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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]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Plot Thickens

Even in a normal year, Feb. 29 is an odd date to open a business.

“We really won’t have an anniversary for another four years,” Thomas Winstanley, director of Marketing at Theory Wellness, joked about his company’s third cannabis dispensary, which opened in Chicopee on that leap-year date almost six months ago.

Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and a couple weeks after opening, Theory closed its doors as part of a statewide shutdown of ‘non-essential’ businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least,” Winstanley told BusinessWest. “We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

When dispensaries were eventually allowed to open, it was only for medical marijuana at first, while the vast majority of business — recreational sales — remained shut down.

And now?

“It’s dynamite,” he said. “A lot of money is coming back to the market, and our team hasn’t missed a step since coming back — and we’ve seen the team continue to grow. We’ve come back a lot stronger.”

The line that forms outside the shop each morning testifies to demand that certainly didn’t go away during the weeks when product was unavailable.

It’s a story taking shape across the state, with cannabis businesses continuing to launch and grow even as the pandemic still rages and the economy nowhere near returning to its 2019 condition. Take Holyoke, for example — a city whose leaders fully embraced the cannabis trade from the start, and where two more businesses opened in recent weeks, Canna Provisions on Dwight Street and Boston Bud Co. on Sargeant Street.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least. We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

“I’m not going to lie — I was very nervous as the economy took a downturn,” said Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, about the cannabis hub city leaders have worked to cultivate, one that now includes a handful of cultivation, production, and retail businesses, with more on the way. “Oddly enough, we haven’t seen a significant stoppage in stores’ actions at this point. I can only speculate why that is.”

One reason, quite simply, is that some sectors do better than others during recessions. Marrero compared it to when prohibition was lifted during the Great Depression, and smart entrepreneurs immediately saw the long-term (and pent-up) demand for alcohol, even during tough economic times.

Theory Wellness in Chicopee

Theory Wellness in Chicopee closed in March just a few weeks after it opened, but customer traffic has been solid this summer.

“Today, we have a very robust alcoholic-beverage industry,” he said, reflecting demand that has never subsided over the decades. “So I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about cannabis in that regard.”

Another apt comparison is the financial crisis of 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy were coming apart — a different story than in 2020. “Now, the economy is tanking because there’s no consumption, and the labor force is contracting.”

Those investing in the cannabis sector, however, are looking beyond that; they know demand for these products is likely to remain high — no pun intended — in the long term.

“This may be as good an investment as anything,” Marrero said. “We’re still seeing investments going forward at the local level; it’s a very positive outlook, even during the pandemic.”

Creating a Pipeline

The proliferation of cannabis businesses across the region, with the promise of more to come, means jobs, and that potential isn’t lost on area colleges and universities.

First, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) announced the creation of the Cannabis Education Center last fall, to provide education, training, and other business resources to individuals in the region who want to work in the cannabis industry.

HCC and C3RN are designated training partners through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s (CCC) Social Equity Vendor Training program, which was designed to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to populations and communities that, traditionally, have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

Soon after that, American International College (AIC) dipped a toe into the sector by launching a three-course certificate program called Micro-Emerging Markets: Cannabis, offering an overview of cannabis entrepreneurship, business operations, and law and ethics.

This fall, AIC is launching a master’s program in Cannabis Science and Commerce — with a one-year online program or a two-year hybrid model — that takes a deeper dive into preparing students to work in this field, said Jennifer Barry, AIC’s director of Continuing Studies and Special Projects.

She cited some striking statistics — 15% job growth in the legal cannabis industry in 2019, $404 million in legal cannabis sales in Massachusetts that same year, and 245,000 full-time-equivalent jobs created nationally by early 2020 — to explain why the program is necessary.

JENNIFER BARRY

Jennifer Barry

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth. The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth,” Barry told BusinessWest. “The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

To that end, the program will be taught collaboratively by faculty members, cannabis-industry professionals, and occasionally guest lecturers, either in person or by video.

“We’re taking the academic rigor of an AIC course normally taught by faculty members and keeping it current and relevant by pulling in industry experts,” she explained, noting that classes cover topics from law and policy to the chemistry of cannabis.

“It’s hard for people who work full-time in the cannabis industry, which is such a demanding field, to make time,” she added, but quickly noted that they recognize the need to create a pipeline of talent in the region so the sector can continue to grow and avoid a skills gap. In that way, she noted, this master’s program is a win-win — helping graduates access a solid career while helping area businesses grow.

“That’s the real benefit of our program,” Barry continued, noting that it’s the first program in the U.S. that blends business, science, and the legal aspects of the trade. “What we’ve found, speaking with cannabis professionals, is you have to understand the chemical components of the plant to be prepared to sell it, package it, speak about it intelligently in the field.

“That’s why we have a chemistry course, and one that talks about cannabis from seed to sale, how it makes it through the pipeline, giving students a broad understanding of the process. Then, through individual courses, they can dig through each individual element.”

The goal, again, is to support both opportunities for job seekers and business growth, and Marrero sees elements of both in Holyoke’s enthusiastic adoption of the cannabis sector. He said Holyoke officials don’t “game the system” with host-community agreements, trying to squeeze as much from license applicants as possible. Instead, it’s a standard template that can be approved in a day.

“The CCC does its due diligence on businesses; we regulate things like land use and how businesses are integrated into the community,” he said of the city’s approach to license approval. “For us, it’s been about how to create jobs, how to help businesses get into the cannabis industry.

“It’s about creating a cluster,” he went on. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make it smooth, to work with industries to create a cluster. What it gets us is more than the sum of its parts; it’s how many jobs are created by these companies — and we have a dozen already special-permitted.”

Those services run the gamut from plumbers and pipefitters to security, delivery services, cleaning services, lawyers, and more.

“Any new company produces opportunities for other types of other businesses, and those businesses have to employ people. It’s that economic contagion that’s also attractive,” Marrero explained — one of the few times one might hear the word ‘contagion’ these days in a positive light.

A Social Contract

Winstanley said Theory’s experience setting up shop in Chicopee went as smoothly as it could have, considering the built-in rigor of the process, especially at the state level.

“We’ve always known there were a lot of policies in place at the state level and the local level. It’s a long process,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want to make sure we get it right and operate in ways that are beneficial to the local population, and we want to make sure to set an example for what legal cannabis should look like in this day and age.”

One way Theory — which also has locations in Great Barrington and Bridgewater, and employs about 200 people in its cultivation, manufacturing, and retail divisions — does that is through the kind of social-equity program the CCC made a point of emphasizing.

It recently accepted applications from ‘economic-empowerment’ applicants as designated by the commission and will select a qualified applicant to partner with, guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur through the process of opening their doors, from financial assistance to professional services to zoning and regulatory hurdles.

That financial commitment will total up to $250,000, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of 0% interest debt financing, with $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment, providing a boost of capital to help get the operation off the ground. Theory will also connect the successful applicant with professional services like banking, legal, insurance, and HR.

“This is something we felt really strongly about,” Winstanley said. “We felt it’s the future of the industry, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get into it.”

Barry is well aware of the social-equity component as well, saying it aligns with AIC’s mission to provide access and opportunity to a diverse student population.

“Each course will have a social-equity component; students will get exposure to the business through the lens of social equity, and by the end of the program, they’ll be entrenched in how we can potentially undo some of the disproportionate harm done in the past, while creating a workforce that meets the needs of the industry.”

Because, again, the opportunities appear to be increasing.

“They’ll build a network of professionals they can use as resources as they create their careers, whether they start out working for someone else or start their own business,” she added. “They’ll know it’s not limited.”

That’s true in Holyoke right now, where the next site to open will likely be True Leaf, located near the Holyoke Dam, Marrero said. “They’re a pretty sizable operation — they would be the biggest in Holyoke by square footage, and they’re near completion of construction.”

Winstanley said Theory learned a lot from its original store, in Great Barrington, the first dispensary to open in the Berkshires. Now, competition is springing up across Western Mass., but he says the company still has plenty of room to grow.

“It’s not only the growth of our company, but the significant tax revenue that’s definitely needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re just really happy to see cannabis is back, and hopefully we can continue to contribute, and the industry will provide some much-needed life in these strange times.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19

A Temporary Setback

Several weeks of good news about COVID-19 infections in Massachusetts were no reason to party. In fact, parties were probably a bad idea.

Citing a proliferation of large parties as one likely factor in Massachusetts’ recent uptick in infections, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a temporary pullback of the state’s reopening efforts.

On Aug. 7, the governor not only postponed the second stage of phase 3 — affecting a range of businesses that cater to groups of people — but called for increased enforcement efforts to crack down on violations of the state’s COVID-19 regulations.

Postponing the second stage of phase 3 means theaters and performance venues still can’t hold indoor shows, and activities like laser tag, roller skating, trampolining, and obstacle courses remain on hold as well. Businesses expecting to reopen in phase 4, such as bars, overnight camps, and arcades, will obviously remain closed as well.

Baker also signed an order reducing the limit on outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people, while the limit on indoor gatherings remains at 25 people. Face coverings are required at gatherings where more than 10 people from different households will interact.

On Aug. 7, the governor not only postponed the second stage of phase 3 — affecting a range of businesses that cater to groups of people — but called for increased enforcement efforts to crack down on violations of the state’s COVID-19 regulations.

The local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business called Baker’s decision to pause the state’s reopening “extremely disappointing,” adding that, “instead of delaying the opening of certain businesses, many taking every step imaginable to keep workers and customers safe, the administration should pursue the private gatherings that are causing the problems.”

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts rose nearly 25% between July 29 and Aug. 5, and new COVID-19 infections are once again outpacing recoveries. As of last week, there have been 8,519 deaths and 112,673 cases reported by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive, on average, is down slightly at 1.8%.

In other guidance, Baker reiterated that restaurants may serve alcoholic beverages only for on-site consumption if accompanied by orders for food prepared on site. The administration will take measures to ensure that bars masquerading as restaurants will be closed.

The administration also announced a targeted, cross-agency team responsible for ramping up enforcement statewide and coordinating local intervention efforts at the local level in higher-risk COVID-19 communities. Those supports will include:

• Targeted interventions and inspections by a range of member agencies;

• Cease-and-desist orders for businesses and organizations in violation of the COVID-19 orders;

• Support for local and state officials in exercising their authority to fine restaurants or suspend or cancel liquor licenses when restaurants do not comply with required safety measures;

• Targeted public messaging (like road signs and PSAs) to alert residents of higher-risk COVID communities;

• Technical support to local government officials to support enhanced local COVID-19 prevention efforts, such as assistance in accessing CARES Act funding;

• Potential restrictions or shutdowns for parks, playgrounds, businesses, or other entities believed to be contributing to COVID-19 spread in higher-risk communities; and

• Additional public-health support, such as testing, tracing, and quarantining.

Additionally, previously announced free COVID-19 testing in 17 communities, including Springfield and Agawam, has been extended through Sept. 12.

Finally, a travel order, which went into effect Aug. 1, stipulates that all visitors and residents returning to Massachusetts from high-risk areas must either quarantine for 14 days or produce negative COVID-19 test results upon return into the state.

Individuals who have not received test results prior to arrival are required to quarantine until they receive a negative test result. Violators may face a $500 fine per day.

States considered lower-risk, and thus exempt from the travel order, include Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Other exemptions to the travel rules include people passing through, people who commute across state lines for work or school, and people coming to the state for medical treatment or military purposes.

Rhode Island was initially exempt from the travel order, but is now considered a higher-risk state. Still, Baker said people on either side of the border may make trips back and forth for errands or work.

— Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Step Inside

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford, owners of Cornucopia in Northampton.

For Dave DiRico, the forced shutdown of retail outlets across the Commonwealth in March could not have been more ill-timed.

After all, late March is when many golfers, a good number of them armed with gift certificates from the holidays, start filing into his store in West Springfield, DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, and reload for the coming season. They come in looking for new clubs, balls, bags, shoes, and other accessories.

And they keep coming in through the spring, said DiRico, noting that, aside from the holidays, March, April, and May are by far his busiest months.

But not this year, obviously, as he was closed completely until early May and then open for curbside sales only — something this business isn’t really suited for — for several weeks.

But when he did reopen … well, the surge in business might not make up for everything that was lost during the shutdown, but it has been significant and in many ways surprising. Indeed, in addition to what could be called pent-up demand — people who needed to reload and had to wait until he was open to do so — the pandemic has actually created a mini-explosion of interest in golf, because it’s one of the few sports that can still be played under the current restrictions and advisories on social distancing.

“Things took off … it’s been crazy,” DiRico told BusinessWest. “One of the few outdoor activities you can have right now is golf; we have kids who were supposed to do internships and can’t, and they’ve taken up golf. We have kids who played baseball and summer sports and couldn’t play those, so they’ve taken up golf. We have spouses who’ve never played the game who have taken up golf.

“Couple that with our regular business,” he went on, “and June and July have taken off like a rocket ship.”

Nate Clifford has also navigated the ups and downs of shutting down and reopening at Cornucopia, the natural-foods store he and his wife, Jade Jump, own at Thornes Marketplace in downtown Northampton. They were among many shop owners who had to shift their business model on the fly to survive the past few difficult months.

“Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

In fact, March 15, the day they and all the other Thornes stores shut down, was the couple’s one-year anniversary of buying the 40-year-old establishment. Though sales of food and wellness products may have made Cornucopia an essential business in the state’s eyes, Thornes made a decision to shutter the whole complex, and that meant Cornucopia, too.

“We understood, but we made an impassioned plea to the landlord to give us some access for pickup and delivery, with the goal of helping people, especially the older population around here who need us,” Clifford said. One day later, on March 16, they were back in business with that new model.

“We put a simple order form up on the website and told people, ‘you shop here; you know what’s here — what’s your wish list, and we’ll get the best possible order for you.’ We delivered, or you could pick it up and we’d run it out to you, put it in your trunk or in the passenger window, whatever you were comfortable with. We did that for three months, and we were overwhelmed with the support we got.”

That support was certainly reflected on June 15, the first day shoppers were allowed back in the store itself. “We had such a rush of people, I had to step into the back room to shed a few tears,” Clifford said. “I thought, ‘we’re going to be OK.’”

Unfortunately, not all retailers can say the same thing. They’ve seen some pent-up demand, to be sure, but 2020 is turning into a very challenging year as many shoppers are staying home, cutting back on their spending (or both), and doing most of their buying online.

Still, retailers are happy to be open again, even if the long-term outlook is mixed, and consumer confidence remains uncertain.

One Step at a Time

Sharon Cohen, who has owned Footbeats for Women at Thornes for the past four years, noted that, without college students and tourists from out of town, business is slower than is typical for this time of year, but customers are returning steadily. She’s happy to see them, especially after instituting the safety measures mandated by the state — and by common sense.

