Home Articles posted by Joseph Bednar
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

Coronavirus

Salon Owner Says He Missed the Relationships the Most

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full, but he can’t see as many customers in one day as he used to because of strict sanitizing rules.

It may be a song lyric and a cliché, but for Bernie Gelinas, the waiting really was the hardest part.

“After we closed in March, it was hard because we really didn’t know what to expect — what the governor was going to say, and what we needed to do to reopen,” said Gelinas, owner of Cuts Plus, a small hair salon in South Hadley. “From that aspect, it was frustrating, so it was nice when he came out said they’re going to open us up.”

The nine-week closure was, in one sense, an opportunity to take on projects that had been back-burnered — a common story we’ve heard from other business owners deemed, fairly or unfairly, non-essential during the pandemic.

“While we were closed, we took advantage — we painted, we had some things done to the shop we wouldn’t have been able to do, kind of update it a little bit, because the shop is basically open six or seven days a week,” he explained. “We tried to use the time as effectively as we could.”

Gelinas wasn’t the only one affected, of course — three full-time stylists and two part-timers in his salon were out of work, too, and while he was able to access a tiny piece of the federal stimulus, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the lost weeks. So May 18 — the day Gov. Charlie Baker said salons could open the following Monday — was a good day.

“We got the news like everyone else,” he said. “We watched the governor’s press conference online. On our time off, I listened to his briefings every afternoon and tried to read into what he had to say. And when we learned we were going to reopen, we had a week to somewhat prepare.”

“The big test will be in three or four weeks, once we’re caught up, to see where business goes from there. We’ll see at that point how many clients we have back and how many are holding out. It’s a wait and see.”

And prepare he did. There’s no waiting area at Cuts Plus right now — the furniture is gone — because no one is allowed to wait; only one customer per stylist is allowed inside. The bathroom is closed off, too.

“We put reminders on the walls — that was part of the protocol, to post things to remind people to be aware of their surroundings; we complied with that,” he said. “And we took out the magazines and anything else that would encourage customers to touch things that other people touch. We realigned the shop as much as we could.”

Part of that realignment was moving one booth — typically used by one of the part-timers — to a different room, one normally used for nails, a service that salons can’t offer yet. “There’s more planning involved, more careful scheduling to have the minimum amount of people here,” he said — and keep as much distance between them as possible.

That doesn’t apply to the stylist and his or her customer, of course — no one’s cutting hair with six-foot-long scissors. That’s why everyone wears masks, and why Gelinas can’t trim facial hair, for the most part. He says working around the mask straps while trimming was an adjustment, especially since masks come in several different configurations, but he has adjusted.

When asked if he’s been busy, he offered a measured “yes, but no.”

Elaborating, he explained, “when we reopened, we had to spread people out — it takes longer in between customers to follow the protocol, which is fine because it’s for the safety of all. We’re always wiping down things, and every three to five haircuts, I’ve got to take everything out and sanitize the whole station. I sanitize the doorknobs throughout the day, wipe down any common areas, wipe down the tables.”

At the same time, a good deal of his customer base has been clamoring for haircuts after more than two months away, so his schedule has been packed.

“We’re trying to get people in and take care of them and get them back on track,” he told BusinessWest. “The big test will be in three or four weeks, once we’re caught up, to see where business goes from there. We’ll see at that point how many clients we have back and how many are holding out. It’s a wait and see.”

That’s because not everyone has called back, and older customers in particular may be hesitant to sit in the chair. “That’s perfectly sensible,” he noted.

That said, customers have been “phenomenal” when it comes to following the new guidelines. And they’ve made Gelinas consider what he was missing during the weeks when he couldn’t cut hair.

“The beauty of coming back to work is you realize all the relationships you build throughout the year. You miss those people, and when you finally see them and talk to them, you realize that’s what this business is all about — it’s not just giving haircuts, but more the one-on-one. It’s more than a professional relationship; it’s very personal. You kind of miss that.”

In fact, it made him realize that, when he eventually retires from his full schedule, he’ll still want to cut hair.

“So it was a learning experience for me also. Yes, we used those weeks as best as we could, to do different projects. But it was a mental project, too — to kind of answer the question of what the future will bring. It’s one of those things where you don’t miss it until it’s gone.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

Restaurant Owner Says Reopening Will Be Exciting, but Scary, Too

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

A new mural starts to take shape in Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area, as restaurants anticipate outdoor seating becoming much more prominent under state reopening guidelines.

There’s a little alleyway beside Eastside Grill in Northampton that used to hold a few dumpsters and parked cars, but not anymore — it’s been converted into an outdoor dining space. Last week, local artists painted a mural of the Big Easy there, to reflect the restaurant’s New Orleans influences.

Reopening the restaurant’s doors is certainly big. But nothing about it has been easy.

“When they shut us down, I’ve never been so anxious in my life,” owner Debra Flynn said. “This is my life. This is my employees’ life; they depend on this income to pay their bills. It was really scary at first, and it still is, actually, because we don’t know what’s going to happen once we open up. We won’t be making as much money as we once did, and there are so many restrictions. What’s going to happen when we open?”

For that outdoor seating area, Flynn has a bistro feel in mind, with eight high-top tables, spaced at least six feet apart, that seat two diners each; she doesn’t want more than two to a table at first. The space is adorned by large donated urns, and local landscaper Justin Pelis donated some plants.

“Everyone has really come together,” she said. “I have an incredible staff. The executive chef has refined the menu to keep costs down, yet it’s creative and inventive, and my general manager has been running back and forth to Restaurant Depot to get things we need.”

They’ve both been multi-tasking for some time; in fact, a team of only four, including Flynn, have been maintaining a robust curbside-pickup and delivery service five days a week since early in the shutdown.

“It was very popular,” she said, before drawing on some hyperbole. “We went from zero to a million in two seconds. We’ve never done anything like that, and that first week we opened, we were going very quickly.”

At first, the restaurant offered its fare through curbside pickup — the customer would pay over the phone, and the food would be handed through the passenger-side window — or delivery, to Northampton destinations initially, but that’s being expanded to Hatfield, Florence, Leeds, and Easthampton.

“I don’t know if delivery is ever going to go away,” she added. “For people who don’t want to sit at a table, they can take it home. Especially for the elderly, it’s been great.”

Flynn was able to access a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but even that was fraught with anxiety.

“No one was telling us how it worked; nobody knew anything,” she said, adding that she was thrilled when the PPP guidelines were changed last week, extending their use by an additional eight weeks — which is critical for restaurants that had little or no work available for their teams over the first eight weeks of the loan.

She had the aforementioned skeleton crew making and delivering takeout, but what about the bartenders? “The bar is closed right now — sure, you can take out beer and wine in bottles, but you don’t need a bartender to grab a bottle. The bar won’t be open until phase 3 — maybe phase 4. No one’s allowed to set up a bar.”

When the governor says restaurants can open, Eastside’s hours will shift again, to Wednesday through Sunday, with a longer day on Sunday: noon to 8 p.m., marking the first time Eastside Grill has effectively served lunch.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio. It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

It’s all part of being creative at a difficult time, one she knows isn’t exclusive to restaurateurs.

