Part of it is people learning to eat in season and not expecting to have strawberries year-round and not expecting to have perfect, flawless-looking fruit if they want to eat organic; something grown with less chemicals is not going to look as picture-perfect,” she explained. “There needs to be somewhat of a shift with the way that people view what kind of produce they should have, and in exchange for making that shift, they can have high-quality, locally grown food that doesn’t break the bank and can support local farmers.”

While that education process is ongoing, it’s a culture that has taken root (literally and figuratively) in Western Mass. more than in many regions of the country.

“I think we are very fortunate in this community — people are really hip to local foods, and we have so much great local food in this region, and you don’t have to look very far to find everything you need to feed your family just with food produced in the Pioneer Valley,” Vaughan said. “There’s such a wealth of really great, locally produced foods around here. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

 

Looking Ahead

Now in her fourth year running the farm, Vaughan has no intention of slowing down. As she waits for the first harvests from those new peach, nectarine, and pear trees and diversifies into vegetables, she’s also looking into new business opportunities, like making hard cider. For that, she’s been gathering equipment and trying to nail down the right recipe.

The store continues to grow, too. “It typically takes a few years for a business like that to optimize and settle into what it’s going to be like,” she said, adding that she also wants to expand the pick-your-own business.

“That’s another necessary piece of the business. Our fruit is the difference between being in the red and being in the black. We need direct markets through the store and pick-your-own to survive, and we’re still building those things up. Both need to continue to grow if the business will be sustainable.”

But, as evidenced by that A+ Award and, more importantly, the growing number of locals heading to Phoenix for something fresh, she’s on the right track.

“We’re not there yet,” Vaughan said. “It’s going to be a lifelong journey, shaping this place into what it’s going to be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services

Checking on the Community

Paul Scully

Paul Scully says much of Country Bank’s philanthropy in 2020 was directed at “COVID-related initiatives.”

Paul Scully says local philanthropy is baked into the DNA of this region’s financial institutions.

“Banks have always been great about supporting communities. And we are fairly philanthropic,” Country Bank’s president and CEO added, noting that the bank gave $1.3 million to local nonprofits last year, touching about 400 different organizations in some way.

Those numbers aren’t atypical. What made 2020 slightly different is where that money went.

“Of that, about a half-million went to what I would call COVID-related initiatives,” Scully said, citing causes ranging from equipping frontline workers at hospitals to meeting soaring demand at local food banks due to the pandemic’s economic impact on families.

At Freedom Credit Union’s April board meeting — the first one after it and the region’s other banking institutions closed their doors in mid-March — President and CEO Glenn Welch said he asked to make larger monthly donations to the community than usual.

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

In the days that followed, Freedom announced a donation of $55,000 to be dispersed among several community organizations at the front lines of the local fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, including Baystate Health Foundation; Mercy Medical Center; Cooley Dickinson Health Care; the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts; Hampshire Hospitality Group, whose Hampshire County Heroes feed first responders in Hampshire County; and Feed the Fight, an initiative of Peter Pan Bus Lines and area restaurants to feed healthcare workers and first responders in the community.

“If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

“A lot of those are things we haven’t done every year,” Welch said, noting that the credit union’s philanthropic contributions were up 17% from 2019 to 2020, even though it was a tougher financial year for financial institutions.

It’s a story being told across the region — not that banks and credit unions are being more generous this year (although, in many cases, they are), but that the pandemic has revealed different needs, causing a shift in where those grants are being targeted.

In September, for instance, the Berkshire Bank Foundation contributed an additional $1 million — over its $3 million total annual grant budget — to collaborative efforts supporting nonprofit organizations responding to rising community needs, including MHA, the YMCA of Greater Springfield, Western Massachusetts SCORE, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, among others.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our local communities in ways that no one could have predicted, and the economic impact has created significant challenges for organizations who help so many every day,” said Jim Hickson, Berkshire Bank’s Pioneer Valley regional president.

The foundation’s grants have supported community-based organizations in the areas of housing, food security, health supplies, student aid, small-business assistance — all needs that have been heightened by a pandemic whose impacts will continue to be felt well into 2021.

 

First Response

Some of the earliest contributions from banks and credit unions, at the start of the pandemic, were targeted to hospitals and first responders. Country Bank donated $250,000 to four local hospitals, and also gave $50,000 to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department’s First Responder Recovery Home, which provided a safe haven for doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, firefighters, and corrections professionals who were diagnosed with COVID-19, but couldn’t safely go home to recover without jeopardizing the health of a vulnerable family member.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

As the pandemic evolved and other nonprofits began reshaping their missions to respond to it, Country Bank directed funds to organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Springfield Rescue Mission, and Friends of the Homeless, as well as similar organizations in the Worcester area.

PeoplesBank’s charitable giving in 2020 surpassed its previous record high, totaling $1,300,000, and benefiting 292 different nonprofits in the region. While the long-standing funding priorities of PeoplesBank include education, community vibrancy, and environmental sustainability, support in 2020 also included donations to COVID-19 emergency relief funds, purchases of PPE for frontline responders, organizations fighting food insecurity and homelessness, and many area youth groups and early-childhood education centers.

“We try to say ‘no’ as infrequently as possible,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility — even though last year’s needs definitely widened, especially considering that many nonprofits gain much of their funding from annual events that never happened.

“When the COVID hit the fan, we said to all our nonprofits we had agreements with, ‘we are going to honor all our commitments, even if you can’t hold your gala or your walk. The money’s still yours,’” Bannister said.

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t,” he continued. “On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t. On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

 

Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank, said his institution had no inclination to take back money spent to support such events.

“COVID drove everyone indoors this year, and a lot of events got canceled,” Day said. “We usually sign up for events, and we send money ahead of time. The nonprofits all reached out and said, “we’re not going to hold this ball or gala. Do you need the money back?’ But we’re here to support you, and the fact that you can’t throw a ball actually makes it more important that we support you. So even though we didn’t get to go to these events, we still made the donations; that didn’t change a bit.”

Later in the year, as nonprofits scrambled to find other ways to raise funds, banks looked for new ways to support them, Bannister added. “Like, the Community Foundation put together an emergency COVID fund — there’s a new need. We contributed to buy PPE for the frontline workers — that was something that wasn’t a need before. And a number of chambers put together microgrant programs for the members in their communities, with a special round of fundraising for that, and we supported that, too.”

 

Food for Thought

Like PeoplesBank, Florence Bank directs its philanthropy in a few general ways.

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless. We thought food-insecure people having trouble getting food and buying food might be a big deal this year, so we said, ‘hey, let’s do everything we can in that area, if possible,’” Day said, adding that Florence has made good on that pledge by supporting 11 different food pantries and homeless shelters.

“We’ve always supported many of these organizations,” he was quick to add, but cast a wider net this year, donating nearly $100,000 to 10 organizations that address food insecurity.

Kevin Day

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless.”

“We are so grateful. Without the support of donors, we would not have been able to continue our mission,” Ruben Reyes, executive director of Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen & Pantry in Chicopee, one of the recipients, said in December. “COVID has affected us very hard. All of our fundraisers were canceled, and we were very worried about how to fund our programs.”

Compounding the problem, COVID-19 has also affected Lorraine’s clientele. Reyes said he is seeing an additional 200 to 300 families each month, and provides a month’s supply of groceries and dinners five nights a week to a total of 600 to 700 families. “We’re seeing a lot more families who typically would not need pantry services. They are coming to our doors for the very first time.”

Meanwhile, Scully noted that a Greater Boston Food Bank report that food insecurity in Massachusetts reached an all-time high in November. The state has experienced a 59% increase since 2018, representing more than 1 million people in need of food assistance. Most people are using food pantries for the first time.

“We’ve seen the demand at the food banks, and in so many other different areas,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Country has donated more than $130,000 to local food pantries throughout the year. “We’ve always supported local food pantries and food banks, and we made significant contributions to them as well. Everyone is feeling the demands are greater than ever.”

As another example of the way financial institutions have rallied to the cause of food insecurity, Freedom Credit Union partnered with its members and the local community in December by matching funds donated to benefit the Pioneer Valley USO.

Located at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, that organization provides more than 102,000 pounds of food to more than 3,200 individuals annually through the Emergency Food Pantry, among other efforts.

“We’d heard that some of the people who serve us in the military are having trouble feeding their families, and the food pantries need to be stocked,” Welch said. “It’s pretty sad when people in the U.S. have to be going to the food banks, with the loss of jobs due to COVID. A lot of people are hurting this year.”

All the region’s banks and credit unions helped customers who were struggling financially in other ways as well, such as mortgage and loan deferrals and relief loans.

“All the institutions did a lot to help members by deferring payments and coming up with loan programs,” Welch said. “It’s important to help people out, and we’re still doing that.”

 

Community Partners

While food insecurity and other basic needs are front of mind these days, banks and credit unions support a host of other nonprofits as well, many of which rely on performances, events, and member activity to pay their bills. Many of these were able to pivot to virtual events to maintain connections with the community until they can go back to live events, but those don’t bring in nearly as much funding as in-person gatherings.

Through its philanthropic efforts, Scully said “what we try to do is help communities thrive, whether it’s economic health, physical health, or nutritional health. Put all those pieces together, and these communities will thrive. If there’s a need and we’re able to help satisfy some of these needs, we’ll do our part to the extent we can.”

That attitude, at most local financial institutions, extends beyond monetary donations into volunteerism, Bannister noted.

“We’ve averaged about 10,000 volunteer hours across the organization pretty consistently for the past four or five years,” he said, adding that the total in 2020 was closer to 5,000, due to organizations moving to remote operations and events being canceled. “That wasn’t from a lack of desire; people were concerned about going out in public, so there was a lack of opportunity. We expect that to come back this year as things start to open up again.”

At an employee giving campaign in November, the bank actually had more associates give more money this year than ever before, Bannister added. “That could have gone the other way. There’s a lot more economic insecurity out there. So that, to us, was a sign that folks are still engaged, and they still want to give.”

While nonprofits have cut back hours and volunteers can’t always come in, especially at organizations that deal with an older population. “people have been creative,” Scully said. “We work once a month with the Ware mobile food pantry. We were there the week before Christmas, and that had upwards of 300 cars coming in. They turned it into a mobile experience. There’s a group of us there, you’re outside, masks on. It’s a way to give back, volunteer, and be safe.”

After all, he added, people want to help, and so do banks.

Day said the outpouring of concern was so great in 2020 that some nonprofits actually weathered the early months of the pandemic well.

“In March, maybe the first week of April, I think my supposition would have been that everyone is going to be hurting instantly,” he said. “But I’m involved in several nonprofit boards, and across the region, many are saying their needs have been met, in my view, pretty well.”

But 2021 poses a trap of sorts.

“The critical aspect is coming in the next year,” Day said. “Many of them received a great deal of donations during this past year, and we’re happy to do our part. I think the needs will come as the recovery moves along this year, once the perception of need goes away.”

That’s because human needs are still great among families that come to nonprofits for help, especially those in the lower economic strata who have experienced economic devastation. “They’re going to need continued support, and I expect that need will continue through 2021, easily.”

Scully agreed. “The needs are greater than the average person realizes. If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

And will remain so going forward, Day added.

“We gave more money this year than we ever have, sprayed it around, touched every aspect of the nonprofit world,” he said. “People know we’re a good partner of the community, and we’re happy to help out those in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

A Matter of Self-worth

When Jessi Kirley took the reins at the Family Business Center in 2018, she was looking for a new challenge — and some meaning.

“I had a major what-matters-most moment,” she said. “I had just lost my dad to cancer, my own health was suffering, I’d been working in the medical field for 20 years, and I was facing burnout and overperformance. When my dad died, I ended up quitting my job — what mattered most was reconnecting to my health and wellness.”

The FBC, known for its dinner forums, morning workshops, peer-advisory groups, custom consulting, and other programs cultivated under the long-time leadership of Ira Bryck, proved a gratifying role, but it — like so many companies and organizations across the U.S. — became a financial victim of COVID-19 and closed its doors last spring.

“That was another moment when I asked myself, ‘what really matters?’” Kirley said. “Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

As the single mother of three teens, she felt pressure to provide stability to her household, but she also loved working. “It was a lot of figuring things out, like so many of us needed to do. And what I noticed was that I felt compelled to go back to my roots of helping people.”

Seven months later, the result of those ideas became JKirley Collective, which offers personal- and professional-development courses, beginning with its first track, the “Dignity Series,” and the pilot program in that track, “Dignity in Conversation,” which includes a virtual workshop on Jan. 19 and a follow-up virtual peer-group session on Jan. 26.

As she explained, JKirley Collective collaborates with others who share the mission of helping people unlock their potential to build the lives they want through transformative action. As the pandemic wore on, she said, “I found myself asking what really matters — to me, and to this world. I started a business to pursue my passion of helping people unlock their potential, to craft the lives they want.”

It’s quite a detour from when she studied biology at Smith College with a goal of one day curing cancer.

“I was very ambitious,” she said. “But I always came back to that anchor within myself, wanting to help people. With COVID and the loss of jobs and just moving through this workforce disruption and transformation, how can I help people navigate that? What skills do I have? That’s what brought me to offer my Dignity Series programs.”

 

Three Pillars

Although ‘dignity’ is the theme of the collective’s first series of courses, it’s also the foundational concept of the business itself, Kirley explained.

From that foundation rise three pillars. “The first is dignity as defined by self-worth, something that’s inherent, that we bring with us all the time. The second pillar is the embodiment of this connection to our self-worth; there’s a difference between simply understanding dignity and bringing it into the body and seeing it as a platform for growth and a way to increase confidence and ward off self-doubt. That’s the embodiment piece.”

The third pillar is about action. “We’ve dived into concepts of self-worth and our dignity and really worked on ways to embody that and practice that. So, how do we connect to our agency, our actions, our free choice? And the choice, in this case, maybe, is to move through these disruptions to make a better life for ourselves, or to be more generous, or to step into a new role.”

Many individuals these days are certainly doing the latter. “In this time of change, we’re stepping into new responsibilities, with massive amounts of uncertainty — and what does that feel like? Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves, not confident, doubting our own abilities, questioning our success. And that can derail our ability to reach our goals and move to the other side.”

Getting back to the collaborative concept at the heart of her new enterprise, Kirley credits Andrea Bordenca, who is helping her design and develop the Dignity Series, with being a sounding board as she built the business.

“Considering her valuable experience, it gave me a kind of safety net,” she said of Bordenca, who is CEO of both the Institute for Generative Leadership and DESCO Service, as well as the founder of Lead Yourself Youth. “Taking a chance to start a business — the visioning, the planning — is a very vulnerable experience, and it can be scary. Having a safety net in Andrea allowed me to reach higher.”

Jessi Kirley

Jessi Kirley

“Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

Another early collaborator is Amy Jamrog, a financial advisor and founding partner of the Jamrog Group, who is helping Kirley develop a second track of courses, called Claim Your Worth, which will incorporate concepts of self-worth and dignity into practical lessons on financial empowerment. That program’s first course will launch on Feb. 10.

The individual classes are collaborations as well; offerings in the Dignity Series will include Kelly Vogel, owner of Sound Passage, who helps her clients discover the power of their voice; and Dr. Tom Naro, a physical therapist and owner of My PT.

Naro actually approached Kirley, she said, because he felt her concepts could help his clients reach their physical-therapy goals. “Sometimes they struggle with self-doubt, questioning their self-worth, think they don’t deserve to feel good and look good — all those negative thoughts,” she explained.

Each class will feature a workshop followed by a peer-group session a week later, so participants can be introduced to theories and then unpack them in a deeper way, talk about their own personal struggles, and develop strategies for action. While the classes are held virtually now, Kirley sees a role in the future for a hybrid model, even after folks are able to gather in groups again, because it opens her programs up to a wider geographic area.

And, while most participants will likely be women, JKirley Collective welcomes everyone. “Honestly, who doesn’t need this kind of work?” she said. “We know from consumer behavior that women tend to sign up for self-help, self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for everyone.”

She also sees many different applications of these courses, from employee-assistance programs to management team building, to an individual preparing to join a nonprofit board or take on a new leadership role in the community. “The theme is, when we step into something new, by force or by choice, we can doubt ourselves. We want to help people be successful in whatever change they’re going for.”

Currently a business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Kirley has been committed to serving the community in various capacities for more than 20 years. “I had the fortunate opportunity to go through a Foundations course with the Institute for Generative Leadership,” she said, “which helped me clarify my offering and build a collaboration model for my business.”

 

Bump in the Road

However, she ran into a discouraging roadblock right off the bat. She initially planned to launch in the fall and call her enterprise DignityWorks — a name that, despite her research, proved to be a problem.

“A business owner in the UK contacted me who had been using DignityWorks for many years, and I faced the threat of litigation,” she recently wrote in her blog. “I halted all program promotion, postponed the pilot to January 2021, and resigned to go back to square one for brand name and design. It felt like a devastating loss of time, money, and momentum. This breakdown opened the door for all of my dignity threats to come knockin’!”

Specifically, all the ‘I’m not worthy’ stories she helps clients deal with flooded her own head and wracked her body with anxiety, thoughts like “I should have known how to avoid this setback,” “this business will never be ‘real’ or earn me a living,” “I am letting everyone down, and no one will trust me after this,” and “I look like a fool, and who am I to start my own business?”

She had to put her own advice into practice — to stay calm, actively move away from anxiety and toward dignity, and take “many deep breaths” — before having a productive Zoom meeting with the business owner across the pond, and then going about changing her business name.

Through the whole experience, “I had to walk the talk of my own worth,” she told BusinessWest. “That was pretty cool.”

By the way, she loves the new brand name, especially its focus on the word ‘collective.’ “Who am I as a person? What are my values? I love connecting people, and I love working collaboratively. When I started to think about my values, it was important that collaboration was the driving force in starting this business.”

So, a new year begins on a more positive note. “Having endured 2020, we’re trying to start 2021 by finding ways to invest in self, grow positively, and have better wellness,” Kirley said — and, above all, do it together.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Fitness

For a year and a half after F45 Training Hampshire Meadows opened in Hadley, owner Danny Deane knew what members wanted — to get fit, sure, but also to cultivate a sense of family and community with their fellow goal-setters.

“We were sharing equipment, people were shoulder to shoulder, giving sweaty high fives,” he said, noting that none of that has been possible since the pandemic began.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

In fact, the fitness center, like all others in this industry, closed its doors for almost four months, a casualty of Gov. Charlie Baker’s sweeping lockdowns in March, following by a slow, gradual, phased approach to reopening — during which time F45 launched online programs and later ran outdoor boot camps before getting the all-clear to invite members back inside.

These days, the Hadley facility — and a second F45 location Deane and his wife, Jessye, opened in West Springfield over the summer — have implemented a series of strict safety protocols, from reducing session sizes and mandating masks to requiring everyone to sanitize, pass a temperature check upon entry, and even change shoes; from reformatting space for physical distancing and barring shared equipment to sanitizing all surfaces, floors, and equipment every 45 minutes. Both studios — and their HVAC systems — have been fitted with the hospital-grade PermaSAFE disinfectant and antimicrobial system and are electrostatically fogged weekly.

The result? Out of 20,027 member visits since July, the two studios have been responsible for exactly zero transmissions of COVID-19.

“Making health everyone’s priority is really why we opened this,” Danny said, which is why he and Jessye considered CDC and state safety recommendations and not only met, but exceeded them, at both locations.

It’s certainly a bold move to expand during a pandemic, especially in an industry as hard-hit as this one by COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and restrictions.

“The industry is hurting, significantly,” Danny said. “We say failure is never an option for us, but for the majority of fitness in the United States, it is certainly an option.”

Indeed, while most fitness centers say they’re hanging on, many have shut their doors permanently. The most recent capacity rollback in Massachusetts, to 25%, isn’t helping matters for an industry whose leaders have consistently maintained they’re not the problem when it comes to spreading COVID-19.

“These setbacks are crushing,” said Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators, noting that the industry’s rigid safety measures have resulted in a less than .000034% positivity rate in more than 1.3 million check-ins. “Our industry has collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting studios with ventilation equipment, social-distancing measures, employing robust cleaning procedures, and instituting contact tracing, and it’s working.”

Jessye Deane agreed. “The data shows gyms are not breeding grounds for transmission, and we’ve certainly seen that,” she said, adding that industry stresses go beyond government mandates; some people simply don’t want to return yet, while others, due to economic strain, have had to cut certain things out of their household budgets, fitness memberships among them.

Yet, many gyms and fitness centers are taking lessons from the pandemic and plan to expand upon innovations introduced this year, such as virtual classes.

“We thought COVID-19 was a catastrophic event for our industry, but — although challenging — it has turned into a transformative event,” said Kevin Mannion, vice president of Marketing at Glofox, a consulting firm for the international fitness industry. “Less than a week after most countries went into lockdown, we noticed that gyms everywhere were organically starting to run online classes through Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Some larger operators were able to offer classes free on their social-media channels, while at the same time developing a paid online service that could reach people the world over.”

For gyms that are moving forward with in-person activity, the safety measures are critical, Danny Deane said. At a time when Baker is rolling back indoor capacity limits and tightening safety mandates due to the recent viral spike, “we’ve had all this set in stone from the get-go, so we don’t have to all of a sudden introduce masks or reduce capacity. We’ve been on point the whole time.”

Added Jessye, “there’s no reason for us not to be as safe as possible. We have members who have compromised immune systems. We have members who have elderly parents. It’s really important to us that we’re protecting all our members — our F45 family, and all their families.

“This is hard,” she said, gesturing at a safely distanced group workout going on behind her. “It’s even harder with a mask. But people have adapted, and it’s been really impressive to see the way our members have been committed to us and stuck by us — because we would not be able to get through this without them.”

Not only has the business survived, but, as noted, it expanded. When the Deanes decided last year to open a second location in West Springfield, called F45 Training Riverdale, the pandemic was months away from anyone’s radar.

When COVID-19 did appear, “did we ever think about turning the other way?” Danny said. “No, absolutely not. It was full steam ahead, always.”

Jessye called it a “burn the boats” move. “We will always adapt, and we’re committed to the people we serve because we’ve seen how it changes lives,” she said. “Every worry has been worth it. We’re giving people years on their lives. We’re not here so people can have abs. Abs are great, don’t get me wrong, but we really want people to live longer and move better. So there was no way we were going to turn our back on that.”

Of course, the planned April opening on Riverdale Street wasn’t going to happen, but they did go ahead with a grand-opening event of sorts: a virtual workout fundraiser to support local healthcare heroes, with all proceeds donated to Baystate Health. The new facility opened its doors to members four months later, in August.

The fitness centers that survive 2020 will have to make their own decisions about how much programming to offer in-person and virtually going forward. As Mannion noted, “COVID-19 accelerated a trend of at-home workouts, and businesses have been forced to respond … The fitness businesses of the future realize they need to be adaptable and offer both in-person and virtual workouts in order to prevent shocks and to cater to the evolving needs of the consumer.”

Still, Jessye Deane said she’s looking to the days when they can once again pack in members at their two physical locations.

“This isn’t the business model we signed up for,” she said of the much-less-crowded studios these days. “I don’t think it’s the business model anyone signed up for. But we wouldn’t be operational at all if we weren’t positive we could offer a safe environment.”

However, they’re both optimistic about what will happen in 2021, as mandates fade and people realize they miss working out together.

“We have done a significant job growing through this, but there’s still a significant pool to tap into once the restrictions are lifted,” Danny said. “I’m really excited to see both facilities back at full capacity.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Play Ball

Paul Scully Charles Steinberg

Paul Scully (right) tours the under-construction Polar Park in Worcester with team President Charles Steinberg.