“We’ve revamped the way the store is laid out to promote social distancing,” Cohen said. “Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

After Thornes was shut down in mid-March, Cohen launched a website so customers could still purchase her shoes, and, like Clifford, she delivered to peoples’ homes. Every Friday afternoon, she used Facebook Live to talk about shoes in stock and offer commentary on trends and new styles.

“I’d pick them off the displays on the wall and talk about them. Customers would text and ask questions about cost or size,” she said, noting that she will likely continue that practice. “We tried new, inventive ways to meet the customers.”

In the store, she tries to strike a balance between customer needs and safety; for example, when customers try on a pair of shoes, if they are leather and cannot be sanitized, the shoes are put in quarantine for 24 hours, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says a mini-explosion in the popularity of golf has helped offset some of the huge losses incurred when his shop was shut down by the pandemic during the spring.

Thornes management has instituted many new protocols and equipment, including iWave ionizing air filters that heighten air quality, foggers that sanitize the building nightly, and door monitors at each of the two open entrances to ensure that people entering wear masks and sanitize their hands. The complex also installed hands-free door openers on bathroom doors.

“Thornes has done a lot to prepare for our opening, and we continue to stay educated and follow safety protocols,” said Richard Madowitz, the marketplace’s co-president. “We are receiving consistent positive feedback from shoppers on the cleanliness of the building and their comfort. We are providing a safe environment.”

All shared tables and chairs on the building’s second and third floors have been removed, and directional arrows on the floors separate traffic and promote social distancing.

“Signage is everywhere,” Madowitz stressed. “Each store is managing its state-mandated capacity count, and Thornes itself is managing the state-mandated capacity counts for its common spaces without shops.”

“I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Mask compliance is high, at 99%, he noted, adding that “masks are not required for those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing one.”

Despite what he calls a “vocal minority” making waves nationally about mask wearing, Clifford said his customers have been respectful of the mandate.

“We’re dealing with people who have health issues, and I’d say the average customer spending big amounts is over 50, getting supplements, taking to our expert staff. We want them to feel safe,” he told BusinessWest. “For those folks who don’t want to wear masks, even for legitimate reasons, we still have pickup and curbside. But I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Visitors to Holyoke Mall are greeted with a similarly wide range of mandates, from face coverings and six-foot distancing to directional arrows and guidance to wash hands, use sanitizer, and avoid touching products unless purchasing them, said Lisa Wray, the mall’s director of Marketing.

In return, the mall has enhanced its cleaning and sanitizing of the common areas and numerous touch points, restrooms, seating areas, and food court, and the cleaning team is utilizing new electrostatic sprayers, leveraging the same technology used to clean hospital rooms, using an approved disinfectant recommended by the CDC. In addition, Holyoke Mall employees, security, housekeeping staff, and contractors undergo daily health screenings.

Sharon Cohen

Sharon Cohen says she used online outreach and a sales website to stay afloat during the shutdown.

All those steps were necessary, Wray said, to not only bring customers back, but make them feel safe upon return.

“Having our tenants close with thousands of employees and their livelihoods impacted is certainly difficult; however, the safety and well-being of our guests, employees, and tenants is of primary importance,” she told BusinessWest.

“We have been seeing guests steadily return to the shopping center, and even with reduced occupancy, tenants have been seeing strong sales,” she added. “With the back-to-school season upon us and the sales-tax holiday weekend at the end of August, we’re hopeful the months ahead will continue to trend positively. We’re cautiously optimistic that the fourth quarter will continue to ramp upward, as guests adapt to this new way to shop.”

Warning Signs

That optimistic view isn’t shared by the entire retail industry. Just last week, two businesses at the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — announced they were closing, unable to stay afloat after the forced pandemic closure and an inability to procure business aid from either the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the city’s Prime the Pump grants.

Meanwhile, on a national level, Tailored Brands, which owns suit sellers Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, is closing hundreds of stores and drastically reducing its corporate workforce as the pandemic continues to decimate the retail industry.

GlobalData Retail recently noted that year-over-year sales of men’s formal clothing fell by 74% between April and June, and not just because stores were closed. “While this deterioration will ease over time, demand will remain suppressed for the rest of 2020 and well into 2021 as office working, business meetings, and socializing are all reduced.”

Fortunately for DiRico, the pandemic has done the opposite in the golf sector, creating some opportunities in the form of new players who need equipment — with many of them using stimulus checks to buy it. But there are challenges as well, starting with shortages of stock caused by closure of factories and then restrictions on capacity.

“Our biggest problem right now is getting equipment,” he explained. “That’s because most of our manufacturers are based in California, where only 40% of the factory is open, which means they can only produce ‘X’ amount of clubs for the world; it’s slow in getting equipment.”

Other challenges include the many the new rules and protocols regarding social distancing and sanitizing, he went on. Still, for the customer, things are pretty much business as usual, meaning they can still try on shoes or gloves and take a few practice swings with a driver in the simulator.

‘Normal’ is not a word that comes to mind when describing operations or this year in general, but overall, the surge the game has seen will certainly help make 2020 less forgettable, DiRico went on, and it offers considerable hope for the future — if those who have taken up this difficult, expensive, and time-consuming game can find a way to stay with it.

“For the past 15 years or so, golf has been on the decline,” he said, listing cost and time among the big reasons. “Now, some of the pros I’ve talked with say they’re booked solid; they have tee times from 6:30 to 4. And membership at the country clubs is up. If these clubs can retain just 15% of these new golfers, they’ll be in good shape.”

For Cornucopia, the pandemic offered an opportunity to build an online, pickup, and delivery presence it might not have otherwise, Clifford said — one it will continue to maintain, opening up new business avenues.

“We were thrilled to be able to pivot to that quickly. That’s one thing Jade and I do well, being flexible and doing whatever we need to survive. We’re resilient, and now that we have a strong foundation, if we were ever to experience another shutdown, we’ll be able to continue the cash flow.”

These days, sales volume isn’t what it was on reopening day on June 15, and won’t be until colleges are back in session. “That’s when you normally see more foot traffic; July is not a busy retail time,” Clifford noted, adding that a weakened tourism season isn’t helping, as even visitors to the Berkshires often make their way to downtown Northampton for an afternoon. “That’s not happening right now.”

But he’s cheered that all the Thornes businesses are open seven days a week. “That has caused a lot more consistency in the shopping experience, when the stores are open and welcoming people and wanting them to come in and physically shop.”

And hoping that extended shutdown is a thing of the past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

The idea of doctors and patients communicating across a distance, via a video connection, is not a new one, Carl Cameron notes. But COVID-19 “opened the floodgates” to making it a reality for millions.

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived,” said Cameron, chief operating officer at Holyoke Medical Center (HMC). “And the governor came out and said, ‘look, for televisits and the phone, video, however you can get the visit done, and we expect the payers to pay for it like it’s an in-person visit.’”

So health organizations started doing just that. “We started with basic things like getting some iPads, getting some physician PCs set up, and then it was, ‘OK, what are we going to use for an application?’” Cameron said, noting that they started with a mixture of FaceTime, Google Meet, and a product known as Doximity.

“A lot of doctors are familiar with that; it meets all the security requirements of HIPAA in terms of being a secure channel,” he explained. “You basically send a link to the patient, and they just click it, and it creates the connection with the doc. It even uses a virtual telephone number for the doc, so it doesn’t have to be their actual cell phone. It’s a very easy process.”

Among the physicians pleased with the expansion of telehealth is Dr. Kartik Viswanathan of Holyoke Internal Medicine.

“Before the pandemic happened, we were seeing close to zero televisits. During the pandemic, we started doing televisits to reduce the number of people coming in. Infection was rampant, and at that time, we didn’t want people in the waiting rooms, and when seeing patients, we needed to be completely in PPE and masks.”

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived.”

So government did the right thing, he added, freeing up telehealth to be billed like a regular office visit. “Remarkably, it was very popular with patients. They loved it,” he said, noting that patients appreciated not having to drive to the office, and if a doctor was running late, it was OK, since they were at home. “They weren’t upset if they were 15 or 20 minutes behind.”

Cameron agreed. “We were using it wherever possible and where the government would allow us to get paid for it. Obviously, with COVID, nobody wanted to leave their house — as a country, we didn’t have a good understanding of how the disease spread; everyone was saying shelter in place, so people didn’t really want to go out.

As a result, practices saw significant dips in volume, he went on. “But as we put the telemedicine in place, I was eventually able to bring us up to just below pre-COVID numbers for office visits. We still had some patients, depending on the acuity, who needed to be seen in the office or the ER, but we were doing 75% to 80% of our visits via telemedicine.”

Viswanathan said having the distance alternative reduced anxiety in patients during a generally anxious time. “They were happy to see us. Even with COVID testing, people had so many questions, and just the fact they could speak with us, communicate with us, really relieved a lot of the anxiety for them.”

Carl Cameron

Carl Cameron says the technology needed for effective telehealth exists, and so does patient demand.

And now, with medical practices largely back open, albeit under strict safety protocols? “Televisits are here to stay,” he told BusinessWest. “As a provider, I find it convenient, and the patient finds it convenient. I think it will still be 20% to 30% of daily visits even after the pandemic is over.”

Pros and Cons

Viswanathan conceded that televisits aren’t the same as in-person visits, in a number of key ways.

“The challenges come when we don’t know the patients from before — when it’s a new patient we’ve never seen before. There’s a little discomfort level that I haven’t seen him. But for established patients and managing chronic illnesses, it’s just great,” he said.

“It can’t replace all office visits because we really need to see some patients — there are subtle signs we tend to miss if we’re seeing only through a camera. There are procedures we can’t do on a television. If they have a rash, that is not well-examined on television. Those are some challenges.”

Medical organizations have brought up technology access gaps as well, particularly among certain demographic groups. Health Affairs, an online publication of Project HOPE, recently reported that more than one in three U.S. households headed by a person age 65 or older do not have a desktop or a laptop, and more than half do not have a smartphone. While family members or caregivers can help, one in five Americans older than age 50 suffer from social isolation.

Access to technology is also a barrier in other ages and minority groups. Children in low-income households are much less likely to have a computer at home than their wealthier classmates. More than 30% of Hispanic or black children do not have a computer at home, as compared to 14% of white children.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward?”

Even on the provider side, organizations have work to do to fit telehealth seamlessly into traditional practices, Cameron said.

“We need to continue to beef up the infrastructure so that it allows for effective management of both televisits and in-person visits, so that the physician can be flexible,” he explained. “They can take a laptop, go into a room, do a normal visit with a person, do their documentation, and then, for televisits, go slide it into a docking station where they have two monitors up; they’ve got the documentation and can see the patient at the same time, right in front of them.”

Like other trends that evolved on the fly during the pandemic, like remote work (see story on page 22), telehealth may have served its purpose well during these chaotic months, but to make it a permanent fixture will require planning.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward? With the efficiency and effectiveness I saw with our practices, this is absolutely a tool we can continue to develop.”

One of the evolutions in Cameron’s organization may be a move toward expanding the use of Doximity, perhaps in conjunction with the Meditech web portal, where parients can schedule a telehealth visit on the latter, and the link is sent via Doximity.

“It’s not like the technology isn’t there, and it’s going to continue to evolve and move forward,” he went on. “But what’s made it a reality is now, you can get paid for it, and there’s some funding out there to beef up the infrastructure.”

Peace of Mind

While primary care and certain specialties are making strong use of telemedicine, behavioral health has been a particularly fertile field. The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) began using its own platform, called TeleWell, through its BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center in January, just before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S.

Through TeleWell, clients could connect remotely with a clinician, recovery coach, or prescriber for varying times and frequencies.

“The response from the community has been positive, with many individuals requesting the ability to continue receiving services utilizing TeleWell in the future,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations.

“The flexibility of MHA’s TeleWell best matches the ability of individuals to receive services, while also in a location of their choice, in which they are comfortable,” she added, noting that client feedback suggests a growing role for this model in the future. “The adaptive world of today has been a benefit to the critical to needs of tomorrow.”

MHA recently announced $13,333 in grant funding provided by Baystate Noble Hospital to advance Well Aware, an information and education initiative that aims to raise awareness of the availability of telehealth services to help people dealing with the challenges of opioid and substance use disorders in the Greater Westfield area.

“The ability to connect via TeleWell can be of critical importance for people who cannot partake of services in person due to the COVID-19 crisis, a lack of transportation, or concern about the stigma often associated with seeking help,” said Kimberley Lee, vice president of Resource Development and Branding for MHA, adding that TeleWell can be an important bridge to enable people to receive the care they need from the safety of their own homes, and that, for people with opioid and substance-use disorders who either wish to enter into recovery or are already in recovery, being able to keep regular appointments with a counselor is critical for them to achieve success in staying sober.

“This is especially important during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended our society and created a new normal of social distancing,” said Ron Bryant, president of Baystate Noble Hospital. “This practice has resulted in large numbers of people who feel isolated from their families, their circle of friends, and their normal life’s routine. This in turn can result in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty, all of which can be addressed through behavioral-health services.”

It’s not just behavioral-health professionals saying telehealth offers an easier and less anxiety-ridden experience, one that makes it more likely patients will keep their appointments. Cameron reports the same trend at Holyoke Medical Center’s practices.

“One thing we found was our no-show rates dropped dramatically,” he said. “It’s pretty easy for the patient. They’re notified at home, and all they have to do is connect. They don’t have to go anywhere.”

As offices reopened to the public, he continued, “we’re probably a mix now of 60% in office, 40% telemedicine. So it’s shifted a little bit, but our goal is to continue to push it as a tool for the providers because, in certain cases, it’s more efficient and effective. It’s actually quicker for the patient and provider.”

Cameron doesn’t expect demand to be an issue, especially as more patients try out a remote visit, he said, noting that a couple of family members recently scheduled televisits and were surprised how easy and effective a visit could be without having to go to the office.

“There’s a push by the state and the feds to keep this in place as a tool to connect with patients. There’s been a push to extend it, make it permanent as a way to get paid, and at the full rate of an office visit. There are definitely enough patients out there who want this.”

Generation Gap

Viswanathan agrees that patients have adapted to the technology. Even older patients, who might not be comfortable with technology, have responded positively when a family member or visiting nurse has shown them how to access it. “When they see the benefits and ease of using it, their acceptance just shoots up.”

Most physicians like having the option as well, Cameron said, noting its potential in on-call situations, when a doctor can send a patient a link and get connected quickly.

“It’s a great tool that gives us much more flexibility. So I don’t see this going away,” he told BusinessWest.

As COVID-19 cases subside, some practices are going back to seeing most patients in person, he noted, but HMC continues to reinforce the use of telehealth. “This is a tool we want to use for the right visits. We want to make sure we give the option to patients. And, as we beef up the technology around it, docs like it.”