“Retailers are having it bad, too,” Flynn said. “With curbside pickup, nobody can try anything on because they can’t go into the building. So retailers have it as bad as restaurants do.”

Still, she noted, the restaurant industry is in many ways unique in the challenges it will face when it can once again serve guests.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio,” she said. “It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

After all, dining out is an experience, one that can’t be replicated by takeout food, no matter how tasty.

“It’s the feeling of being served — that’s what it’s all about,” she told BusinessWest. “We were never a takeout business, and it took a while to make the food look nice. We’re used to putting it on a plate and making it look appetizing. Takeout is a whole different ballgame; people eat with their eyes, and a lot of times takeout doesn’t look as pretty.”

Flynn was quick to add, however, that the takeout ‘plating,’ if one could call it that, did begin to look nicer as the weeks wore on. Not as good as reopening the doors will look, when she and her team can begin serving up that New Orleans culinary spirit in person once again.

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Cover Story

Baby Steps

After more than two months of a widespread economic shutdown, Massachusetts is opening its economy again — sort of. The plan, announced by Gov. Charlie Baker on May 18, allows some businesses to open their doors under tight health restrictions, while others — including restaurants, spas, and most retail — have to wait longer to invite the public inside. What’s got businesses frustrated is not knowing exactly when their turn will come — and the financial impact they continue to endure every week they have to wait.

Massachusetts is the 15th-most populous state in the U.S., yet, the day Gov. Charlie Baker released his economic reopening report, it had reported the fourth-most total COVID-19 cases in the country.

So, the reopening was never going to be a free-for-all.

“We were all very aware that, no matter what we went forward with, there will be more infection and more deaths,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, one of 17 members of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. “While the public-health metrics are numbers, statistics, they’re also people — they’re your neighbors, maybe your mother or father.

“People want to open,” she told BusinessWest, “but they don’t want to put people at risk — themselves, their customers, their parents. The compassion is remarkable.”

That’s why it was no surprise that Massachusetts is reopening slowly and cautiously. Last week, manufacturing facilities, construction sites, and places of worship were allowed to return under strict guidelines (more on those later), and on May 25, the list will expand to offices (except in Boston) and labs; hair salons, pet grooming, and car washes; retail, with remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only; beaches, parks, drive-in movies, and some athletic fields and courts; fishing, hunting, and boating; and outdoor gardens, zoos, reserves, and public installations.

That covers what Baker is calling phase 1, with three more reopening phases to follow. Conspicuously not on the phase-1 list? Restaurants, spas, daycare centers, in-store retail … it’s a long list. And, for many business leaders, a frustrating one.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says businesses in phase 1 got the clarity they were seeking, but those in phase 2 are still waiting.

“There’s certainly an appreciation for public health, but there also needs to be some common sense, and I think it’s very hard to explain why it’s OK for 200 people to be in line at Home Depot, but a small, downtown store can’t have two or three people in it,” Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, told BusinessWest.

“Certainly everyone has to be smart,” he added, “but I think there needs to be more common sense brought into the reopening. I appreciate where the governor is — the balancing act — and I think the reopening committee did a great job with outreach, but there needs to be clear guidance and some common sense.”

Others were less diplomatic.

“While protecting public health is important and something we all support, it defies logic to declare that the opening of barbershops and hair salons is safe, while claiming opening small retail businesses is not,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

“The same is true for the opening of churches and large office buildings,” he went on. “Having two or three people in a retail shop is every bit as safe, if not safer, than the allowable businesses in phase 1. The Baker administration has consistently picked winners and losers during this crisis, and it is disappointing to see that trend continue in the reopening plan.”

As president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, Nancy Creed has been in touch with her members for almost three months now on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. She, like Sullivan, understands the delicate balance the state is walking.

“When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again.”

“Certain sectors thought they’d be in phase 1, so there’s always that frustration,” she told BusinessWest. “When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again. So we need to be smart about it and make sure we’re doing everything we can so the reopening is successful, and this doesn’t happen again.’”

She knows that’s not easy for many small businesses to hear, particularly ones with no revenue stream at all during this time.

“This is different for everyone, but businesses are muddling through it, pivoting, doing the things they need to do for basic economic survival,” she added. “But if it happens again, I don’t think we’ll survive the second round.”

Hence, baby steps, and a multi-phase reopening that offers real hope for many sectors, but continues to draw no small amount of criticism as well.

Guidance — and Lack Thereof

According to Baker’s plan, each phase of the reopening will be guided by public-health data that will be continually monitored and used to determine advancement to future phases. The goal of a phased plan is to methodically allow businesses, services, and activities to resume, while avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system and erase the progress made so far.

Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer before moving to the next phase. If public-health data trends are negative, specific industries, regions, or even the entire Commonwealth may need to return to an earlier phase.

Nicole LaChapelle

Nicole LaChapelle

“When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

In addition, success in earlier phases will refine criteria for future phases, including travel, gathering sizes, as well as additional openings in retail, restaurants, lodging, arts, entertainment, fitness centers, museums, youth sports, and other activities.

“Going in, the goals were, how do we safely and slowly open the Massachusetts economy?” LaChapelle said. “And that is directly tied to public-health metrics. When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

It was helpful, she explained, to seek input from myriad sectors and businesses — those deemed essential and never forced to shutter; those that had to pivot, such as retailers boosting their online presence and manufacturers shifting to making masks and face shields; and businesses that have been effectively sidelined.

“The board, at no point, even at the beginning, was like, ‘let’s get this thing going and roll it out immediately,’” she added, noting that she understands the need for companies to start ramping back up. “They may be a little disappointed, but they’ve been very understanding. There’s some education we have to do, but nobody is really upside-down about it.”

In order to reopen, businesses must develop a written COVID-19 control plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of the virus. They must also create and display posters and signs describing rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.

“I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately.”

Sullivan appreciates the attention to public-health concerns, but said it offers little comfort for businesses stuck in an as-yet-undefined phase 2 — or beyond. While the reopening plan gives clear guidance for businesses in phase 1, those in phase 2 don’t even get a target date they can work toward or a set of protocols they can begin to develop. And that lack of clarity has led to frustration.

“I do think many businesses, especially smaller businesses, were kind of expecting more things to open up,” he said. “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately. They’ll need to plan, order some equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight. Many businesses are just looking at lead time — they want to open sooner than later, but they want lead time so they can be ready to go.”

Creed agreed.

“I think what businesses wanted, at least in the beginning, was some clarity about the guidelines, about the timelines, about the standards, about the checklists, all those things, so they can create their own plan — and that was achieved, at least for phase 1,” she explained. “But I am hearing the phase-2 people saying, ‘well, I wanted to be able to plan, but I don’t have enough guidance right now,’ so there’s some frustration.”

The Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc. said as much in a statement following the plan’s release.