Baseball season is — hopefully — just four months away, and Paul Scully says that’s reason for excitement in Massachusetts.

“Just think about this year and the fact that so many of us have been inside, just looking for something to do,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank, while talking about the bank’s ‘founding partner’ status with the Worcester Red Sox during a recent episode of BusinessTalk, the BusinessWest podcast.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

As one of 21 founding partners of the WooSox, who plan to begin play in Worcester’s brand-new Polar Park this spring, Country Bank’s multi-tiered sponsorship includes a large sign in right field atop the stands known as the Worcester Wall, along with the Country Bank Guest Services area located on the first-base concourse.

“We toured the park two weeks ago … and it really has some wonderful attributes that represent the Central Mass. area. It’s different from Fenway, but there are some similarities,” Scully said, noting that the high Worcester Wall is in right field, and will be colored blue, as opposed to the left-field Green Monster in Fenway.

Meanwhile, the Country Bank Guest Services area is a place where fans can come for help with any number of issues, from missing keys to missing kids, he noted — a way for the bank to extend its customer-service philosophy to this new partnership.

Speaking of partnerships, the bank and the WooSox Foundation will work together on a number of charitable efforts, from a Teacher of the Month recognition program to a combined charitable-giving campaign throughout the baseball season.

“We have been impressed and inspired by Country Bank’s sense of community involvement,” WooSox President Charles Steinberg said. “We see how helpful they are to various institutions and thousands of people in our region, and we welcome them to Polar Park with open arms as we work together to enhance the quality of life in our community even more.”

To kick off their partnership last month, a team from Country Bank and the WooSox mascot, Smiley Ball, delivered 500 Thanksgiving meals prepared by Old Sturbridge Village along with apple pies from Worcester-based Table Talk to the St. John’s Food Pantry for the Poor.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

“The alignment of our organizational values with the WooSox solidifies our commitment to service and teamwork as we continually strive for excellence in all we do,” Scully said.

He noted that, at a time when spectator sports continue to be redefined by new norms of social distancing, sports sponsorships are taking on new forms, extending beyond the stadium walls to make a real impact in the community. But he knows fans want to have a good time, too.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the WooSox and the Worcester community,” he said. “The addition of year-round entertainment, including ballgames, concerts, and various family activities at Polar Park, is exciting for the people and businesses in the region. We all look forward to the day when we can come together again at the ballpark, enjoying activities with our families and friends. We also look forward to seeing our businesses thrive once again after being heavily impacted by the pandemic.”

Scully knows, of course, that the pandemic is far from over, and the baseball season may or may not start on time in April. But he also senses a regional fan base that will enthusiastically support another professional sports franchise in this region, especially one with the cachet of the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate.

“They’re part of the Central Mass. community now, and we’re excited for them, and we’re excited for us,” he told BusinessWest. “But, more importantly, we’re just excited for the fans.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Business of Aging

Shot in the Arm

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll off production lines, many questions remain — about how quickly they’ll reach the general public, about long-term efficacy and safety, about how many Americans will actually want one.

But on one issue, there is no doubt, Dr. Andrew Artenstein said.

“This is a spectacular achievement just to get where we’ve gotten so far, and I think we should appreciate that,” the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “It’s been a whirlwind, and I mean that in a good way.”

Everyone in healthcare understands the upside — the dramatic promise — of a vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 10th month.

“A vaccine is a major component of getting on the other side of this,” Artenstein added. “It’s not the only component, but it’s an important and necessary piece of shortening the duration of this pandemic and possibly preventing future waves.”

With Pfizer gaining emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to begin distributing its vaccine — and Moderna expected to do the same — the Baker-Polito administration announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of vaccine shipments to Massachusetts, expected to begin around Dec. 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for frontline medical workers. Another 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled-nursing facilities and assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

In all, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered by the end of December. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, state leaders expect to receive and distribute more than 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the public should not let down their guard when it comes to masking and social distancing while they wait for the vaccine.

“It does make perfect sense,” Artenstein said of the prioritization plans, which reflect judgments on the federal level and ensure delivery to groups like healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities before the rest of the public. In the case of seniors, for example, “it’s not that they’re more likely to get the virus, necessarily, but they’re more likely to die if they get infected. They do worse.”

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare workers have a greater risk of coronavirus exposure than most other people.

“We’ve been inundated — inundated — with calls from other groups that they want the vaccine,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on that word. “But the truth is, it isn’t available for the general population now, and it may be several months before it is.”

Artenstein, an infectious-disease expert who founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, has been one of the public faces locally of the fight against COVID-19, and he was careful to temper optimism about a vaccine with a reality check on the timeline — and what people need to do in the meantime.

“A vaccine may eventually be the answer, but it’s only going to be part of the solution for the next six to 12 months, assuming we continue to get vaccines that are safe and effective. It’s going to take a while — even if all goes well — before we get enough immunity in the population to really put an end to this thing.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “we would benefit greatly by continuing to push the classic ways to interrupt transmission: masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings. All those things will continue to help us because, even after we start vaccinating parts of the population, it will take the better part of the year to roll it out to everyone, and we need to continue to interrupt transmission.”

Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, agreed, even though it can be a challenge getting through to people suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ who feel isolated and weary of all the changes in their lives over the past year.

“I’m sorry people are tired,” she said. “But the basic messaging isn’t hard — wear a mask, wash your hands, and don’t be inside spaces with a mask off with people you don’t know. I do think the holidays have created a tremendous sense of urgency to remind people again, especially with students leaving schools and coming back to their homes.”

Hopefully, health leaders say, vaccines will put a definitive end to the crisis. But that day is still far off, Collins added. “People need to wait it out.”

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

In announcing the Commonwealth’s vaccine-distribution plans, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts goes further than national recommendations by prioritizing all workers in the healthcare environment, not only providers, but also food-service, maintenance, and other facility workers. Similarly, home health workers, including personal-care attendants, are prioritized on the list, recognizing their important role providing services to vulnerable individuals and the fact that they often reside in communities highly affected by COVID-19.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins

“Messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical. Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Phase one of vaccine distribution — which, as noted, includes healthcare-facility workers; police, fire, and ambulance workers; congregate-care settings, including not only senior-living facilities, but shelters and jails; and home-based healthcare workers — is expected to last into February. Phase two, expected to run from February to April, will prioritize individuals with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; all adults over age 65; as well as workers in the fields of early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health.

Phase three, expected to follow in April or May, will see the vaccine more widely available to the general public.

Baker’s announcement noted that vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves the vaccine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

All this is necessary for emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Artenstein said, but the testing process is far from over, and long-term effects won’t be known until, well, the long term.

The emergency-use ruling “is not licensure, but allows the immediate use of the vaccine pending more information that leads to licensure down the road — because we’re in a pandemic,” he noted, adding that he’s optimistic about further testing, as trials so far have shown about 95% effectiveness across all age groups, with no serious adverse effects.

“The data I’ve seen is pretty impressive for efficacy and safety of the vaccine. And there were around 40,000 people in the trial, so that’s a good sample,” he said — enough to start delivering some immunity to high-risk populations now.

The question, especially as distribution widens in the spring, is how many Americans will actually take the vaccine. Collins said the Public Health Institute has conducted preliminary outreach and found some skepticism and mistrust of the government when it comes to vaccine advice, especially in communities of color.

“In order to counteract that, we have been trying to find and lift up messengers in the community who are trusted people, whether faith-based leaders or other trusted messengers, to counteract skepticism and fear about getting vaccines, whether the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine,” Collins told BusinessWest, adding that the institute held a virtual town-hall event two days before Thanksgiving and asked 10 such messengers to share their wisdom on prevention measures.

Artenstein breaks down vaccine attitudes into three distinct groups of people — two of which are those champing at the bit for a vaccine, and a small but robust community of anti-vaxxers who express skepticism at vaccines in general.

“Then there’s a whole middle group who could be convinced to get the vaccine, but they’re concerned about safety and effectiveness,” he explained. “It’s a risk-benefit calculation, and based on what I know about vaccines, the risk seems low, and the risk of COVID seems pretty high, especially right now, with such high rates in the community.

Hampden County, in fact, currently ranks third among Massachusetts counties for transmission rate, with more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Typically, around 70% of people in a community — or a nation — need to be exposed, either through natural infection or a vaccine, to reach the desired herd immunity, he added. “In the U.S., that’s a big number. But the risk-benefit calculation is obvious. You’d like, over time, to have enough people willing to get the vaccine to help the general population.”

 

Anticipation and Reality

While surveys currently suggest about 60% of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, that number could rise higher if early results from the priority groups demonstrate both effectiveness and safety.

“The U.K. is going first, and then U.S. healthcare workers have to go — which is obviously the right thing to do — then people over 65,” Collins noted. “It’s not like the general public is being made guinea pigs. We will actually be able to see a lot of people getting the vaccine, and the companies will see the reactions.

“So, messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Artenstein agreed, adding that, for the group of Americans ready to line up right now, the wait may be longer than they realize, but that’s OK.

“We’re a little over our skis on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, but it’s going to come out as more of a slow roll; there’s a manufacturing process, an approval process, and a safety process. There won’t be 300 million doses available tomorrow, and that’s hard for some folks.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest, questions, and anxiety, and rightly so,” he added. “We’re living in a very different time, and people want to move very fast. But we have to make sure we do things in the safest possible way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

Words to Live By

Joan Livingston

Joan Livingston says reporters are working hard remotely, but she’s looking forward to the unique energy of a full newsroom.

Late last winter, Joan Livingston and her team at the Greenfield Recorder were planning a comprehensive, multi-part series of articles marking the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. But, as businesses of all kinds can attest, plans made in February had a way of shifting in March.

“We were planning a series on suffrage; it was going to run, and we stopped that immediately,” said Livingston, editor in chief of a daily publication that covers some 30 communities in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. But while the editorial focus may have changed — we at BusinessWest also remember, quite clearly, those early days of all COVID stories, all the time — the Recorder’s philosophy of hyper-local coverage did not change.

“That has remained our focus, how those communities have been impacted,” she said. “We had to shift gears pretty fast. We weren’t expecting this; no one was expecting this.”

Michael Moses, publisher of the Recorder and several other community newspapers in Western Mass. and New Hampshire, remembers closing all the buildings on March 16 and setting up reporters, designers, salespeople, and others at home.

“At that point, everyone wanted to work remotely, so we took steps to make sure they were able to work from home,” Moses said. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have a lot of time for planning for that, but everything came together pretty well. From an IT perspective, we were already teed up with our front-end system for the news to operate from anywhere, and that flexibility certainly helped us. So it was an essentially seamless transition.”

Since then, the newspaper offices have been open to employees who need to use them, from customer-service staff to the business offices, as well as some reporters, but in general, much of the work of producing these daily and weekly publications has continued remotely.

“A few people work only from home, some are hybrid and come in half the week, and then there are people like myself, who work in the newsroom all the time,” Livingston said of the environment at the Recorder, which is headquartered in downtown Greenfield. “We wear masks when we talk to each other, and we practice safe-distancing rules, but I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

That said, “I’m impressed with our hardworking staff,” Livingston went on. “They continue to generate coverage — that’s one good thing the pandemic did not stop. They’ve been great.”

Like all community newspapers with a wide coverage area, the reporters tend to stick to specific geographic beats, getting to know their communities intimately. The pandemic has shuttered municipal offices to the public and canceled annual events, making a reporter’s traditional in-person contacts harder to come by.

“I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

However, “business hasn’t stopped in terms of what’s happening in town governments, which we cover pretty heavily,” she added. “Some of it’s done virtually, we’ve had annual town meetings in cars or a field, and people have been inventive about trying to be safe during this time. That has been nothing like being in person, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now.”

At the same time, readers’ reliance on locally generated news is more critical than ever, especially in a year when locals need to understand how COVID-19 affects them personally, yet messages from national media sources and (especially) the internet have ranged at times from sensationalized to misleading.

That reporters are delivering that news by communicating with team members remotely is all the more impressive, Livingston noted. “Our computer system allows us to work anywhere, and that’s really helpful.”

It’s a slightly smaller team these days, too, she added.

“We had some layoffs after a few months [of the pandemic], and the paper got smaller because businesses are struggling and advertising is not their priority. But I’m impressed by the work ethic of the staff because we are down a few people, and hopefully, when things change, we’ll be able to restock those positions. But they’ve picked up the slack, and I’m impressed.”

Moses sees a silver lining in this year’s shifts in the way people work, because the industry was already moving in some ways toward more remote work, or at least asking questions about the best use of physical space.

“This has allowed us to accelerate where we were going anyway, so there are some positives to all this,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’re always trying to find efficiencies, and I want to be able to draw on those efficiencies.”

That’s not to say publishing hasn’t been challenging this year; it certainly has. “No surprise there, but, thankfully, we’ve been able to manage through it, and as difficult as it’s been, everyone has stepped up pretty well, regardless of which part of the business they’re functioning in.”

The Recorder did eventually get to that series on suffrage over the summer, examining the issue over a period of weeks, not only from a national perspective, but also — and maybe more importantly — through the lens of local history, local organizations, and local viewpoints.

That’s how the newspaper has continued to handle COVID-19 as well.

“I’m reminded every day that, on a whole range of subjects, whether or not they’re health-related, we’re helping readers manage through this, giving them critical news they need, and trying to provide them the right local information they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” Moses said. “That’s even more critical now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Knowledge Is Power

The WBOA team with a mural

The WBOA team with a mural commissioned from member and artist Mary Kearney.

 

When the Women Business Owners Alliance launched in 1982, there wasn’t anything quite like it, Anita Eliason said.

“Because there were so few women business owners in the Valley, they felt a need to get together and kind of strengthen their bond and share the experiences they were having that, maybe, were different than the experiences of men in business,” said Eliason, WBOA’s president. “They kind of broke some barriers and did it with a sense of camaraderie with other women business owners.”

These days, business groups, including those focused on women, are much more prevalent, but she thinks the WBOA is still unique — because of its diligent focus on education.

When the alliance became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit recently, “the goal was to establish ourselves as an educational organization,” she said. “Some organizations exist to bring people together to be one another’s customers, like BNI; the whole point of getting together is so I can get to your six degrees, and you can get to my six degrees, and we can all create business.

“We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

“That’s not how we operate,” she went on. “We really come together to be enlightened, to be educated, to be inspired so go out and do the business of work. It’s not so much that your sister’s going to be my client, and my mother’s going to be yours. It’s mutually getting together to up our skill level.”

Members of the WBOA say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “going the extra mile for women in business,” reflecting that desire to be more than a networking group or one solely focused on generating new business. In fact, the WBOA tends to avoid the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on making connections and sharing information in a variety of ways.

Eliason, who is also the senior business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s (MSBDC) Western Regional Office, said not all alliance members are business owners. Some aspire to own a business, while others — such as managers of banks and insurance companies — aren’t technically owners, but are responsible for a company’s day-to-day operations.

“Some people think it’s a social organization, and I think 40 years ago it was something like that. I have the sense that, when they started, they met over dinner in restaurants to start with and then became more formal,” she noted. “Many networking organizations have cropped up in the meantime that are women-focused, and we see ourselves as complementary to those.”

Meaning, the WBOA adds value women professionals may not find elsewhere, and education is at the heart of that value proposition.

For example, the group holds a breakfast meeting every second Thursday at the Scibelli Enterprise Center in Springfield, where the WBOA is based. While the organization has operated remotely since March and the events are virtual for the time being, they have continued without interruption.

Members of the alliance

Members of the alliance meet for an evening roundtable discussion during pre-pandemic times; all meetings since the spring have been remote, but none have been canceled.

Last month, the guest speaker was an electrical engineer at Raytheon and a Six Sigma lean-manufacturing black belt, who talked about organization and creating leaner operations. A week later, as is typical following the breakfast events, a longer evening program took a deeper dive into the subject matter, and more specific strategies were introduced.

The WBOA also holds quarterly events like social-media boot camps, which, last spring, featured a general session and 14 breakout sessions. Next month, a virtual financial workshop will present an accountant, an enrolled agent, and a tax preparer, who will speak about tax laws, PPP forgiveness, and a host of other issues. “The goal is to leave with a profit-loss statement and a balance sheet from this year and then set up a blank one for the following year.”

One of the positives of hosting the organization — and, before the pandemic, these events — at the Enterprise Center is that so many resources, from the SBA to SCORE, are also located there, and that aspect has been missed, Eliason said.

“It’s a great hub of activity for women business owners. But when we had to shift online, we never missed a meeting. We continued to meet without exception, which we’re kind of proud of,” she said, noting that even more programming was added, such as ‘happy hour’ events that are more motivational in nature than the breakfast discussions, with topics ranging from personal wellness to navigating remote work. “It’s really relevant stuff.”

 

Making Connections

It also requires resources to make it all happen, which is why the WBOA seeks sponsorships from organizations to underwrite its work. “We’re nonprofit, but there are expenses,” Eliason said, noting that fundraising has been more difficult in a year when businesses of all kinds are struggling.

Still, she made a point of listing many of the businesses that do support the alliance’s work, including Advanced Manufacturing, Allstate Longmeadow, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Attorney Marie T. Jablonski, Bacon Wilson, Dale A. Frank Financial Group, Fletcher Sewer and Drain, Goss and McLain, Jerome’s Party Plus, JL Raymaakers & Sons, Latka Printing, Main Street Deli, New England Disc Golf, Veryl’s Automotive Services, and WEIB-FM.

Collaborators include the MSBDC, SCORE, Valley Community Development, the Franklin County CDC, the Center for Women and Enterprise, and Common Capital. The WBOA also created the first TedX event in Easthampton and established the WINGS mentor program at STCC.

“We see ourselves as a place to learn about all the other resources that are available and always come back for additional education. That’s why we’re strategically placed at the Scibelli Enterprise Center,” she said. “We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

It’s been called a sisterhood in the past, and Eliason appreciates that.

“I think of it almost like a sorority — we’re going through similar experiences, we have similar challenges, and for every challenge we face, there’s someone who was at that level with their business years ago, and someone who hasn’t gotten there yet.”

Elaborating, she noted that BOA members feel comfortable calling on professionals who have been through what they’re experiencing. “It’s an evolving group of people at different stages of business ownership, so there are people you can call on, really, for anything.”

Right now, the group boasts about 45 members, though it has topped 100 in the past, and Eliason expects the number to rise to about 70 next year, once the pandemic slows. That number, she said, would be a sweet spot, generating a rich pool of experience and connections, but not such a high number that events become unwieldy.

As for those events, she said platforms like Zoom will continue to have a place at the WBOA even after members return to meeting in person, because the virtual events have cast a wider geographic net, and those technologies also allow the organization to archive webinars where important information gets shared.

In each meeting and newsletter, members also learn about available loan and grant opportunities to help them grapple with a pandemic that has hit small businesses hard, and forced many to close altogether. Other members are trying to keep their businesses afloat while working at home and balancing their careers with what their kids need in terms of remote learning.

“They’re doubling as a teacher for their kids,” Eliason said. “That’s not just a woman’s challenge, but for many of them, it’s been tough trying to juggle those two roles. It’s a lot to navigate.”

Even without the adjustments wrought by COVID-19, there’s always more to learn about how to build and grow a business, and to that end, WBOA leadership will continue to identify categories of information that would be most useful to its members.

“We’re looking for even more diversity of speakers in terms of the industries they come from,” she said. “It’s about linking what’s deliverable to really out-of-the-box thinking.”

 

Making the Time

In this difficult year, Eliason knows women aren’t necessarily looking for another networking group. But the WBOA isn’t just another networking group.

“Just come,” she said when asked what she’d say to women wondering whether the alliance is for them. “Attending a meeting is significant. It’s a really safe place to learn information. A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t need what the main speaker had to say, but one of the other people who spoke for five or six minutes, she made it worth coming.’

“We think of it as a think tank,” she continued. “If you’re stuck or in a rut, you can just put yourself in a place where there’s every possibility that someone will say something that will further you. Someone will say something in the course of a meeting that makes you say, ‘yeah, that was great.’”

And the learning — and, hopefully, growing — continues.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Urban Oasis

mani-pedi area

Leanne Sedlak (right) and Kim Brunton-Auger renovate the mani-pedi area of their new location.

When spas were allowed to reopen several months ago following a statewide economic shutdown, clients of SkinCatering, LLC were happy to return — even if booking became a little trickier.

“I haven’t been able to meet the demand,” owner Leanne Sedlak said, noting that some staff couldn’t return during a raging pandemic because they or a family member were immunocompromised, while fewer clients than normal were allowed in the space, and extra time had to be added in between appointments for cleaning and sanitizing.

“I feel like we’ve been limping along in a way,” she added. “It is frustrating for the client, and it’s hard to tell them, ‘no, we’re booked up for the next three weeks because we have two people working.’”

Meeting that demand will be easier now that SkinCatering has moved downstairs to the main level of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in a larger, renovated space offering massage, skin care, hair and nail treatments, among other services.

“It’s nice coming down here,” she said. “We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

Sedlak and Kim Brunton-Auger, a licensed aesthetician who joined the company in 2012 and now serves as vice president of skin-care development, celebrated the move downstairs with a VIP event last week, taking time amid the bustle to recognize the challenge of keeping their enterprise not only alive, but thriving during a year of unprecedented challenge for small businesses.

“We’re definitely blessed because we know other businesses had the opposite experience, so our heart goes out to them for sure,” Sedlak said. “We’re very grateful; we know how fortunate we are in that regard.”

 

Hit the Road

Like many who start down the path of entrepreneurship, Sedlak did so out of necessity. In 2010, the U.S. was dealing with a different sort of economic crisis, the Great Recession, and both she and her husband were laid off from their jobs.

So, when she finished her time in massage school, she went into business for herself with a venture she would call SkinCatering. At first, it was a traveling enterprise, with Sedlak taking her massage table door to door.

“We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

“I’d load up my Tahoe with all my stuff and drive to my first appointment of the day, and that would pay for my gas the rest of the day,” she recalled. “To be in this space now, to build something like this, and to be in business for 10 years, feels validating.”

Since opening a salon in Tower Square toward the end of 2013, the company — mainly focused on massage and skin care — has grown significantly over the years, and the new space will allow for a salon and nail services, which had been a dream of Brunton-Auger’s for some time.

These days, SkinCatering offers massages, body wraps, waxing, Reiki, facials, an infrared sauna, and more. The company formulates its own line of skin-care products that don’t use harsh chemicals and are vegan, gluten-free, and ‘cruelty-free,’ meaning they’re not tested on animals.

“That’s been the mission all along,” Sedlak said of the company’s ‘clean’ products. “It’s a big trend now, and I hate using the word ‘trend’ because it’s not going away; it’s a way of life now. I love it when other estheticians discover our products and their clients have great results.”

Indeed, SkinCatering sells its products in other salons, and is also commissioned by other companies to create private-label products. Both Sedlak and Brunton-Auger would like to see the skin-care line grow in the future.

While retaining its original location upstairs for offices and a product-development laboratory, the new space downstairs is completely dedicated to client services, including four rooms for massages — including always-popular couples massages — and skin care, as well as two hair stations, two stations for manicures and pedicures, and an infrared sauna for one or two people. The latter is perfect, Sedlak said, for people who might want to try a sauna experience, but are intimidated by a larger, group sauna at a gym.

Equally important is a comfortable, subtly lit ‘tranquility area’ where clients can sit between appointments for multiple services, or while waiting on a friend, while sipping tea or water — a more important amenity now that each piece of furniture and surface must be well-sanitized between treatments. “It’s part of the spa experience now instead of there being an awkward pause,” Sedlak said.