One reason, Viswanathan said, is it opens up a practice’s business to patients who may live farther away than they’d like to drive on a regular basis. He also foresees a day when community centers are equipped with telehealth ‘booths’ where patients can transmit their information and be connected to a doctor.

“It will never replace a visit,” he added, “but I think there’s going to be so much innovation around this.”

Part of Cameron’s job will be to continue to educate providers on how telehealth can be an effective tool.

“We still have older docs not accustomed to using all the technology. Back in ’07, EMR was a challenge. Now we’re asking them to do person-to-person visits via telephone or video,” he said. “So I think we’re still early in the process, but I’ve seen tremendous benefit to this that I don’t think is going to go away. And our plan here is to continue to educate, build the technology around it, and make it easier and more efficient for our providers and the whole system.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the top priority before reopening Springfield Museums was making sure both visitors and staff would be safe.

“Kissing Through a Curtain” is an exhibit of 10 contemporary artists, dealing with communicating and translating across borders, how people interact, and the meaning behind words. It was hung at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in March, a few days before the museum closed due to COVID-19 — and there it has hung, dormant, ever since.

“The curator of that exhibit recently changed the introductory text to note that the questions the exhibit asks feel even more urgent now than they did three or four months ago when the exhibit was originally scheduled to open,” said Jodi Joseph, the museum’s director of Communications.

Visitors have agreed, she added, citing a conversation she had with a family of regulars from Boston the week museums were allowed to reopen to the public.

“Heading out, the mom in the group said, ‘oh, gosh, it has so much more meaning now,’” Joseph told BusinessWest. “That’s truly contemporary art. It reflects our time and what we’re going through.”

What museums have been going through is nothing to celebrate. Shutting down for almost four months is a financial strain for any cultural attraction, no matter how large or small.

“For many smaller museums, the financial impact has really been catastrophic,” said Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, adding that her organization was fortunate to receive not only a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but generous contributions from a private donor and a foundation to help get through the past four months.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that.”

“It was an agonizing decision to shut down. At the beginning, we thought it would be for three weeks, and we’d be able to reopen,” she said, adding that conversations with other museums, followed by Gov. Charlie Baker’s shutdown order in late March, made the actual picture much clearer.

“It was really hard. It has just been an experience like no other,” she said. But thanks in part to the PPP loan and those donations, “we were able to sustain our operation through the closure. And now we’re reopening, but it’s on a limited basis. We’re very, very concerned about making sure this is a safe environment for our employees and our volunteers, as well as our visitors.”

It’s important they feel safe and return, Simpson added, if only because of what this set of museums means to the city and region.

“They’re unique and can’t be replicated at other settings — it’s an incredible complex that has served the city of Springfield for more than 160 years and is constantly evolving,” she said. “It attracts people of all ages and all backgrounds, engaging in learning experiences alongside each other — it’s a place where people come together, and it’s joyful and also educational.”

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

Not that it was easy getting to that point, of course. Museums across Massachusetts had to adhere to very specific guidelines outlined in phase 3 of Baker’s economic reopening plan, as well as their own sense of what visitors needed to feel comfortable enough to return.

Both Simpson and Joseph outlined measures at their facilities ranging from signs reminding people to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay six feet apart to plexiglass barriers and one-way directions at certain areas.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that,” Simpson said, noting that one nod to the new reality is the Yop, a Dr. Seuss character but also a new cell-phone app packed with maps, scavenger hunts, and self-guided tours that lend some interactivity to the museums in a safe way.

“We anticipate families will be among first visitors, and older adults will follow once they feel more comfortable,” she added, noting, of course, that what we know about COVID-19 has evolved, and is no longer recognized as dangerous only to older people.

MASS MoCA

Jodi Joseph says the wide spaces at MASS MoCA make physical distancing easier than at many places where people gather.

“We took COVID-19 very seriously, and we’ve engaged in months of planning,” Simpson said. “Even though we were closed, our staff worked very hard behind the scenes. We had staff talking to other museums, sharing best practices, attending webinars and conference calls, reading CDC guidelines — all to understand how we can safeguard our environment. It’s not like a classroom setting; it’s not like a retail setting — it’s a very different set of physical environments that we needed to think about very carefully.”

In addition to the basic rules around masks and distancing, MASS MoCA visitors who experience fever-like symptoms while at the museum are asked to self-identify to staff, and to enable contact tracing, should that be necessary, all ticket buyers are required to provide contact information and names of everyone in the party — both ways to prevent isolated infections from becoming community problems.

That said, the galleries themselves are massive — “we measure our gallery space by the acre here,” Joseph said — but high-traffic areas like stairwells are now one-directional, the entrance and exit have been separated, and the admissions desk has moved outside, accepting no more than 75 timed tickets every half-hour to keep crowds at state-mandated levels.

The museum, at one point, was considering five different scheduling plans for those galleries, which were gradually whittled down to one plan as the reopening date became more crystallized. Joseph credited state Sen. Adam Hinds and Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, for keeping the museum abreast of what was happening at the state level.

“As guidance about the hospitality and tourism sectors started to come down in late spring, we had a pretty good sense of when we’d be open, and we were able to come up with an exhibition calendar that made sense,” she explained.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences.”

Like many museums, MASS MoCA has a long exhibition cycle that’s planned out well in advance, so most installations were ready to go this month. Meanwhile, the museum staged its first concert last week, for an audience limited to 100 — including staff — in a space that can typically pack in 4,000.

For the region’s live-music scene, it’s a welcome start. MASS MoCA alone usually hosts performing-arts events 40 weekends per year, and about half its resources go toward supporting the performing arts, mostly emerging artists.

In short, it’s tough when everything shuts down.

“MASS MoCA is a landlord — we have between 30 and 40 tenants on our 16-acre, 28-building former factory campus,” she noted, and a core group of employees remained on site to manage them, but also reach out virtually with daily ‘art moments’ — “like a greatest hits of MASS MoCA, some fan-favorite exhibitions. We wanted to remind people how great it would feel to be back here, walking these halls, reflecting in the galleries, taking in performances on our stages all across campus.”

It was in many ways “an excruciating few months,” she added, yet the museum staff was inspired at times, too.

“Visitors kept in touch not just with donations, but with deeply felt personal messages telling us how much MASS MoCA means to them, or sharing landmark memories from their own lives that have taken place within these walls,” she told BusinessWest. “As our hearts were aching from being closed and dealing with all the daily troubles of the world, we were also reassured by all the gratitude and appreciation folks were showing the institution, even though we weren’t able to welcome them inside.”

That said, Joseph was thrilled to see more than 1,000 people arrive on opening weekend. “Everyone who showed up said things like ‘thank you, I’m so glad you finally opened’ and ‘I’ve been dying to get back here.’”

Virtual Lessons

Springfield Museums stayed connected to fans as well by bolstering its virtual museum offerings online, Simpson said, from online classes to video demonstrations of collections and exhibitions, to staff videos showing parents how to do activities with their kids at home.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences. So there is innovation that has come out of this,” Simpson said. “Out of something that no one wanted came positive results that can help shape what we do in the future and help us be better.”

That said, she was quick to add that “we strongly believe having people come down to the museums and engage in on-site experiences is really what we do well, and it’s our greatest contribution to our community and people who come to us from all over the region — and across the country and all over the world.”

She’s confident they will come from afar again, though it might take some time. “We might need a vaccine or successful treatments before people feel really confident about being together in the way they were before the pandemic.”

Joseph knows they’ll return, too, whether it’s to see art, like “Kissing Through a Curtain,” that shines a light on today’s world, or, conversely, to get away from reality, especially when that reality has been living in isolation for months on end.

“We want our institution to be a place of respite and a place where people can reflect on their shared experiences — and a place to escape, if that’s what they need. Leave the cares of the world behind and take a moment to be with art. That was our great hope when we reopened the doors.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

Critical Condition

Guy DiStefano

Guy DiStefano says the non-urgent procedures that were shut down in March typically support the rest of what hospitals do, leading to major revenue shortfalls this spring.

Back in March, when COVID-19 was just starting to crest, hospitals took steps to brace for a potential surge of patients. But while COVID-19 surged, revenues slowed to a trickle.

“Early on, we realized we needed to build capacity for a surge of patients so we didn’t get overwhelmed like they did in New York City, so we shut things down early in March — which blew a hole in everybody’s finances,” said Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health. “We’ve been gradually returning to prior operations. We always remained open, of course, but it was only a week or two ago that we resumed more elective kinds of cases.”

Many hospitals are doing the same, but the overall losses to the state’s hospital industry are, as Keroack put it, “staggering” — expected to total between $5 billion and $6 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. “It’s a big stress test, if you will, for hospitals. And some have been hit more than others.”

All area hospitals have taken a financial blow.

“This has been very challenging, with the reduction in services,” said Guy DiStefano, vice president of Finance at Mercy Medical Center. “All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

At the same time, he added, “we still have all our expenses in place, just like any other business. Look at restaurants — the doors were closed, but they still had rent, utilities, all the other expenses, and the employees.”

Through May, Mercy saw a $25 million reduction in revenues due to pandemic-related reductions in services — and plummeting volume in the ER, a development that surprised hospital officials nationwide. At Mercy, daily Emergency Department cases dropped from a typical average of between 225 and 250 to around 100 to 120.

“Those slowly crept back up — we’re at 150 to 180 on a daily basis, so we’re not at full capacity, and there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Our business is coming back, but we lost a lot of revenues.”

“All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

Joanne Marqusee, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said the hit has been significant. Through May, the facility recorded a loss of $18 million, partly due to COVID-related costs, but mostly because of lost volume. That number would be worse if not for $5.5 million in federal support.

“But that in no way covers our losses,” she added, noting that Cooley Dickinson Health Care could see a revenue shortfall of well above $30 million for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have,” she went on, noting that service hours could be temporarily curtailed in some services, while employees making more than $26.50 per hour will forgo raises for the time being.

While that move shaves some costs while protecting lower-paid employees, it doesn’t make nearly enough of a dent, Marqusee noted. “So we’re looking at ways to further reduce expenses. But the work we’re doing already will certainly have an impact.”

DiStefano said Mercy has also had to take steps like furloughs and reducing hours to mitigate the losses. “We did everything we could to help employees keep their benefits in place. But employees are the number-one cost of a typical hospital — about 50% to 60% of the cost structure.”

Holyoke Medical Center has been losing roughly $6.5 million per month since services were curtailed back in March, President and CEO Spiros Hatiras said. But the community hospital did take some steps early on to gird against the damage.

“We were probably the first hospital in the area to furlough folks; we didn’t hold off because we saw it was absolutely important to be financially viable because we don’t have a parent company to spot us money,” he told BusinessWest, adding that many furloughed employees took advantage of the $600 federal boost in unemployment and wound up bringing in more than they did while working.

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns not because of the revenue issue, but because patients shouldn’t forgo necessary care.

“That helped reduce expenses significantly,” he added, noting that almost 170 of 250 furloughed employees were back at the start of July, with another 80 to 90 expecting to return at month’s end. “Then MassHealth stepped in and allocated $11.8 million over four months to cover some of the losses, and we got a one-time payment from the feds of about $3 million. Add it all up, and through May, our losses were roughly $3 million — not insignificant, but we were able to survive it.”

Dollars and Sense

Baystate is surviving, too, Keroack said, emphasizing the importance the health system has not only on its 12,000 employees, but on the region, where it has an annual economic impact of some $4.2 billion.

When the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, he expects Baystate to have lost about $160 million in revenues due to volume losses, but the system was able to secure about $75 million in federal relief and another $23 million state aid.

“The rest of that will likely be covered by reserves,” he added, noting that Baystate is fortunate to have both reserve funds and a broad service model.

“The smaller hospitals that have cash-flow problems got hit very hard because they didn’t have much in the way of reserves, but the other group is bigger hospitals that are highly specialized, like Mass General, where their revenues really depend on that elective surgical volume. Hospitals that are jacks of all trades and have good size, like Baystate, were hit less hard. Not to say it was pleasant what we’ve been through.”

Calling a $160 million revenue loss a ‘less hard’ hit may speak in some ways to the financial clout of the healthcare industry as a whole; it’s certainly one of the Commonwealth’s key economic drivers. And as patient volume continues to ramp back up, hospitals will be on safer ground when it comes to budgeting.

“At Baystate Medical Center, we’re at 80% to 90% capacity, so I would say people are mostly back.” Keroack said, noting that, while patients are returning gradually for routine care and procedures, current volume is still affected by social-distancing and sanitization measures that have slowed the pace of treatment. “In the community hospitals, they’re a bit further behind — more like 60% of former volume.

“In the long run, the question is, will volumes be permanently depressed?” he went on. “We’ve tried to convince people you really don’t want to put off stuff you know is worthwhile — you don’t want to ignore symptoms that might be serious. We have seen a number of people lately whose illness is much more serious than it would have been in pre-COVID days.”

Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Emergency Department has seen a 100% increase from its COVID lows, during the height of the pandemic locally, when it was handling 35 to 45 patients per day. Now, ED providers are seeing 70 to 80 patients per day, which is still about 20% below the organization’s typical ED volume.

“We are seeing people with chronic illness who have waited too long to seek medical attention and are sick,” Emergency Department Nurse Director Sara McKeown said. “We have also seen an uptick in people seeking mental healthcare; patients presenting with substance-use issues and trauma are also increasing.”

Patient volume is bouncing back at Holyoke Medical Center and its community-based practices, but ED visits still lag, Hatiras said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard of people putting off heart conditions and other things, and that can lead to bad outcomes. People shouldn’t stay home with serious conditions.”

That said, “I don’t blame the government for being overly cautious with closing down elective surgeries,” he added, noting that the elimination of many procedures over the past two months was, more than anything else, about preserving beds to treat an unpredictable pandemic.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have.”

Now that the infection rate is being effectively controlled, he explained, hospitals are trying to communicate the message that they are safe places to visit — with plenty of strict protocols in place, from masking to social distancing to constant sanitizing — for patients who need to be seen.

DiStefano said the challenge has been ramping services back up — and bringing back furloughed workers — to match what is proving to be pent-up demand, but in a measured way. “It’s a delicate balance — how do we do this to best serve the community?”

It’s a long road back from the volume lows of the spring, when physician revenue dropped by 50. They’re now back around 65%, and inpatient beds are at about 80% of capacity. But people with serious health concerns should not put off care, he stressed, especially since the hospital has been diligent about infection protocols and keeping COVID-suspected patients separated from the rest.