“Obviously, every restaurateur is disappointed with the lack of a defined reopening date in today’s announcement,” it noted. “Massachusetts restaurants need their suppliers to have time to restock perishable inventory before it can be delivered to them. They need to notify employees about returning to work and conduct other due diligence to ensure restaurants can open effectively.”

Safety and Numbers

Across Massachusetts, the reopening plan sparked a spectrum of reactions, all acknowledging the competing health and economic interests in play, but expressing different levels of understanding and frustration — and often both.

“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 100 lives a day in Massachusetts,” John Regan, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, noted in a statement.

Even as some businesses start to reopen and others plan to do so, the state Department of Public Health updated its stay-at-home advisory, replacing it with a new “Safer at Home” advisory, which instructs everyone to stay home unless they are headed to a newly opened facility or activity. It also advises those over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions to stay home, with the exception of trips required for healthcare, groceries, or that are otherwise absolutely necessary. All residents must continue to wear a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible, and individuals are advised to wash their hands frequently and be vigilant in monitoring for symptoms. Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people remain in effect.

The state also encourages working from home when possible, and Baker’s office released a list of 54 large companies — employing about 150,000 workers among them — that have issued statements extending work-from-home policies for the remainder of the spring, with numerous reporting intentions to extend into the summer and, in some cases, for the remainder of 2020.

“As MassMutual develops our plan to gradually return to the office, the health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual, noting that his employees will return to the office no sooner than the beginning of September.

“We expect to come back in a slow, phased manner,” he added. “We will continue to monitor and reassess and will be factoring in a number of considerations — from federal, state, and local government and health officials’ guidance to a sustained reduction in cases in our operating locations, to broader available testing and our employees’ personal circumstances and comfort.”

Patrick Sullivan, Massachusetts President of People’s United Bank, is also promoting continued work from home where possible.

“People’s United Bank is assessing re-entry conditions and protocols to ensure the safety of our team members and our customers,” he said. “Our approach will balance the needs of employees with the needs of the business. As we have been successful in pivoting and adjusting to working from home, we will continue to encourage this behavior.”

Still, those are businesses that can at least operate in most aspects. Retail stores can’t so easily adjust — and have been devastated by the inability to invite shoppers into their stores.

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers.”

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers,” said Hurst, noting that Massachusetts stores are losing Memorial Day weekend at a time when other states have let them open up shop by now. “Retail businesses are ready and able to open safely now with a limited number of people in stores and for appointment shopping. By not allowing that until late June, many small, Main Street businesses will close forever.”

That’s not hyperbole for small businesses of many kinds. Matt Haskins, who operates the popular Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, said a recent grant from the Downtown Amherst Foundation has helped him stay afloat at a time when he doesn’t know when college business will return.

“Just five minutes before [receiving word of the grant], I was on a phone call discussing if Matt’s Barber Shop was going to make it or break it,” he told foundation officials. “The grant helps me think we’re going to make it.”

So will being able to open his doors again on May 25. And that’s all most business owners want right now — a target. Creed hears that, but at the same time, she’s encouraged by recent chamber polling suggesting the percentage of business owners who feel they’ll survive this crisis is rising.

“What that says to me is people are finding a way to make sure it doesn’t put them out of business,” she said, “which shows the resilience of the businesses we have here.”

Yes, they have resilience, in spades. Now, they want clarity — and some hard dates.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Features

The Questions Keep Coming

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was created by the CARES Act to provide forgivable loans to eligible small businesses to keep American workers on the payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SBA recently provided updates to its PPP guidance and also released the form application for PPP loan forgiveness, which will help small businesses seek forgiveness at the conclusion of the eight-week covered period, which begins with the disbursement of their loans.

Here are five common questions area attorneys have been hearing from business owners concerned about how PPP funds may be used in order to be forgiven.

Where can I spend my PPP loan in order for it to be forgiven?

“You’ve got to use 75% of what was loaned for payroll purposes,” said Kathryn Crouss, shareholder with Bacon Wilson. “Obviously, that’s salaries and wages, but other money employers spend on payroll costs count as well — vacation pay, parental or family leave, paid sick leave, or if there’s an employer match for plan premiums. So the definition of ‘payroll costs’ is relatively broad.

“The remaining money can be spent on other approved expenses — keeping the lights on or mortgage or rent or utility bills, those sorts of things,” she added. “Assuming you can prove to the government that you have spent 75% of the loan on qualified payroll expenses and the remaining portion on other qualifying expenses, then the loan should be forgiven and becomes a grant rather than a loan.”

In addition, she added, “if an employer brings an employee back on and that employee used to make, say, $3,000 a month, if they pay them less, they have to be within 75% to be forgiven. That’s not true for head count — they still have to have the same number of employees; not necessarily the same people, but the same head count.”

How do you measure whether an employee’s salary or wages were reduced by more than 25%?

“This may be the area that was causing the most angst among business owners, since it seemed mathematically impossible to not have reduced compensation by at least 25% if you were comparing compensation in the first quarter of 2020 — 13 weeks — to the covered period of eight weeks,” said Scott Foster, partner with Bulkley Richardson. “Fortunately, the SBA has opted to focus only on either the annualized salary for exempt employees, or the average hourly wage for non-exempt employees. Also, with respect to the salaried employees making more than $100,000 per year during the first quarter, as long as the annualized salary remains above $100,000 during the covered period, then any reduction in salary is not considered a reduction under this test.”

What about employees that were furloughed or laid off, but now refuse to return to work?

“For any employee the business has offered to re-employ in writing, and the employee (for whatever reason) refuses to accept re-employment, this will not reduce the loan-forgiveness amount,” Foster said.

Amy Royal, CEO of Royal, P.C., noted that she’s had many questions of this type. “They’re asking, ‘if I want to make sure I get loan forgiveness, how do I address a situation where I’ve offered to bring people back and they’ve said, thanks but no thanks?’ Obviously, those people have their own unemployment issues because if they’ve been offered a job and continue to take unemployment benefits, that could, in certain circumstances, be fraudulent.”

As for the employer, “if you make a good-faith offer to rehire someone with PPP money, make sure that offer is in writing,” she added. “If the employee rejects the offer, make sure you, as a business, have documented that. It will help you when you apply for loan forgiveness. That issue has been a real concern.”

Crouss agreed, noting that some employees may have legitimate reservations about returning to work — for instance, because they have a 95-year-old parent and don’t want to infect them.

“Make sure that conversation is in writing,” she said. “If they say they can’t return, get that response in writing as well, save that correspondence, and put those documents in their personnel file. Where we’re heading is, the head-count piece may be forgiven if they have that kind of documentation.”

Interestingly, Foster noted, “the application states that any employee fired for cause during the covered period does not reduce the borrower’s loan forgiveness. Oddly, this could mean that an employee that was fired for cause prior to the covered period would still count as a missing FTE during the covered period.”

My employees have nothing to do until my business is allowed to reopen and ramps back up. What if I want to save the PPP funds for after the eight-week period?