“We have to take extra time to super-sanitize,” Brunton-Auger added. “Back-to-back isn’t what it used to be.”

As for other COVID-related changes, staff wear masks, aprons, goggles, and — except in the case of massage — gloves, all of which are changed out between appointments.

The pandemic led to other pivots as well, including a switch to making hand sanitizer in the lab back in the spring. It was hard to find materials and containers at times, Sedlak said, but a small salon like SkinCatering was able to make the production switch more quickly than a large company could. In the meantime, even when the shop was shut down, product orders soared, as people still wanted to treat themselves.

“We had more skin-care orders in the first two weeks of the shutdown than we ever had in the pre-COVID days,” Brunton-Auger said. “It saved the business in some ways.”

 

Moving On Down

She and Sedlak both expect the move downstairs to boost their business further, especially after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, whenever that might be. For one thing, they can stay open seven days a week; because the upstairs space was tucked amid offices, the floor essentially shut down on the weekends, and they would have to call to security to turn on the lights every Saturday; they kept it closed on Sundays.

Now, with a shop right next to the hotel entrance that draws more foot traffic, SkinCatering will be open seven days a week.

“We have been working on this project for almost two years, so to see it finally realized and ready to open is a great feeling of accomplishment, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Sedlak said. “Tower Square has a history of being a hub of activity for Springfield, and we’re very excited to be a major part of why people are coming back into the city.”

And perhaps, eventually, not just the city, as the partners have explored the possibility of franchising their model.

“It’s a duplicatable system that works,” Sedlak said, especially in conjunction with hotels. “It’s an amenity for the hotel and the rest of this tower. It’s convenient, but I don’t want to be known as a convenience spa. I mean, I want it to be convenient, but when you come in, you also have an incredible luxury experience.

“And I don’t mean luxury like stuffy,” she was quick to add. “We want you to be relaxed. It’s the idea of lush, but you feel so comfortable here, you want to stay for a long time. The theme is an urban oasis. Modern, clean, funky, cool, but comfortable.”

While expanding a business during a pandemic may not be the most comfortable move for a small business, so far, Sedlak and Brunton-Auger are proving it’s the right one.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19 Special Coverage

Survival Mode

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’ that have generated excitement for the Big E — but also raised money at a time revenue is badly needed.

When the Big E recently announced the sale of 100 ‘golden tickets’ — lifetime passes for the holder and a guest, plus parking and other perks — for $1,000 each, it was an exciting promotion for fans of the annual fair and a way to keep the event top of mind during a year when it was called off because of the pandemic.

But it was also a way to raise money — just like other recent efforts at the Eastern States Exposition (ESE), from drive-up concession events to the opening of a cream-puff bakery over the summer.

“We’ve been busy trying to survive,” ESE President and CEO Gene Cassidy told BusinessWest. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to generate resources and pay some bills. When you’re in this business, you need people, and at this particular moment, society has had to pivot in such a way that you can’t have gatherings.”

That $100,000 infusion from the golden-ticket promotion won’t come close to making up for this year’s loss of the actual fair, but it’s not insignificant, either.

“Large fairs, by and large, are supported by taxpayers. We’re not. We have to pay our own way,” Cassidy said, citing what he calls “toxic positivity” — basically a false sense of security — by many in the fair business. “Folks have this positive outlook; they know their doors are not going to close because the state government is going to support them. Here at Eastern States, if we don’t bring people to our events, there’s no income, and there’s no Eastern States.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, the Delaney House, and D. Hotel & Suites in Holyoke, has a hand in several types of hospitality businesses — and he’s optimistic about all of them for 2021. The challenge is getting through 2020.

“I’m not worried about the restaurant business — for restaurants that survive this,” he said, adding a sobering caveat to that first thought, and citing oft-repeated projections that one in five restaurants in the U.S. might not survive COVID-19.

“I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level,” he went on. “People will go out and eat. The trick is to survive.”

Rosskothen has been creative in his operations, offering getaway packages at the adjoining Delaney House and D. Hotel where hotel guests can have a fancy dinner set up in their room, with tables, chairs, candles, and menus, and end their stay with a spa treatment. “It’s a nice, safe, romantic getaway.”

The way tourism and hospitality businesses rely on each other in Western Mass. has also come into starker relief, he added.

“ I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level.”

“A lot of my peers are working hard to develop a vacation concept and attracting people from nearby, meaning Boston, Worcester, and Vermont,” he noted, adding that a family might drive in for Bright Nights and stay overnight at a hotel, eat at restaurants, and do some shopping. “Even stopping at a gas station is an economic multiplier.”

That said, Rosskothen’s hotel occupancy is running between 45% and 50% — not quite the 60% level needed to turn a profit, but a strong number during the pandemic. In fact, Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), said the region’s hotel-occupancy rate closely tracks what D. Hotel is seeing.

“We’ve had a beautiful autumn, people have come to explore, and the hotel occupancy reflects that,” she noted. “Last September, we ran about 70%, but we also had a Big E. Taking that out, this year was still 44%. Boston was in the teens. They’re nowhere near climbing out of this. We’ve been hit, but not as hard as some metropolitan areas.”

Rosskothen said he’s encouraged by the numbers, but part of that success is due to the efforts hotels are making to keep guests safe — in his case, fogging rooms, changing every sheet and towel, and disinfecting every surface between guests — and to let visitors know that. “Staying in a hotel is, for me, a very safe thing as long as it’s a responsible hotel. If people want a break in their routine, there it is.”

 

Keeping the Lights On

In a typical year, Greater Springfield’s hotel-occupancy rate is around 64%, just a tick or two below the national average, but well below a city like Boston, which hovers around 79% occupancy. This year’s reversal represents one welcome trend this year — a perception, by families from metro areas, of Western Mass. as, well, a nice place to get away.

That phenomenon also happened when tourism and hospitality were badly dented following 9/11, Wydra said. “We’re more of a rural location, and we kind of pulled up a little sooner.”

That said, the region relies on its tourist attractions, which are “demand drivers,” she told BusinessWest. “How the hotels and restaurants do is a byproduct of those attractions — it’s the whole package. We’re trying to build on what we can and give people a reason to come to Western Mass.”

That’s why the announcement that Bright Nights would take place at Forest Park in Springfield this holiday season “is the best news we’ve had in the last 30 to 60 days.”

Other winter attractions will be open as well, albeit altered in some ways by the pandemic. At Yankee Candle Village in South Deerfield, families can still walk through the facility’s classic winter wonderland, but the visit with Santa at the end will be a video chat, followed by a photo with St. Nick taken using green-screen technology. Reservations will be required, and no walk-ins will be accepted.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield will also require reservations for anyone who doesn’t have a season ski pass. The lodge will primarily be used for operational staging and employee use, and the resort will add outdoor features such as firepits and seating areas while offering outdoor food and beverage service via hot-beverage huts, a walk-up bar, and a pavilion area.

As winter gives way to spring — a time when everyone is hoping a widespread vaccine program begins to put the pandemic in the rear view — “I think there will be pent-up demand” for things to do, Wydra said. “We have quarantine fatigue right now; people want to gather, they want to be with people, and that’s our business. I’m encouraged by news of a vaccine and the progress made on that front. And people are still looking for safety protocols. We’ve got to lead with the fact that they can have a safe visit in our region.”

In the meantime, virtually everyone in the tourism and hospitality world has had to pivot, sometimes dramatically. “I’m proud of our attractions and hotels and restaurants, all of whom had to break from traditional business models and alter the way they do business during the pandemic,” she said. “We really pivoted from being destination marketers in the region to destination managers.”

Explaining that thought, she said communication was ramped up among the region’s businesses and attractions, with a lot of give and take and learning from each other’s experiences.

“For a period of time, we pulled back on the marketing because it made no sense — people weren’t traveling, and they didn’t know where they could go or what to do during the summer,” Wydra went on. “All things considered, we are holding our own. We’re nowhere near where we were in previous years, but when you look around the rest of the state and the rest of the country, we don’t look as bad as many regions. We’re coping.”

John Doleva was certainly hoping for a different sort of 2020 than the one he experienced as president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Hall unveiled a $23 million renovation this year, and the class of 2020 was one of the most star-studded in memory, headlined by the late Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. The pandemic certainly cut into the crowds that might be expected after such a renovation, and the 2020 induction was moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

The class of 2021 induction ceremony will be back in Springfield, he noted. But, perhaps more notably, after the Hall reopened on July 8 following a forced closure due to the state’s economic shutdown, visitorship has been about 55% of the prior year’s rate — a decent number, all things considered.

“Moms and dads who are at home want something to do with the kids on an afternoon when it’s raining,” he said. “And the NBA season going through the summer kept basketball top of mind.”

Despite the dueling travel advisories between the two states, the Hall has actually seen more visitors from Connecticut than Massachusetts this year. “People know they can come for a few hours, be safe, and go home,” Doleva said. “I thought 35% to 40% of the prior year would be a good year, so we are pleased with where we are right now.”

It helps that the Hall, whose revenues were nearly 100% admissions-driven when its current building first opened in 2002, operates under a much different model today, with visitorship accounting for about 16% of revenue. That’s good, Doleva added, because visitor numbers can fluctuate with something as minor as a jump in gas prices, let alone a global pandemic.

“We have forecasted we can survive in COVID mode all the way through 2021. I call that a glide path in terms of cash flow,” he told BusinessWest. “But we expect we’ll be out of this by April or May, which positions us for a great summer season.”

 

Measurable Impact

The Big E, on the other hand, can’t sustain its current level of business — meaning, if the fair gets called off next fall … well, it’s not a scenario anyone wants to think about, for myriad reasons, starting with the Big E’s annual economic impact on the region, estimated at close to three-quarters of a billion dollars, all on an operating budget just over $20 million.

“That’s what makes Eastern States so important to so many people, whether you’re somebody who loves the exposition or a neighbor providing parking or a local business providing laundry services or printing services, or a hotel,” Cassidy said. “The breadth of the impact of the fair is very profound, and when it’s been compromised, like it was in 2020 … well, it really can’t sustain much more than what it’s experienced to date.”

News on a vaccine is welcome in the fair world, he added — “it can’t get here soon enough” — but he wonders how quickly people will want to gather en masse, even after a vaccine is widely distributed.

“People’s sensibilities are clearly going to be influenced by COVID. They say if you do something for two weeks, you can create a habit. Now, add up the number of weeks we’ve been sequestered or people haven’t gone out to dinner. There will clearly be changes in people’s sensibilities. But humans are social animals, and we like being with each other. I take some comfort in that.”

Rosskothen, who hosted a Big E event at the Delaney House recently, featuring fair food and craft vendors, has pivoted in other ways as well, from letting people reserve entire small rooms at that restaurant to planning to keep the outdoor tent up — with heaters running, of course — well into the cold months.

His restaurant business is around 75% to 80% of a normal year, in fact, with the biggest change coming in the volume of takeout and delivery, which currently account for about one-third of sales. He’s also bullish on next year’s events slate at the Log Cabin, assuming crowds are able to gather once again.

“Next year could be the best year we’ve ever had, if we can do all those events. They’re social events — weddings, showers,” he said. “I feel like the social-event business will boom next year.

He’s more reserved about corporate events, feeling that companies will be more timid and want to stick with remote and hybrid events for a while. “But I feel like, when social events are allowed, people will do it. I’m optimistic that the event business will be very good next year.”

Wydra is similarly optimistic, although the region is entering a winter season bereft of large-scale events like the AHL All-Star Classic in 2019 and Red Sox Winter Weekend at the start of 2020.

Even so, she said, “we have tried to be mindful of the phases that our state is going through, and I think our attractions and hotels and restaurants have done everything they can to keep guests top of mind, in terms of offering a safe environment for them.”

Those tourist attractions have come to rely on the GSCVB more than ever for regional destination marketing, she added, because their own budgets have been stretched to the limit this year, and marketing efforts are easily cut when a business is struggling just to cover the mortgage and payroll.

“So many attractions are working so hard to make sure we’re in good shape,” said Doleva, who serves as the bureau’s board chair. “We have an aggressive plan to market and promote the region.”

Wydra agreed. “We’re trying to get the message out there, what these attractions have to offer. Our role as been heightened,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot throughout this pandemic. We’re a resilient industry, and we will come back.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage The Cannabis Industry

Natural Resources

Tim Van Epps

Tim Van Epps with some of the ‘mother plants’ growing indoors at Heritage CBD’s Northampton facility.

Tim Van Epps volunteers with an organization called Fairways for Freedom, which helps combat-injured vets assimilate back into society through holistic initiatives and golf, teaching them the game and sponsoring trips to great courses around the world.

That’s where Van Epps, president of the Sandri Companies, first saw the benefits of cannabidoil, or CBD, a chemical compound made from the hemp part of the cannabis plant.

“I saw veterans who were taking 30 different pills a day, and a lot of these veterans are just using CBD now, and that’s it,” he told BusinessWest. “I saw 25 guys who were doctor-prescribed drug addicts, and now they’re on CBD, and their lives have changed dramatically. I saw what this could do. I saw what it did for one of my older brother’s sons, and for folks with stage-4 cancer. I’ve watched with my own two eyes what it’s done for a lot of people who had a lot of problems.”

He’s done much more than observe, however, launching a company called Heritage CBD almost three years ago with Sarah McLaughlin, a nutritionist and registered sports dietitian who had built a whole-foods company called Sun Valley Bars, sold it to Nature’s Bounty, and was looking for a new challenge in the natural-products world.

“We took the idea to start a hemp/CBD company in the carriage house on my property,” Van Epps said, and soon after moved to a 17,000-square-foot property on nearby Industrial Drive in Northampton, where the company now works with well over a dozen farms that grow hemp, which is processed into a mulch-like substance called biomass, then processed into the line of oils, lotions, tinctures, gummies, and other products Heritage sells today.

“We wanted to do everything, soup to nuts — or seed to sale,” he explained, but emphasized the company’s relationship with local farmers as a critical component to his vision.

Heritage CBD founders

From left, Heritage CBD founders Tim Van Epps and Sarah McLaughlin and President Jake Goodyear.

“Many have been hurt financially over the past 10 years, and for many, the next generation doesn’t want to go into the business, so farms out here are struggling,” he said. “We saw hemp as a value-added cash crop we could introduce to the farming community. This was all about jobs, first and foremost — creating jobs in Western Massachusetts.”

Michael Lupario’s vision was multi-faceted as well. With a degree in environmental science from UMass Amherst, he’s long been passionate about soil sciences and promoting cleaner, more sustainable ways to farm.

Meanwhile, his interest in plant-based medicine goes back to high school, when he learned to forage medicinal plants and experimented with making teas and oils. As president of Western MA Hemp, he now combines his desire to farm with the opportunity to bring plant-based medicine to a broader audience.

“My company’s focus has always been intertwining cannabis back to the larger pharmacopia that is herbal medicine — to not only show the efficacy of cannabis, but get back to this broader realm of plant-based healing,” Lupario explained. “There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

Like Van Epps, he’s seen plenty of people use CBD to relieve pain, anxiety, restlessness, and other conditions — some of the same issues for which medicinal marijuana is often used, but without the psychoactive ingredient THC (the stuff that gets users high), which is present in only the barest sense in CBD.

“I find a certain set of consumers are looking for that psychoactive side; that’s appealing for them. For others, it deters them from cannabis. Some can integrate it into their lifestyle with no problems, but others may be drug-tested on the job.”

Michael Lupario

Michael Lupario

Whether seeking out marijuana or CBD for chronic injuries or any number of other conditions, in many cases, “conventional medicine is not working, and they’re looking for something new — they’re willing to try anything,” Lupario said. “They just want to feel better.”

While providing products that many customers swear by — although the products themselves, because they’re not FDA-approved, are not allowed to make specific medical claims — companies like Heritage CBD and Western MA Hemp have set down roots (literally and figuratively) in a field that’s still rapidly changing, in ways both regulatory and otherwise.

 

Overcoming the Stigma

Jake Goodyear, who ran the Renewable Energy division at Sandri before moving into the role of Heritage CBD president, said it wasn’t initially a move he wanted to make.

“I was a skeptic,” he told BusinessWest. “I’d been brainwashed into the stigma around cannabis and marijuana. It took me a while just to get my head around the history of the plant — and then I got mad that my point of view was so twisted on this subject because of what I had been told my whole life. When I got over that, I realized there was a huge opportunity here, and there really was nothing negative about hemp and CBD, and there are a lot of positives.”

One of the first challenges was regulatory, as the federal government still listed hemp and CBD as a Schedule 1 drug, so Heritage was unable to access a bank account or merchant services for credit-card payments. That changed with the 2018 Farm Bill, though THC-rich cannabis remains federally illegal as a Schedule 1 drug. Still, the state has offered its own unique series of barriers.

“Massachusetts policy gave us a license to grow hemp and process it into specific products like tinctures and gummies and soft-gel capsules,” Goodyear said, “but there was no regulatory pathway to sell them to market.”

For that reason, product sales at both Heritage and Western MA Hemp are largely online. Both companies emphasize multiple layers of third-party testing to ensure the products are clean, free of pesticides and toxins, and contain the ratios of ingredients they claim.

“I had a cannabis background — I was a fan of cannabis, both medical and recreational; it helped me a lot,” said Lupario, who launched his business a couple years ago with mentor and arborist Jim Sweeney. “He took me under his wing and provided some finances to allow me to put to use what skills and knowledge I had.”

The company also wholesales hemp flower and biomass to various processors for industrial uses; in fact, that’s the more lucrative side of the business while Lupario continues to grow his line of wellness products.

“It takes time to build a brand. We knew we wouldn’t be able to make our operating costs with what we made from these products … so what we don’t use in our products goes into the wholesale line,” he explained. “Because we grow our own material, we can keep margins down, have competitive pricing, and still create a really high-grade product.”

Trays of CBD-infused gummies

Trays of CBD-infused gummies are ready for packaging at the Heritage plant.

On a similar note, on a tour of the Heritage plant, Van Epps paused in the room where gummies are being infused with CBD to point out a rack of the gummy substance in bulk sizes without any CBD, which Heritage sells to cannabis companies that infuse it with THC, which he is legally unable to handle.

“Right now, this is what pays the bills, our bulk formulation,” he said. “We could morph into a candy company.”

McLaughlin said she brings a strong science background to her work at Heritage, citing the six different tests — checking for everything from pesticides to potency — each product has to pass along the production journey. “We wanted everything evidence-based. We really came at this trying to make the highest-quality product possible.

“It seems like a bit of a stretch from being a dietitian, but if you think about what a dietitian does, we study the effects of what you consume and how it affects your body, and this is no different,” she went on. “I saw all the potential and all the different areas CBD could help. And since we started, more and more research has come out about the positive effects of CBD. It’s exciting work, with incredible potential to help people.”

Van Epps said a growing public awareness about the benefits of CBD helps boost sales, but competition is fierce, too. “There are so many brands. What brands do you trust? We’re seeing lot of inferior brands that tried to get rich quick fall by the wayside.”

The key for Heritage, he added, is to stand out with quality products that are tested in transparent ways.

“We had a blank slate at first,” McLaughin said. “Anything known about formulating came from the black market, and you almost had to scrap it all and start over and understand there was most likely a better way of doing it.”

 

Altered States

More industry standardization would be another ‘better way’ to do business, said all those we spoke with. For instance, while Massachusetts limits THC levels in CBD to 0.3%, Vermont allows 1%. “In a perfect world, you’d standardize the rules across the country,” Van Epps said.

Added Lupario, “you’ve got to be able to pivot and deal with all the upheaval of laws and everything that comes with the ever-changing dynamics of the agriculture industry. You’re going to see that for the next couple of years until it settles down a bit; that will come with more federal oversight. We’re getting there.”

Van Epps said it’s been a tough year for some in the hemp industry, especially for farms that planted too much, too soon. “They thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme, and unfortunately, a lot of farmers got hurt by that. Farmers who didn’t bite off more than they could chew will tell you it’s a good business, worth investing in, and they see long-term growth. It’s exciting.”

Goodyear said less than 25% of American adults have tried a CBD product, so there’s plenty of room for growth; in fact, he sees the potential for Heritage to expand from about 20 employee today to 150 in a couple of years.

The trend toward greater public awareness is certainly good for business, Lupario said, but it also boosts his mission to give cannabis and hemp a stronger connection to natural, plant-based wellness.

“It’s another plant within the herbal pharmacopeia,” he said — one whose story continues to blossom in Massachusetts and beyond.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year — because advocacy is needed, and events are few.

For the past four years, Amy Cahillane has led the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) in its many efforts to boost vibrancy in the city’s center.

The DNA typically handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales.

Note that word ‘typically.’ Because this hasn’t been a typical year.

“The pandemic changed it completely,” said Cahillane, the DNA’s executive director. “We usually focus heavily on events — it’s sort of our centerpiece. In light of COVID, I’d say 98% of our events were unable to happen. Arts Night Out is a monthly gathering where we invite lots of people into a small space to share food and drinks. That was one of our first COVID casualties — there’s no way to do that safely.”

But the DNA’s second major role is advocacy, making sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall and that people feel their voice is heard, through public meetings and community forums on issues that impact businesses. That function was magnified in this unusual year.

“As everything changed, we were forced to change our focus because our small-business community is in desperate need of help, as is every other downtown in this area,” she told BusinessWest. “Even had our events not been canceled, it became clear pretty quickly we’d have to change our focus to advocacy at both the state and local levels, just to keep businesses afloat.”

Much of that advocacy came in the form of pushing for state and local aid, while other efforts were narrowly targeted, like making sure downtown parking was altered so restaurants could expand outdoor seating — “anything we could think of that could help them carry on through this trying to time, until we see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And the city’s leaders have been responsive, Cahillane said, from a round of direct emergency grants to the business community to making the changes needed to bolster restaurants.

“They stepped up right away to work with our organization and downtown restaurants to make it possible to have outdoor seating, and make it last as long as possible. They got that up and running pretty quickly, and the License Commission was very fast turning around approvals for those who wanted to serve liquor outside.”

Debra Flynn, who owns Eastside Grill, was among the first downtown restaurateurs to pivot to curbside takeout and delivery once eateries were forced to shut down in early spring. “We had no idea how to do it,” she said, adding that it was important to buy the right containers to keep food warm and make sure meals were presented with care, even in the boxes.

“I can’t complain right now; we’ve had such wonderful support from our community,” she said, noting that she was able to set about 30 seats outside and eventually bring patrons back inside as well. “But I’m nervous going forward.”

“It’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

That’s because the weather is getting colder, and while regulars are comfortable with the safety protocols being taken inside, she worries that folks who haven’t visited recently might not want to do so during flu season. And while the governor’s new mandate that businesses need to close by 9:30 p.m. doesn’t affect Eastside, it does impact the operations of other downtown restaurants. “They’re very nervous and upset about this whole thing,” she noted.

 

Shifting Winds

Alana Traub, who owns Honey & Wine, a clothing shop in Thornes Marketplace, has had a worrisome time this year, too.

“Everything changed for my business with the pandemic, when all businesses closed for quite a while,” she told BusinessWest. “When it finally did reopen in June, it was extremely slow going; I think people were really nervous to go out, and maybe they didn’t even know if we were open or not.

“Since then, it’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

If there’s a downtown that’s well-positioned to rebound after the pandemic, Cahillane said, it’s Northampton.

“Even among my circle of friends, we are dying to go back out to restaurants, go bar hopping,” she said. “I think these businesses downtown are doing everything they can to hang on.”