“We take great pains to keep this environment safe,” he said. “The message to the community is, ‘if you are hurt, if you have a condition, this is a safe place to come.’” It helps, he added, to be affiliated with a larger system, Trinity Health, and while Mercy has rarely seen the kind of financial deficit it faced this spring, its leaders are still doing what they can to meet community health needs.

“We are the fabric of the community; there are no concerns about Mercy’s future,” DiStefano told BusinessWest. “We are going to be here for many years to come. Fortunately, we have the backing of a larger organization, and that helps a lot.”

Distance Learning

If there is an upside to navigating the pandemic, he said it might be the growing importance of telehealth, which became not just a convenient tool for providers and patients over the past few months, but a critical one — and one that seems to be on track to be covered by insurance payers in the future much more consistently than before.

“This has become more of a platform that allows us to reach out to patients,” said DiStefano, whose background in telemedicine goes back to the 1990s. “I hope it’s a bigger part of healthcare going forward. Obviously, you have to do some testing in the office, but you can do preliminary or follow-up appointments with telehealth, and that reduces the volume of patients in the waiting room and the physical office, which allows us to have a much cleaner, COVID-free environment to keep those people safe.”

In short, it’s a way to boost volume — and revenues — while making patients who do go to the hospital feel more secure.

Hatiras agreed. “We had to switch on the fly to do more telehealth, but what we saw was care being delivered even more efficiently,” he said. “We saw no-show rates completely drop. So it’s an effective way to provide care, and there will certainly be more pressure on insurers to reimburse appropriately for telehealth.”

Indeed, Marqusee added, “what has been stopping us from doing more telehealth has been reimbursement; I hope we never go back to the days when we were so underpaid for telehealth. It has been a terrific model.”

In the meantime, she sees volume slowly returning to Cooley Dickinson — perhaps reaching 90% of a typical season come October. “But the reason we welcome those numbers is because people need to get care — it’s not because we need the volume. We know from national studies and anecdotally that people have been afraid, and they’re forgoing care, and that can really have health impacts for people.”

That’s why her facility, like the others BusinessWest spoke with, is not only maintaining strict protocols around infection control, but is communicating what it’s doing with the community.

“People have to believe that and feel confident. It’s really important that people don’t stay home in pain with issues that will just get worse. People aren’t coming with heart attacks, or appendicitis, or they power through a head injury, and it turns out they had a brain bleed. People need to come for care, and they should know this is a place they can come and feel comfortable.”

Not so comfortable, however, that they neglect the behaviors that have reduced infection rates in Western Mass. and allowed hospitals to increase their non-COVID-19 services.

“We’re in a good place; there isn’t a high level of COVID in our community. But that can change quickly,” Marqusee said. “I want people to always remember the reason we have low levels of COVID is because of the efforts everyone is making to social distance, wear masks, and practice hand hygiene. We shouldn’t take the reopening as a sign they we don’t need to do those things, but to do it even more. That allows us to provide needed care to all our communities.”

Keroack says he expects some patients to enthusiastically return to care providers, while others will be stragglers who need more convincing — while others will continue to embrace telehealth as the best option.

“We may not return to our former volumes until we have a vaccine and everyone feels totally comfortable,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it’s going to be a process.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pandemic Lessons

Rich Kump

Rich Kump says the pandemic has forced people who had been reluctant to bank remotely to give it a shot.

It’s the wave of the future, Rich Kump said — and the COVID-19 pandemic simply cast that wave in sharper relief.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch,” the president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union told BusinessWest. “We’ve been educating our members for three years, trying to move them out of the branch, and there’s still a percentage of America who just likes to everything in person. You need to take a thoughtful approach; you can’t force people into it … although COVID did that, to some extent.”

A widely held vision of the bank (or credit union) branch of the future — one shared, to some degree, by other local banking leaders we spoke with — does indeed promote robust online and mobile tools for routine business like deposits and withdrawals, leaving less traffic in branches, but a greater percentage of that traffic given over to more complex or consultative matters.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch.”

And many people who have long resisted online banking are singing a different tune, said Paul Scully, president of Country Bank.

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology,” he noted. “An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

In most cases, it’s just a matter of breaking old habits, Scully said — “and old habits are comfortable habits. But I think people are becoming better acclimated to technology and getting over their fears. There are still people who think, ‘I have to go into the bank to make that transaction because what if the money doesn’t get there?’ But as an industry and as a bank, we’ve been able to alleviate the concerns some people have.”

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed.

“Banking in general is going to change. The stuff you need to do is the same, but how you’re going to do it will change,” he said, noting that lobby traffic has been declining for years, and what was already a high adoption rate of mobile tools only accelerated over the past three months as banks closed lobbies to most routine business. “People are starting to realize it’s probably more secure, so they’re getting more comfortable. It’s also way more convenient.”

And gaining momentum in these shuttered times.

“Customers realized they really can do all their banking online,” Scully said. “We’re no different than Macy’s or Amazon. You realize you can sit down with your laptop or phone and purchase something from a retail outlet, and you can also do your banking that way. People are becoming more comfortable with it — so we need to keep upgrading and enhancing it.”

That’s not all they’re doing. Banks and credit unions, despite a much higher reliance on drive-up lanes and mobile platforms lately, never really closed during the pandemic, and while they continued to serve customers — in some cases, helping them navigate sudden financial hardships — they were also learning lessons and conducting internal conversations about where the industry is heading and what the bank of the future should look like.

Some were discussions that had begun years ago but, again, were suddenly cast in sharp relief as the wave known as COVID-19 came crashing down.

Staying Connected

People have been starved for human contact, Kump said. He knows that from UMassFive’s call center, as calls over the past three months are 25% longer, on average, than last year.

“A lot of it is, people just want to talk,” he noted. “Yes, they call for a reason, but then they want to talk. It’s a bit of a community.”

Bolstering the call center was one of the success stories of late March, which he recalls as a tough time.

“I don’t think anyone was ultimately prepared for this; we were scambling,” he said, explaining that many retail personnel in the branches began covering the phones, often from home. “Within two weeks, 70% of our staff was working from home. That’s when the chaos evolved into routine.”

Like the other institutions we spoke with, UMassFive didn’t close completely, staying open by appointment for services that couldn’t be done remotely, from notary signings to certain loan closings to instant-issue debit cards. The week Kump spoke with BusinessWest, the credit union was operating a soft opening of sorts before announcing a shift to walk-in business.

“Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

Day recalls a similar experience.

“In that first week, everything was shutting down, and people were saying, ‘you’re a bank. You can’t shut down,’” he said. But Florence transitioned to drive-up service where possible while witnessing an expansion of remote banking — as well as phone-call volume that was up 100% early on.

“We helped a lot of people transition to mobile and computer options. People have used the drive-ups. We opened the lobbies for people who needed to do something in person. We went out to cars in some cases,” he recalled. “You couldn’t come and go as you wanted, but we never really closed. If you called and the only way to do something was in person, we did it in person.”

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says shifting most employees to remote work was one of the smoother transitions necessitated by COVID-19.

Still, the sudden, in many ways forced expansion of remote banking is just an extension of where the industry was already headed, Day explained. “We had already seen trends toward online, mobile, people doing much more on their computers and phones. The pandemic just really accelerated that.”

Scully said the transition to employees working remotely was one of the easier shifts.

“It wasn’t that difficult for us. We had all the technology in place that allowed us to immediately have all our non-branch staff working remotely, literally overnight. So that fell into place nicely for us; we didn’t miss a beat. Business was never impacted.”

For example, he said Country processed about 450 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans remotely, while Zoom calls and Webex meetings became the order of the day. It has worked so well, in fact, that non-branch employees will continue to work from home until Aug. 31, even as branches begin opening up this week, which is a boon for parents still uneasy about — or unable to access — camps and day-care services.

“We closed a day or two before other banks, just recognizing what was happening, and moved people to drive-up or leveraging technology,” he said, noting that lines were sometimes long, but customers were able to access the services they needed, in some cases using interactive teller machines (ITMs) at two locations.

“We’ve walked a lot of people through the technology, and the customer care center reached out directly to help them. We had curbside service at some locations, and we also used that as an opportunity to talk about technology.”

Branch of the Future

All this enhanced technology goes hand in hand with what many banking leaders say is an evolving role for branches.

Branches are certainly needed, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is opening a new branch on the ground floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield this summer. Like every other area bank branch, it will stress pandemic safety, with a mask requirement, six-foot distancing, and glass partitions between customers and employees.

But it will also reflect a move toward a role for branches that emphasizes financial wellness and consultative services more than routine business.

“That’s going to be the bigger component of what a community bank does — trying to help people navigate a lot of things,” he explained, before adding that there will be plenty to navigate in the coming year, when more customers than usual will be struggling to achieve stability. “Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

The bank of the future will put greater emphasis on this consultative role, through personal interaction that can’t occur online.

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology. An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

Kump said UMassFive has eliminated tellers — or, more accurately, it has eliminated branch employees who handle only that role. Instead, employees are trained to be “universal agents,” able to tackle multiple roles, from traditional teller business to loans and other matters.

To achieve that, the credit union has tripled its training budget over the past few years, seeking to identify not only financial skills, but empathetic personalities with a real desire to help people.

“The face of banking is changing permanently. Branches in the future won’t be as critical, with fewer transactions coming in. But they will always be needed for key parts of financial life,” he explained, citing anything from home and auto loans to opening memberships to simply seeking financial advice.

“We won’t need the huge teller line anymore. We won’t need as many branches, and the services we’re providing in the branches are changing, he added, noting that customers are also discovering they can conduct routine business face to face — sort of — through ITMs. “Someone could be at the Northampton drive-thru, talking to someone working from home in Belchertown.”

That raises the question of how many workers need to be on the premises, both while COVID-19 is still a threat and afterward, considering how effectively operations have continued during the pandemic.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person. If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

“From a back-office standpoint, about half are working remotely,” Day said. “Can they continue to do that long-term? Yes, but there’s still the human element, and people can feel isolated. Feeling part of a team is important to some people, while some people are loners. But technology is certainly giving us some options.”

And the bank, which recently broke ground on its third Hampden County branch, this one in Chicopee, has certainly been discussing those options.

“More transactions are going online, but when you want to talk to a person to problem solve, especially with more complex transactions, that can certainly be done over the phone — and has been during the pandemic — but the way we’ve designed our branch of the future, there’s more consulting. If you want to come in and consult, we’ll talk to you — a lot. So frontline people will still need to be there to handle questions and solve problems.”

Getting Through the Pain

In fact, banks and credit unions never stopped solving problems over the past few months. Scully said Country, like other banks, was able to accommodate deferrals of loan payments for individuals who has been furloughed or were generally dealing with greater financial stress.

“I felt like this was a watershed moment,” Day added, noting that more than 200 mortgage borrowers and 200 commercial borrowers took advantage of three-, six, or 12-month deferrals, the latter being the most popular option. “Having been through downturns in my career, I knew that we needed to give people some time. People are resilient, businesses are resilient, but they needed some time. So we worked with residential and business customers on deferred payments.”

Kump said UMassFive issued forebearance on nearly 1,000 loans for people who were “furloughed or just worred,” as well as launching a small-loan program for those who just needed a little cash. “If you were furloughed, that didn’t change the decision to make a loan for you.”

That was in addition to PPP loans, which the credit union approved for members and non-members in the community alike, 96% of those loans issued to employers of five workers or fewer. It also looked for other ways to support community needs, such as donations to food banks and organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, as well as donating meals to first responders.

Although those needs still exist, banks and credit unions are beginning to get back to normal operations, expanding branch operations under enhanced safety protocols — “it’s a great time to be in the plexiglass business,” Scully said — while considering the lessons learned during the months when most business was conducted remotely.

“Was there frustration at first? Absolutely,” he added. “At first, people were like, ‘what do you mean, a bank is closed?’ But as every industry started to close and people started working remotely, people began to understand.”

After all, a bank that saw a fire ravage its headquarters in 2008 and a tornado rumble through its home region in 2011 has no problem posting social-distancing reminders and directional arrows and getting back to branch business. “This is bigger than a tornado,” Scully said. “The lesson we’ve learned is to always be prepared and remain nimble.”

Even as it moved from a soft-opening week to broader branch service — where walk-in traffic is allowed but appointments are still advised to reduce the wait — Kump marveled at how the credit union’s members have adjusted to remote business. Especially new members, 90% of whom have been joining online, compared to 40% to 50% in a typical year.

“There’s a percentage of customers who will still be reluctant to walk into a business,” he added. “We’re seeing that with restaurants opening and people still not coming.”

It helps, of course, that many have discovered the power of digital banking.

“For a lot of folks, it’s generational; they’ve been intimidated by technology, of depositing a check with a picture on their phone,” Kump continued. “Now they’ve been forced to do it, and they’re asking, ‘why was I taking time out of my day to run over to the credit union to get cash or transfer money? I don’t have to do that.’”

Day also expects people to keep using those tools, but for those ready to return to the branch, even for matters as basic as depositing a check, they’ll do so protected by masks, shields, and any number of other precautions. “The pandemic isn’t over, and people are still going to get sick. We want to keep people safe.”

Bottom Line

Usually, when BusinessWest talks to local banks and credit unions, it’s about their own business outlook for the year ahead, but this is not a typical year, and talk of asset growth and loan portfolios has been pushed aside to some degree by the need to simply stay afloat — and keep customers afloat, as well.

“The outlook is generally positive, but it will not be without pain,” Day said, speaking for both Florence Bank and its customers. “We know it will get better. It’s just a matter of when.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield, which is developing plans for a September opening.

Magic Wings is a year-round operation, Kathy Fiore said — even when its doors are shut.

“This is different from a clothing store,” said Fiore, who co-owns the butterfly conservatory in Deerfield with her brother. “When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

And that means expenses that don’t disappear when no visitors show up — which they haven’t since the facility closed to the public in mid-March, part of a state-mandated economic shutdown in response to COVID-19.

“We kind of saw it coming, and then it just happened,” she said of the closure. “As owners of the business, we’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat and assure our staff, assure our customers.”

As for when Magic Wings will be allowed to reopen, phase 3 looks most likely, which means very soon. But the state’s guidance is only one consideration. The other is keeping visitors safe and helping prevent a viral flareup in a region that has effectively depressed infection rates, as opposed to states like Florida and Texas that were more lax about regulating crowds — and have seen cases spike in recent weeks.

“When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

“My brother and are watching how things are going,” Fiore said. “We’re certainly watching other businesses open back up, but we’re also hearing about the resurgence in certain places, about people getting together and going right back to a situation we don’t want to be in.”

Historic Deerfield, which shuttered its buildings to the public a few weeks before the start of its 2020 season, doesn’t expect to reopen most of them until September.