For example, Royal said, “if you’re a restaurant, you’re not open now. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’re doing takeout, but the bulk of your business is full service. So the timing has presented issues because they can’t be fully ramped up now, but they’ve got to avail themselves of the funds right now before they run out.”

Businesses may absolutely hang onto the money and use it beyond the eight-week window, she explained — but they will have to pay it back over two years with 1% interest.

“That’s a very attractive loan,” Crouss noted. “Many businesses are making that decision — which is a perfectly sound decision. This only goes for eight weeks, and when you get that amount of money, it should cover your payroll for eight weeks, but what happens if the world hasn’t righted itself? So maybe it makes sense to save it for a rainy day and think of it as a loan and not a forgivable grant.”

Do I have to claim the PPP loan as income?

“The good news is, the IRS has spoken and said no,” Royal said. However, expenses paid for with PPP funds are also not deductible. “That makes sense — you can’t double dip. The way I conceptualize this is, it didn’t happen. We’re going to pretend this period didn’t happen for tax purposes.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Climbing Out

It’s not easy for a business to be shut down — seriously curtailing or even eliminating all revenue — for any period of time. But it’s much more frustrating not to know how long that period of time will actually be. That’s where Massachusetts businesses deemed non-essential during the COVID-19 pandemic stand right now — in a limbo of treading water and being as flexible, creative, and patient as they can while they await word on when the state will reopen its economy, and what form that re-emergence will take.

At some point in early March, Ashley Batlle knew what was coming. And she knew what it meant for her health and wellness spa, Beauty Batlles Lounge, that she opened in Chicopee about a year ago.

“This is a personal, physical-contact business. You’re definitely in close proximity with the client, giving them a service that everyone looks forward to — something they’re accustomed to making part of their schedule,” Batlle said. Yet, the rumblings were that, at some point, the rising threat of COVID-19 was going to force businesses to shut their doors. “So we tried to get as many clients in as we could.”

And then, suddenly, those appointments that clients look forward to were cancelled, postponed until — well, nobody knows yet. And that’s the problem for businesses the state deemed non-essential: the unknown.

Toward the end of April, the Baker-Polito administration extended the statewide essential-services emergency order by two weeks, from May 4 to May 18. Businesses and organizations not on the list of essential services can only continue operations through remote means — if at all possible.

For Batlle, well … she can’t offer facials, waxing, microblading, and other treatments remotely. And she was unable to access benefits through the CARES Act and other government relief measures.

“My anxiety level has been very, very high. It hasn’t been fun, not knowing when we’ll begin to open and what kind of measures will be asked of us by the state and city to be able to reopen,” she said, noting that, as a one-woman operation, it will be easy to comply with social-distancing regulations sure to accompany any sort of reopening.

What’s less certain is how customers will respond — to all types of interactions, not just her services.

“I’m going to be able to open up my doors and get everyone in as quick as possible — that’s what I would love to do, but I think it’s going to be a soft situation, where, little by little, we’re getting back to business,” she explained, noting that some people will be leery of close contact at first, especially since the virus doesn’t tend to show symptoms for a while.

Still, most business owners shuttered by the pandemic would love an opportunity to at least try to get back to normal, even if they understand why the governor put the stay-at-home mandate in place.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

“While we expected and understand Governor Baker’s decision to extend the stay-at-home advisory, that tough decision underscores the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in as a business community,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “We’re doing a balancing act between wanting to get back to work and getting back to work in a safe manner.”

Many of her members supported the two-week extension; a late-April chamber poll, right before the non-essential closures were extended by two weeks, asked what worried them more: the spread of the virus if restrictions were loosened too soon, or the negative economic impact of not reopening quickly enough. It also asked if Massachusetts was ready for a May 4 reopening.

“Seventy-seven percent responded that the spread of the virus was more worrisome, and an overwhelming number — 91% — responded that Massachusetts was not ready for a May 4 reopening,” Creed said, “clearly revealing that much of the business community is concerned about protecting those most vulnerable and stopping the spread of the disease, and demonstrating the commitment our business community has to the community as a whole.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, took a similar outlook.

“I do not think that anyone is surprised that the shutdown has been extended, as the governor has been clear he will follow the data as to when to begin reopening the economy,” Sullivan said. “We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

All that may be true, but it’s still difficult — and, for many businesses, exceptionally concerning — to stay closed this long, and possibly longer. Businesses are doing what they can to be creative, in many cases opening doors of commerce they will continue to pursue after the COVID-19 threat passes, or even using the time to support other community members in need (more on that later).

But no one likes the uncertainty of not knowing whether May 18 is the real target for reopening, or just another can to be kicked down the road.

Waiting Game

Paul DiGrigoli would like to reopen, too.

“This has impacted us tremendously,” said the owner of DiGrigoli Salon and DiGrigoli School of Cosmetology in West Springfield. “We haven’t had a chance to reach out to all our clients; some we have. But we just have to wait until Charlie Baker gives us the green light, which hopefully will be May 18.”

He was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, succeeding in the second round of that program’s disbursements after missing on the first round. That will help cover costs like utilities and mortgage interest while keeping his employees paid for eight weeks as well. “We went through Community Bank, and they were phenomenal,” he said.

And he’s getting ready for some anticipated changes when the salon does reopen.

“We bought a lot of hand sanitizer to put at the front desk in the school and the salon, we’ve gotten gloves and masks, and what we’re going to do initially is get the clients’ cell phone numbers and call them from the reception desk to let them know when their appointment is available. And we’ll stick with staying six feet apart, spreading out the stations. Both the stylist and the client will have to wear a mask until further notice. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first.”

As for the school, online training has been effective for theory, but students haven’t been able to practice what they learn.

In general, he told BusinessWest, “we’re really trying our hardest to get back to normal, but we’ve really been handcuffed. There has been frustration and anxiety because we don’t know what to expect.”

Or when to expect it, he added. “We don’t know when it will happen. They’re saying May 18, but who the heck knows? We’re hoping it doesn’t go beyond that, but thank God for the relief funds — that really saved us.”

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, polled her members at the end of April and put some of that anxiety into raw numbers. For example, responding businesses are losing an average of $55,837 per month in revenue during the shutdown, and 61% have had to lay off or furlough employees. More than 20% have serious concerns about being able to reopen if the state of emergency extends beyond June 1.

“They’re worried,” she said. “Rent, utilities, and payroll are three areas that continue to be a struggle.”

Amherst is also in an unusual situation, as it’s a small town that loses more than half its population when UMass Amherst and Amherst College aren’t in session. The downtown businesses in particular rely heavily on students — and now there’s talk across the region that colleges might start the fall with distance learning only.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online. The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

“Initially, there hasn’t been a lot of grumbling, but they’re generally frustrated and just sad. Everything is unknown,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “They’re fearful — so much is unknown, and delays keep coming. We don’t have a deadline or guidelines; they just keep pushing back the date, and that causes more fear and anxiety.”

Driving Innovation

And also a good deal of invention, driven by necessity.

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online,” Pazmany said. “The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

Take Zanna, a clothing shop that has been a staple of Amherst’s downtown for decades, but has never had an online store. Until now.