Perhaps the economic shakeup — and some business closures that have followed in its wake — will present opportunities for some new faces to enter the downtown scene, she added. “A pandemic seems an odd time to start a business, but we’ve seen several open up; we might see a new round of creative, exciting businesses downtown.”

Lindsay Pope made the jump over the summer, purchasing Yoga Sanctuary, also at Thornes, from former owner Sara Rose Page on Aug. 1. A former member at the studio, Pope said she decided to become a business owner in this uncertain time because she feared Page may not have found another buyer.

“I feel like this time is incredibly liberating,” Pope said. “What do I have to lose? The alternate was that we could have lost this space, and instead, we’re going to give it another shot.”

With the times in mind, she launched not only reinvigorated studio programming in September, but also new online programming and an online video-library platform. “We’re going to try to evolve to meet the needs of the times and the next generation. That’s what we’re all being called to do right now in the chaos that’s happening.”

Cahillane said many other businesses have pivoted as well — although she admitted she’s a little sick of that word.

“Restaurants that never did curbside were nervous to try it, but our community showed up and started ordering curbside. Stores that never did local deliveries wondered if people would take advantage of it, but they did. People definitely have been incredibly supportive of downtown — the question is whether that’s enough.”

 

Holding Pattern

Before the pandemic struck, the DNA — which cites beautification among its top goals, along with programming and advocacy — was coming off a couple of years that saw a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade to make the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

To say 2020 has been a different sort of year is an understatement, although traffic has returned to some degree in recent months, and many businesses, including those in the retail marijuana trade, continue to do well. But anxiety lingers for many.

“I think everyone is concerned,” Cahillane said. “There is certainly more traffic than there was in March, April, or May, for sure. But winter is coming. It’s easy right now to park your car and walk outside, or enjoy some coffee on the sidewalk, when it’s sunny and pretty and the leaves are changing.

“But I think the first sign of snowfall will change that picture pretty dramatically,” she went on. “Are people going to be comfortable shopping indoors in the winter? I don’t know. Or sit inside a restaurant in the winter? I don’t know. And because so much is unknown about COVID, are people going to be extra anxious during flu season, when they don’t know if the person next to them has a cold or something more? There are so many unknowns. People are definitely concerned.”

Yet, Traub senses optimism from other business owners in Thornes and downtown in general, not because the pandemic is close to ending, but because Northampton is a strong enough business community to fully rebound once it does.

“That’s the general consensus,” she said. “I think everyone is also being realistic because no one knows what’s ahead. This is so unprecedented.”

Still, she moved her five-year-old business here from Franklin County for a reason. “I would call this the shopping destination in Western Mass. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and I’ve been happy with my move to Northampton.”

And waiting for a time when the city is truly on the move again.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2020

President and CEO, ServiceNet

She’s Grown Her Agency by Recognizing Needs and Welcoming New Ideas

Sue Stubbs

Sue Stubbs

Sue Stubbs has always thought like an entrepreneur.

“Even as a kid, I was thinking about business opportunities,” she said, recalling that, during her studies at Northeastern University, she’d walk through Boston’s Back Bay — which was littered with dilapidated buildings back then — between her train stop and the campus.

“I tried to convince may parents to buy a brownstone in the Back Bay, and they thought I was nuts. Now, look what’s happened in that neighborhood. It would have been a good idea.”

Fortunately, Stubbs has been able to shepherd myriad good ideas into practice as president and CEO of ServiceNet, which she has led since 1980. Actually, she worked for Valley Programs back then, and later oversaw its merger with Northampton Area Mental Health Services and Franklin Hampshire Community Mental Health Center; the new organization became ServiceNet in 1995.

Through those years and well beyond, she has grown the agency from 25 employees to 1,750 and its annual budget from $500,000 to $70 million. From its origins running a few group homes, ServiceNet’s range of services has expanded to include residential and day programs for people with mental illness, developmental disability, autism, and brain injury; outpatient behavioral health clinics in five communities; addiction services; vocational services; shelter and housing programs for people working their way out of homelessness; children’s services; and more.

“We’ve been open to new opportunities, always looking at the next thing coming down the pike and asking, ‘how can we meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity?’”

“It’s very gratifying,” she said of that growth and her 40 years of, well, impact. “Not just in terms of staff and money, but in terms of the people we’re serving. And it’s not just due to me — it’s due to a lot of people, and a lot of collaboration with the state. We pride ourselves on being a good partner with the state.”

Among its many innovations over the years, ServiceNet:

• Established Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, a working farm — staffed by individuals with developmental disabilities or autism — that has become one of the largest producers of log-grown shiitake mushrooms in Western Mass.;

• Created two multi-faceted enrichment centers for people with brain injury, which provide intensive rehabilitation services in partnership with area universities’ training programs, as well as social networking, programming in fitness and the arts, and opportunities for community service — a model that has become a standard across Massachusetts;
• Has become the first mental-health agency in Massachusetts to adopt an integrated electronic medical record, using aggregated data to track the impact of various outpatient clinical services over time;

• Partnered with academic leaders at area universities on applied research projects with ServiceNet’s own research team;

• Launched the Western Massachusetts PREP (Prevention and Recovery in Early Psychosis) program, an intensive, evidence-based day program for young people, designed to speed recovery and help prevent long-term, chronic mental illness; and

• Developed intensive residential programming for individuals with developmental disability who have also been diagnosed with mental illness.

“Some agencies keep doing the same thing for years and years, and they have one mission, and it’s narrow, and that’s all good,” Stubbs told BusinessWest. “When someone comes to me with an idea or a need that’s been identified and nobody else is stepping up, we’ve had a tendency to try to problem-solve and step up.

“That’s how we’ve grown,” she continued. “We’ve been open to new opportunities, always looking at the next thing coming down the pike and asking, ‘how can we meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity?’”

 

Calculated Risks

She’s always done so with an entrepreneurial mindset, thinking like a for-profit business might, with an eye toward calculated risk taking and a willingness to seize opportunities for growth and diversification when they come into view rather than remaining on the sidelines and playing it safe.

Sue Stubbs, pictured with Allie LeClair, assistant director of Prospect Meadow Farm in North Hatfield

Sue Stubbs, pictured with Allie LeClair, assistant director of Prospect Meadow Farm in North Hatfield, says the farm and its store have been revenue generators in addition to the farm’s therapeutic benefits.

Take, for example, day programs for people with acquired brain injuries. There were no such facilities in the region, said Stubbs, before ServiceNet began developing its own — and the state changed its outlook on the need for such programs. While services existed for people with developmental disabilities, she noted, “brain-injury patients usually ended up in nursing homes, where they weren’t getting the help they needed. The state now funds those services.”

Another example is Prospect Meadow Farm, which was developed around the value of connecting with living things, both animals and plants, for many clients with intellectual disabilities, autism, or brain injury. While it indeed serves that purpose — Stubbs tells of clients who have opened up like never before — its shiitake production and a café produce revenue that supports other ServiceNet programs.

That entrepreneurial mindset isn’t shared by every social-service organization, she noted.

“I guess some people are more risk-averse and worry more about bad outcomes. My feeling is, if something doesn’t work out, you have to be prepared to admit you’re wrong and you have to be prepared to fail fast,” she said, adding that ServiceNet has done exactly that on occasion.

“You can’t hold on to a project when you find fatal flaws or it’s too much of a struggle and it diverts energy from other things. You have to be willing to say, ‘this is not a project we should be doing,’ and be willing to cut your losses.”

She admits she may be more cautious these days — “I took more risks when I was younger, and didn’t think as much about contingency plans” — but one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s a focus on hiring people with both good business sense and “fire in the belly” when it comes to helping people, two traits that go hand in hand, she said.

“People ask, ‘how does an organization get its culture or its outlook, and how does the CEO make people feel the same way she does? How does it happen?’ It’s kind of an organic process, where people tend to hire and promote people who fit in with how they think.”

So, even though the management team at ServiceNet is diverse when it comes to age, gender, and nationality, “they’re people who have that entrepreneurial spirit, or step-up kind of spirit, that I have, and they end up being people who resonate with my way of thinking, so I promote them.”

That team has had a difficult year for sure, especially challenging the group homes, which obviously couldn’t close when much of the economy shut down in March; some managers worked extra hours, while temporary staff were brought in to cover those who were unable to work due to COVID-19 concerns.

The outpatient clinics had a different challenge, but ramped up virtual appointments quickly once the state made them billable.

“That allowed therapists to work at home, and we hardly skipped a beat in seeing our clients. It’s amazing how quickly therapists and clients adapted to it and liked it,” Stubbs said, adding that, while it can never replace all in-person visits, the remote model does have a future; for one thing, it has decreased the no-show rate.

“For some people, it may be a better option,” she said, adding that ServiceNet has also been able to expand its workforce pool by allowing employees to work at home. “Sometimes, out of adversity come good discoveries. We hope we can keep billing for remote forever.”

 

Making Things Happen

In her Women of Impact nomination form, Amy Swisher, ServiceNet’s vice president of Community Relations, called Stubbs “a visionary leader, insightful therapist, and restless entrepreneur who never stops innovating. Sue understood the power of possibility thinking long before this concept hit the mainstream.”

That remains true today for someone who has never been afraid of new ideas, and always encouraged her team to think outside the box.

“If we’re sitting around with our management team and somebody says, ‘hey, I have this idea, but it may sound crazy,’ everyone goes, ‘no, it doesn’t sound crazy. Maybe we can make that happen,’” Stubbs said. “People fill out each other’s ideas — and we’ve made a lot of things happen that way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2020

Health and Human Services Commissioner, City of Springfield

This Leader in Public Health Is a Fierce Advocate for Social Equity

Helen Caulton-Harris

A career like that of Helen Caulton-Harris can’t be adequately summed up in just a few words. But she offered three important ones anyway.

“I believe in three things that are important to me and how I have spent my career: educate, advocate, and legislate.”

They apply both on the broader level and to specific moments in time — like the era of COVID-19 we’re living in now.

“To educate during this pandemic means to make sure we are educating the community about those things we need to do to stop the spread of this virus,” said Caulton-Harris, who has served as Springfield’s Health and Human Services commissioner for almost a quarter-century. That education has been a challenge, she added — and a constant learning experience as well.

“In the beginning, we really didn’t know what the impact was going to be. That’s why it’s called a novel coronavirus, because it’s new. Even the infectious-disease doctors, people who have studied all the science around diseases, had a learning curve with this virus. So we all are on this journey to try to educate.”

As for her advocacy role, “there are individuals in our community who don’t have a voice; they don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves, so our job in public health has really been to be the voice for the voiceless in our community, to make sure they get what they need, but also make sure we are speaking truth to those individuals who need to hear the truth around how to stem the tide.”

“Poverty is really the number-one public-health issue that I’ve had to deal with over the years — the fact that individuals living in poverty do not have equal access to the kinds of outcomes that we want for a healthy population.”

Finally, “what are the legislative interventions that need to be put in place in order to make sure we are doing what’s necessary on a political level?” she asked. “The messages from the political landscape, particularly at the federal level, have been very mixed, so it’s really been local public health out front, trying to do what we need to do in order to stem the tide of this virus.”

It’s been a busy year for someone whose role with the city — she also oversees animal control, veterans’ affairs, elder affairs, and libraries — has kept her plenty busy even without a pandemic to track every day. But it’s also been an opportunity to spotlight one of her passions: the demographic inequities that exist in public health.

“The pandemic has caused all of us to pause and really tear the Band-Aid off of what has been a festering wound,” Caulton-Harris said. “We’ve had to look criticially at our populations and how this virus is really impacting our community.”

It starts with the frontline workers — not only healthcare workers, but grocery-store employees, bus drivers, those who clean the hospital rooms, and so many others. “Those individuals overwhelmingly are black and brown, based on the data that we have.”

Then there’s the connection between poverty and healthcare access, and how economic factors put people at greater risk.

“Poverty is really the number-one public-health issue that I’ve had to deal with over the years — the fact that individuals living in poverty do not have equal access to the kinds of outcomes that we want for a healthy population,” she told BusinessWest. “So, from the beginning, we recognized that this virus really is impacting on the black and brown communities of the city of Springfield. It has been eye-opening from that perspective.”

 

Game Changer

‘Equity,’ as applied to topics of social justice, is more commonly discussed today than it once was, but it’s much more than a buzzword to Caulton-Harris, who recalls being passionate about matters of equity as a UMass Amherst student in the 1970s.

Helen Caulton-Harris has long recognized the connection between economic well-being and health, and COVID-19 has negatively impacted both for many families.

Helen Caulton-Harris has long recognized the connection between economic well-being and health, and COVID-19 has negatively impacted both for many families.

“During that time, there was a lot of momentum around social change and equity,” she said. “Public health says that everyone should have equal access, and we were thinking even then about how we can make social change. We are still — I am still — on that journey.”

When Mayor Michael Albano — the first of three Springfield mayors she has served under — appointed Caulton-Harris to her role in 1996, tasking her with combining the then-separate Department of Public Health and Department of Human Services, she didn’t consider herself a political person or a public figure. But she did relish the challenge of tackling some very serious issues, from infant mortality to teen pregnancy; from HIV and AIDS to substance-use disorders.

None of those have faded into irrelevance, of course. “All those things we saw as really challenging public-health issues are things we still work with today.”

But there were other shifts. For example, after 9/11, weaponized anthrax was a big issue, and on numerous occasions, Caulton-Harris helped investigate some suspicious white powder in Springfield. It was the first time her public-health focus shifted from behavior-related and community-based issues to external threats.

The other shift has been a growing understanding of how social determinants like employment, education, environment, and housing conditions directly impact health.

“We were working in silos, trying to help individuals make smart behavior changes, but public health is population-based,” she said. “We need to think about public health in the broadest sense and how it impacts populations. And social equity is the central piece of these social determinants of health — really looking at where a person works, plays, and lives.”

Meanwhile, the education aspect of her job continues to be critical, particularly with the COVID-19 infection rate rising in the city and across the state.

“When we were doing well, there were individuals in the city of Springfield and in Massachusetts who thought we were in a position where we could begin to take risks. And I think individuals did that. So we’re seeing a surge in the virus,” she said, noting that the previous week’s new case count in the city was 235, up from 107 the week before.

“COVID fatigue is absolutely real. I think each of us is tired. We have been battling this since late February, so I understand that individuals are tired,” she went on. “I have personally met residents who can’t go to funerals, who had to cancel weddings, who can’t go to hospitals and hold the hands of their loved ones. It is just really heart-wrenching to understand what’s going on. We believe that health is physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, and all the quadrants of our health have been compromised by this virus.”

But if Springfield could control the spread in the spring — which it did, remarkably well — it can do so now, she believes. But it will take a collective effort.

“This virus really jumps from person to person; it loves having a host, and we are the host. Unless we do things like face covering, washing our hands, social distancing, and staying home when we’re sick, then the virus will continue to replicate itself until we have a vaccine.”

 

 

Family Legacy

When Caulton-Harris talks about responsibility, she speaks from the heart, and from a family legacy stretching back from her father, who was a Springfield police lieutenant, to her great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, who served in the 10th Cavalry of the U.S. Army and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, respectively.

“They contributed to the person I am,” she said. “We were raised to understand we had a role in the community and needed to give back.”

She’s also quick to credit the impactful women who shaped her own career, including the African-American nurses and nurse supervisor with whom she worked at her first job, at Neighborhood Health Center in Mason Square.

“To become a Woman of Impact is really important because I was immersed in women who had an impact on my life,” she told BusinessWest. “And they paid it forward by nurturing me, by mentoring me, and by making sure their behavior was something I would want to emulate.

“So, all these years later, to think about having an impact in my career, in my life, with other women is very, very gratifying,” she went on. “My journey has been completely dedicated to that social-justice movement that I saw as very important when I was a young woman at the University of Massachusetts. So I am really fortunate to sit here and feel as though I have lived that social-justice experience, rooted in science.”

She’s equally gratified when others follow in her footsteps.

“Three mayors allowed me to make decisions and supported those decisions,” Caulton-Harris said. “I would like to see more women, particularly women of color, emerge in leadership positions where they are decision makers and they can also have an impact on our residents, our state, and our nation.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Impossible Choices

Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program

The Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program has helped numerous women like Carolyn, who was provided with equipment and coaching to start an online business.

It’s a setback that could take years, even decades, to reverse when it comes to economic equality for women.

About 617,000 women left the U.S. workforce in September, compared with only 78,000 men — nearly eight times as many. About half the women who dropped out are in the prime working age of 35 to 44.

“One of our strategic plans centers around economic security for women and girls,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. “Obviously, that’s more important now, because many women are concentrated in low-wage jobs to begin with, and a lot of those jobs — ones traditionally filled by women — have disappeared because of the pandemic.”

According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the pandemic-fueled recession is tougher for women for two main reasons. First, as Haghighat noted, the crisis has battered industry sectors in which women’s employment is more concentrated, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, and healthcare. This was not the case in past recessions, which tended to hurt male-dominated industry sectors like manufacturing and construction more than other industries.

Second, the COVID-driven economic shutdowns have closed schools and daycare centers around the country, keeping kids at home and making it harder for parents — especially mothers, who tend to provide the majority of childcare — to keep working.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn,” said Margaret Tantillo, executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence. “It’s frustrating for parents to be sitting at home and trying to do what they need to do as well as help their children learn. A lot of women have several children at home.”

According to the study, among married parents who both work full-time, the mother provides, on average, about 60% of childcare. And when schools started up remotely last month, it further strained parenting demands. That contrast in accepted gender roles has contributed to a mass exodus of women from the work world that could have long-lasting ramifications.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn.”

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “They have to navigate all that. Even if it’s a working couple, women tend to make less money, so if something has to give, and someone has to give up their job for a while, it tends to be the woman because she’s already making less money. That’s what we’re seeing.”

At the same time, according to a study by management-consulting firm McKinsey, while women account for 39% of the global workforce, they are overrepresented in three of the four hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic: accommodation and food services (54%), retail and wholesale trade (43%), and services such as arts, recreation, and public administration (46%). In addition, only 22% of working women have jobs that allow them to telecommute, compared with 28% of male workers.

The numbers get worse for women of color; while the U.S. female jobless rate remained at 8% in September, it’s higher for black and Hispanic women.

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes,” said Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, adding that some individual success stories have been wiped out.

“Some businesses will never open back up because they didn’t survive the pandemic,” she noted. “How many women own those businesses, or work at those businesses? The effect will be long-lasting. When you’ve lost your job and it’s not coming back, how do you pay your bills?”

 

Holding Up the Pillars

Still, last month’s massive decline in female employment is at least partially — and possibly mostly — due to the lack of childcare options, Russel Price, chief economist at Ameriprise, told CNN, noting that employment in child daycare services was still down nearly 18% in September from its pre-pandemic level.

One factor influences the next, Haghighat said, which is why the Women’s Fund has been working on a grant-funded project to create an ‘economic mobility hub’ in the region by identifying and bolstering key pillars — social determinants of either success or pain — that impact one’s ability to navigate the economy. “If one of those pillars is disrupted, like housing or transportation, that can be devastating for women and families.”

Arena agreed, noting the most obvious example — how a lack of daycare can lead to job loss, which can lead to an inability to pay rent or mortgage. “Now we’re talking about a housing issue in the middle of a pandemic — and with the moratorium being lifted, how many people are facing eviction and being homeless? I see the fallout of these economic challenges.”

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes.”

In addition to distributing food to seniors, directing people to housing resources, and other programs, Arise has even paid some individuals’ routine bills. Arena used the example of an auto-insurance bill: an overdue bill can lead to a ticket, impound, or court date, all of which can generate costs far above the original missed payment, or even the loss of a job. Suddenly a life spirals out of control over $100 or less.

“It can derail someone’s life in a way that policymakers can’t grasp,” she added, citing their inability on Capitol Hill to come up with further stimulus — as if a $1,200 check in the spring adequately covered eight months of hardship. “It’s not their life.”

Haghighat said her organization’s work has uncovered some of the cracks in public support systems and how they impact not only employment, but food security, public health, and any number of other factors the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“It’s easy to say, ‘oh, it’s just an employment issue or a social-services issue.’ It’s more complex than that.”

Then there’s the broad issue known as the ‘digital divide,’ or the inability of many people to access the technology needed to function in today’s economy — an issue that’s come down hard on women since they’ve experienced more disruption.

Tantillo recalled that, as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker announced the shutdown in mid-March, “we picked up the phone and called our participants and found a lot of them had issues they didn’t have before. And one thing that came up was connectivity and being able to access and utilize the internet.”

Identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for 25 women, 13 of whom have since enrolled in a local workforce-development program for job training.

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children.”

“Everyone has a different starting point,” Tantillo said. “We assess where they are and provide coaching to the point where they can do all the things they need to do for a job search.

“I can’t imagine what their lives would be like right now if they didn’t have access to the Internet and able to do all these things,” she continued, adding that the digital divide was a reality for many long before COVID-19.

“The women we serve, they had to go to the library to go on the computer and do a job search, with maybe a kid in tow. How are they working in the same playing field as everyone else? They’re not. And the majority of women we serve are women of color.”

Then, of course, all the libraries closed, and the pandemic further exacerbated that computer-access divide. While Dress for Success has donated equipment and provided coaching for area women, that’s only a micro-level solution.

“It illustrates what’s needed at the macro level. What we’re doing really highlights what is going on in our communities. When women are trying to get out of poverty, and they’re not able to connect to a job search, it leaves not just them behind, but their families, for generations.”

“If we want an economy that’s going to thrive,” Tantillo went on, “we need to have citizens participating in the new economy, and the new economy is going to be online. Everyone has a vested interest in this. It’s an injustice if we don’t fix it.”

 

Ripple Effect

The National Bureau of Economic Research survey suggests the ramifications of the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on women could be long-lasting. The authors estimate that 15 million single mothers in the U.S. will be the most severely affected, with little potential for receiving other sources of childcare and a smaller likelihood of continuing to work during the crisis.

Even if they do return, leaving the workforce for any amount of time — which, again, 617,000 American women did last month, by either choice or because their job disappeared — will affect their lifetime earning potential, which already lags behind that of men.

All that piles on top of the health impacts — both physical and mental — of this challenging time, an area where the digital divide creeps in as well, Tantillo said.

“It impacts people’s ability to stay engaged through telehealth. We talk about social isolation; it impacts the ability to connect with family and friends. People are now talking about connectivity as if it’s a utility — that’s how important it is.

“We created a pilot for what needs to happen regionally in order for there to be real change and access for everyone,” she added. “It needs to be regional, and people need to put resources into this.”

Arena noted that people often use the term ‘essential worker’ or ‘frontline worker’ to talk about medical professionals, but so many other people who are truly essential and working on the front lines — truck drivers, grocery cashiers, gas-station attendants — have had to make tough choices about whether to work and make needed income or step away and guard their health.

She says the legislators fighting in Washington don’t understand — and don’t seem to care — how this year has taxed individuals, and especially women, in so many ways.

“Now that schools are closed, can you get to your job?” she asked. “Am I going to lose my livelihood because of these economic conditions, or literally lose my life by going to work? People are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19

A Second Wave?

Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols

Dr. Robert Roose says Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols — and hopes the public does so as well.

Dr. Robert Roose knows we’re all sick of this — the mask wearing, the working and learning from home, the lack of fun places to visit … all of it. He gets it. Really.

But here’s the thing.

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself,” said Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center. “And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months. Our practices need to be just as vigilant as they were in the spring and summer in order to be effective. And we need to continue to be clear, consistent, and fact-based in our messaging.”