“We had a lot of different challenges and things to figure out,” said Laurie Nivison, director of Marketing, explaining why the organization’s leadership isn’t rushing back before they feel it’s safe. “Just thinking ahead to when it might be possible to open again, we decided to move some bigger things to the fall. The fall season is always a big time for us. That’s when people start thinking they want to come to Deerfield, so we said, ‘let’s look at opening around Labor Day weekend.’”

Losing an entire spring and most of summer is a considerable financial hit, of course, and the center was forced to lay off dozens of staff. But at the same time, it has looked to stay relevant and connected to the community in several ways, including putting a series of ‘Maker Monday’ workshops online, taking a virtual approach to teaching people how to stencil, make their own paper, or building a decoupage box, to name a few recent examples.

Meanwhile, museum curators have been sharing plenty of interesting artifacts from the collection online, while the director of historic preservation recently took people on a virtual tour of the attic of one of the historic houses.

“People never have the opportunity to do that, so that was great,” Nivison said. “We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

Many Franklin County attractions, especially of the outdoor variety — such as Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East in Charlemont, where people can engage in ziplining, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities — are already open. But indoor attractions face different challenges and are on a different reopening pace, due to both state guidelines and their own sense of caution.

But a wider reopening is the goal, as area tourism officials consider the region a connected ecosystem of activity that draws visitors to take in multiple sites, not just one. In short, the more attractions are open, the more each will benefit.

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

Because it’s an indoor attraction, Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen until she’s confident visitors will be safe.

“We’re talking a lot about how we can convince visitors to come back when the time is right because there’s so much outdoor fun you can have here,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “We have hiking, cycling, fly fishing, regular fishing, walking trails — there’s so much opportunity for things to do here that are perfectly safe and healthy.”

Safety First

Szynal was just scratching the surface when she spoke to BusinessWest. From retail destinations like Yankee Candle Village to museums, golf courses, wineries, and covered bridges, it’s a region that has plenty to offer, and attractions like Magic Wings and Historic Deerfield certainly sense anticipation among fans and potential visitors when they connect with the community on social media.

But they also don’t want to jump the gun and see the region turn into another Houston.

“It’s been a little unnerving, but from the beginning, my brother and I didn’t want to reopen until we feel it’s safe, even if the government lifts the regulations for businesses like Magic Wings. We don’t mind waiting it out a little bit to make sure everything is safe,” Fiore said.

“We normally can take in a lot of people, but we’re different because we’re an indoor facility,” she added, noting that Magic Wings will follow the state’s guidelines for social distancing, masks, and crowd count, while considering options like visiting by appointment as well. “We’re trying to think of all the different things we can do to make sure people are really safe but still have a pleasant experience.”

It helped, she said, that the conservatory procured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its staff paid, and now that reopening approaches, she’s hoping to get everyone back on the regular payroll. “We’re responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people.”

But the shutdown also posed an opportunity, she added. “It’s beautiful here — it’s in pristine shape, because we were able to do some cleanup things, different projects, that we don’t have the opportunity to do when we’re open every single day. We hope to welcome people back to a nice, fresh environment that’s better than they remember.”

While the museum houses of Historic Deerfield remain closed for now, the organization got a boost from the reopening of Deerfield Inn and Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern. The week she spoke with BusinessWest, Nivison said the restaurant already had more than 100 reservations lined up for the following week.

Those facilities will benefit from September’s museum reopening, but this fall may still look a little different than most, as tours may be limited — or be smaller, self-guided experiences — while outdoor tours may be expanded. Demonstrations of trades like blacksmithing may be moved outdoors, while the annual Revolutionary muster event, typically held on Patriots’ Day in April, will likely happen this fall as well.

“We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

“We want to be able to give a good experience to folks and really take advantage of all the outdoor things they can do,” Nivison said. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

One thing people aren’t doing as much as they normally would is getting married — with crowded destination receptions, anyway. Because Magic Wings is a popular spot for weddings and receptions, that was another significant revenue loss this spring and summer, Fiore said.

“Couples had to shift everything, and a couple bumped their weddings into 2021. One couple canceled altogether,” she told BusinessWest, noting that weddings already have a lot of moving parts, and couples are simply unsure right now how many guests they’ll be allowed to include until the state offers more guidance.

All Aflutter

That said, Fiore has been buoyed by the number of people calling since the closure. In addition to its social-media presence, Magic Wings also recently ran a television commercial featuring soothing sights and sounds inside the conservatory — to put a smile on viewers’ faces more than anything.

“It was an opportunity for people to take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing something totally new, and we’re all concerned and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen — what’s safe and what’s not.

“People love butterflies, and they do come see us from all around,” she added. “But they also want to know it’s not going to be a huge health hazard, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

“People are taking this seriously,” she said. “I see the masks. When people are out on errands, walking through stores, they’re giving each other space. As long as this behavior continues, people will feel better moving around a bit more” — and that includes visiting Franklin County attractions.

“I feel people respect this virus and respect each other,” she concluded. “So far, they’re taking the steps they need to keep Massachusetts on the right track.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County Special Coverage

View from Main Street

Diana Szynal

While economic activity is still slow, Diana Szynal says, she senses a resilient spirit in Franklin County.

Diana Szynal is encouraged by what she sees on Main Street in Greenfield as restaurants and retail continue to emerge from months of closed doors.

“I certainly see people making the changes they need to make,” she said, referring to Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance for how — and at what capacity — to open businesses safely. “We’ve seen these business making the effort to reopen and get their staffs back to work and welcome back their customers.”

But no one is fooling themselves into believing everyone is ready to go out again, said Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet,” she told BusinessWest.

“Realistically, things have slowed down, but I feel a very resilient spirit here,” she continued. “People in Franklin County are tough. And you see that not only in Greenfield’s downtown, but the area as a whole — downtown Deerfield, downtown Shelburne … I think you’re going to see them bounce back for sure.”

What will make the difference, she and other economic leaders increasingly say, is consumer confidence, which is being driven right now almost exclusively by health concerns — and that’s a good thing, considering that Massachusetts is one of the few states in the U.S. consistently reducing instances of COVID-19.

“For the typical consumer, making decisions about going out for the day or just going to a restaurant or retail shop, creating confidence is the key,” Szynal said. “And focusing on those [infection] numbers is really critical. That’s really how we’ll build confidence. Some people will take a little longer than others because they have different health concerns. But I think, if we can stay the course, we’ll be heading in the right direction economically as well as from a public-health standpoint.”

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) polls its 3,500 members each month to produce a Business Confidence Index that was firmly entrenched in positive territory for years — until it suffered the largest one-time decline in its history a couple months ago. However, it began to rebound slightly last month as Baker announced the four-phase process for re-opening the state economy under strict workplace-safety guidelines, and in the report due this week, it’s expected to creep up again amid positive news regarding infection rates.

“What makes this whole situation unique — and a little bit mystifying for employers — is that the economic situation is still being driven by a public-health situation,” said Chris Geehern, AIM’s executive vice president of Public Affairs and Communications. “Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet.”

That said, he told BusinessWest, “our members have been satisfied with the state process. It has certainly been a challenge to meet all the requirements, but for most employers, the big issue isn’t what the government tells you to do, but what you know you have to do to ensure that employees, vendors, and customers feel comfortable coming in. It’s going to be a slow recovery whether the government requires these steps or not because people won’t come to your restaurant if you haven’t taken the appropriate safety steps.”

Growing Optimism

Employers hope a timely return to business will allow them to re-hire some of the 1.2 million Massachusetts residents who have filed for unemployment since the onset of the pandemic.

“From a broad perspective, I’m not getting a super pessimistic view from anyone I’ve spoken to,” Szynal said. “Certain people are concerned — they’ve had to make some changes, and they’ve had some struggles. People don’t expect those struggles to end instantly. But people are pretty optimistic for the long term.”

Again, that likely depends in part on the public-health data remaining on a positive track.

“Employers are encouraged that Massachusetts has been able to moderate the number of new COVID-19 cases. We have said all along that the current economic crisis is being driven by the public-health crisis, and that’s what we see here,” Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors, noted in the latest business-confidence report.

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

“Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

AIM President and CEO John Regan added that Baker’s deliberate, four-phase plan has so far been an effective way to reopen the state economy in a safe and efficient manner.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim many lives a day in Massachusetts,” Regan said, adding that employers, “will in many cases need to reconfigure workplaces for social distancing and determine how to implement other safety measures, such as the wearing of protective equipment, continuing work-from-home policies, and ensuring the health of workers and customers.”

While AIM employers have been satisfied with the pace of the rollout, Geehern told BusinessWest, there was some frustration early on, particularly in the retail, restaurant, leisure, and hospitality sectors, which weren’t included in phase 1. “Some thought we should be moving faster. To be honest, I think the events going on down south persuaded most people that slow and safe is still the best way to do all this.”

He conceded that many AIM members are manufacturers, and they were able to return to work in phase 1 — and many were deemed essential workers from the start and never shut down operations. That partly explains why their business confidence has been slightly higher than non-manufacturers.

“They were, in fact, dealing with issues of workplace safety right along — processes like how to create six-feet separation, sanitize common areas, and monitor the health of people coming in,” he said. “This is something they’ve had a lot of experience with. For our group of manufacturers, it’s been a fairly smooth process.”

All Eyes on the Numbers

That said, Geehern noted that if COVID-19 cases began spiking and the governor paused or slowed the reopening, business confidence would clearly suffer.

“It’s still volatile and changeable, but I think it’s fair to say companies in general are satisfied with the pace of the rollout. Believe me, every employer in Massachusetts wishes Governor Baker could wave a magic wand and everything would go back to the way it was, but everyone knows that’s not the case.”

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence. That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

How schools handle students’ return this fall — and what that does to the child-care picture — is a factor as well, he said. “There are a bunch of different elements to the whole picture. They’ll all eventually become clear.”

Part of that clarity is the sad reality that some businesses will be left behind. According to one AIM survey, slightly more than half of companies that furloughed employees will want them all to return when they’re able to bring them back, but some said they won’t be taking any of them back, because they’re planning on going out of business or running a skeleton staff for a while.

“It’s going to be a slow recovery, but our members still think the fundamentals of the economy that existed in February still exist, and I think that’s going to help us,” he noted, adding, however, that leisure and hospitality, as well as mom-and-pop shops of all kinds — two types of businesses that are important to the Franklin County economy — are especially vulnerable right now.

Knowing all of this — the tentatively good health news and the more uncertain economic outlook — Szynal chooses to take the glass-half-full view.

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence,” she said. “That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Destination Unknown

John Doleva

John Doleva says the Basketball Hall of Fame still has a big, important year on tap, even if the schedule has shifted quite a bit.

As he talked with BusinessWest about his industry and his family’s hotel group, Kishore Parmar kept glancing back and forth between the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Hadley and the parking lot outside.

He did so with a look that blended something approaching disbelief — still, after roughly three months of the same view — with resignation.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is,” he explained. “If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

Instead, there would be maybe six or eight people staying in this 71-room hotel just off Route 9 that night. The lobby was empty. Just a few vehicles dotted the parking lot, all of which Parmar could identify as belonging to staff.

This view is a metaphor of sorts for what hotels have been experiencing since mid-March, something none of those in it have ever seen before. Business for the Pioneer Valley Hotel Group — which also includes a La Quinta by Wyndham in Springfield, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton in Hadley, Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow, and Hadley Farms Meeting House in Hadley — is off roughly 80% from what it was a year ago. And the numbers would be even worse if some first responders didn’t stay in these hotels in the early days of the pandemic.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing is that Parmar doesn’t know if, when, or for how long things will get appreciably better.

But while the view for all hoteliers in the region is similarly troubling, there are some signs of life in the broad tourism and hospitality sector. Indeed, many area restaurants are now open for outdoor seating, and a good number of them are creating intriguing spaces as they welcome back customers that have been relegated to takeout for more than three months.

Signs at the Hall of Fame

Signs at the Hall of Fame will use players’ wingspans to send a message about standing six feet apart — or, in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case, more than seven feet.

Meanwhile, some tourist attractions are moving closer to opening their doors. The state’s casinos are eyeing a late June opening — although MGM Springfield has not committed to a specific date — while the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is in the final stages of a $23 million renovation project, is targeting July 1 as its reopening date.

President and CEO John Doleva isn’t sure what kind of turnout that opening will boast, although he told BusinessWest the Hall will be aggressive in marketing what was supposed to be a high point in a year of many high points.

“In January, I sat down with the senior staff and said, ‘first of all, this is going to be the greatest class ever — Kobe (Bryant), Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. That was before Kobe passed away, which was pretty unbelievable,” he recalled. “On top of that, we had a 100% new museum, top to bottom, that was going to open up on May 1” — not to mention a commemorative coin from the U.S. Mint, to be unveiled at the Final Four in early April.

The coin was eventually released, but the Final Four was cancelled, the 2020 induction was moved into 2021, and, who knows what the July 1 grand opening will bring? But Doleva is optimistic.

“The good news is, all these things are going to happen; it’s not like we lost them. They’re just not on the time frame we thought they would be,” he said. “But we do feel that people want to do stuff — but how will they decide?”

That equation has surely changed in the year of COVID-19.

“People always ask, ‘what am I going to see, what does it cost, how far away from my house is it, and what kind of experience is it?’” he noted. “But kind of rising to the top is, ‘what kind of procedures and protocols does an organization have in place to ensure my family’s health and safety?’

“Safety is paramount at any tourism destination at this point,” Doleva added. “You’ve got to communicate not the traditional marketing of ‘we’re fun and we’re affordable; your family’s going to have a great time and talk about it forever.’ It’s also, ‘you can come here and feel safe — and here’s everything that we’re doing.’”

And that presents an opportunity in a region rich in attractions that are often taken for granted by locals. There are indications that, due to real concerns about traveling in anything but a car, area destinations might get a boost from those looking to take a ‘staycation,’ rather than typical vacation, and that includes visiting sites where they feel safe.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is. If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

But a host of challenges remain for this sector, and questions remain about everything from how hotels will serve guests breakfast to whether there will be a Big E — which benefits a number of businesses in this sector — and what that fair might look like. But as tourism lurches back to something resembling life, there’s plenty of hope in the air, too.

Animal Attraction

It was opening day at the Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center in Springfield — a full nine weeks later than usual — but Sarah Tsitso liked what she saw.

“People are definitely responding,” said Tsitso, the zoo’s executive director, as guests took advantage of a new timed reservation system that, at least for now, lets only 10 people in every 10 minutes, to promote social distancing. “It’s great seeing families and children so happy being out seeing the animals, and the animals are happy to see their friends come back. We close the first week of November. That’s a long time to be closed to the public.”

The key word is ‘public.’

“The zoo is open 365 days a year for the animals. They live here, and they’re fed and get vet care whether it’s winter or summer. We rely on the visitor season to generate revenue for the months we’re closed.”