“You have to look at the good in this crisis,” owner Amy Benson said. “In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.

“Do I think it’s the wave of Zanna’s future? No, but I think it’s an extension. We’ll probably keep it going once we’re open,” she added, noting that it opens more opportunities. “We’re in a transient community. We see people from all over the country, between the university and Amherst College. We all want things to be the way they were, but we know we’ll have to adapt. Some of these new trends, like my online store, I’m not going to shut that off.”

Benson has been creative in other ways as well, from curbside pickup — with everyone wearing masks — to ‘virtual shopping,’ where she walks a customer around the store using an iPad and FaceTime, showing them tops and bottoms and coordinating outfits.

“We want customers to be engaged, and they want to hear from us because we form those kinds of relationships,” she said. “When we’re FaceTiming, we’re FaceTiming with a friend and shopping with a friend. It’s a really important way to stay connected.

“You have to do something,” she went on. “You can’t just close your doors and do nothing. Our customers are women who have supported us for over 40 years; we’re not going to just shut our doors and not communicate. I do whatever I can to stay engaged with our customers, they’re the lifeline of our business.”

In other words, Zanna has come a long way since last month, when Benson was in “full panic mode” and offering nothing but a gift-certificate promotion. “We’re not bringing in nearly the revenue we would normally, but we’re supporting what we’re able to do right now.”

She’s not alone, Pazmany noted, citing examples like restaurants revamping their online presence with expanded takeout menus to Amherst Books shipping and delivering items to customers, to the Amherst Area Chamber itself, which has been connecting with the business community through marketing seminars.

Doing Some Good

Or taking advantage of an unusual time to do some good in the community.

Dean’s Beans, based in Orange, has seen a surge in web sales as coffee drinkers are brewing more at home due to social distancing and telecommuting. With COVID-19 causing great economic hardship, the company has chosen to share the money from these web sales with the community by helping to fund school food programs — a total of $26,000, in fact, divided among seven Western Mass. school districts.

“Making sure children have access to food throughout this pandemic is crucial, and we are proud to support these essential programs in Springfield, Amherst, and Orange,” said Dean Cycon, founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans. “Part of a company’s profitability is the positivity it generates for others, and we are committed to helping our communities ease the pain of this crisis.”

Amy Benson

Amy Benson

“You have to look at the good in this crisis. In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.”

Meanwhile, Batlle has launched the Hero Project, a virtual fundraiser designed to give back to those on the front lines fighting the pandemic. Funds raised will be set aside to provide complimentary self-care services at Beauty Batlles Lounge for healthcare professionals, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and employees of sheriffs’ departments, once she can open her doors again. Visit beautybatlles.com to donate.

Considering the masks they’re wearing all day long, “they’re going to need facials when this is done,” Batlle joked, before getting serious.

“I reached out to my nurse friends and heard their stories, about the trauma they’re going through. One friend works in the ICU at a COVID unit — she goes into work one day and has four patients, and when it’s time to leave, she only has one. That has to do something to you. How can I give back to them? That’s where the idea for the Hero Project came in.”

It’s a way to pay it forward while anticipating the light at the end of the tunnel, she told BusinessWest. “This isn’t easy on anybody.”

It would be easier with some clarity from Beacon Hill, but that’s not coming right now. Instead, Baker convened a Reopening Advisory Board of public-health officials, representatives from the business community, and municipal leaders from across the Commonwealth. They are charged with advising the administration on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics, and are expected to develop a report by May 18.

That’s just the report date. So it’s easy to see why businesses might not suddenly be reopening on that date.

“Personally, every time Governor Baker gives us a date when we’re going to open, I think, ‘hmm, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,’” Benson said. “I’m always thinking, ‘what’s the worst-case scenario? June 1? They keep pushing it back.”

That’s why it bothers Batlle that some proprietors of businesses like hers continue to offer services from their home.

“We should all just be staying stationary; we’re all in the same boat,” she said. “That just puts more stress on business owners who are actually following the rules, and it’s could extend the time we’re going to be out of work.”

Which, for too many business owners and employees across Western Mass., already feels like too long.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Drying Times

Excel Dryer

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (second from left) gets a factory tour with Excel Dryer’s Denis Gagnon, Nancy Gagnon, and Bill Gagnon.

When it comes to the XLERATOR, his company’s signature hand dryer, filtration is nothing new, Bill Gagnon said.

“We’ve had an optional HEPA filtration system in it for years,” said Gagnon, vice president of Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow. “The typical HEPA filtration test you do is performed with bacteria, and it’s to particle sizes of .3 microns or larger. That’s standard in the industry. We’ve done that test; we already had it.”

But coronavirus isn’t bacterial, as its name makes clear. And its typical particle size is around 120 nanometers, or 0.12 microns — much smaller than the bacterial particles the filter had already been tested for.

“When we heard about coronavirus, we wanted to get ahead of this and wanted to test our product and its effectiveness against viruses, so we sent our product to our testing laboratory partner in Minnesota and said we want to do a virus-specific test,” Gagnon explained, adding that the lab put some 380 million virus particles through the system, “and basically zero came out the other end.”

Well, not exactly zero, but pretty darn close; the dryer’s filter lets through about one in 100,000 particles.

“This test shows our HEPA filtration system can filter [the virus] out of the airstream and gives the public assurance that it’s safe to use hand dryers — because it is,” Gagnon told BusinessWest. “Hand dryers are a hygienic way to dry your hands. This was something we wanted to test for — something we thought was important.”

Xlerator

One of the mobile units being delivered to the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

On May 6, Excel Dryer hosted U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and local media to tour the company’s manufacturing facility and tout the XLERATOR’s virus-filtration capabilities — and an ongoing donation of 100 units, with HEPA filtration systems, to first responders and COVID-19 testing sites across the state.

“Talk about innovation and creativity — they established it,” Neal said of Gagnon and his father, Excel President Denis Gagnon, who invented the popular XLERATOR. “These are 52 domestic manufacturing jobs to compete with supply chains all over the world. If we’ve learned one lesson from a pandemic, it’s that relying on other parts of the world for our products and supplies is not a great idea.”

Neal and his aide, William Tranghese, were involved in early discussions establishing Excel Dryer as an essential manufacturer in Massachusetts, making hand dryers that play a critical role in achieving proper hand hygiene. After all, thoroughly washing and completely drying hands are listed as the top defense against the spread of germs — including the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 — by both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Proper hand hygiene isn’t just washing your hands, it’s completely drying your hands,” Denis Gagnon said following the factory tour. “When we originally added the HEPA filter as an option to the XLERATOR, we tested for bacteria. Because of the COVID outbreak, we retested the HEPA filter for its ability to filter viruses, and it literally filters 99.999% of viruses. So I think there’s going to be healthy demand for HEPA-filter XLERATORs going forward.”

Bending the Curve

Neal — who, like the Gagnons, Excel’s employees, and guests, wore a face mask during his visit to the plant — touted hand washing as well, and said it’s among the now-common practices, including social distancing, that are flattening the viral curve in Massachusetts.