We spoke to a few local medical leaders who all cautioned against letting ‘pandemic fatigue’ change behaviors, especially when a vaccine is still not available, infections are rising in many states (the positive-test rate has crept up in Massachusetts, too), and no one knows how the looming flu season will intersect with a still-prevalent coronavirus.

“We aren’t seeing an influx of hospitalized patients like we saw here in the Northeast in March, April, and into May, but we see the data, and it gives all of us some reason for caution, if not broader concern regarding what the colder season might bring. There’s a lot for us still to be cautious about,” Roose told BusinessWest.

That said, local hospitals have learned a lot since the spring as well, he added. “We gained a lot of knowledge we can use to directly improve the health and safety of patients and our colleagues in the community. We have also implemented ways to ensure that care can remain accessible, timely, and safer throughout the pandemic.”

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself. And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months.”

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis, chief medical officer at Holyoke Medical Center, said shortages of key supplies in the spring — not just personal protective equipment (PPE), but reagent and transport medium for test kits — led to reviews of processes that will leave hospitals more prepared if a second wave does ensue.

“This virus is unpredictable, and a lot of our early conclusions didn’t bear out,” he said. “We didn’t have lot of experience with this particular virus — how it behaves, how it’s contracted. There was a lot of back and forth in the scientific community on how to best handle it.”

While the medical community saw a great deal of variability in protocols, the goal was always to keep patients — and the community at large — safe. That’s still the case, Ahtaridis said, but part of the challenge is encouraging them to do their part.

Dr. Estevan Garcia

Dr. Estevan Garcia

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions. Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down.”

“In terms of thinking about a second wave, a lot of it will depend on the behavior of the public and that virus fatigue. We thought it would be a few weeks, and we’ve seen it drag on and on,” he noted. “The risk is the public starts to lose that caution they’ve been displaying, where they’re not wearing masks, they start to let their guard down. That can lead to a second wave in and of itself.”

Mercy is certainly not letting its guard down, Roose said.

“It’s important to recognize we will continue to maintain the safety protocols in our care that have managed to keep infections much lower than they otherwise would have,” he said. “We’ve managed to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate clusters of infection in hospitals and other settings.”

Local medical leaders hope that trend continues — and they’re doing much more than hoping.

 

Virus, Meet Virus

That’s because there’s always a new wrinkle — the latest being flu season, which is right around the corner.

“There’s concern about the cooler weather driving everyone indoors, and concern with the flu as well,” said Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer for Cooley Dickinson Health Care. “We’re beginning to see upper respiratory infections, which are concerns as we move into the fall and winter timeframe. But is it COVID? Is it a cold? Is it the flu? We treat them differently, and we need to make sure we’re isolating the COVID cases.”

Garcia said area hospitals have engaged in a remarkable show of cooperation over the past eight months, communicating with each other on a regular basis and making sure sufficient testing is available. With testing more widely available than it was in the spring, he encouraged not only symptomatic people to be tested, but healthy individuals planning on visiting a grandparent.

He and Ahtaridis both noted that some countries — Australia being the most-cited example — saw much less severe flu seasons than usual earlier this year, and experts credit the widespread use of masks and social-distancing protocols.

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season,” Ahtaridis said. “But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

Garcia agreed. “Because of the protections they’ve been taking for COVID, some countries have seen a less severe flu season. But that shouldn’t give people a false sense of security; you should still get a flu shot, use physical distancing, mask wearing, hand washing … all those things are good against the flu.”

He worries, however, that not everyone will recognize the value in continuing COVID protocols.

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season. But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions,” he said. “Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down. That’s how we have clusters and multiple people getting infected. If we want to get kids back to school and open up businesses again, we’ve got to get through the next wave of late fall and winter and into spring, when, hopefully, there may be some availability of a vaccine.”

The colder weather will pose a challenge, he added, driving people into enclosed spaces for longer periods.

“The fatigue factor is real, but we’ve got to double our efforts to protect ourselves, so masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing are all super important as we move forward,” Garcia said. “One challenge, as we move indoors, will be social distancing at restaurants — these are places we want to continue to stay open, but let’s make sure we’re on top of it and people don’t let their guard down. We need to hold on for the next probably four to six months.”

Roose agreed that pandemic fatigue is a real phenomenon and tough to combat, especially heading into a time of the year usually packed with holiday gatherings. Where people must gather, he said, they need to remember what’s been working in Massachusetts so far.

“We can appeal to people’s sense of generosity and responsibility, their care and love for others — this is something we can do that ultimately can help protect the safety and health of others,” he said. “When you can connect it to something personal or to somebody’s values, that can be a much more effective way to understand the why behind what we’re doing.”

 

Taking the Long View

These protocols contributed to Massachusetts seeing a relaxation of its infection numbers throughout the summer, but Ahtaridis noted that the positive test rate rose from 2% to 4% recently. “It’s not a huge number, but it’s a doubling of cases, and that probably does reflect changes in behavior and risk tolerance.”

The solution? Do your part.

“Until we have a vaccine, I suspect we’re going to continue with some level of precautions and attention to safety,” he said — and perhaps some of those precautions will never go completely away. He suggested people will look at photos of crowds years from now and be able to tell, by the presence or absence of masks, whether a picture was taken before 2020 or not.

“Even if COVID goes away, even with a vaccine and the advent of better treatments for COVID, I think the public has become more aware of personal space, shared air, and hygiene,” he added. “We’ll probably see some long-term changes.”

With infection numbers still low when compared to some other states, it’s a good time to get vaccinated against the flu, Garcia said — or to get that procedure that was put off in the spring.

“During the spring, people were putting off needed care,” he said, due to both their own concerns and hospitals and other medical facilities shutting down certain treatments to make room for COVID patients. “We’re doing our best to get the message out, make sure people know it’s safe to get care. You shouldn’t put off your care. You don’t want to shut everything down moving forward.”

Roose agreed. “We have processes and procedures in place where we can continue to provide routine, elective, and necessary care while also handling people with COVID,” he said, noting that hospitals, including Mercy, have done a good job of creating separation between patients possibly exposed to coronavirus and those haven’t been exposed. “That’s an important message for the community to hear — that this system has the ability to treat you, even if there’s a second wave of infections.”

While some procedures fall into the cosmetic category, Ahtaridis added, most medical care is not purely elective, which is why hospitals, Holyoke included, have put plenty of thought and resources into making sure they’re safe spaces.

“While the risk never goes down to zero, from a risk-benefit perspective, if you have a medical need, getting it addressed is very important because unmet needs can cause bigger problems down the road,” he said.

“Hospitals tend not to be where people are getting COVID — it tends to be out in the community,” he added. “While not everything is an emergency, most of the things we do are time-sensitive, and if we let medical issues go unaddressed, the consequences can be somewhat dire. We encourage everyone to seek care as appropriate, and do it with confidence.”

And, of course, keep wearing a mask.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Technology

Remote Connections

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event for a pancreatic-cancer organization — one way it’s filling the void with live events curtailed.

While most of the business world slowed gradually in March, or even ground to an eventual halt, the story was more dire for the events industry.

It just … stopped.

“When the whole country shut down, we were impacted immediately. We were one of the first business sectors to really feel the effects,” said Andrew Jensen, president of Jx2 Productions, noting that among the state’s first orders was barring large — and eventually even modestly sized — gatherings.

Within a day or two, he recalled, “we had no business left, just one or two things left for the rest of the year. Everyone freaked out. From weddings to live events to conferences to concerts, everything was gone overnight. It was non-stop with the phone calls. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. When there’s some kind of natural disaster or act of God, everything might be off for a while in one area, but never worldwide like this.”

After hunkering down for a while to get a sense of what was to come, it was time to get off the mat and figure out how to move forward in 2020. In Jensen’s case, like most players in his industry right now, that meant a shift to a new type of virtual, or online, event.

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events. It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events,” Jensen explained. “It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

The typical live gathering might include livestreams as a secondary factor, he said, mostly at higher-end events; smaller companies typically don’t bring in a secondary audience remotely. “We had to shift our mentality, and that was hard. Did we have redundancies and protocols in place? What if we lose somebody on the other end? How does that effect everyone?”

Michael Zaskey has been dealing with those questions, too, since the industry crashed to a halt in mid-March.

“We were the first to go, and we’ll be the last to come back in a traditional sense,” the owner of Zasco Productions told BusinessWest. “We knew pretty quickly that online and virtual events were going to be the norm for a while.”

At first, companies thought they could take a DIY approach, he added. “Initially, folks were trying to do things with Zoom and GoToMeeting. Those are awesome tools for meetings or small-group sessions, but not for producing events. You can have a board meeting or discussion over Zoom, but if you want to engage and entertain and create an experience similar to a live event, that’s not the right tool. You still need a production company.”

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room, and out on the road, to meet the needs of a largely virtual event landscape.

The world is figuring that out. Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly tenfold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion. And that puts a squeeze on businesses like Jx2 and Zasco.

“People figure a virtual event costs less than a live event because you’re not renting ballroom space, but on the production side, it’s just as expensive, or even more,” Zaskey said. “We’ve tried to be flexible with budgets, but we’re working with a very slim margin.”

It’s a challenge that will remain, at least in the short term.

“Obviously, it will be a long time before live events come back full force,” he added. “Virtual events will never replace a live event, which is so much about the networking, and people miss that. But in this time of pandemic and crisis, they’re viable solutions that allow people to connect and participate.”

 

Technical Concerns

The first thing people need to learn in this new landscape is the terminology, Zaskey said. “Like, when people started using the phrase ‘socially distant,’ I’ve always thought we say that wrong. We should be socially connected and physically distant. Or connected with technology.”

Likewise, people often mean different things when they say ‘virtual event.’ “People started throwing that term around, but it means something different for every person we talk to.”

That’s because, in his world, virtual events have often meant events that occur in a virtual space, like a corporate meeting in which the CEO stands on a virtual stage in front of a greenscreen, backed by a set created electronically, as if standing in a video game or virtual-reality environment. “What most people call a virtual event today, we use the term ‘online event.’ That’s more accurate.”

There are hybrid events, too, which mix in-person and remote elements. “Instead of 500 people in a room, maybe you have 20 smaller rooms with 25 people in each room, physically distanced, and connect those rooms electronically” — a good option even in non-pandemic times for large, national companies that don’t want to fly everyone to one location for an important gathering.

Zasco is also doing some drive-in events, like a recent pancreatic-cancer fundraiser in Connecticut that had been postponed from May. “We wanted to keep our audience engaged, so we did a drive-in event and spaced out the cars, with a large screen outdoors, and you could listen through FM radio.”

While short speeches were delivered on stage — again, in a distanced fashion — the biggest donors and benefactors attended live in their cars, with others able to watch through a webstream.

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations,” Zaskey said. “That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars. I’ve been impressed, because people aren’t always known for following rules.”

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations. That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars.”

One pressing issue at online and hybrid events, of course, is connectivity and having the redundancy and bandwidth to keep connections from going down. “We’ve had to think and engineer our way into … not necessarily new technology, but using it in new ways. It’s always changing and growing.”

Part of the challenge is communicating issues to attendees, he added. If a hotel ballroom loses power, all 500 people attending in person experience the same thing and know what’s going on. “If 500 people tune into a stream and lose power to the master control room, those 500 people have no idea what happened.”

Jensen agreed that technical concerns were paramount. “It was slightly challenging at the beginning for us tech people,” he said, adding that another challenge has to do with communication — not only with the crew, but with presenters who may be in different locations.

“We’ve done thousands of events over 20 years, and the process is different. We’d have a stage manager go on stage and hand someone a microphone. Now you have to make sure you have plenty of rehearsals and walk them through the process.”

Technology upgrades are a must as well, both for production companies and their clients. “A standard laptop camera and microphone don’t work — certainly it’s not high-enough quality. So we created ‘cases’ and sold a couple dozen to clients, and have some in own inventory. This allows them to have much better image and quality and make their event that much better. We all know a standard iPhone camera or computer camera is not that great.”

Like Zasco, Jx2 found a niche in drive-in events, like graduations. And because the company got into streaming at least 15 years ago, as it went mainstream, it wasn’t too difficult to shift focus to that side of the business this year. “We kind of already had a foot in the door.”

One upside to the current situation, Jensen said, is that it’s forced businesses to think differently about their events.

“It’s a chance for our clients to think outside the box and become OK with not doing things the standard way, the rinse-and-repeat event you’ve done for 10 or 20 years. You get used to doing things a certain way: guests arrive at this time, you do a cocktail hour, there’s a formula to every live event.

“Now, you’re trying to recreate something where the guests’ attention span is definitely lower because it’s virtual, and you’ve got a lower level of interaction from guests,” he went on. “You’ve got to make sure whatever you put on the screen will resonate with guests.”

Working creatively to achieve that goal, he said, can often spark inspiration for future events as well, even the live ones that will return … someday.

 

Optimistic Outlook

Zaskey is looking forward to that day.

“We’re pretty fortunate to be pretty busy, but the profit margins are not the same as they are for live events,” he said. “The entire industry is still struggling greatly.”

Much of the staff laid off in March has come back on a part-time basis as jobs are scheduled. “A lot of what we’re doing, we have to deeply discount, not just to be a good neighbor and help clients so they can pull out of this as well, but to keep our people working.”

One long-term concern is a possible ‘brain drain’ as the pandemic wears on, he added.

“The industry is at risk of losing talent, and that scares us a little bit. As people get desperate and wonder about the future, they might consider career changes. Maybe they’ll come back, but maybe they won’t — maybe someone has always wanted to be a chef, and decides it’s time to go to culinary school. When the world bounces back and live events come back, we need highly skilled people to work on them.”

And events will come back, Jensen said, if only because people desperately want to attend them. “Human nature is interactive; we want to see people, be with people, go to dinner, go on vacation. Most people aren’t homebodies. People over the summer couldn’t wait to go to the beach or go camping. You couldn’t buy a kayak.”

In the same way, “I think live events will come back massively once we get through this pandemic and the comfort level comes back up.”

In fact, Jensen predicts bottlenecks as venues book up quickly once they get the go-ahead from the CDC and state officials. “I think it’s going to be the end of ’21 into ’22 when events pick up fully. We’re a couple years out from full recovery. But people will be eager to plan these things.”

Zaskey agreed. “It’s still very, very tough, and it’s going to be tough for a long time,” he said, but he looks back to 9/11 for a possible parallel. Events suffered mightily after that tragedy as well, but 2002 through 2004 were Zasco’s biggest growth years.

“People wanted to get back to live events. And I think the same thing will happen when the pandemic is over. Getting to that point is the challenge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Lending Support

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank.

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank.

Community banks love commercial lending, Chuck Leach says.

“It’s just good business for us — Main Street lending, that’s where we can have a nice give and take with customers. It’s kind of our wheelhouse.”

That’s all still true, even though 2020 has rocked that wheelhouse in unexpected ways.

“We’re not seeing the same commercial demand,” said Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank. “It’s either risk aversion or businesses are waiting to see what happens.”

Or, in some cases, they’re extra liquid after taking advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other stimulus measures, as well as deferring payments on other bank loans, he added. “Put all that together, and they may not have borrowing needs right now, or they’re sitting on their liquidity until they see some clarity with the pandemic or the election or both.”

Clarity has been in short supply since the COVID-19 pandemic forced a widespread economic shutdown at the start of spring that continues to wreak havoc.

Michael Oleksak remembers the first few months of the year, of hearing occasional news about the novel coronavirus back in January, and much more of it as February crept along.

“I’d been asking myself for years, ‘what are we missing? What’s next?’ Because there had to be a ‘next.’ Who would have thought it would be a pandemic?”

“Then, from mid-March into April, everything was a blur. It just spiraled,” said Oleksak, executive vice president, senior lender, and chief credit officer for PeoplesBank, before discussing the PPP surge and other measures that followed (more on that later).

Blurring the picture further was the very uncertainty of what was coming. Having experienced several economic upheavals, from the bank failures of the early ’90s to the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and 2001, to the housing crisis in 2007 and 2008, he had no idea what the next crisis would be.

“I’d been asking myself for years, ‘what are we missing? What’s next?’ Because there had to be a ‘next.’ Who would have thought it would be a pandemic?

“This will be the fourth economic cycle I’ve been through, and every one has been different,” he added. “And this one is far different than the others. We’re not seeing a lot of new activity. I think everyone is kind of hunkered down, for lack of a better word, in survival mode.”

As Allen Miles, executive vice president at Westfield Bank, put it, “obviously this one was a lot different. You couldn’t see the train wreck coming; that’s the best way to explain it. It just got dropped on us.”

What happened next in commercial lending is an oft-told story recently, but one worth telling again. What will happen next … well, no one really knows. But banks will certainly take lessons from a challenging past seven months as that story takes shape.

 

Lending a Hand

Miles said Westfield Bank started reaching out to loan customers in February when coronavirus became a more widely reported issue. In mid-March, like other banks, it was actively sending employees home. And then the storm hit.

From mid-March into the start of April, “that two weeks was absolutely crazy because you had people looking for loan deferrals, and the bank examiners were very friendly to both the banks and borrowers to try to help these people out,” he recalled. “We were just trying to help our customers. You’re not worried about loan origination; you’re just worried about getting people through the unknown and the craziness.”

Michael Oleksak says new lending activity has been down

Michael Oleksak says new lending activity has been down because many businesses are “in survival mode.”

The first Monday in April, the bank received about 500 PPP applications, and about the same number the next day.

“We needed to get all hands on deck,” Miles told BusinessWest. “We were still waiting on guidance from regulators and the Treasury Department. We had people afraid for their livelihoods, their families, and everything. It was organized chaos.”

The bank got $185 million in PPP loans approved in that first round, what he called a “herculean task.” The second round, several weeks later, was much less chaotic. “That was more for the smaller businesses — a lot more applications, but smaller in dollar size. We were able to keep up with those because we’d been through it, and they weren’t as complicated.”

Oleksak said the PPP was a critical lifeline for a lot of people. “There was kind of a mass panic there wouldn’t be a round two, which put a lot of pressure on the banks and our customers, trying to rush to get them into a program that was not very well-defined from the outset,” he recalled. “Then round two came along, and everyone who needed funds was able to access them, and that made a big difference.”

Leach said the widely reported chaos was quite real, but the larger story was a positive one.

“For now, this has put a lot of capital in the banks and a lot of capital in businesses in our region and beyond. A lot of our customers are in good shape right now.”

“In spite of the controversy, and the people who thought they were making up the rules as they went along, I think the PPP was very functional,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of customers well-capitalized right now, which is the untold story nationally.

“Maybe that changes and this is just a Band-Aid,” he added, due to the lack of clarity about the next few months, from fears of a second COVID-19 surge to the limbo status of further federal stimulus. “But, for now, this has put a lot of capital in the banks and a lot of capital in businesses in our region and beyond. A lot of our customers are in good shape right now.”

Lee Bank processed 348 PPP loans and has submitted more than 100 forgiveness applications, although some customers are waiting to see if the federal forgiveness guidelines change, specifically whether “they do a sweeping approach where everything under $150,000 is forgiven with a very, very simple forgiveness application.”

Again, borrowers want clarity. Still, Leach came back to the positive impact his bank was able to make with the PPP — and also with loan-payment deferrals for about 240 customers, with about $60 million deferred in total. “In a bank that has $400 million in total assets, you can see that’s a good chunk,” he said, adding that only a fraction of those customers requested a second deferral period.

Oleksak and Miles both reported similar trends, with requests for continued deferrals dropping after the first 90-day period.

“Thirty days before the first deferment was up, we contacted people, and 85% to 90% said, ‘we’re good, we’re not going to be looking for a deferral going forward.’ So that made us feel really comfortable,” Miles said. “With the PPP and the deferrals, it bridged the gap for customers.”

“We’re being very sensitive,” added Kevin O’Connor, Westfield Bank’s executive vice president and chief banking officer. “We’ve been very involved with them, understanding their needs and how the bank can work with them.”

While borrowers in the broad hospitality sector continue to struggle, for obvious reasons, most customers have come through the past seven months well with the help of PPP and loan-payment deferrals, Miles added. “The main ones hurting are the ones being affected by the phases and the rollouts — restaurants, bars. They’ll take a while to get back on their feet.”

 

Starts and Stops

That’s true in the Berkshires as well, Leach said, and restaurants in particular are worried about the onset of cold weather and an inability to seat more customers, due to both the state’s indoor-capacity restrictions and the reluctance among some patrons to eat inside restaurants right now.

But the region’s hospitality businesses have benefited in others ways during the pandemic; in fact, one bed-and-breakfast he spoke with did record business this summer.

Allen Miles says some loan customers are doing well

Allen Miles says some loan customers are doing well, while others, particularly in hospitality, continue to struggle.

“People left urban areas for a safer place, whether for weekends or longer,” he said, adding that some secondary homes became primary homes, while other people bought first homes in an area they felt was safer than, say, New York City. “Interest rates are obviously really low, but there’s also the fear factor of ‘wait, I’ve got to get out of this urban area.’ So there’s been a huge sense of urgency to buy in an area like the Berkshires.”

Unlike some lending institutions, Westfield Bank has seen healthy activity in loan originations recently, Miles said.

“The deferments and PPP money actually made some people stronger because it’s been cash preservation instead of cash burn,” he noted. “Usually for commercial lending, it starts getting busy after Labor Day. We weren’t sure if we were going to see that cycle again, but now it’s quite busy, and people are active. So that’s a really good sign.”

That activity is strong across the board, particularly in commercial real estate, where customers are refinancing for a lower rate or selling, he explained. “It’s a great time to sell — low interest rates, lower cap rates, people are going to pay you more for the property — so you’re seeing a lot of transactions going on right now.”

Commercial and industrial (C&I) loans are healthy as well, he said, adding, of course, that, “with anything related to hospitality or travel, the jury’s still out on that. The longer this [pandemic] hangs over us, the longer the recovery for them.”

At PeoplesBank, Oleksak said, many customers have been accumulating cash and paying down lines of credit, or shopping around to lock in better long-term rates on loans, which is a challenge for banks already facing flattened yield curves. “I think the depth of the crisis is a little bit masked by the amount of stimulus money in the market, from PPP, SBA programs, and deferments.

“The deferments and PPP money actually made some people stronger because it’s been cash preservation instead of cash burn.”

“Some individuals out there are suffering mightily, particularly restaurants and hospitality,” he added. “The other great unknown is, we don’t have a vaccine yet. Are we going to see another spike? People are trying to get back to normal here, but I’m not sure what the new normal is going to look like.”

He pointed to his own institution as an example. Between half and two-thirds of PeoplesBank employees are still working remotely, a trend being reflected across all geographic regions and business sectors.

As a result, “nobody really knows what’s going to happen with the office segment of the market, with so many people working from home. Will they go back at some point? Will companies decide they don’t need so much space, or does social distancing mean you have fewer people but still need more space? It’s a total unknown for us.”

It’s unfortunate that some industries, like restaurants, will likely see a slower return to health, O’Connor said, “but it’s good to see customer confidence in some areas coming back, even a little bit sooner than we would have expected.”

Miles agreed. “We’re very happy with what we’re seeing right now. It’s not behind us, but it’s not as bad as people anticipated. If activity is picking up and people are borrowing, they’re confident, which is good.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

His Efforts to Coordinate the Region’s Pandemic Response Saved Lives

Mark Keroack

Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack doesn’t feel like a Healthcare Hero. But he’ll gratefully accept the honor on behalf of everyone who does deserve the award.

In his estimation, that’s a lot of people.