Those nine lost weeks cost the center some $200,000 in revenues, losing not just gate receipts but educational programs, a robust schedule of spring field trips, and three major events typically held annually between March and July.

“That’s a pretty huge loss,” she said. “We’re still not sure what’s happening with summer camps, which would start around June 25. We’re not sure what that’s going to look like.”

Whatever shape the summer takes, it will be better than the waiting game to reopen, during which the zoo managed to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep staff working and developed the protocols now in place, from a mask requirement and sanitizer stations to additional barrier fences and a one-way path around the grounds.

“It was certainly challenging, but manageable,” Tsitso said. “The biggest change was probably the timed ticketing system. But we were quickly able to identify a system that works for us and get it up and functioning. We were just waiting for the green light.”

The light turned decidedly red for Peter Pan Bus Lines back in March, CEO Peter Picknelly told BusinessWest.

“We ran for a few weeks once the pandemic hit, but within two and a half weeks, sales declined over 90%. So we shut down for about eight weeks,” he said. “Shutting down was one of the hardest things we have ever done.”

When the buses did start rolling again earlier this month, making limited runs to major destination cities, Picknelly was pleasantly surprised. “Activity has been pretty good,” he said after the first week, adding that the second week was looking even busier. “There’s a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, and that’s what we help people do.”

One issue is that destination cities like Boston and New York are still reopening in their own way, and once the big cities fully open, he expects more of a rush. For now, the company is getting its “sea legs back,” he said, and making sure everyone on the bus feels safe.

Kishore Parmar

Kishore Parmar says the most unsettling thing about the pandemic, from the hotel industry’s perspective, is not knowing when business might get better.

To that end, Peter Pan has improved its contactless boarding procedures while introducing PermaSafe, a CDC-approved product that purifies passenger cabin air while making interior surfaces anti-microbial and self-sanitizing. The company also uses electrostatic handheld sprayers to sanitize and disinfect the buses every night. In addition, passengers are required to wear a face mask at all times, and employees have been issued personal protective equipment, including face masks and hand sanitizer.

“Here’s my theory — nobody wants to get sick; nobody wants to get someone else sick,” Picknelly said. “But nobody wants to be cooped up any longer, either. A lot of what we do is leisure travel, but people also have to travel for medical appointments, for school, for business. There’s not only a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, there’s also a need.”

But, they also need to feel safe, he said. “As time goes on, people will be more and more comfortable getting out. I’m confident this is going to end way sooner than people think. And I think any smart business person knows, if you want customers to come in — and come back — you’ve got to make them feel safe and comfortable.”

At the hall of fame, protocols in place for the opening include regular disinfection of all frequently touched surfaces, complimentary stylus pens to use on interactive touchscreens, an electrostatic disinfectant air-mist system, and … well, the list is frankly too long to detail all of it here.

“We’ll have the clean team out in the museum unlike ever before,” Doleva said. “People will see it in action.”

And it’s important they see it, he added.

“People are clamoring to get out. They’re looking for the safe places that are paying attention — but I definitely think there is pent-up demand.”

Some will want to be among the early visitors, he added, while others will take a wait-and-see approach. “It will be a short summer, but we are going to showcase the museum. This is a grand-opening summer, and everyone has the opportunity to come here.”

Room for Improvement

Parmar told BusinessWest that, for his group’s hotels, and most all facilities not in the shadow of ski resorts, winter is a slow, difficult time.

And what he fears is that, unless some things change, 2020 might take on the look of a 12-month-long winter in terms of occupancy rates and overall vibrancy.

“We might go from winter … right into another winter,” he said, adding that July, at this moment, doesn’t look much better than June, and the rest of summer and fall amount to a giant question mark.

The company has essentially seen its busiest season wiped off the calendar, losing college commencements, visits to area colleges and universities, business meetings, weddings, bridal and baby showers, and much more.

This certainly isn’t what the company was expecting in 2020, a year that began with hopes and expansion plans. Indeed, this is the first full year for the Homewood Suites facility, opened just over a year ago and off to a solid start, and there were plans to create a new hotel on the site of the old Howard Johnson’s on the Mohawk Trail in Greenfield and completely renovate the Roadway Inn in Hadley, which is currently closed.

That’s were. “We had a plate full for this coming year, and we were very excited about it, but then we had it all taken away,” Parmar said, adding that those projects have been put on ice, and the company is essentially trying to make the most out of what will be a trying year.

The company applied for and received a PPP loan and used it to bring its employees back to work after many were furloughed earlier in the spring. The problem now is that the money is running out, and business certainly hasn’t come back — as evidenced by the parking lot and the front lobby. Parmar said there is little if any leisure business at this point, and also little if any business travel, as companies continue to rely on Zoom meetings.

“We’re bootstrapped right now — we’re counting every penny, we’re counting every dollar,” he said. “We’re doing our best to reduce every cost there is.”

While hotels might continue to struggle, however, many in the tourism sector feel they will see more ‘staycation’ action than usual — particularly if out-of-state travelers are put off by Massachusetts’ suggested (but not required) 14-day quarantine when entering.

“If someone from Enfield wants to come to the Hall of Fame, they’re not going to take a 15-day trip to see a one-day experience. So that’s got to be clarified,” Doleva said. “I do think it is an impediment to tourism. People see ‘suggested,’ they think ‘required.’ So we’re hoping for some clarification because it affects us, and it affects hotels, restaurants, and other attractions.

Doleva said he never foresaw what 2020 would bring when he began a two-year term as board chair for the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau back in November. But he’s been impressed with the planning the GSCVB has done to hit the ground running once tourism ramps up again this summer.

“We have a very aggressive plan to advertise the region like never before, the attractions especially,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve never brought people together the way we are now. That’s a blessing in disguise — this is bringing the different factions of the tourism business tighter than ever.”

As chair, he also hopes elected leaders develop a greater appreciation of the impact of the tourism and hospitality industry and the numbers of people it employs, as well as the taxes it generates — and make investments in supporting tourism statewide over the long term.

“I think, if we look for the silver lining, this has caused us all to step back and focus on how we’re all interdependent, and when one improves, we all improve,” he added. “We know we have something special out here. It’s a nice place to visit, we’ve got a lot of things to do, and the industry is very focused on safety. Now we need to move forward together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Sticker Shock

Business-interruption insurance should be a simple idea to explain. But in the era of COVID-19, it has become a thorny topic.

“It is coverage that most businesses have as part of their insurance program; basically, it’s one of the key components to an insurance portfolio for a business,” said John Dowd Jr., president and CEO of the Dowd Agencies. “A covered loss is defined as physical damage to your property or on your property.”

He noted, as one example, a fire that causes a shutdown until repairs are made, with the insurance payout allowing the business owner to pay rent, taxes, and in some cases wages and benefits. “It also covers loss of property, which is a very important coverage.”

But not every event is covered, he noted, and that’s the rub lately among business owners who would like business-interruption insurance to cover losses from the pandemic-related economic shutdown — and lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are pushing to enshrine such losses in the coverage.

“Obviously COVID isn’t covered — the loss that triggers business interruption has to be the result of physical damage to the property,” Dowd reiterated. “The problem with COVID is that’s not physical damage; it’s a virus. It’s specifically excluded, like other transmittable diseases. The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

That didn’t stop 39 Massachusetts legislators from co-sponsoring a bill earlier this spring titled “An Act Concerning Business Interruption Insurance,” calling for business-interruption coverage for losses due to “directly or indirectly resulting from the global pandemic known as COVID-19, including all mutated forms of the COVID-19 virus.”

Moreover, the bill asserts, “no insurer in the Commonwealth may deny a claim for the loss of use and occupancy and business interruption on account of COVID-19 being a virus (even if the relevant insurance policy excludes losses resulting from viruses), or there being no physical damage to the property of the insured or to any other relevant property.”

The legislation applies to policies issued to businesses with 150 or fewer full-time employees, and insurance companies can apply to the commissioner of the Division of Insurance for relief and reimbursement of amounts paid on claims through a fund created by the act, subject to eligibility and reimbursement procedures to be established by the commissioner.

John Dowd Jr.

John Dowd Jr.

“The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

Such relief would be needed, as Dowd demonstrated with a little math. He noted that, if business-interruption insurance was triggered by COVID-19 for all businesses with fewer than 100 employees, the cost would be between $280 billion and $350 billion — per month. “Our collective surplus of all insurance companies is somewhere between $800 billion and $900 billion. In three months, the industry would be insolvent.”

Having said that, he noted that pandemic coverage is already available — a development that emerged over the past decade following SARS and other global threats. For example, the organization that operates the Wimbledon tennis tournament bought such a policy, which costs more than $1 million a year, but when this year’s event was canceled, the policy paid out $15 million.

Impossible Costs

State legislation is a different matter, of course, aiming to reshape the very nature of business-interruption insurance. New Jersey lawmakers proposed and defeated such a bill this spring, “presumably because they looked into the potential insolvency of insurance carriers,” Dowd said. “And if people can’t buy insurance, what happens to our economy?”

Carl Bloomfield, managing director at the Graham Co., a Philadelphia-based insurance brokerage, recently told Insurance Business America that, while more than a half-dozen states that have proposed this type of legislation, he doesn’t expect the bills to pass.

“Doing it through state legislation would be very detrimental to the country on a go-forward basis from the aspect of overturning centuries of contract law,” he noted. “If you start upsetting the precedent of contract law that’s been established for centuries, that creates a very dangerous environment for all businesses because there’ll be no certainty around something that’s in the contract today, but could be overturned in court.”

If the Massachusetts bill becomes law, constitutional challenges are certain, writes Owen Gallagher, publisher of Agency Checklists, a news source for the Massachusetts insurance industry.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill.”

The rewriting of existing insurance contracts, as proposed by this legislation, he notes, would raise constitutional questions under the U.S. Constitution’s contract clause.

“As members of a regulated industry, insurance companies have not fared well in contesting state legislative or regulatory action claiming a constitutional violation of the contracts clause. The United States Supreme Court has upheld laws impairing contracts based on a state promoting public welfare. However, this legislation may be one of the very few laws that fails that minimal test based on its blatant revision of existing insurance contracts for a limited class of insureds.”

The second constitutional challenge arises under the Constitution’s takings clause, which states that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation.

“Insurers have had some success contesting laws where a state’s regulatory mandates go too far and amount to a confiscation of property,” Gallagher notes. “In this case, the proposed law creates new obligations that take money from insurance companies and transfers it to small businesses that have suffered economic loss because of state action. It is difficult to see how these insurers would not have had their property taken for a public purpose in violation of the Constitution.”

Dowd sees the U.S. government eventually negotiating a coverage cap for pandemic events much like it did with terrorism in the years following 9/11. “The insurance industry is saying, ‘OK, in the future, we’re willing to participate, but we need a cap, like $250 million, which is the most the insurance industry can absorb for a pandemic, and everything over that, the federal government has to pay.’

“So they’re in the throes of negotiating that,” he said, adding that carrier involvement would likely be voluntary. “That makes sense, as a lot of the smaller mutual insurance companies don’t have nearly the surplus that the Travelers and Liberty Mutuals have. But a lot has to be sorted out.”

A Better Plan?

Dowd, who serves on the board of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Insurance Agents, said that organization backs an idea that would cast insurers in more of a support role to the government on pandemic claims as they relate to business interruption.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill,” he explained. “We think that’s a good idea, rather than throw out stimulus money to companies that may not need it, that may not experience a loss of income. Instead, we’d have people file, have their experience validated, and get paid based on need — not an assumption that every small business needs it.”

Such a plan is being considered in the fifth stimulus bill being kicked around in Congress, he added, which makes more sense than forcing insurers to cover for losses they never considered.

“We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay that financial bill. We’d be out of business,” Dowd said. “But if we can offer services at an agency level and carrier level, review the claims, and validate the claims, we think that has some merit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Breath of Fresh Air

Peter Picknelly, right, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, right, and Andy Yee, two of the co-owners of the Student Prince, stand in a crowded Fort Street a few days after the restaurant reopened.

Lisa Pac has been brewing beer for almost two decades, eventually growing a home-brewing enterprise into Skyline Beer Co., a restaurant, craft beer and wine bar, bakery, and home-brewing supply store in Westfield.

In December, she and business partners Dana Bishop and Daniel Osella realized a dream of moving into a much larger space in the Whip City — a 4,500-square-foot restaurant, tasting room, and 10-barrel brewery on five scenic acres. Early receipts were very strong, and things were looking up.

And then March happened.

“At first, when COVID hit, we shut down for a couple days and had to reassess what we were going to do,” Pac recalled, adding that they told staffers to give them a chance to figure out a plan to stay operational and keep them working. “It was scary — we didn’t know what all this meant.”

But a plan did emerge. Pac and her team went to work simplifying and streamlining the menu before launching a robust takeout business, among other activities.

“It gave us a chance to re-evaluate a lot of things. We had such a strong start, but we got the rug pulled out from under us, so we were chasing our tails. But we were able to catch up with the day-to-day stuff, the construction stuff. It gave us the chance to breathe a little bit and finish up projects we were doing. We also came up with some top-notch beer recipes.”

Most important, while Skyline had to lay off about a third of its staff, a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan allowed it to keep many employed, albeit with different responsibilities; servers shifted to production in the brewery, for example.

“The staff has been awesome, doing what they have to do to help us get here,” Pac said. “They were eager to work. Ever since getting the loan, we did it backwards — we have this staff that’s willing to do whatever we need, so what can we have them do?”

Eventually, Skyline was able to bring back about 90% of its staff; only three or four didn’t return, but the company has created new positions in the brewery, and actually has right around the employee count it had before the pandemic hit. And now that restaurants are allowed to serve patrons outdoors, 14 tables dot an outdoor area, while a major construction project on the back patio awaits Wetlands Commission approval to move forward. “We’ve got some big plans for back there,” Pac said.

Skyline Beer Co

Skyline Beer Co. partners Dana Bishop, Lisa Pac, and Daniel Osella.

Munich Haus in Chicopee has been planning for the reopening as well. Back in March, owner Patrick Gottschlicht recalled, “we shut down completely given all the unknowns surrounding everything. Then we decided to reopen for curbside service, to take the first step in the direction of getting reopened — and our to-go business was more than it has been in the past. A lot of regular customers who hadn’t been able to dine in for a while were excited to get curbside.”

After weeks of takeout only — helped by a PPP loan that got some employees back on the payroll — the German restaurant recently opened its large, outdoor Biergarten, as well as its smaller front deck, and packed them in — well, maybe ‘packed’ isn’t the right word, considering some tables were removed to maintain safe distancing, but the place was booked solid its first week.