“The CDC and the WHO have all talked about the notion of hand hygiene, how important it is. I think we’ve seen in Massachusetts the curve beginning to bend,” the congressman noted. “The stabilization — and a little bit of a decline — have had much to do with, I think, adhering to the recommendations of professional health people.”

He particularly praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as “the most reliable voice in America” on coronavirus and related matters. “Whenever I’ve received an invitation over these years in Washington to an event where he was the speaker, I went to hear what he had to say.”

As for the COVID-19 progression, “there is some good news, but there is a ways to go,” Neal went on. “Hot spots seem to be declining in the larger urban areas, but they seem to be moving to new places. So while we have better news in Boston, New York, and even here in Western Massachusetts, other areas of the country are likely to go through the outbreak that we’ve all witnessed here.”

And if Excel can play a part in slowing the spread, all the better, Denis Gagnon said.

“We very much pride ourselves on making our product here in the United States,” he noted. “It didn’t take the inconvenience of disrupted supply chains to bring it back. We never wanted it to leave in the first place. As far as being a good corporate citizen, it’s in our blood. We’re happy to help in any way we can. This was kind of an impromptu solution, and I think it’s going to help on the front lines.”

Indeed, the 100 donated units are already being shipped out, Bill Gagnon said, to police and fire facilities, testing sites, and places like the first-responder recovery center being operated by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office.

“If they test positive, they don’t want to bring it home, so they get quality food and bedding and a place to get healthy and stay away from their families,” he explained. “We’re donating units there. We’re just trying to find out where they’ll make the biggest impact.”

While the HEPA filters on the dryers are not new, the mobile units are. They came out of a conversation the Gagnons had with Neal and his staff about whether Excel’s work is considered essential.

“In that conversation, I was talking about getting mobile units out to the front lines,” Bill said, explaining that the company’s stainless-steel supplier had built a wall to show off the product in a trade show booth. “They said, ‘we can re-engineer that to be mobile, and we can get this thing out in the field.’ Two days later, the prototype was created, and they drove it up here and dropped it off — it was amazing. Two weeks later, we had the first units being used out in the field.

“So it was an amazing new product innovation,” he continued, “and we were working with the congressman’s office and just trying to figure out, how can we help? How can we get this virus-filtering hand-hygiene solution into these facilities? And now it’s here, and there’s a lot of interest in it, and we think it can make a big difference.”

“When we heard about coronavirus, we wanted to get ahead of this and wanted to test our product and its effectiveness against viruses, so we sent our product to our testing laboratory partner in Minnesota and said we want to do a virus-specific test.”

After all, he explained, while experts like the CDC and Fauci tout proper hand hygiene as the best defense against the spread of germs, it’s important to not forget the role of complete drying as well.

“Everyone talks about washing your hands for 20 seconds, but nobody talks about drying your hands,” Bill said. “You have to completely dry them. Wet hands are 1,000 times more susceptible to pick up or transfer germs. Drying hands is critical.”

Essentially Speaking

So are Excel’s operations, even in the midst of an economic shutdown, he added.

“We were in the same situation of a lot of other small businesses; when the federal guidelines came out and it was up to the states to put out their guidances, there were a lot of general categories” for what constitutes an essential service during the pandemic, he explained.

Excel seemed to fit multiple categories, Bill told BusinessWest; not only is hygiene important during a viral outbreak, but the company has contracts with the federal government to supply its product, which can boost a company’s chances to be deemed essential.

“There’s critical manufacturing, but for us, we’re such a niche market, no one calls out hand dryers specifically,” he went on. “But we felt like we fit under multiple categories, and that’s why we reached out to Congressman Neal’s office. We wanted to do everything we could to make sure we we’re doing the right thing, and they helped us with that. And when the state of Massachusetts put out their second round, a revision to the essential-services list, hygiene actually had its own category … and we’re certainly a critical part of that. So, yes, absolutely, we’re essential.”

And part of a mobile hand-drying solution that promises to reduce the spread of infection, Neal said. “There are simple things we can do in life to get through this, and they are going to be very important to us going forward.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

NORTHAMPTON — Home City Development Inc. (HCDI), a Springfield-based affordable-housing development organization, was awarded $2.88 million and seven project-based vouchers by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Funds were awarded for renovations of New South Street Apartments, an 18-unit historic building located at 24-34 New South St. in Northampton. Project-based vouchers and supportive service funds will provide housing for seven homeless families. In addition, the city of Northampton awarded $50,000 of Community Development Block Grant funds for this project. 

“Home City Development is proud to provide quality affordable housing and supportive services in Northampton for homeless individuals and families,” said Peter Serafino, director of Real Estate Development at HCDI. “Gov. Baker, Lt. Gov. Polito, and the staff at DHCD understand the many challenges families face in finding housing. Home City Development would like to recognize and thank these Massachusetts leaders, as well as state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, state Sen. Jo Comerford, and Mayor Narkewicz, for funding the New South Street Apartments improvements.”

Homeless households will be selected from the Three County Continuum of Care Coordinated Entry system. This system includes Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire county emergency-assistance shelters and other assistance organizations. HCDI will provide case management and related support services for residents at New South Street Apartments, including those who were formerly homeless. 

HCDI is working with Architecture EL as project architect and Henry General Contractors as contractor. Renovation work is expected to begin this fall and take about nine months to complete.

Home City Development Inc. is a nonprofit, resident-centered developer of multi-family and mixed-use properties in Western Mass. HCDI was founded as Better Homes Inc. in 1968 by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Over more than 50 years, HCDI has worked to facilitate community stability and growth in collaboration with numerous partners and residents.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV) announced a virtual discussion with local leaders from different sectors about how they are leading during COVID-19, what is needed, and what we can expect. The event will be held on Tuesday, May 5 from noon to 1 p.m. on Zoom.

Speakers for “Letting Leadership Shine” include Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Justin Hurst, Springfield city councilor; Joanne Marqusee, president of Cooley Dickinson Hospital; Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College; and Katie Allan Zobel, executive director of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. Other speakers will be announced.

“These unprecedented times are putting a real strain on everyone, but especially leaders,” said Lora Wondolowski, Leadership Pioneer Valley’s executive director. “We are excited to hear from local leaders on how they are leading and their forecasts for their sectors.”

To register or for more information on sessions, visit www.leadershippv.org.

COVID-19 Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Freedom Credit Union (FCU) announced a donation of $55,000 to be dispersed among several community organizations at the front lines of the local fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The coronavirus crisis has required that the entire community come together in response,” FCU President and CEO Glenn Welch said. “At Freedom, we wanted to honor those organizations that are at the center of the community response and contribute to the resources they need to help others during the pandemic.”

FCU announced that the following slate of organizations will receive a portion of the $55,000 donation: Baystate Health Foundation; Mercy Medical Center; Cooley Dickinson Health Care; the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts; Hampshire Hospitality Group, whose Hampshire County Heroes feed first responders in Hampshire County; and Feed the Fight, an initiative of Peter Pan Bus Lines and area restaurants to feed healthcare workers and first responders in the community.