“Whenever some new challenge comes up, it’s been our tradition to step up and play a leadership role in Western Mass.,” said the president and CEO of Baystate Health. “I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

And so many people stepped up. Like Dr. Sarah Haessler, an epidemiologist who has long had a keen interest in emerging infections. “She got us to construct an ebola-treatment unit in 2014, and she put together a small team of people interested in unusual infections,” Keroack said. “That team reassembled this year, in early January, when they started issuing alerts looking out for anyone traveling from China.”

Or Dr. Lauren Westafer, an emergency medicine physician who helped determine, early on, that not rushing to place patients on ventilators actually decreased COVID-19’s mortality rate. “We were far ahead of the curve on that,” Keroack said.

Or Baystate Medical Center President Nancy Shendell-Falik, a former nurse who understands patient flow, he said, noting that Baystate, on an average day, has about 720 patients, but was able to open up hundreds more beds by postponing elective surgeries and finding other creative ways to open up space and redeploy staff.

Or Dr. Andrew Artenstein, the system’s chief physician executive — and, like Haessler, an infectious-disease expert — who led Baystate’s Incident Command Center. In addition to his day-to-day role coordinating the system’s pandemic response, he drew national attention after penning an account of a rendezvous at a small mid-Atlantic airport, where he and his team brought a $3 million check to purchase a large shipment of face masks and N95 respirators — and were temporarily accosted by the FBI.

“We realized we were on our own,” Keroack said of those early days, noting that the health system also received PPE donations from the construction trades and local manufacturers, who had shifted to making such equipment. It was a lesson to the region that local players could produce what they needed and not have to depend on a fractured global supply chain.

“I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

But he mostly applied the ‘hero’ designation to every frontline provider who continued to push past their health and safety anxieties and do their jobs. “They were able to do the right thing in spite of their fears, and are heroes in my book.”

That book includes story after story of collaborations Baystate forged in support of prompt community outreach, testing, education, and information, all with the goal of limiting the spread of COVID-19 and helping make Massachusetts — one of the hardest-hit states in the pandemic’s early days — an eventual model of how to control it.

On the local level, Keroack participated in Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s weekly COVID-19 press briefings, leading the mayor to note that “Dr. Mark Keroack’s leadership and medical insight has truly been a great benefit for our city of Springfield as we have worked together to defeat and mitigate the spread of this virus.” Baystate also tested the homeless population and expanded testing to key neighborhoods in the city at the request of the state and local officials.

Keroack also convened calls with Westfield Mayor Don Humason regarding clusters of positive cases in Westfield’s Russian community and possible spread beyond its borders. Meanwhile, he conducted weekly calls with the Western Mass. legislative delegation and other area hospital CEOs, while crafting a plan with state officials on how Baystate would provide surge beds for the region.

“I set up an independent command center, and every day at 7:30, we’d call a group of people who included hospital presidents, heads of medical groups, people from infection control, supply chain, finance, communications … 15 people got on the Zoom meeting every day,” he said, adding that information from those sessions would be distributed as a bulletin at 11 a.m. “It was the most widely read thing at Baystate. Everyone knew every day where we were.”

Mark Keroack (right) and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal take part in an outdoor roundtable on COVID-19 issues in the spring.

Keroack also served as the only Massachusetts hospital CEO appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to the state’s Reopening Advisory Board. “The Reopening Massachusetts plan needed to balance restarting commerce while avoiding a surge of virus cases,” said Mike Kennealy, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development. “Dr. Keroack’s medical expertise and healthcare-sector experience, and his perspective as a resident of Western Massachusetts, helped to ensure those dual objectives were addressed.”

For his part, Keroack praises the state’s phased approach, which has understandably been frustrating to business owners.

“We’re using data to move from one phase to another, and we’ve had good coordination between authorities and scientists, as opposed to some states, where they butted heads with each other,” he added. “In Massachusetts, there hasn’t been any daylight between what science is telling us and what local and state officials are saying.”

If there was an unseen ‘hero’ amid all the named ones, Keroack suggested it may have been a public that understood its role, and today still largely adheres to guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing, and other protocols.

“I’m proud of how we worked together and came together as a community,” he told BusinessWest. “Parts of the country were at loggerheads, fighting with each other about masks, getting their hackles up about personal liberties. I look at that craziness and think, thank God we didn’t have to go through that.”

On the other hand, the community’s responsibility was clear. “We had the advantage of knowing what happened in Italy and New York, so we didn’t have to twist people’s arms to take this seriously. The public understood the issue around shutting down.”

At the same time, he’s proud of Baystate’s role in working with local boards of health and the Department of Public Health around contact tracing. “In six months, from the announcement of the first case, we have gone from having to beg to get a person tested to being a regional testing center that does 1,000 tests a day,” he said, with the total tests approaching 100,000 toward the end of September.

About a third of those tests, he added, have not even been Baystate patients, but patients from other hospitals and folks living at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and homeless shelters. “We got outside the walls of our own system into the community and really played a role in public health.”

While the pandemic is far from over, Keroack already recognizes some of the changes that might emerge from it, from an expanded role for telehealth to a better understanding of where society’s safety nets have proven inadequate.

“This has kind of exposed some of the shortcomings of our healthcare system and of our social support system, like the number of people in this country who don’t have paid sick time, and go to work even when they’re sick,” he said.

Some of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are still emerging, he added, but Baystate — and the team of heroes with whom he insists on sharing his honor — will continue to, as he said, step up and play a leadership role.

“Every time a pandemic hits society, people who live through it are changed forever. That’s true of every pandemic throughout history,” Keroack said. “We’ll look at the world differently in terms of healthcare as a right, or childcare and sick leave — we’ll look at these issues very differently than we would have just a few years ago. At least, I hope we will.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

At a Time of Crisis, Collaboration Was Key to Meeting the Most Pressing Needs

Peter Reinhart, director of IALS.

Peter Reinhart, director of IALS.

In mid-March, when much of the U.S. was starting to hunker down, Peter Reinhart had a feeling he wouldn’t be — and neither would many of the people he works with.

“We didn’t want to be sitting at home watching this pandemic unfold without doing something,” said Reinhart, director of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) at UMass Amherst, a facility launched in 2013 with the goal of accelerating life-science research and advancing collaboration with industry to shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity to do exactly that, under time constraints that truly meant something, because people were dying every day. Take, for example, the work at IALS to develop a low-cost face shield for rapid production.

“We are a platform organization that caters to all departments on campus — nursing, computer science, natural sciences, public health, engineering,” Reinhart said, naming just a few. “Because our institute creates an interface across all these different organizations that are usually siloed, it’s much easier for us to pull together nursing staff, molecular biologists, and engineers, and say, ‘we need to make face shields in the next seven days. How can we do it?’ And they did.”

It took a few tries to get the design right, but the team eventually partnered with K+K Thermoforming of Southbridge to fabricate and distribute 81,000 face shields throughout the region. About 50,000 more followed in a second batch, all able to be shipped flat, 300 to a box, and assembled in 20 seconds by the user. Partly because of the logistics of billing and partly because the need was so pressing, IALS essentially gave the shields away.

“The differentiator between UMass and every other organization I’ve ever worked at — in both industry and academia — is this spirit of collaboration,” Reinhart told BusinessWest. “I’ve been at organizations where it’s very hard to get collaborations working across departmental boundaries. It’s much more self-contained, focused on individual greatness as opposed to collective greatness. That’s the difference I see at UMass Amherst — people across organizational boundaries will jump in and help you.”

When the pandemic hit, IALS’ culture and understanding of interdisciplinary work was especially valuable, and eight or nine response teams began working on individual projects, he explained, “some with greater and some with lesser success, but all of them with the best of intentions: to make a difference with the problems that were facing us as a society, using whatever resources we could apply to them.”

“We didn’t want to be sitting at home watching this pandemic unfold without doing something.”

One early project took aim at a worldwide mask shortage. Not all face masks can be safely sterilized and reused, but Professor Richard Peltier’s team demonstrated that hydrogen-peroxide sterilization for N95 respirators does, in fact, work. Using state-of-the-art pollution instruments to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the mask after it’s sterilized, the results showed no real difference in filtration between a new mask and a sterilized one.

In another project, Baystate Health resident physician Dr. Mat Goebel and respiratory specialist Kyle Walsh contacted the College of Engineering for help with ventilators. Regular, 10-foot ventilator cables were on extreme back order, and longer cables, which would provide added safety to staff by increasing distance and reducing the need for PPE, did not exist. UMass engineers were able to fabricate a 50-foot cable that was compatible with Baystate’s ventilators, and contacted Michigan-based Amphenol Sine Systems, who agreed to design and fabricate the longer cables.

“It’s a really intriguing model,” Reinhart said of the collaboration that went into each project. “It could be a model of the future, to allow interdisciplinary work to function on a campus that by necessity has these organizational boundaries.”

Another team set up local production of viral transport media (VTM) for COVID-19 clinical testing. As testing ramped up nationwide, the solution used to keep COVID-19 samples safe during transport was in short supply, and local hospitals contacted Reinhart for help.

Peter Reinhart with some of the equipment

Peter Reinhart with some of the equipment that can process thousands of COVID-19 tests every day on the UMass campus.

Within one week, IALS had produced, tested, and distributed enough VTM to test 600 patients, before scaling up production and delivery to meet the needs of frontline workers across the state. The campus has enlisted more than 60 volunteers who produce, test, package and distribute VTM, and have provided hundreds of thousands of vials to seven regional hospitals and healthcare facilities and the Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Command Center.

“That project has grown because the need was much larger than anticipated,” Reinhart said. “It was good to see we had so many people prepared to put in their time to help, and great to see that people who had run out of the ability to test were back doing testing. We ended up doing a good thing.”

The latest project is a high-throughput testing facility where IALS can generate up to 5,000 COVID-19 tests per day, enough to have all students, staff, and faculty tested at least once a week.

“We hope this becomes a regional resource that serves the community with rapid testing,” he said, noting that a regional testing bureau charges between $120 and $160 per test, or between $2 million and $3 million per week at the volume UMass can now conduct in-house.

“Imagine what that does to your campus finances,” he went on. “We can do it at 10 cents on the dollar if we do it ourselves. Obviously, you need a major investment in staff, space, and equipment, but once we’ve made that investment, we can do much less expensive tests, they’re completely under our control, the turnaround time is super fast, and we can quickly put people into quarantine and do contact tracing.”

“The differentiator between UMass and every other organization I’ve ever worked at — in both industry and academia — is this spirit of collaboration.”

As time goes on, Reinhart said, IALS — and all the departments at UMass with which it collaborates — will continue to look for places it can make a difference. One ongoing effort involves the development of a clinical testing lab that can identify individuals with antibodies that can neutralize the COVID-19 virus. “Students can donate a sample, and we’ll tell them whether we’re making antibodies or not.”

These efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis — and other projects yet to be determined — will continue, he added, because the pandemic is “far, far, far from over.”

While Western Mass. has been fortunate with its infection numbers, the virus is still spreading at the same rate it was in March, he went on, and a combination of the upcoming flu season and “PPE fatigue,” among other factors, may yield a second spike of some kind. “I think we’re in for a period of increasing difficulties.”

That said, it’s been an immensely gratifying seven months at IALS.

“Everything was gloom and doom, everyone was at home, and it seemed that every news item you picked up was another downer on how dire things were,” he recalled of the situation back in March. “Creating a few feel-good stories and giving our students and faculty a chance to contribute to something positive was very helpful to them. I know it was for me.”

But it’s not how these dozens of unsung individuals feel personally that makes them Healthcare Heroes. It’s the difference they’ve made in the fight against a virus that has proven a persistent, resilient foe.

“We weren’t good at logistics; we were engineers,” Reinhart said of efforts like distributing those tens of thousands of face shields. But that effort demonstrates collaboration, too. “It was exciting. People were excited about throwing their weight behind a project that had immediate impact.”

Impact that will only continue as a truly challenging 2020 turns an uncertain corner into 2021.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Healthcare Heroes

While This Shelter’s Protocols Changed, Its Mission Never Did

The metaphor is an easy one to draw.

“If COVID was the invading army, all of us here — every one of us — had to set the wall and hold the wall and make sure folks were going to be safe,” said Keith Rhone, Operations director at Friends of the Homeless in Springfield, a program of Clinical & Support Options (CSO).

The reality, however, was much more complex. In its dorms, its kitchen, and places where clients meet therapists, clinicians, and other staff one on one, FOH was tasked, back in March, with implementing social distancing and a host of other protocols aimed at keeping everyone safe — both those delivering a broad range of services and those receiving them — while never shutting those services down.

That they did so, and how, makes the entire team true Healthcare Heroes.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that.”

“In some ways, we can’t do anything differently,” Clinical Director Christy O’Brien told BusinessWest. “We’re never going to shut down; we’re never not going to be here. Despite the social distancing we had to do, we’re never not going to be close to our people — not necessarily physically, of course, but we still need to know how they’re doing, how we can help, all those things. Where other places were forced to move to telehealth, that’s never going to work for us. The needs are still the needs.”

Those needs encompass not only shelter, but clinical services, such as mental-health and substance-abuse recovery coaching and therapy; housing — FOH has a number of lease-holding tenants; three meals a day; clothing and toiletries as necessary; transportation and delivery services; prescription pickups; case management … as Rhone put it, “the job here is whatever it takes.”

COVID-19 didn’t arrive at an ideal time, said Bill Miller, vice president of Housing and Homeless Services — not that there’s ever a good time for a global pandemic.

“We were coming out of a winter where we served more people and were more full than we had ever been in our history,” he recalled. “So it was a tough winter, and what the pandemic required was a complete shift in our mindset because our inclination and our mission has always been the same: how do we serve as many people as possible? So we wanted to continue to serve in the same way, but we had to adopt a whole new style.”

Among the changes, picnic tables and tents were erected outdoors — spaced apart — to accommodate distanced meal lines. Volunteers, who are instrumental in the service of FOH meals and other activities, were temporarily suspended. In the dormitories, some beds were removed, with overflow space employed in the dining room. Partitions went up, and guests were arranged head to toe when sleeping.

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless, who had to quickly figure out new protocols in the spring while continuing to serve clients at the same level as before.

Additional temporary staff were hired to more regularly and thoroughly sanitize spaces, and hand-sanitizer stations were mounted throughout the campus. Dozens of donors and staffers designed and sewed homemade cloth masks so that each shelter guest would have reusable, washable masks.

Meanwhile, from the pandemic’s earliest days, before on-site testing became available, temperature screenings and interviews were conducted to alert the team to early signs, and as the situation progressed, Baystate and Mercy medical centers were quick to work with FOH on testing.

CSO also staffed and managed large tent facilities, which were erected in partnership with the city of Springfield and served as emergency accommodations in the event of positive cases (see the related story of another Healthcare Hero, page xx). When another shelter in the city needed to close due to guests testing positive, the CSO team was able to quarantine those who had been at risk and refer those who ended up testing positive to state-run MEMA isolation sites. FOH further assisted many of those individuals once their isolation periods were completed.

Why was all this critical? Simply put, while COVID-19 has swept through homeless populations in Boston, Worcester, and other cities, homeless individuals in the Greater Springfield region have been largely spared, thanks to the quick — dare we say heroic — work of the team at Friends of the Homeless.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that,” Miller said, adding that “there wasn’t one person who backed out, who wasn’t going to show up for work. We have a dedicated team who have been here for a long time. It was just incredible how everybody showed up.”

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people.”

It wasn’t lost on Miller that many people working at Friends of the Homeless fall into high-risk categories when it comes to COVID-19. “To have people come into work anyway is just striking.”

“Everyone came in and suited up and did the work,” added Delphine Ray, manager of Case Management Services. “They didn’t hesitate. This is our home away from home, and, by the grace of God, we managed to pull through.”

Dave Ware, men’s shelter manager, said he had many concerns about to manage the social-distancing aspect of the pandemic at FOH. “They really came together to figure out how to manage that in the dorms and kitchen. They came up with a good strategy to handle the social-distancing part.”

It wasn’t always a top-down strategy, Miller added. “There was a fad in business management some years ago — idea-driven organizations. That meant the ideas came from staff at all levels. That’s what we saw here. ‘What if we try this?’ ‘OK, let’s do that.’ Because this was something we’d never seen before, and we didn’t know what to do. And it ended up going well. Everybody was on high alert, and everyone had ideas.”

O’Brien also praised clients of Friends of the Homeless for taking the pandemic seriously and getting tested in the early days, before much was known about the virus and they were already preoccupied with some very real concerns, from mental health to lack of housing. “COVID wasn’t a primary concern for a lot of people. But they jumped on it when informed.”

He recalled warm moments, too, among upsetting ones — “incredible moments of humanity, seeing people come together in a time of crisis and fear. It was very genuine.”

That said, the need for the broad array of services provided by Friends of the Homeless to hundreds of people every day remains persistent, as does COVID-19 itself, as the cold weather approaches — not that those needs go away in the warmer months, Miller said.

“There may be peaks and valleys of needs; it’s not predicated only on cold weather. We used to see more of a lull in summer, but not so much anymore. And when times are hard economically…”

He didn’t have to finish that thought to register his point, which is, the tougher a community’s social and economic challenges, the more necessary FOH becomes.

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people,” Ware added. “When you look nationally and globally, you see so many people suffering, homeless, without food. We’re just a small place that takes care of those needs, but nationwide, so many people are suffering in this way. I’m proud to work in a place that takes care of people who need it. We’re one of the only places around here that does it on the level we do.”

As noted earlier, this is not an organization that can just shut its doors to the ‘invading army’ of COVID-19.

“We’re home for many people,” Miller said.

“And if we don’t do it,” O’Brien added, “who will?”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Insurance Special Coverage

At a Premium

The story is a familiar one by now: hospitals across the U.S., hammered by COVID-19, began directing resources toward fighting the pandemic last spring and curtailed elective and non-emergency procedures. Meanwhile, patients, even when sick, stayed away from medical practices out of fear of infection.

As a result, health insurers continued to reap premiums while paying out millions of dollars less in medical claims. Some of the largest companies reported second-quarter earnings about double what they were a year ago. Anthem’s net income soared to $2.3 billion for the second quarter, up from $1.1 billion in 2019, while UnitedHealth reported net income of $6.7 billion, compared to $3.4 billion last year. Humana’s second-quarter net income rose from $940 million in 2019 to $1.8 billion in 2020.

But the issue is a complex one, especially in Massachusetts, where laws governing insurance are different, said Keith Ledoux, vice president of Commercial Line of Business, Sales, Marketing, and Business Development for Health New England, a 166,000-member health plan based in Springfield.

For example, HNE did see lower utilization for medical services among its members in the early months of the pandemic; however, at the same time, it saw an increase in prescription-drug fills as members made sure they had their medications during stay-at-home orders.

“On the pharmaceutical side, we saw a small spike in claims and overall costs starting at the end of March and the beginning of April because we had relaxed our rules on allowing folks to fill prescriptions early, or to get a greater supply,” Ledoux told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, “after April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

At the same time, the pandemic brought about a significant increase in telehealth utilization; through April, HNE had processed 114,000 telehealth visits for its members versus 900 in all of 2019, accounting for $12 million in costs for Health New England.

“One reason that’s so costly for us is that we’re mandated by the government to pay the same rate for telehealth as we would for an in-person visit, and typically telehealth is cheaper than in person,” Ledoux said, adding that future state negotiations will likely alter that formula as telemedicine continues to gain traction in healthcare.

“The silver lining is not the cost, but the behavior shift of so many members embracing the idea of telemedicine, which does broaden your ability to access non-invasive care. There’s definitely an opening for systems to adopt a new approach and potentially increase their revenue stream using telemedicine.”

Massachusetts-based Tufts Health Plan reported that COVID-19 treatment costs were one factor in actually recording a drop in net income between the first six months of 2019 to and the six months of June 2020.

Keith Ledoux

Keith Ledoux

“After April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

“Tufts Health Plan proudly serves all segments of the market, regardless of a person’s age or life circumstance,” Chief Financial Officer Umesh Kurpad noted in a statement. “This diversity in our business translates into different financial pressures, such as significantly higher COVID-19 infection rates and treatment costs for our members, particularly those who rely on both Medicare and Medicaid.

“Year-to-date, our earnings were challenging, with the increased costs of COVID-19-related expenses across virtually all of our businesses,” he went on, projecting COVID-19 expenses to reach $220 million for the full year. “The pandemic cost tail is anticipated to be long with the lingering impact of COVID-19 survivors and increased morbidity from deferred care.”

In short, there’s no one trend common among health insurers in a year where they, like all industries, have learned to expect the unexpected.

Appointment Viewing

Another Massachusetts-based insurer, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, reported little change in second-quarter net income from 2019 ($36.2 million) to 2020 ($40.9 million). It also encouraged members not to avoid medical services they need.

“Now more than ever, our focus remains on the health and well-being of our members and the communities we serve,” President and CEO Michael Carson said. “Many people have deferred care over the past several months, and it is incredibly important that they not neglect their health. Healthcare providers have implemented stringent safety precautions, and we encourage our members to seek routine and preventive care, including checkups, health screenings, and vaccinations.”

Ledoux told BusinessWest that HNE typically doesn’t know the performance of a year until probably three or four months after the year has closed.

In its planning for 2021, he explained, the company must consider uncertainties with expenses, which include utilization continuing to pre-COVID levels; increased use of high-cost technology; and costs of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines and testing, as well as increased costs for certain behavioral healthcare for children and adolescents.

Consumers are protected to an extent by state and federal laws that require health plans to rebate customers annually if the percent of premiums spent on medical expenses falls below a certain threshold.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to use a fixed percentage of the money they take in from premiums for their customers’ medical expenses — at least 80 cents of every dollar they collect in premiums from small businesses and individuals, and 85 cents per dollar for large employers. The remaining 15% to 20% percent is what they are allowed under the ACA to spend on administrative costs like overhead and marketing, and to keep as profit. Excess revenues are to be returned to consumers in the form of rebates.

“If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market. In a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Under Massachusetts’ health-insurance law, that number rises to 88 cents on the dollar. “If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market,” Ledoux said, adding that, “in a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Some of those variables emerged this year in the form of concessions to the pandemic and the stress it has placed on families, he noted. “We relaxed a lot of rules on how we collect premiums. Normally it’s a 30-day grace period, and we expanded that another 30 days.” HNE also allowed furloughed employees to stay on their companies’ health plans.

“We continue to evaluate our position in the market,” he added. “There are already protections in place, profits above what would be considered reasonable, and a mandate to rebate that back to the market. We already know it self-corrects on its own.”

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, told BusinessWest that health-insurance premiums haven’t been a big topic among EANE’s members. “We’ve heard from some employers who are getting refunds, but it hasn’t been a major thing that anyone is focusing on at the moment.”

Nationally, insurers are spending a far lower portion of premium revenue on their customers’ healthcare costs. For example, CVS said its medical-benefits ratio was 70% for the second quarter, compared to 84% over the same period in 2019.

According to a report in the New York Times, the ACA gives companies a three-year window to calculate how much to return, so members probably shouldn’t expect relief anytime soon, especially because it’s hard to tell what the rest of the year will bring, with COVID-19 numbers still fluctuating dramatically from state to state, as well as the impact of potentially expensive new vaccines or treatments around the corner. At the same time, many people who postponed getting medical attention could surge back into doctors’ offices and submit more bills for coverage.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020,” according to a statement by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “However, if these costs never materialize and remain below certain levels, American consumers, businesses, and taxpayers are protected by provisions in federal and state laws that require health-insurance providers to deliver premium rebates and put money back into their pockets.”

Community Focus

In addition to changes in patient volume and the bottom line, the pandemic shifted the priorities of Health New England in other ways, Ledoux said.