“With the big biergarten and the deck, we took advantage of the nice weather. And I think people, with all the restrictions lately, are excited to get back out and get some semblance of normalcy. People are eager to get back out into the world.”

“We were excited to reopen, after being shut down for a while there,” Gottschlicht told BusinessWest. “With the big Biergarten and the deck, we took advantage of the nice weather. And I think people, with all the restrictions lately, are excited to get back out and get some semblance of normalcy. People are eager to get back out into the world.”

Raring to Go

‘Eager’ is also a word that applies to Peter Picknelly when BusinessWest caught up with him two days before the Student Prince & the Fort were set to reopen, with Fort Street in downtown Springfield closed to traffic to accommodate tents, lighting, live music, and anything else that might transform an outdoor dining experience into something a bit more.

“I’m really charged up about what’s happening on Fort Street,” said Picknelly, one one of the establishment’s owners. “We’ve got our menu, all the Fort specialties, and we’ll have entertainment Thursday through Sunday night. It’ll be a downtown festival — we’ve got lights, flags, beer wagons … it’s going to be really cool. It’ll be like a German carnival out there, a mini-Octoberfest between now and Labor Day.”

But one that, at least at first, requires a shift in diner — and server — behavior. The restaurateurs we spoke with talked about table spacing (at least six feet), 90-minute limits on seatings, regular sanitizing practices, and making sure patrons wear a mask, except when sitting down at the table.

“We’ve got the tables about eight feet apart, and people have to wear masks once they leave their table,” Pac said, adding that the team is sanitizing every pen that comes back in, while wearing gloves to boot. In short, she’s balancing guests’ enthusiasm to be dining out with their safety.

“People are champing at the bit right now. That’s why it’s important to make sure we’re safe,” she added. “People do get caught up in the moment — they want to take their masks off and talk to people at another table. I’m a social person; I want to talk to everyone, so I’m trying to keep myself away from the front. It’s a natural thing — we want to talk and hang out. But we’ll constantly remind people about the masks.”

Gottschlicht’s team has been equally diligent. “We’ve already got outdoor seating, which is a big challenge for some restaurants that don’t already have it,” he said. “We went over all the government and DPH restrictions for reopening and implemented all those, and now we’re starting to work on the indoor phase — finding out what restaurants will look like and developing a plan for that.”

At press time, state guidance on indoor dining was still forthcoming, but restaurants are doing their best to plan based on what they’re hearing and common-sense predictions.

The front deck at Munich Haus

The front deck at Munich Haus, as well as the large patio known as the Biergarten, opened recently to very solid business.

“Until the guidance is released, we’re trying to put together a game plan for that, so we’re somewhat ahead of it,” Gottschlicht added.

Picknelly expects indoor seating to begin very soon, perhaps at 25% capacity, though he hopes for 50%. “Until then, the outdoor scene is going to be great.”

He’s just as excited to reopen the White Hut as well, the venerable West Springfield landmark that has begun its second life as a food truck before opening the doors to a renovated indoor space on July 4. And he knows others are pumped, too, to have a variety of dining choices, both casual and takeout, suddenly spring back to life.

“I love my wife’s cooking, but I want to get back out to restaurants,” he said. “There’s a whole other feel to it. It’s entertaining, it’s fun — let someone else serve and do the dishes.”

Next Course

To be sure, restaurants are still dealing with significant challenges, from carving out alfresco seating where none exists to limiting the number of people they can serve to the question of meetings and banquets. Gottschlicht said some event bookings for later this year at Munich Haus have been canceled, while others are waiting to see what restrictions might emerge — for instance, whether they’ll be faced with 50% occupancy or be able to pack the house.

We’re hoping to get some guidance on what we can and can’t do,” he told BusinessWest. “Some want to reschedule, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.”

At the very least, though, dishes are pouring out of the kitchen to guests who are happy just to be getting out of the house.

“It’s a great feeling to get the place back open, and get the staff back to work, too. We’re going on our 16th year, so we’ve put a lot of blood and sweat into Munich Haus and plan to be around a lot longer. I was born in Germany — we’re proud of what we do, of being an authentic German restaurant. It’s definitely a good feeling being back open.”

Pac is feeling good too — partly because business is back up to maybe 90% of its former pace, considering the outdoor dining, continued takeout service, and the brewery.

“I would never wish it on anybody,” she said of the almost three-month economic shutdown, “but I can’t complain because it helped us dial in and gave us a minute to get on the same page with everything. It’s been a wild ride.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Risk and Reward

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught businesses anything, it’s that employees, in many cases, can do their jobs from home — which can, in theory, lead to cost savings. But also expenses — the type of expense that, if ignored, can lead to much bigger losses.

We’re talking about data security. And what remote workers need depends, in many cases, on how long they plan on staying home, said Sean Hogan, president and CEO of Hogan Communications in Easthampton.

“We have some clients investing in the home office and planning on shrinking their bricks and mortar, so they’re going to save money on bricks and mortar or the lease,” he told BusinessWest. “But then they have to invest in bandwidth and security for the remote office. It’s a huge issue.”

And a sometimes messy one. In a shared workplace, Hogan noted, “you might have great security, firewalls, routers, you have security installed, you make sure all the security is updated, you constantly have the latest patches and revisions.”

But working from home poses all kinds of issues with the unknown, the most pressing being, what programs are running on home devices, whether those devices are loaded with viruses, and whether they can infect the company’s servers when they connect remotely.

“We’re trying to control security at someone’s own bandwidth at the house, where three, four, or five people may be trying to jump on at the same time,” he added. “It’s not shaped at all; it doesn’t prioritize any applications or traffic. Now, there are ways to do that — we can install SD-WAN software that allows us to monitor the connection and prioritize traffic like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting. That way, you don’t have everyone breaking up and having issues.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“We have some clients investing in the home office and planning on shrinking their bricks and mortar, so they’re going to save money on bricks and mortar or the lease. But then they have to invest in bandwidth and security for the remote office. It’s a huge issue.”

But that doesn’t solve the issues of security holes in the home wi-fi — which have weaker protocols, allowing hackers easier access to the network’s traffic — as well as the human element that makes workers vulnerable to phishing scams, which are the top cause of data breaches, and insecure passwords, which allow hackers easy access to multiple accounts in a short period of time.

“The Internet has become the Wild West over the last 10 years,” said Jeremiah Beaudry, president of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee, starting with scam e-mails — from phishing attacks to realistic-looking but nefarious sites that try to wrench passwords and data from users and install malware on their computers.

“I get e-mails from clients three or four times a day — it used to be once or twice a week — saying things like, ‘I got this e-mail asking me to wire money to a client,’” he noted. “You can’t stop people from pretending to be someone else, and the language is getting more and more clever.”

That combination of possibly flawed technology and human errors make the home office a particular concern in the world of cybersecurity.

“Nobody has the exact answers right now for how to make the most secure connection at a remote office,” Hogan said, adding that going to the cloud has been an effective measure for many businesses, while others have taken the more drastic step of setting up physical firewalls at remote sites for key employees — say, for the CEO or CFO. “We’ll lock them down if they’re actually connecting to files and servers that are really confidential.”

Possible solutions are plenty, he said — but it all begins with knowing exactly what equipment remote employees are dealing with, and what threats they pose.

Viral Spread

COVID-19 isn’t the only fast-spreading infection going around, Hogan said. In fact, “45% of home computers are infected with malware. That’s an eye opener for many people. It’s a huge issue, and removing it is a huge challenge.”

One problem is the human element — specifically, how users invite threats in by not recognizing them when they pop up. Take the broad realm of phishing — the setting in which people receive such pitches can actually make a difference in how they respond, Beaudry said.

“It’s harder to sift through it when working from home; it’s not natural. You’re out of your element when you’re sitting at our desk in your pajamas, as opposed to being in your office at work. You may not be reading your e-mail as carefully as you normally would. You may not be on alert.”

A big piece of the puzzle is end-user awareness, he said. “You want to have your employees educated about what’s out there, so they know how to spot forgeries.”

Alex Willis, BlackBerry’s vice president of Sales Engineering and ISV Partners, recently told Forbes that companies trust their employees to do the right thing, and workers are generally honest, but trust can be a dangerous thing.

“The problem with just trusting people is that employees don’t always do this on purpose,” Willis said. “Sometimes, it’s just purely unintentional. They are working on a home machine that’s riddled with malware. They need access to corporate data. For instance, if the company issues a slow laptop to an employee and the employee has to get their job done, they are going to use their home computer that is faster to do the job. In that scenario, the home computer might not be as secure.”

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry says home networks aren’t typically built to run as efficiently — or safely — as those in a workplace.

Again, it’s that issue of the unknown, Beaudry told BusinessWest. “You don’t know what they have going on with their home networks. We didn’t set up the home connection, we don’t know what they have, and everyone has different people on it. Some are borrowing it from their apartment complex or sharing it with the neighbors, and they expect the internet to work perfectly. It’s not going to.”

In an office, on the other hand, everyone is using the same network, running at the same speed, with the same level of security and firewall protection. “Then, when they go home, there are so many variables.”

The best-case scenario is to give employer-owned devices to employees so they can remotely manage information.

“You can put antivirus on an employer-owned device; when they’re using their own devices, you don’t know what they’re doing to protect it,” Beaudry added. “And if the employee is laid off or fired, you would have the ability to control any employer-owned data.”

At the very least, he said, companies should encrypt the traffic between their network and individual users’ home computers.

“We put monitoring agents on remote clients that monitor for any viruses or malware and will update their antivirus and malware protection in some cases,” Hogan added.

Vigilant Approach

None of this completely addresses the speed and efficiency issues of home devices. “Usually, in a home office, they pay for their own bandwidth, and the business can’t say, ‘we don’t want your kid playing Fortnite,’” Hogan said. “That’s the challenge.”

“I get e-mails from clients three or four times a day — it used to be once or twice a week — saying things like, ‘I got this e-mail asking me to wire money to a client.’ You can’t stop people from pretending to be someone else, and the language is getting more and more clever.”

“Some clients will pay for a second, business-only connection for remote workers, he added. “But that’s pretty extreme; not many are doing that.”

More popular — and effective — is the move to a virtual environment. Working in the cloud, he noted, means not worrying about the hub-and-spoke relationship between physical servers and computers that’s the biggest weak point for security. “Most of my clients have eliminated that weakness.”

For some clients, the cybersecurity issue is especially critical — take medical businesses, for whom privacy is paramount in the HIPAA era. “That changes the game completely,” Hogan said, noting that one resource for companies handling sensitive data is a SOC, or security operations center.

“Clients who really value security can sign up with a SOC team that responds in case of a breach,” he explained. “It’s a lot of monitoring, detecting, and responding.”

Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus IT, said any investment in platform migration and remote work has to be accompanied by investment in strong security tools — and education.

“The legacy tools and technologies used to secure networks for the past 10 years need not apply for this next wave of mobile workers,” he told BusinessWest. “Security of the future will be a lot more about multi-factor authentication, deep encryption, and will involve a lot more end-user training as well as testing than the command-and-control style approach of the past.”

Hogan agreed. “Password management is so massive,” he said, noting that people resist simple protections like multi-factor authentication, or even just using complicated passwords, or different passwords for different sites.

“We are also dark-web monitoring pretty consistently,” he added. “The dark web has been on fire lately — a lot of breaches.” Once data fall into those hands, the damage is done, he added, “but the important thing is to know what got breached, and if you can tell what credentials are out there, so you can change them.”

The bottom line, Beaudry said, is to make sure employees use unique passwords and encrypt connections remotely, and not using tools that are potentially vulnerable.

“And there’s a long list of tools known to be exploited by hackers, so it’s good to check with an IT professional before using any remote desktop method,” he added. “Some methods require you to open firewall ports that can leave you vulnerable to ransomware and all sorts of awful data breaches. The main thing is to make sure your firewall is locked down and no unnecessary ports are open, and you have backups of all data.”

That’s a lot to consider when moving into an era of expanded remote work — some of which comes at a cost. But the cost of ignoring it is much higher.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Views from a Distance

In the middle of March, employees of companies across Massachusetts — and many other regions of the U.S. — suddenly began working at home. In some cases, it was a matter of setting up a team of four or five people in their home offices.

Then there’s MassMutual, which suddenly had to do that for 7,500 employees.

“We communicated the transition on a Thursday, and by Monday, we had gone from about 20% of our workforce being remote to more than 95%,” said Susan Cicco, MassMutual’s head of Human Resources & Employee Experience. “On top of the need for that speed and agility, this particular situation created unique challenges in that employees are working remotely while, in many cases, fulfilling many additional roles — as employees, caregivers, and even teachers.”

But the experiment — if one can call it that, since the government was forcing the company’s hand — has been largely successful, to the point where, with the COVID-19 pandemic still a threat, MassMutual has told its employees to keep working remotely, at least into September.

“We decided to share with employees that we would start returning to the office no earlier than the beginning of September as we continue to focus on their health and safety, as well as allow them to be able to plan family and life commitments amidst continued uncertainty around things like childcare and camps,” Cicco told BusinessWest. “I’m not sure anything particularly equates for the scale and magnitude of this crisis. That said, we relied on and built upon our strong cultural foundation and focus on flexibility, balance, and well-being.”

“This particular situation created unique challenges in that employees are working remotely while, in many cases, fulfilling many additional roles — as employees, caregivers, and even teachers.”

Which brings up a question many companies of all sizes are likely asking — once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, what have we learned about the potential of remote work in the future? And how many employees do we really need under one roof?

“I am sure that just about every business is going to be impacted both positively and negatively by this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus IT. “My sincere hope is that the negative impacts are short-term and the positive impacts are long-term. In terms of those positive impacts, I think the most obvious is that many businesses learned that is it possible to conduct business remotely.”

Elaborating, he noted, “I know many companies that, ahead of the pandemic, said it wouldn’t work for them, but when push came to shove and they were forced into it, they found that it actually did work better than they could have imagined. That said, I know many businesses are finding that their technology is not well-suited for a predominately remote workforce, and therefore if they wish to make those changes permanent, they will need to make further investments in their technology platforms.”

The big takeaway, however, is that it’s possible, and the technology Bean mentions is widely available. But other questions need to be answered as well.

Lives in the Balance

One deals, quite simply, with employees’ mindset, Cicco said.

“Our colleagues have been amazingly resilient and committed through all this, and a major focus has been on ensuring we are keeping a pulse on employee well-being — physical and emotional — to provide the relevant support and resources,” she noted. “We’ve also been working to communicate continuously as things evolved — both when we had answers and, as importantly, when we didn’t.”

They learned that employees’ biggest stressor was the ability to effectively balance their work and personal lives, whether that’s caring for elderly loved ones, helping children with school, or taking time for themselves while still maintaining work commitments.