Welch indicated that FCU will continue to assist the community throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to these community donations, Welch said FCU has offered resources to its individual members intended to provide financial assistance or relief during the crisis, including online banking services and the new Freedom Relief Loan, which provides up to $10,000 to members dealing with consequences of the pandemic, including layoffs, furloughs, and bills.

In addition, FCU’s Skip-a-Pay program allows members with a consumer loan — auto, mortgage, home equity, or home improvement — to defer payments up to 90 days. Members should contact their local branch for details. FCU can also work with member businesses needing financial relief on their specific circumstances. Business members should speak with the Member Business Lending department. For contact information, visit freedom.coop.

“Community and member support is a central tenet of Freedom’s work,” Welch said. “And there’s never been a more important time to give back. We’re grateful for the courageous and critical work being done by doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other first responders, as well as everyday heroes like grocery and restaurant workers, mail carriers, and delivery people. They are truly essential and appreciated, and we’re proud to join this effort to assist the entire community at a time of great need.”

Coronavirus

Trial by Fire

STCC respiratory-care students

STCC respiratory-care students Stefani Glukhova and Max La work at Baystate Medical Center.

Tallon Tomasi used to punch the same clock everyone else does when starting her shift as an LPN at the Leavitt Family Jewish Home in Longmeadow.

Not anymore. Because she works in a COVID-positive unit at the skilled-nursing facility, she enters by a different way than those in the negative units.

“Now, when we come in, we do this check-in system where we wash our hands, get our temperatures taken, we’re asked about symptoms related to COVID, about recent travels, recent exposure to people who have traveled. Then we get our gear, we wash our hands, and go to work.”

As a nursing student at Holyoke Community College, Tomasi is just beginning her healthcare career, and doing so right on the front lines of a global pandemic the likes of which haven’t been seen in more than a century.

Some aspects of it are tough to bear.

“The thing that’s very hard is not having family members being able to come in and see their loved ones as we are going through this difficult time,” she told BusinessWest. “Some of our patients have dementia, and not being able to see their families, it is challenging.”

“The thing that’s very hard is not having family members being able to come in and see their loved ones as we are going through this difficult time. Some of our patients have dementia, and not being able to see their families, it is challenging.”

That said, “I think our facility has done a good job,” she went on. “We do phone calls with family, and we do FaceTime, so I think that helps a little bit. But not being able to physically touch loved ones is hard for some of the patients and their family members.”

Tomasi paused to consider what else has been challenging about working in healthcare during the time of COVID-19.

“Everyone is so fearful of not knowing what’s going to happen,” she finally said. “That’s a big problem. We are not fully aware of how this thing will go, how to treat it, so the new big problem is fear — fear of the unknown. We don’t know everything about it, there’s anxiety around it, and I sometimes get scared because I know that I have the ability to spread it. But you know what has to be done — you have to help.”

With graduation — such as it is this year — just around the corner, many more nurses and other healthcare professionals are getting ready to transition from college into full-time work, but they’re facing an uncertain job market when so much of the sector’s energy is tied up in simply containing the pandemic.

“I checked in with some of our soon-to-be-graduates, and as far as the job market goes, I would say it’s pretty much up in the air and confusing,” said Kathleen Scoble, dean of the School of Nursing at Elms College.

On one hand, she noted, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital just down I-91 have responded “pretty expeditiously” to graduating seniors, several of whom landed positions right away. On the other hand, Baystate Medical Center has informed applicants that its new-graduate nursing program, traditionally a very popular landing spot for Elms grads, has been postponed.

Brooke Hallowell

Brooke Hallowell

“We have mechanisms to do more triage and problem solving with patients before they come to a place where they’re exposing themselves to others.”

But the need is great, she added, and Elms President Harry Dumay agreed, adding, “I’m proud of being part of this sector and proud of not only our institution, but all students and graduates on the front lines during these difficult times.”

Even if, as we’ll see, it can be a little challenging getting to those front lines.

Field Work

For Springfield Technical Community College, which boasts the largest health-simulation center in the Northeast, students not having access to campus means not being able to use those tools in their training, President John Cook said.

“That does hinder the potential of our students to finish, graduate, and work in these fields, which, if they weren’t in demand before, are certainly in demand now.”

That’s a major factor in nursing right now, Scoble said.

“If you ask students what our major responsibility is, it’s preparing them for licensure; it’s our primary responsibility as a program, to make sure they meet all their graduation requirements. And that has been a keen challenge the last semester; all of our clinical learning experiences were canceled — understandably.”

Carol Leary, president of Bay Path College, also noted that nursing students have had their clinicals put off — and there’s only so much that can be accomplished online.

“For me, that is a concern because many of them need to sit for their licensing exams before they can begin to work,” she said. “The accrediting bodies are trying to work with all the programs across the country to figure out how students can sit for exams.”

Scoble noted that only one testing site is open in the entire state where nursing students can take their licensing exam, known as the NCLEX, and that site is following CDC requirements for social distancing. “So you can imagine, with thousands of nursing graduates in the state, how long it will take for them to test the class of 2020. But they’re trying to open as many sites as they can.”

In Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance when shuttering the Massachusetts economy in March, language was included allowing new nurses to practice without a license, if supervised by a professional nurse of equal or higher education.

“It’s really up to the employers how they would receive a new graduate who is not licensed, how they would recruit and receive them,” Scoble said. “We would provide any supporting documentation they would require.

“I checked in with some of our soon-to-be-graduates, and as far as the job market goes, I would say it’s pretty much up in the air and confusing.”

In the past, she explained, a typical student would agree to a position in early spring, then take the exam in June and start work around July.

“All that is unknown right now. Students would say the only thing they can control is finishing the program and preparing for NCLEX. We’re stressing to our soon-to-be-graduates to prepare for the NCLEX — and continue to prepare — until they have the opportunity to sit for the exam.”

In a similar situation, three respiratory-care students from STCC recently began working at Baystate Medical Center after applying for and receiving limited permit licenses, said Esther Perrelli Brookes, director and department chair of the Respiratory Care program. Eight other students have applied for limited permit licenses so they can work in the field.

“Students chose to study respiratory care because they want to help people. They want to make a difference,” Perrelli Brookes said. “I’m extremely proud of my students who are stepping up during this unprecedented health crisis. I’ve had many students reach out to say they want to find out what they can do now. I’ve been helping them get their limited permit licenses.”

“I was one of the first in my class to do it,” student Max La said. “It’s a good learning experience because other respiratory therapists are there and you can learn from them.”

The limited permit license means he can perform certain tasks, but not everything a fully licensed respiratory care therapist would do. “We can’t touch the ventilators,” he said, referring to the devices that some seriously ill COVID-19 patients use in hospitals.

At Baystate, La does not work with COVID-19 patients, but must wear a gown, mask, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and he said Baystate takes precautions to protect him and others from contracting the coronavirus. “There’s always concern, but Baystate has a good policy. Everyone has masks, and they do temperature checks when everyone is walking in.”