For instance, it contributed $300,000 in grants for COVID-19 relief efforts throughout Western Mass. to help residents with access to food, mental healthcare, child care, housing, and basic needs.

The company has also made benefit adjustments that make it easier for members to get the care they need, such as eliminating out-of-pocket costs for all telehealth services and for COVID-19 diagnostic testing ordered by a medical professional, no prior authorizations for members receiving medical care for COVID-19, and flexibility with payment plans and adjusted underwriting guidelines to ease the burden for employer-group customers and members.

Meanwhile, as it approaches Medicare’s annual enrollment season, Health New England is holding online Zoom sessions and drive-up events, and has added staff to its call center, to help educate people about their Medicare options.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020.”

Tufts has implemented a number of changes as well, including compensating providers 100% of an in-office rate for telehealth, working with providers on a case-by-case basis to address their concerns regarding payment stability, extending premium payment periods for employers who need more time to make payments, and contributing $2 million to support those affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

Certainly, reports of soaring profits may persuade some lawmakers to revive proposals to cap insurers’ profits even more, but insurers say they are using their financial strength to help customers, hospitals, and doctors. In the New York Times report, AHIP also cited trends like waiving co-payments for COVID testing and treatment and paying for telemedicine visits, some of which the government has mandated be covered.

“From the very beginning,” AHIP CEO Matt Eyles said, “health-insurance providers have focused on being part of the solution.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith says getting town business done during COVID-19 has been more challenging than usual, but projects continue to be approved.

Wilbraham is a mostly residential town with two main business districts — the town center, as it’s known, on Main Street, and along a lengthy stretch of Route 20, or Boston Road.

The fact that both have seen development activity during the ongoing pandemic is good news indeed, said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Planning Board.

Take, for example, a couple of vacant buildings next to Home Depot that have been vacant for about a decade. They will soon become a 7,000-square-foot O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store and a 2,340-square-foot Valvoline instant oil-change facility.

“It’s great,” Smith said. “Being on the Planning Board and being a resident in town, I hear from people all the time, in casual converations, ‘what’s going on with that place?’ This is one of those vacant and seemingly abandoned properties that is getting a great redo, and I think it’s going to be a welcome addition. The site has been an eyesore for some time.”

Then there’s the former Papa Gino’s restaurant near the Springfield line that’s been vacant several years, but will soon be home to an expansion of Springfield-based Vanguard Dental. Meanwhile, Excel Therapy and Conditioning, a physical-therapy practice that’s expanding to sports rehabilitation and personal training, will set up shop on Boston Road as well.

“We had to work fast to fast-track this during the height of the pandemic, with Town Hall closed,” recalled John Pearsall, director of Planning. “They were in a situation where their lease was running out and they had a chance to purchase this building and move and expand their practice. That’s been a good success story, saving a local business during these difficult times.”

Doing due diligence on development projects hasn’t been easy with offices closed, Smith noted.

“Just like every other town, we’re dealing with COVID, and all Planning and Zoning board meetings have to be done remotely. John and I used to meet quite a bit more in person during the week and outside our regularly scheduled meetings, and we do a little less of that right now. Everything has become more cumbersome, with a lot of extra steps.”

“For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

Yet, important work continues, including efforts by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Health, and licensing authorities to get restaurants reopened in recent months.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to help our businesses stay afloat during these difficult times,” Pearsall said. “And they seem to be very active. I think people are happy to have that option, whether it’s curbside pickup or being able to go out and have a meal outside the home. That’s a big thing for people these days.”

As the town continues to develop a Route 20 renovation plan — including widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more — business continue to see it as an attractive destination, Smith and Pearsall said. That bodes well for 2021, when the process of getting anything permitted in town — and, let’s be honest, life in general — promises to be slightly easier.

Center of Activity

Most schools throughout Western Mass. are currently teaching students remotely. But not Wilbraham & Monson Academy, which launched an ambitious plan earlier this year — including everything from reconfiguring buildings to implementing strict safety guidelines — to bring students back to campus.

“We worked extensively as a town with WMA to reopen and allow students back,” Smith said, recalling Head of School Brian Easler working the Planning Board, Board of Health, and Board of Selectmen to produce a comprehensive plan to get students back safely for in-person learning. “I was surprised at the lengths they went and the protocols they put in place to get reopened.”

The town had a stake in the plan that went beyond what was best for students and their families, Pearsall said. “We were happy to see them open because they provide a real anchor to the town center.”

It’s a center that has long been the subject of speculation. Two years ago, an effort to allow a mixed-use development in the area of Main and Springfield streets failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes. Since then, town officials have struggled to balance the need to fill vacant buildings with general pushback when it comes to change.

Currently, two vacant buildings at the corner of Main Street and Burt Lane have been slated for demolition and development, Smith said.

“We’ve been working at least the last two years with the owner of the property and getting something viable in place for those buildings,” he told BusinessWest. “If everything goes as planned, that will be a major change in the way the town center looks. The owner of the property has worked extensively with us and other committees and boards in town to come up with a design concept that would fit in with the town center.

“It’s a very sensitive area; it’s looked the way it has for quite some time,” he added. “This is a new use on this spot — mixed-use development, with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the second floor. Actually, it’s bringing in an old use. At one point, a hotel stood on this spot. So we’re bringing residential use back, and resurrecting something that was done years ago.”

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.38
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

Some folks in the neighborhood are open to change, Pearsall said. “For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

The former post office on Crane Park Drive recently changed ownership and could be repurposed as commercial office space, he added, while a new cosmetology business, Inner Glow Skin Studio, is moving in. Meanwhile, the old Masonic Hall on Woodland Dell Road was purchased by a local resident who is converting it to office space for his dental-management business.

“We’re taking a property that was tax-exempt and putting it back on the tax rolls,” Smith added.

Also along Main Street, Rice’s Fruit Farm and adjoining Fern Valley Farms have been enjoying a strong year, with pick-your-own-apples business boosted by cooperative weather and families looking for something to do. In fact, Rice’s has been working with town Planning and Zoning officials on parking expansions to accommodate the enterprise’s growth.

“It’s been very successful,” Smith said, adding that a parking crunch is, in one sense, a good problem to have. “They’re kind of taking the next step.”

Developing Stories

Wilbraham also has two solar farms under construction, a 1.4-MW project on Tinkham Road and a 3.4-MW project on Beebe Road; the latter development straddles the Hampden town line, with another 2 MW available for that community.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“There’s a need for fiber and high-speed internet,” Smith said. “We moved some time ago to be a municipal light plant, which means we can essentially be a supplier of high-speed internet.”

“There’s a broadband committee, being coordinated by our IT director, to move that project forward,” Pearsall added.

Residential growth advances slowly in a small town, but some trends have emerged. Even before COVID-19 struck, Pearsall noted, more people were starting to work from home.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest and activity from people trying to do home-based businesses,” he said. “We’ve also seen a lot of interest in so-called in-law apartments in town, and we have zoning for that, where elderly parents own a home and want their children to live with them, or the children own the home and create an apartment for their parents. That seems very popular right now.”

It’s another way times are changing and town leaders must adapt — in a year when they’ve certainly had plenty of practice.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Essential Work

Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers

The new Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers project, takes shape in Easthampton.

 

 

Back in March, ‘essential’ was a magic word for employers across Massachusetts. It meant they could continue to work, provide services, and generate revenue during a time when so many sectors were completely shutting down.

But to Laurie Raymaakers, the word means more than that, because construction has always been essential to communities — particularly the infrastructure and civil-engineering projects her Westfield-based company, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons, is known for.

“Through the pandemic season, we’ve continued to get new jobs, and we have been able to keep all our employees working,” she told BusinessWest. “We are considered essential workers because we do a lot of infrastructure work for municipalities, which is very important to every community. We do all kinds of infrastructure — sewers, water, drainage, pump stations, culverts.”

Among the firm’s recent seven-figure projects are a large sewer project in Shrewsbury, a large culvert replacement in Pittsfield, and a drainage pond for Barnes Airport that had to be completed on a tight, 45-day schedule.

The company also created a road for the installation of two wind turbines in Russell and replaced a 100-year-old culvert in a pond at Forest Park in Springfield, a job that involved building a temporary dam, as well as creating new walkways and overlooks in the area. And the company’s workload for the fall and winter, and beyond, looks strong.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects. t was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

“We have enough work to keep going,” Raymaakers said. “But we’ve also worked very hard keeping employees safe. It was very difficult in the beginning, trying to get sanitary supplies for sites, like masks and sanitizer, and follow all the standards of the CDC and prepare all the proper paperwork. We value our employees, and we wanted to keep them safe. We’re very fortunate we work outdoors, with the type of work we do.”

David Fontaine Jr. tells a similar story about his company, Springfield-based Fontaine Brothers, when it comes to being essential.

“We’ve got a lot going on — we’re pretty busy this year and into 2021,” he said. “Prior to COVID coming along, we had a lot of backlog and a lot of work we had underway, so we were in a pretty healthy spot.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects,” he went on. “It was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

Recent and ongoing jobs include building new high schools in Worcester and Middleboro, as well as a new K-8 school in Easthampton; the firm was also recently awarded a job to combine the Deberry and Homer schools in Springfield, with construction to begin next summer.

“The nice part about the public work is it’s funded with reliable state dollars; projects being constructed now were funded a year or two ago, so it’s an ongoing source of work,” Fontaine said. “It looks stable going forward next 12 months at least.”

The biggest concern right now, actually, is that some planned projects will hit a funding stall, which would manifest in a slowdown of projects a year or two from now, he added. But so far, 2020 has been a healthy year, even if uncertainty looms around the corner for many firms.

Reading the Signs

The signs were all there in February, Fontaine said, when COVID-19 was already starting to disrupt some material supply chains.

“We started preparing for it before some of our peers; we were already planning for how we were going to approach it when it came,” he told BusinessWest. “We put into place a pandemic protocol from a safety standpoint for all job sites, and tried to stay ahead of it as much as we could. We wanted to be proactive and make sure the job sites stayed open and safe.”

That involved measures that have become common in many businesses, including personal protective equipment like face coverings and gloves, worn 100% of the time.

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond in Forest Park, which involved creating a temporary dam and replacing a century-old culvert.

“We also put additional handwashing stations and sanitizing stations on all job sites,” he explained. “We also require, on every job, a daily check-in process; before anyone enters the job site, they have to self-certify they have not had any symptoms or been in contact with anyone COVID-positive the last 14 days. We’ve also been doing temperature screenings on a couple of job sites.”

Those efforts have paid off, he added. “Knock on wood, but all those measures have been effective in not having many safety concerns or incidents.”

At least one trend in the year of COVID-19 has been a positive for J.L. Raymaakers, whose yard-products division, ROAR, has been extremely busy, adding more than 600 new customers this year and tripling sales.

“That’s partly through marketing and word of mouth, but partly because of COVID,” Raymaakers said. “People have been home, not at work, and they were sprucing up their yards and planting gardens.”

Those two elements of her business — public infrastructure work and yard products — have not only helped Raymaakers and her team weather an unusual year, but thrive during it. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t recognize acute needs elsewhere.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees. If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

“Because we’ve been so fortunate this year, and so many people and organizations have been struggling, we upped our charitable contributions to help out with food banks as well as the Westfield Boys and Girls Club, making sure we give back to the community and those that are struggling.”

One trend that has not changed this year, even with so many people out of work, Raymaakers said, is a persistent shortage of workers.

“For ourselves as well as other construction companies, as much as we’re busy, it’s very difficult to find employees or crew — equipment operators and laborers — in this industry,” she told BusinessWest.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees,” she added, noting that many of her firm’s supervisors and project managers started on the ground floor and worked their way up. “If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

It’s not a localized phenomenon. According to a workforce survey conducted by Associated General Contractors of America and software vendor Autodesk, 60% of respondents reported having at least one future project postponed or canceled this year, and 33% said projects already underway have been halted. Yet, a shortage of labor remains, with 52% having a hard time filling some or all hourly craft positions and only 3% of firms reducing pay, despite the downturn in business.

COVID-19 is playing some role in that trend. While some companies have laid off workers during the pandemic, 44% of contractors say at least some employees have refused to return, citing unemployment benefits, virus concerns, or family issues, among other reasons.

“Few firms have survived unscathed from the pandemic amid widespread project delays and cancellations,” Ken Simonson, chief economist of Associated General Contractors of America, told the Engineering News-Record. “Ironically, even as the pandemic undermines demand for construction services, it is reinforcing conditions that have historically made it hard for many firms to find qualified craft workers to hire.”

One positive from all this has been an accelerated adoption of technology. According to the workforce survey, about 40% of responding contractors said they have adopted new hardware or software to alleviate labor shortages.

“As bad as this situation is, it’s also pushing the industry forward into a better place,” William Sankey, CEO of data-analytics solutions provider Northspyre, said in Construction Dive, an online industry newsletter. “Maybe, where it would have taken seven to 10 years to catch up to where the finance industry is in leveraging data, I think that transition will now be underway in the next two to three years.”

Down the Road

What happens over the next two to three years is really the key for all construction firms, which expect COVID-related impacts to continue to be felt down the road.

For now, though, Fontaine is gratified that his company’s workload is healthy, with public projects complemented by a fair amount of private work, including jobs for MGM and several prepatory schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon School, Deerfield Academy, and Wilbraham & Monson Academy.

“We’re hoping those types of schools will have OK years fundraising for those types of projects,” he said, adding that private-sector clients can often move from funding to the construction phase quicker than municipalities, especially when they realize they can take advantage of recession-driven lower prices.

It’s just another way this unprecedented year has cut both ways for construction firms. The big question is what the coming years will bring for a sector that’s essential in more ways than one.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

The Experiment Begins

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School will repurpose for class time this fall — weather permitting.

Brian Easler learned a saying during his time in the Army: “two is one, and one is none.”

It’s a way of stressing the importance of having a backup plan — and he certainly put that concept into action this summer.

“The idea is, anything can fail at any time. You have to have a backup,” said Easler, head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA). “We did everything we could think of to make the campus as safe as possible. We have layers of filters where, even if one preventive measure seems duplicative of something else we’ve done, we did both anyway.”

For instance, all HVAC systems on campus were updated and fitted with ionizers to filter air. But the school also bought 287 Honeywell HEPA air purifiers, similar to what hospitals use, and placed one in every room on campus. And when public-health officials said students at school could stay three feet apart while wearing masks, WMA kept a six-foot standard.

“Again,” he told BusinessWest, “we’re layering precautions on top of precautions.”

The reason is simple: parents want to send their kids to school to learn in person — despite its widespread use, no one believes remote learning is the best option from an academic and social perspective — and they also want to feel their kids will be safe.

Melissa Earls is a believer in in-person learning, which is why, as head of school at Academy Hill School in Springfield, she has spent the last several months making sure the campus is safe.

And not only because younger students — unlike WMA, Academy Hill is a pre-K to grade 8 school — have a tougher time handling remote education without the physical presence of parents, who often simultaneously hold jobs.

“It’s not just the autonomy factor, but what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen. For them, it’s an abstract concept to wrap their heads around. Developmentally, we much prefer having them here with us.”

That’s not to say classes don’t look a little different these days.

“We’re a small private school, and we typically have a lot of collaborative tables, reflective of our instructional model. We’ve replaced them with rows and columns of desks, which was not our style,” Earls explained. “We also purchased tents to create outdoor spaces, sheltered from the sun, and even the rain, to respond to the space challenge.”

John Austin, head of school at Deerfield Academy, in a letter to parents last month, outlined the many precautions and protocols unfolding to make the campus safe (more on that later). But he also stressed that students have to buy in to make it work.

“We know from experience — and science tells us with near-certainty — that wearing masks, physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene can help mitigate the spread of this virus. And that is what, together, we will endeavor to accomplish. We begin the year knowing that our students will arrive ready to express their care for others by following these simple expectations,” he wrote.

Noting that students must sign a ‘community health pledge,’ he called the document “an attempt to clearly and explicitly capture that ethos of care, citizenship, and sacrifice that will allow us to return to school safely and be together as a campus community.”

In other words, if students want to be on campus — and private schools throughout the region are definitely emphasizing that model — they know they’re all in it together. It’s an intriguing experiment in the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era, one that follows a summer that was also unlike any other.

Team Effort

The first question at Academy Hill, Earls said, was whether the campus had the space and ability to pull off on-campus learning.

“Once we knew we could do this, it became a priority to get them back,” she said. “Getting here was a team effort. What impressed us was the selflessness of everyone who worked all summer long. Actually, they didn’t have a summer. The plan was constantly evolving, and everyone was so generous with their time and their thoughts.”

While students are expected to be on campus if they’re not sick, a blended learning option is available for those who have to quarantine because they or a family member have been exposed to coronavirus. At the same time, if a faculty member is exposed, but is able to teach from home, students will attend classes on campus while the teacher instructs from a remote location, with the assistance of technology.

Melissa Earls

Melissa Earls

“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen.”

And, of course, in an echo of the spring, when schools and colleges across the U.S. shut down and switched to online learning, Academy Hill will be able to do so if a viral spike forces such a move — but it won’t be so on the fly this time, as teachers engaged in professional development over the summer to prepare for the possibility of remote learning.

“Our plan is a living document,” Earls said. “We looked at CDC and state guidelines, and our goal was to exceed them. When they shortened the physical distance to three feet, we still do six feet apart. We made sure we were meeting or exceeding all the guidelines, and we shared every iteration of the plan with families. I sent notes home weekly over the summer, if not moreso.”

Easler said prepping WMA for an influx of students included renovating a former school meeting space into a second dining hall, installing new bathrooms in a boys’ dorm, and, perhaps most dramatically, instituting an aggressive testing program. The school engaged with a lab at MIT to implement twice-weekly testing for all students, faculty, and staff, with no more than four days between tests.

“The rationale is, the only way to prevent widespread transmission on campus is to know where the virus is, especially with a population that’s often asymptomatic. And the only way to know where the virus is, is to test. The testing program is our first defense.”

Easler spoke with BusinessWest the second day students were on campus, and said students were adapting well to the new protocols, which include mandatory masks, although there are outdoor mask-free zones that offer some relief. Among close to 400 students at WMA, only 64 have opted for remote learning this fall.

“The kids seem pretty happy; it’s encouraging to see how quickly they adapted to everything. Kids are adaptable in general, but we’re still really proud of them.”

He added that WMA isn’t among the wealthiest private schools, but he’s pleased with the investments that have been made, from campus renovations to the testing plan. “Testing is expensive, but it’s worth every penny.”

Testing, Testing

To a similar end, Deerfield Academy has partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo, a program that provides COVID-19 testing in support of schools and businesses. Students were tested before they arrived on campus, as soon as they arrived, and again several days after. Weekly testing will continue for students, faculty, and staff throughout the fall term.

The school will also employ daily reporting and symptom screening and has prepared guidelines for contact tracing in order to quickly isolate any positive cases and quarantine all close contacts. In addition, all boarding students have single rooms, and weekend off-campus travel is being limited, as are family visits.

Meanwhile, a new, modular academic schedule will reduce the number of classes students take over the course of the day and gather them in smaller classes, and all HVAC systems have been fitted with advanced air filters, and are circulating fresh, filtered air at an increased rate.

“In my 35 years in education, never before have I seen such effort, sacrifice, and commitment to mission,” Austin wrote. “Every member of our community has generously given their time and effort over these summer months to prepare the campus and its buildings to safely welcome students.”

Easler agreed. “We did lot of work over the summer, meaning we really didn’t get much of a summer,” he said, adding that part of the process was training faculty on the Canvas learning-management platform, allowing them to teach face-to-face and remotely at the same time.

“The rest of the staff spent the summer planning logistics around campus,” he added. “It was so much work because we literally did everything we could think of.”

While enrollment projections dipped slightly early in the summer, Easler said it picked up again once word got out into the community of what WMA was doing to make the campus a safe environment. “Families want a little more predictability than they get out of the local public systems, which don’t have the kind of flexibility and resources we do.”

With such resources come a responsibility, Earls said, to understand what students are going through during this unprecedented year.

“I told the teachers, ‘always remember that hundreds of kids will pass through here during the course of your career, but to John or Jameel or Suzy, you are their only second-grade teacher, their only math teacher, their only Spanish teacher. You need to respect that.’ This year more than ever, we need to pay attention to their anxiety levels, their social and emotional well-being. We’re going to make sure they feel safe and normalize the situation for them.”

That normalization, she believes, begins with in-person learning, and getting to that point took a lot of work. Now, she and other area heads of school can only hope it’s enough.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

It took plenty of creativity — in the set design and elsewhere — but Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August when no one else could.

For the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group, things were going according to plan.

A three-year sustainability plan, to be specific, developed back in 2018, said Nick Paleologos, the organization’s executive director.

“We had a checklist of things we needed to do in addition to putting on a decent artistic season in 2019, and we hit a lot of goals. As we hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

Versions of that story have been told countless times not only in Massachusetts, but around the country and the world. But for the performing arts, it’s been a particularly tough stretch.

“Starting around St. Patrick’s Day, all we were doing was canceling shows and returning money; we were really in a kind of freefall,” Paleologos continued. “What initially saved us in the short term, and bought us time to figure out how to reimagine our 2020 season, was the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a lifeline, and it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do — it allowed us to stay in business for those crucial eight weeks in the spring.”

The 2020 season — the BTG was planning eight shows in its three indoor spaces in Stockbridge and Pittsfield — was certainly about to change. “All of a sudden, we had no idea whether we’d be allowed to perform at all,” he noted.

The journey that followed, culminating in live, outdoor performances of Godspell in August and September (more on that later), was a remarkable one, but it’s hardly the robust schedule the venerable company normally puts on. Meanwhile, performing-arts destinations like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood canceled their live slates completely.

It’s a story that affects more than arts patrons; it impacts no less than the entire Berkshires economy, which is so intertwined with, and dependent on, culture and tourism.

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

“We hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

“The visitor economy is definitely a backbone sector for us; it supports a tremendous amount of dollars in the region,” said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the multi-faceted agency that focuses on tourism, economic development, and business retention in Massachusetts’ westernmost county.

In fact, he noted, visitor dollars spent in the region over the years are approaching the $1 billion mark — and the presence of cultural attractions and other tourist destinations, from restaurants to ski resorts, is a major quality-of-life factor in business owners wanting to set up shop here.

“We were pretty heavily involved in the state’s reopening process — we played a key role in getting some of the museums open and fleshing out guidelines for hotels and restaurants,” Butler told BusinessWest, while 1Berkshire’s website has become an oft-updated clearinghouse of information on the region and its public-health response to COVID-19.

Due to belt-tightening everywhere, including among its strategic partners, 1Berkshire hasn’t operated with the same marketing budget it normally would. “But we have been able to raise enough money to do some things, and we’ve pivoted to a vision of the Berkshires that talks a lot about outdoor recreation, and about our museums and hotel properties that have been able to open.

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors. And, honestly, we’re feeling better than we were two or three months ago.”

A few success stories will do that, but stakeholders in the region are certainly hoping 2021 looks a lot different than 2020.

Out and About

Take, for example, Bousquet Mountain, which recently hired a new general manager and announced a series of renovations, including a new summit-to-base triple chairlift and a revamped snow-making system with more than 25 new snow guns, as well as new grooming equipment and a new, more accessible beginner area.

In addition, Pittsfield native and two-time Olympian Krista Schmidinger will partner with Bousquet to further the site’s youth programming, contributing to the Race Club and SnowSports School and assisting with race and school-program design, instruction, and one-on-one opportunities for young skiers. All this speaks to a resort expecting a busy season, even in the midst of COVID-19.