Susan Cicco

Susan Cicco says the biggest stressor for those working from home has been balancing their work and their personal lives, whether that’s caring for an elderly loved one or helping children with school.

In response, the company rolled out additional tools and resources for employees. In addition to existing benefits, time off, and leave policies, employees could access up to 80 hours of additional paid time off related to COVID-19.

“This time is not limited to those who are sick or taking care of kids or loved ones, although those circumstances apply,” Cicco said. “The intent is really to help everyone work through personal challenges that come up in dealing with the pandemic.”

To promote wellness in the home, MassMutual launched online fitness classes, webinars dedicated to dealing with stress, meditation programs, as well as virtual yoga, stretch breaks, and more.

It also expanded its Employee Assistance Program, which offers free sessions with counselors to help people through a range of needs, from managing anxiety and stress to juggling the demands of parenting, to grieving the passing of a loved one. 

“And, working with our eight Business Resource Groups, we’ve continued our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Cicco continued, “providing a safe space for employees to share what’s on their minds and connect through online conversations on how different segments of society are impacted by the pandemic.”

If companies decide they can manage employees’ needs remotely and see no reduction in efficiency, they might indeed move in that direction permanently, at least for some workers, Bean said.

“The impact of this, or the ripple effect, is what is most interesting,” he told BusinessWest. “In talking to clients, peers, and friends, I know companies that will forever reduce their physical office space — focusing more on meeting rooms and less on offices, with the philosophy that the office is somewhere we come to collaborate or meet up, but when we are working independently, we do so from home. Changes like that will have all kinds of effects on traffic, real estate, even the carbon footprint of an organization.”

However, at the same time, businesses are starting to realize that the technology required to make this work, and to make it work securely, is different than the tech they have been investing in for the past 10 years, he explained.

“Platforms like Microsoft 365 become essential, but not just for e-mail; it is my opinion that, during this pandemic, while we were all running around applying for PPP loans and trying to learn Zoom, somewhere over in a corner, the concept of having a file server died a quick and quiet death,” he explained. “Businesses will need to move to platforms that are much more device-agnostic, where control, management, and data are decentralized and largely migrated to the cloud, and where collaboration is dramatically enhanced through tools like Microsoft Teams.”

Expanding those tools will need to be accompanied by enhanced cybersecurity at home, Bean added.

Best of Both Worlds

Taking the broad view, Bean said the potential clearly exists for more remote work and home-based employees.

“In the end, everything that is going to happen was going to happen anyway,” he noted. “However, five years was just shaved off of the schedule that was otherwise going to play out, dramatically accelerating that process.”

After all, he added, the core value of technology today is that it moves quickly — often before people are ready.

“It’s hard for anyone to truly know the future when still in the midst of something unprecedented like this,” Cicco added. “I have no doubt that this forced work-from-home experience has validated the potential of flexibility and how productive an organization can be working remotely, while, at the same time, reinforcing the importance of people coming together in the same space to achieve common goals.”

So maybe there’s room for both models.

“I am certain the learnings from all this will undoubtedly move us forward in providing the best of both worlds,” she said, “supporting employees working from home when it makes sense for them and their work, along with continuing to foster the right work environment that safely draws people together to collaborate and innovate.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Shop Owner Finds Ways to Share Joy at a Time When It’s Badly Needed

Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg says customers appreciate the messages on the front door of the Toy Box, as they wait for her to reopen that door.

One of Liz Rosenberg’s favorite games — to both play and sell — is called Lion in My Way.

“It’s for ages 5 and up,” said the owner of the Toy Box in Amherst. “You’re presented, in card form, with obstacles, like a lion in your way, a giant wall, all sorts of things. And then you have a hand of cards that are ideas how to get past this obstacle — maybe a catapult or balloon or a sandwich to feed the lion. You have to create the story. I feel like this is the greatest game.”

And not just because she feels like she’s living it every day.

“It’s a great lesson in, ‘ugh, yes, this is awful, but what do I have in my pocket that I can use to get past the awful part and start making progress?’” she continued. “It’s all here in this game.”

Retailers across Massachusetts being told, three months ago, to close their doors indefinitely? That’s no game — but Rosenberg has been playing some effective cards.

Like morphing into a delivery service.

She recalls shuttering her shop on Sunday, March 15. “But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

The strategy was to offer delivery within 20 minutes of the store — which gave her some solid territory to cover without infringing too much on similar stores in the region.

“It allowed me to get in my car in the morning and drive to the store and open it up, work all day, and at 2:00 make a route map and deliver to people’s driveways, and then go home,” she explained. “I didn’t have to interact with anyone.”

She soon found this model was actually functional, and used the Toy Box’s Facebook page to showcase as many items as possible to keep customers engaged. “My website is under construction, and now isn’t the time to focus on that, and people require visuals,” she said of her Facebook photo albums.

She also spends plenty of time offering gift ideas over the phone. “I find myself absolutely cracking up, standing here trying to describe something, my hands moving, hoping they get a visual on this. It’s really entertaining.”

The result hasn’t been anywhere near normal sales volume, but it has kept the shop afloat.

“But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

“I didn’t know what it would bring in; I didn’t really think about success,” Rosenberg told BusinessWest. “I just thought about day by day, and at the beginning of this, that’s where everyone’s head was — ‘it’s 10 in the morning; where is life going to be at 11?’”

Another card she drew on was humor — “because that’s how I live.” For example, the first day the doors were closed, she arranged a group of stuffed animals in the store window, with speech bubbles offering messages like “we miss your faces” and “we will deliver toys” and “we love you!”

“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen from behind the register, taking pictures outside the front door. It makes me giggle.”

In the past couple of weeks, Rosenberg has played the curbside-pickup card — well, parking-lot pickup, “because we don’t have a curb” — and continued a popular gift offering known as ‘mystery bags,’ for which customers provide the recipient’s age and pay a discount price for a surprise assortment of goodies, such as putty, markers, stickers, mini-games, bouncy balls, and more.

“People trust our judgment on things their children or grandchildren or friends’ children might like,” she explained. “People tell me the age of the child and a couple things about them, and I put together little activities to keep them busy, keep them curious, and keep them educated. It’s gone over really well.”

Rosenberg is hoping to reopen the Toy Box in mid-June, depending on the guidance she gets from Boston, and is mulling ideas like shorter hours — perhaps half-days, or full days by appointment only — so she can manage staffing and sanitizing in a safe manner.

“As much as we’d like to be open for business, I only want to do it safely — against the virus and against unnecessary worry and anxiety,” she noted. “Anxiety is a real thing, and I don’t want people feeling forced to come into the store. So I will continue with deliveries and parking-lot pickup because, in my mind, that’s the safest way.”

One of the speech bubbles in the window reads, “we are essential.”

That may not be true in the eyes of Gov. Baker, but Rosenberg is quick to note how important it is for kids — who have, after all, been cooped up in their homes for about three months now — to experience joy through play.

“We are essential — not necessarily from the government’s perspective, but from families’ perspective. Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time. That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

During Peak Season, This Area Fixture Is Making Up for Lost Weeks

Ted Hebert surveys the line outside his store — well, roughly one-third of it, anyway.

When BusinessWest recently caught up with Teddy Bear Pools and Spas owner Ted Hebert, he was surveying a line of customers around his Chicopee property that ran roughly 40 deep.

The wait to reach the premises was about 45 minutes — typical on most days recently, Hebert said, although it can reach an hour or more. And it would be longer still if the store was still letting just 10 customers in at a time, but Teddy Bear was recently approved for 20.

“We worked with the Health Department and got it up to 20 customers at a time, and we have not seen a letup since we opened on March 18,” he noted. “I’ve never seen it like this. It’s nuts.”

Compare that to the middle of March, when the governor’s orders forced Teddy Bear to close its doors.

“That didn’t really kill us because it wasn’t pool season yet. But it hurt us a little bit — we have hundreds, if not thousands, of spas and hot tubs out there, and those people do need water chemistry.”

So customers would leave water samples outside the door, and Teddy Bear employees would conduct the water chemistry and then deliver whatever products they needed to their homes — sometimes 70 or 80 deliveries a day. Hebert jokingly referred to this period as ‘TedEx.’

“We weren’t making a lot of money; we were charging 10 bucks per delivery, as far as Palmer and Monson, and we grouped them up,” he recalled. “We had a lot of fun meeting customers.”

From a safe distance, of course. In fact, Hebert put off the start of pool-installation season, which usually begins in April, out of concern for customers — not just their physical health, but their anxiety about being around other people.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there,” he recalled. “A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off. We probably could have been out there, but we didn’t want to take a chance. So we started in May, four weeks behind.”

May brought a gradual opening of the retail store as well. “We were trying to figure out how to open, and we were able to do curbside for a few days, but it was still a lot of work. People had to go online and pay for it,” he explained.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there. A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off.”

But then he started working with local officials — entities like the City Council, Mayor John Vieau, the Health Department, and the Police Department — on what it would take to be deemed an essential retailer so he could open the store to foot traffic. Through the city, he appealed to the governor’s office and was indeed deemed essential. The key selling point, he said, was the water-chemistry testing service.

“We ended up putting together what you see at the store now — this line with every six feet marked,” he said. “We have signage everywhere and a sanitizing station as you go in and go out.”

Meanwhile, carriages are sprayed with disinfectant after every use, employees interact with customers from behind plastic shields, Hebert himself greets people in line to answer their questions before they enter, and everyone, of course, must wear a mask. “If you don’t have one, which is seldom, we’ll offer you a free mask,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it safe for them — the customers and my employees. We just want them to be healthy and safe.”

The first few days, traffic was parked up to a quarter-mile away; it didn’t help that roadwork narrowed East Street that first week. “Traffic was bad the first week, so we rented the church parking lot around the corner,” he added, noting that the store plans to make a donation to the church.

Sales of new pools are slightly down, partly because people were buying hot tubs and pools online during the shutdown — “I’m old school; I never thought I’d see that day,” he said of this more impersonal sales experience — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the late start has installers scrambling. “I’m paying my guys extra to work Saturdays. I’m running 60 people servicing pools.”

And 2020 could see some later-than-normal action — as families cancel vacations, they might be inspired to invest in a backyard experience. “Even if you get a pool at the end of July, you still get four to eight weeks out of it.”

As noted earlier, the traffic subsided a little when the state approved a 20-customer capacity, but lines still regularly stretch into the dozens, as BusinessWest discovered.

“I’ve never in my life seen anything like this,” Hebert said. “But I have very considerate customers. No one’s fighting. It amazed me. They’ve been very patient and understanding.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

Hotel Group Continues to Grow Through an Uncertain Time

Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis says the Berkshires has plenty to offer, even when arts and culture attractions are closed, and the Red Lion and other hotels await whatever uptick in business arrives this summer.

Sarah Eustis has some visions for the Courtyard, an outdoor dining area at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

“It will be a really active force — we’re thinking of new, creative ways to use it,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re ramping up menus, we’ll have music outside, maybe screen movies with a projector, ping-pong, cocktails … just some relaxation and fun for people in a world that isn’t very fun right now. That’s our goal.”

It’s an ambitious goal for Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality, and her team as they navigate how to move forward with the group’s roster of Berkshire-area hotels while launching two more in Rhode Island, at a time when hotels are just starting to fully reopen, and no one knows how the traveling public will respond.

That’s especially true in the Berkshires, whose economy is so reliant on tourism. Several major players, including Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Shakespeare & Company, have canceled their summer season, and more might follow. Others are planning shortened seasons, like Barrington Stage Company, which will open on Aug. 5 with social-distancing practices in place.

Hence, Eustis’ emphasis on the other Berkshires draw: being outdoors, whether it’s hiking in nature or enjoying a breezy meal at the Courtyard.

“All the demand drivers, from a cultural standpoint, at least — with a few exceptions — have been moved to next year,” she said, adding, however, that some theaters are still looking for ways to accommodate performances, and museums are considering creative options like open, timed visitations.

But with vacation planning on hold for so many, Eustis knows she has to be realistic.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience,” she said. “We can play to the strengths of the Berkshires, which have a lot to do with being outdoors and natural beauty — we’ve got that in spades, and we will be well-served to promote that as a reason to come out and spend some time.”

Hotels weren’t forced to close by the mid-March mandate from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, although business certainly dried up almost immediately across the country. Main Street Hospitality made decisions about its Berkshires properties on a case-by-case basis. For example, Hotel on North in Pittsfield, with its proximity to Berkshire Medical Center, has been used regularly by essential healthcare workers.

On the other hand, the Porches Inn in North Adams shut its doors completely. With little business expected there during the pandemic — it’s located across the street from the pandemic-shuttered MASS MoCA — the closure was an opportunity to tackle some needed construction and maintenance, and that site will reopen later this summer.

Meanwhile, the Red Lion Inn has maintained a robust, popular takeout program, as well as preparing meals for essential workers throughout Berkshire Health Systems and for Main Street employees who had been laid off.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience.”

Briarcliff Motel in Great Barrington and Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield were effectively closed, but have partnered with Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires to provide housing for essential workers and also people recovering from COVID-19.

“So, we’re trying to deploy each property within the mandated guidelines and leverage the characteristics of each property to the best of our ability,” Eustis said.

It wasn’t enough to keep about 300 employees working, however; layoffs reduced the company to about 25, with the discomfort spread throughout all properties and the administrative office.

“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever been through as a leader, to be sure,” she said. “However, we took it week by week, with a very thoughtful approach.”

The plan now is to begin ramping the team back up again. On June 12, Main Street plans to reopen the Red Lion and Briarcliff within the safety parameters mandated by the state, as well as expanding reservations and culinary service at Hotel on North. Porches will reopen, somewhat refreshed, on Aug. 1, while two new Rhode Island properties are set to open as well: Hammetts Wharf Hotel in Newport in June 26, and the Beatrice Hotel in Providence on Aug. 9.

So, the company certainly sees a strong future.

“We are all trying to develop our strengths and skills without knowing what’s going to happen,” Eustis said. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I do believe it will make us stronger as business people and hospitality providers.”

Part of that is reopening in a safe manner, with attention paid to everything from the cleaning and sanitizing strategy to what kind of voice and body language to use with guests from behind those ubiquitous masks.

“We’ve got a 40-page COVID manual guiding our preparation,” she said. “We want to check all the boxes, so when guests visit with us, they don’t have to give it a second thought. We’ve got you covered.”

As summer approaches, this should be a time of happy anticipation at a hotel group synonymous with visiting the Berkshires — but this is totally uncharted territory, Eustis said, so optimism must be tempered by reality. But she’s still optimistic.

“We will come out on the other side, although there are days it doesn’t feel that way,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s such a massive tactonic shift. But we’ve got a really talented team that’s super committed, and we will be here to tell the tale.”

—Joseph Bednar