As for Berkshire Theatre Group, it had to fight to get a live production staged — a fight marked by creativity, not animosity. In short, the Actors Equity Assoc. wasn’t allowing any of its 59,000 unionized members to work in 2020 unless the safety of the actors could be assured.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city. We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors.”

“We’re an Equity company, so that puts a little crimp in our plans,” Paleologos said. To stage Godspell, Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire developed a 60-page manual with detailed safety protocols, including quarantining, physical distancing, and regular coronavirus testing for actors. The actors were to be kept six feet apart at all times — 10 feet when singing — with this spacing and plexiglass dividers incorporated into the set design itself.

Maguire was denied at first, “but she was relentless,” Paleologos said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

When the company and the union finally struck a deal, BTG became the only company in the entire country performing or rehearsing a musical — a major success, he noted, considering that, just weeks earlier, no one knew whether they’d have a live theater season at all, and most companies nationwide didn’t attempt one, moving instead to virtual performances only.

Meanwhile, many patrons of canceled BTG shows exchanged their tickets for future credits or donated the tickets back as contributions, as a show of support for a company — and an industry — so important to locals.

“This is not a sustainable model going forward, performing under a tent for 50 people,” Paleologos said. “But it was a miraculous success story that was totally unexpected. Our goal was just to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal moment in Berkshire County.”

It’s not the only such beacon.

“It’s too soon to gauge anything in the quantitative sense, but from what I’ve heard anecdotally, in conversations with different sectors in the visitor economy, those that have reopened have done all right,” Butler said. “A lot have changed their model — some hotels have a three-night minimum because of the cleaning expenses of turning over a room, and some businesses are closed a day or two a week to focus on cleaning and sanitizing.”

Last week, Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates several hotels in the region, announced the hiring of a COVID compliance officer, or CCO, who makes monthly visits to each hotel for routine inspections and engagement with staff and leadership. A board-certified physician, the officer strictly adheres to mandates from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays informed on the latest public-health advancements in order to advise on any necessary changes to the hotels’ protocols and procedures.

“In addition to several months of strategic planning that led to our initial creation of safeguards, it is equally important to continue evaluating our health and safety practices with the CCO’s help and expertise,” said Sarah Eustis, Main Street’s CEO. “A trusted editor was needed to process the ever-changing breadth of information out there.”

Meanwhile, the hotel group has also partnered with Blue Canary, a company that trains hotels in hospital-level cleaning methods and conducts regular check-ins. Main Street’s housekeeping leaders participated in three days of intensive sessions that focused on best practices and heightened awareness. Attendants were trained in techniques that include longer cleaning times, stronger disinfectants, new cleaning tools, and identifying critical, high-touch areas that require the most attention to ensure guest health and safety.

“This new reality has impacted our housekeeping teams in a huge way,” Eustis said. “Main Street Hospitality is committed to staying at the forefront of this.”

Restaurants have had barriers to overcome as well, Butler said, especially those that depend on visitor traffic at other area attractions. “Some have been able to pivot and focus on a delivery and takeout model, while others haven’t made the transition as seamlessly, and many don’t have the square footage inside to sit too many, and if they’re not able to adapt some outdoor seats, it can be challenging.”

The soon-to-arrive colder weather will force many eateries to become more creative until the state lifts restrictions on indoor capacity — and patrons feel safe enough to eat indoors.

“We certainly understand some businesses will have to make more permanent decisions about their fate. And some businesses, unfortunately, won’t make it to the other side of this,” Butler said. “But the outdoor recreation scene has been very busy — it’s flourishing this summer, and that will continue into the fall.”

Lessons Learned

Paleologos told BusinessWest that banks did a good job easing loan terms for cultural organizations and other nonprofits in the spring, and argues that the next step would be a permanent shift in that direction.

Writing this month in Berkshire Trade & Commerce, he cited a study in Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an economic-development plan for Berkshire County, showing that jobs in the creative industry grew at a faster pace than in any of the other sectors examined.

“In other words, cultural nonprofits are absolutely central to the Berkshire brand,” he wrote. “The profitability of other commercial industries depends heavily on the success of this county’s theatres, museums, music, and dance companies. Creating new and innovative financial products that contribute to the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector must become a top priority for local banks. As an example, sufficiently collateralized operating loans to nonprofits must be offered at the most favorable rates — not the least.”

Meanwhile, Butler added, bringing visitor traffic back to 2019 levels will depend largely on people’s confidence regarding safety, and the public-health metrics on that front have been very good in the Berkshires. “We’re optimistic that will continue and we’ll come out in a stronger place at the end of this.”

That said, there certainly has been a visitor footprint in the Berkshires this year, he went on.

“We won’t have hard data until 2021, and I’m certain it’s going to be down — we don’t have a lot of the key economic drivers, like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. But on the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of visitation from Eastern Mass.; they see us as the rural side of the state. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Connecticut and New York. Second homeowners have been living here since March, making their Berkshire residence more permanent during the pandemic. All those dollars circulate back into the local economy, which is a good thing.”

Any forward momentum is welcome, Paleologos added. But so much still remains in flux.

“We can’t guarantee, by the time we get to next summer, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be able to have shows indoors again,” he said. “The good news is, having had this experience, being able to find a way to do it outdoors, maybe we could incorporate a hybrid model, under tents and indoors. A lot is up in the air at this point, depending on how fast a reliable vaccine comes on the market and how much public confidence there is at its safety and efficacy.”

He noted that the theater business goes back to an amphitheater cut into the hillside at the Parthenon 2,500 years ago — and likely before that.

“From then up to now, the bedrock of our business is people coming together in a single place to have a shared experience and to learn a little bit about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

That’s what the Berkshires do, too, bringing people together every year for an array of activities, many of which have been curtailed in this year of COVID-19.

But the show will go on, eventually — with or without plexiglass.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Meeting Community Needs Has Become Even More Critical During a Difficult Year

Ronn Johnson has spent a lifetime improving the neighborhood of his youth — and impacting lives far beyond it.
(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

When times got tougher for struggling families back in March, they appreciated any resources they could access, from emergency food supplies to educational assistance to … lotion?

“With children being home every day, parents were super stressed, and they needed a way to manage it all,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc. in Springfield.

“We said, ‘let’s deliver pampering products to these women — lotions, bath oils, shower gels, facial scrubs — things they can use to pamper themselves with on occasion, once the children are down,” he told BusinessWest earlier this month. “With the response we got, it was like we’d given them a pot of gold — they said, ‘these are things I’ve never been able to get for myself.’”

Those items were complemented by deliveries of hard-to-find cleaning supplies and paper products. But they certainly didn’t replace the bread-and-butter services of the organization, from educational resources to healthy-food access.

The pandemic, in fact, only laid bare a growing need for such services — and new ways of delivering them.

“It was a tremendous challenge to pivot on a dime. We’ve had to restructure ourselves from being an after-school resource to being a remote-learning center,” Johnson said, noting that the organization serves many economically disadvantaged families that need extracurricular support and don’t want to have to choose between their kids and making a living. “Work is important to them, but their child’s education is also important. We’re one of the resources in the community trying to be responsive to the needs of children.”

The center has also expanded its emergency-food program, serving up to 400 people weekly. Even so, pantry volunteers weren’t seeing some of the faces they expected to see — mainly older people — and learned these regulars were staying at home because of fears for their health.

So Johnson talked to community partners, in particular Baystate Health, which helped procure a cargo van to deliver food to homes. The volunteer-driven delivery program began with about 10 recipients and now visits some 65 elderly, sick, and shut-in individuals every week.

Johnson’s work with MLK Family Services — the latest stop in a career dedicated to his community — is one reason he was chosen as a Difference Maker, along with his work with the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, which has raised more than $750,000 over 22 years and helped 50 children with physical limitations access tools to improve their lives.

But he stresses that he can’t do his job alone. To serve 750 different people each week with after-school programs, college courses, family support, public-health outreach, sports programs, cultural activities, and more — with only about $1.6 million in annual funding — he relies not only on his team, but more than 100 volunteers.

They worked together to open summer camp this year, he noted. “That was well-thought-out; we assured we had all the safe distancing and PPE, and we made it work, with no incidents of the virus spreading. It was a real benefit to both children and their parents, to provide meaningful activities for them eight hours a day.”

Community members stepped up this spring and summer in other ways as well. For example, a woman came by in late March to donate a new laptop to the center, along with funds to distribute items like coloring books, flash cards, notebooks, crayons, and markers so kids could occupy themselves when holing up at home became the new normal.

Johnson also credited the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for its financial support of the center, as well as donations that came in after Common Wealth Murals and Art for the Soul Gallery drew attention to the center in June with a mural, called “Say Their Names,” honoring individuals killed by police violence.

He’s equally gratified that people are talking.

“It’s been heartwarming and affirming that our white neighbors and other community members have extended their support to us, not only financially, but they’re looking to be engaged in conversations,” he said. “So many families from the suburbs and the hilltowns came to Mason Square to show their children this mural.”

It’s a conversation being held back on the national level by leaders who refuse to engage in these issues and create positive momentum, he added. Yet, he’s encouraged by young people of all races who are energized by fighting for social justice.

“That is very encouraging,” he said. “We need to build bridges to understanding and have it happen in a more global way than just these pockets of support.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep building bridges locally, and making a difference for families whose needs go much deeper than lotion.

But a little pampering never hurt.

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

Travelers at Bradley (and there are fewer of them) will find a number of new protocols, from mandatory face coverings to more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Bradley International Airport has a contract with a medical laboratory willing to conduct COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which manages the airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., thinks that would be an ideal way for healthy travelers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont in July.

But state leaders turned that option down.

“We have a lab that’s willing to start testing here, yet we can’t convince the Department of Public Health to allow that to occur. It makes no sense,” Dillon said. “Because what’s impacting us now is the travel advisory that’s been put in place here in Connecticut.”

According to the policy, both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out a travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Failure to do so incurs a $1,000 fine.

“Unfortunately, the airlines are reacting to the travel advisory by pulling flights out of the airport,” Dillon explained. “As you can imagine, it’s very, very difficult for someone to take a week vacation and then, when they come back, have to take a two-week quarantine. The same goes for business travel — people aren’t going away for two days when they have to quarantine for 14. That’s had a pretty chilling effect on our level of recovery.”

It’s a recovery — if one can call it that — from the most dramatic loss of business airports across the country have ever experienced, the post-9/11 period included. In April, passenger volume at Bradley was down 98% compared to the same period last year. The airport has recovered some of its volume, but a typical day is still some 70% to 75% below 2019 numbers. And the state of Connecticut is doing the airport no favors with one of the most rigid travelers’ advisories in the nation.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable. This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region.”

“I’m not questioning the medical necessity of a travel advisory — I’m not qualified to question that, and I take folks at their word that it’s is a necessary thing,” Dillon told BusinessWest. “What we have asked for here is a testing option. If you get a negative COVID test, you should be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine period. Massachusetts is doing that.”

He has other questions — including why it’s OK to cross the border for a funeral, but not a business meeting — and they all come, he said, from a place of common sense. “We’re not questioning the travel advisory, but I do think testing here at Bradley would make all the sense in the world.”

If the impact of discouraging interstate travel was a short-term thing, it would be less frustrating, but Dillon is looking far beyond 2020, when airlines will emerge from the pandemic as much smaller companies, with fewer planes to spread around the nation’s airports, and some tough decisions to make about where to put them.

“They’re really having a struggle,” he said, with some airlines saying they don’t expect to return to normal operations until 2023 or 2024. “There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this.”

This is true, he said, not only of airlines, but of airports.

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable,” Dillon explained. “This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region. It’s a concern of ours not only for today but as we look to the future — what damage we’re doing to our relationships to airlines as well as their view of this market.”

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is easier when terminals are less crowded, as they are now.

For this issue’s focus on transportation, BusinessWest spoke with Dillon about how Bradley is navigating an unprecedented business challenge, and why it’s important to keep investing in the future, because the future is where this story really gets interesting.

Shifting on the Fly

Even before COVID-19 was a thing, Dillon often spoke about how Bradley was constantly competing on two levels: with Logan and the New York airports for passengers, and with every airport in the country for those precious aircraft assets. On thar front, Connecticut’s mandatory quarantine isn’t helping.

“Airlines have to be in locations like Boston and New York simply because of the population and business volume. But airlines have alternatives in terms of not having to serve Bradley and still serving a good portion of this market area,” he explained. “I don’t think it would serve the area really well without us, but an airline trying to skinny down as a result of cost-cutting measures could very well look at it that way.”

The more pressing issue in 2020 has been plummeting demand, of course. “If we don’t have passengers coming through the airport, airlines cut back, we don’t get airline fees, and no one’s here utilizing concessions, parking, renting cars, all the businesses here. When your business is off 75% to 80%, you have a corresponding drop in revenue. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Dillon said Bradley was fortunate to receive some financial assistance from the CARES Act, which allocated $10 billion to airports across the country. Based on the allocation formula, Bradley received $28 million, which sounds like a lot of money, he went on, but to put it in perspective, that covers about three months of operating expenses and debt service. And the pandemic-related travel slowdown is now well into its sixth month.

“We are fortunate that, as an airport authority, we did create what I consider some healthy reserves, and we will rely on those reserves to some extent, but it wouldn’t be prudent to exhaust our reserves,” he said, noting that they impact bond ratings, among other things.

Bradley did institute a hiring freeze, not replacing most employees who chose to retire this year, and has cut department budgets by 10% to 20%. The CAA is also looking at further measures, including a voluntary severance program.

“It is a goal of ours to try to prevent involuntary severances,” Dillon said. “We don’t want to get to a place where we’re talking about layoffs. For now, that’s off the table. We tried to make a commitment to the employee base — first and foremost, to protect their health, and second, to protect their paycheck. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge.”

About $20 million in capital projects are on hold as well, but some are moving on, including an airport-wide restroom-renovation project that should be complete by October, and features a largely touchless experience with sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and more. These features were planned well in advance of the pandemic, but Dillon said travelers will appreciate them more now.

“People want a safe, healthy, clean environment, and we try to deliver that the best we can,” he noted. “Folks think differently about hygiene in public places now; they have different expectations.”

Other protocols in place at Bradley include the expected: mandatory face coverings, more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts at high-touchpoint areas, plenty of hand-sanitizer stations, signage detailing physical distancing rules, and plexiglass shields in high-passenger-interaction areas.

Some airlines have committed to limited capacity on planes as well, Dillon said, citing Southwest and Delta as two examples. And the airport is developing touchless kiosks where travelers don’t have to interact with an agent or touch the screen to activate the ticketing process.

Bradley’s restrooms

A major renovation of Bradley’s restrooms, including many touchless features to discourage the spread of germs, began well before the pandemic.

“The key for us is to keep differentiating ourselves from our larger competitors,” he told BusinessWest. “We want people to understand that Bradley is going above and beyond in terms of sanitizing and cleaning the facilities. And Bradley might represent a better option because it’s less congested. We’re going to keep highlighting to the traveling public why Bradley is a better alternative.”

View from the Ground

Again, however, all these efforts are blunted by the fact that considerably fewer people are traveling, and Connecticut is making it difficult to do so.

Airlines are struggling too, Dillon said, sending 135-passenger planes into the sky with only 25. And, like airports, they’re all having internal discussions about the future. Bradley’s five-year contract with carriers expired in June, and with no airlines in a position to sign another five-year deal, they opted for one-year extensions.

But even had longer-term contracts been in place, he explained, “I think a lot of people don’t understand how an airline agreement works. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee you full revenue coming in, because airlines pay revenue in large measure based on landing fees. Airlines can have a presence and pay rent for space, but they’re not required to operate a certain number of flights. If you have carriers cut operations in half, the landing fees we get are then cut in half from that carrier.”

As a difficult, uncertain year continues to unspool, there are a few bright spots, especially progress on a $210 million ground transportation center — expected to be fully operational in late 2021 — that will house car-rental services, expand public parking, and incorporate public-transit connections.

“All that money had been bonded prior to the pandemic, so we’re committed to the project,” Dillon said. “It will really transform the look of the airport and our operations. People who haven’t been to the airport recently will be surprised by the magnitude of the project and how it’s transforming the space out there.”

In addition, cargo business at Bradley has remained consistently strong. “I believe one factor is that people are staying home and doing a lot of online ordering, so we’re seeing small-package delivery — UPS, Fedex, and Amazon — all increase at the airport,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the revenue profile of cargo is much different than passenger traffic, as the bulk of the revenue at any airport comes from the passenger side of the house. But I appreciate that cargo is doing well right now.”

After all, in a year of startling setbacks, any good news is welcome. But what airports need now is clarity — and for people to get back on planes.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I’m convinced that, by working smart and having employees work smart, we’ll be able to get through this. But it will be a balancing act for a while.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Uncharted Waters

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

It’s safe to say 2020 has been an unpredictable year, testing the ability of all businesses to be nimble. Matt Sosik thinks banks are passing that test.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change,” said Sosik, president of bankESB. “So we’re used to it. It’s not always visible from the outside, but culturally, we were very well-positioned to deal with the pandemic.

“The unique thing was that it just seemed to happen so fast. It was zero to 60, and you can’t always move at that pace,” he added, noting that bankESB is part of a family of three different banks with almost 500 employees. “But we pivoted as fast as we could.”

Part of that was recognizing that many customers were suddenly in turbid financial waters, and needed help. So, early in the pandemic, all banks were doing what they could to help them, whether that meant deferring mortgage loans for a few months or guiding businesses through the hastily assembled Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

“We had a customer-centric focus, which meant helping people navigate payment-related financial issues — at least the financial issues in their lives that could impact their ability to pay us. We did modifications for a lot of folks; we could foresee this was going to be a problematic situation for them. We got out front of it early and tried to alleviate that one piece of stress at a time when so many aspects of life were stressful. We did millions-of-dollars-worth of modifications for customers in the Pioneer Valley.”

Business customers, especially ones forced by a state mandate to shut their doors, were facing similarly dire issues, Sosik said. “We were also doing PPP by the truckload. It was uniquely challenging for us because it all happened at once.”

Such efforts have impacted banks’ bottom line, said Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB), noting that about 15% of mortgage and commercial loan customers took advantage of deferral programs, resulting in an impact of $900,000 from an accounting perspective.

“Everyone else seemed to be in good shape — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t see this totally ending until there’s some sort of treatment or vaccine that’s really effective. That being said, things are slowly reopening, and Massachusetts has done a pretty good job keeping infections down.”

And community banks were an important part of that, he said, noting that those loan deferrals, plus costs related to the shutdown and investments in safety protocols in order to reopen, have contributed to GCB being about $1.5 million behind where it would normally be.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change. So we’re used to it.”

“It’s going to be a profitable year, but a lot leaner. It’s going to be a challenge,” Tucker went on. “What worries me is what hasn’t risen to the top. We did the payment holiday, but now that the unemployment supplement is gone, and companies rightsize — a lot of them were paying people but couldn’t keep it up forever — I think, until we have a vaccine, we’re looking at a very difficult 2020 and 2021. We’ll be solid; we’ve put a lot of reserves aside, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Loan Stars

There are some positive signs in the economy, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which launched in Springfield last year. He participates in a group of bank CEOs, and on their last group call a couple weeks ago, most said they were pleasantly surprised that, at least on the commercial-loan side, customers who had deferred loan payments had largely returned to their normal payment schedule.

He noted that bank stocks have been “beat up,” as the analyst community didn’t like the idea of deferring principal and interest. “But the overall, totally unscientific trend I’ve seen is that people are pleasantly surprised with how businesses are coming back.

“From our standpoint, we see a lot of growth; businesses are making plans again,” he went on, conceding that New Valley doesn’t yet have a huge portfolio to manage.

Meanwhile, the housing market and stock market are doing better than anyone expected three months ago, he noted, which contributes to an overall mix message when GDP was down 30% in the second quarter and unemployment rose to 16%. “These are troubling numbers, and from a community-bank perspective, we hope it doesn’t turn into a haves-and-have-nots recovery, where the rich get richer and more people get left behind.”

Tucker said demand for loan deferrals has been way down, and banks are now pivoting to help businesses with the forgiveness-application phase of the PPP.

“We did about $18 million worth of PPP, which for us was a lot because most of our loans were under $250,000,” he said, noting that GSB handled about 280 such loans. “It was about a year’s worth of work in a month. Like a lot of banks, our staff was working nights and weekends.”

Sosik added that the waters surrounding the PPP forgiveness phase are still a but murkey and could use some clarity from Congress so the forgiveness path can be clearer. “If people are unclear about forgiveness, they don’t want to spend the money, so it doesn’t get out into the economy.”

At the same time, he added, banks are also being cautious when it comes to growth plans.

“It’s a time to be careful, but at the same time it’s been a very successful year,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve grown a lot this year, but we’re obviously looking forward, expecting continued economic challenges, and our job is to be here for many years. There are times to push hard and run fast, and times to slow that down and be cautious.”

Still, banking leaders are pleased to have made the investments they did in online and remote banking models, Tucker noted, while holding up his smartphone. “Our fastest-growing branch is this. That’s a reality.”

“Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks.”

But while the number of GCB customers using remote banking is 25% higher than before COVID-19, branches still serve a critical purpose, he added. “We’ve seen a lot of people realize we are invaluable to them. When they had problems with their mortgage, they can deal with one person and not get shuffled through a lot of bureaucracy. That’s a plus.”

While branches are still necessary, he went on, they’re different than they used to be; the recently opened South Hadley branch is 1,800 square feet, less than half the space the bank used to set aside for new branches. But he doesn’t foresee any closures, aside from two Amherst branches, about a mile apart, that recently consolidated into one.

“Some banks are using this time as a trigger to say, ‘OK, we’re going to close these branches,’” Tucker added. “We’ve chosen not to do that because there’s enough disruption for customers as it is.”

Sosik noted that bankESB has invested a lot of money in the remote infrastructure and platform. “The technology works seamlessly, and the adoption was good. We were looking for a catalyst we could use to push it and have customers really start enjoying the technological advances. We didn’t expect it to come from a pandemic; we didn’t want it to come from a pandemic. But the pandemic absolutely pushed people to use it.”

That said, “we totally believe in the branch part of the overall delivery system, and we’re still investing in branches,” including one recently opened in Amherst. “But they’re much different than the ones we built a decade ago, or even five years ago. There’s still a need for a branch; customers still want that. Even if they don’t need to be there, they still like that someone they know and trust can work with them when they need it.”

Here for the Long Haul

Whatever the model, the presidents BusinessWest spoke with all believe in the work community banks have done and continue to do during a very difficult year for so many.

“We believe in it,” Sosik said. “Everyone who works for a community bank does it because we love that part of it. If you look at any successful New England town, you’re going to find a locally managed, if not locally owned, community-type bank at its economic center”

While banks still grapple with the impact of not only loan deferrals but ultra-low interest rates, they’re still in strong shape, he added.

Sullivan agreed. “Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks. Banks are healthy and have lots of capital. And hopefully we can turn the page soon and get back to normal lending.”

Tucker doesn’t know what shape the recovery will take — a U, a V, or the one he feels is most likely, resembling the Nike ‘swoosh’ logo, with a long, gradual ascent to normalcy.

“But we’ll do fine, and we are doing fine,” he said. “There’s just a lot of pressure on the margin with rates as low as they are and all the unknown with COVID.

“I’m very optimistic, though,” he added. “Businesses are doing OK. Yeah, a lot of them are struggling, but we see a lot of small businesses trying their damnedest. And we’re trying to support those businesses. We’re here, and we’re going to be here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]