STCC’s respiratory care program trains students skills in treatment, management, diagnosis and care of patients with breathing problems associated with diseases such as COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists will continue to be in high demand at hospitals and medical facilities, with job growth of 21% projected between 2018 and 2028 — and that was before COVID-19 wrought what is essentially a respiratory crisis around the globe.

Seeds of Change

Demand should remain high in many health fields, said Brooke Hallowell, dean of the School of Health Sciences at Springfield College, though it may be uneven in the short term. Take physical and occupational therapists — in emergency-care settings, they’re playing an important role in patient care. But those who work with post-surgical patients for, say, joint replacement may find work more intermittent as many elective procedures are being postponed.

One area of growth is in the realm of telehealth, she added. “All of our health professionals are going through a rapid transition in terms of telehealth access, and Medicare and insurance companies are adjusting their policies related to telehealth, and reimbursement for telehealth visits is being revamped.”

These efforts are intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the lessons being learned may be long-term, Hallowell noted.

“Instead of waiting in a room full of sick people to be seen at the doctor’s office, we have mechanisms to do more triage and problem solving with patients before they come to a place where they’re exposing themselves to others. I think this is here to stay … how we carry out our practices will be changing in big ways.”

Interest in some health programs may shift as well, she added. For example, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, a specialty within physical therapy, is getting more attention for the vital role it plays in COVID-19 treatment. And Springfield College is probably launching its new undergraduate program in public health this fall at the right time, too.

“We expect that will be a popular major, as people become more aware of what public health and epidemiology are,” Hallowell said. “That’s good timing for us.”

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, told BusinessWest that a great deal of first responders, nurses, and other healthcare workers have taken classes at community colleges like HCC at some point.

“When I think about our role in ensuring that we have the workforce talent we need in healthcare, which is the primary sector in Western Mass., I think it’s important that we continue to think about the kind of training we’re doing and how to continue to support this community.”

Scoble doesn’t foresee a time when nursing is not an in-demand profession.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to experience over the next few months,” she said. “A lot has to do with how we come back as a country, as a state, and as a community, but I have no doubt that every single one of my graduates will land a position at some point. If this was a normal period of time, a normal spring, many of the graduates would be on the fringe of accepting a position. They would have had interviews and been called back. Right now, a lot of that is at a standstill.”

When they do land jobs, Scoble added, “they’ll have the knowledge and skills and competencies, but lack a great deal of experience. So my number-one concern is, will they enter a work environment where they have the kinds of orientation and support they need? It’s definitely a concern.”

Stefani Glukhova, one of STCC’s respiratory-care students who started working at Baystate in March, may put some of those concerns to bed.

“All the staff here are very kind and generous and are always willing to help you,” she said. “As it gets busier at the hospital with fighting COVID-19, the registered respiratory therapists work around the clock to help fight the virus. My fellow classmates and I do our very best to be available and help out with treatments, floor therapies such as chest physical therapy, and much more.

“This is an amazing learning experience that I would recommend,” she concluded — even if it comes during a pandemic that no one would ever recommend.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Mixed Bag

Matt Sosik helped Char Gentes

Matt Sosik helped Char Gentes secure a PPP loan through bankESB that kept Riverside Industries employees paid for eight weeks

Char Gentes calls the Paycheck Protection Program “a lifeline.” Her nearly 200 employees no doubt agree.

Gentes is the president and CEO of Riverside Industries, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, helping them find ways to achieve daily independence, from securing and maintaining jobs to undertaking activities like voting and going to the store.

In mid-March, the organization was shut down by the same mandate that has shuttered the doors on countless businesses and nonprofits across Massachusetts. Four weeks later, Riverside hadn’t laid anyone off — but that situation was unsustainable.

“We had been keeping our employees paid as we were waiting to hear what the state reimbursement was going to be; actually, a lot of nonprofits were doing that,” Gentes told BusinessWest. “The senior management, myself, and the board were all on the same page — we wanted to keep our employees home, we wanted to have their back, and we wanted, as much as possible, to continue to pay them 100% and make sure they had health insurance. These human-service workers are often people who live paycheck to paycheck.”

When bankESB approved a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to Riverside Industries, Gentes could breathe a little easier, as the loan will allow it to pay its employees for the next eight weeks.

“We’re grateful for those eight weeks, and we certainly hope to be able to open our doors sometime in June,” she said.

While Riverside’s Easthampton facilities are closed, its mission has not stopped, as the organization continues working with clients under a new remote service model. Without the PPP loan, Gentes said that she would be facing some difficult decisions on how to keep her organization operational.

That contrast — between desperation and relief — explains why so many small businesses are frustrated with the PPP, which quickly ran out of money, and also generated plenty of confusion in the banks where business owners applied for loans.

The PPP is a small-business stimulus program included in the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The PPP initially provided $349 billion for U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) lenders like bankESB to fund loans to businesses in order to guarantee eight weeks of payroll and other costs to help businesses remain viable. To qualify, businesses must have 500 or fewer employees and demonstrate that they have been negatively affected by COVID-19.

When the $349 billion ran out in less than two weeks, the shortfall generated an immediate outcry — not only for a second infusion of funding, but because of news that large, national companies were claiming tens of millions in PPP funds while small businesses couldn’t get access.

That second round of funding — $310 billion in total, approved by the U.S. Congress on April 22 — may not last much longer, but banks have likely learned lessons from the first round.

Sense of Urgency

Matt Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB, remembers those first days of the PPP well.

“It was harrowing. They did, in fact, rush it because they felt the urgency … but the program was not ready for prime time,” he recalled. “When it rolled out, a lot of people were frustrated, but — and I’m not trying to sound defensive — I wish people wouldn’t blame local banks. We were in the dark; the customers knew what we knew, and it wasn’t enough. They didn’t provide enough instruction.

“In the end, we made it out on the other side, and we got caught up,” Sosik told BusinessWest in mid-April, noting that the three banks in the Hometown Financial Group family, including bankESB, approved $100 million under the program, and spent the next week getting money into the hands of the people who were approved.

“It was very, very difficult — a massive amount of work by our employees. They kept grinding and got us out on the other side of things,” he said.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reported that, following the PPP launch, the SBA processed more than 14 years’ worth of loans in less than 14 days.

“The PPP enjoyed broad-based participation across the country from lenders of all sizes and a wide array of industries and businesses,” he noted. “From its start on April 3, PPP provided payroll assistance to more than 1.6 million small businesses in all 50 states and territories. Nearly 5,000 lenders participated in this critical program, including significant lending by community banks and credit unions. Nearly 20% of the amount approved was processed by lenders with less than $1 billion in assets, and approximately 60% of the loans were approved by banks with $10 billion of assets or less. No lender accounted for more than 5% of the total dollar amount of the program.”

“It was harrowing. They did, in fact, rush it because they felt the urgency … but the program was not ready for prime time.”

The majority of these loans — 74% — were for under $150,000, he noted, but that didn’t stop a swell of outrage following reports of large companies, from Ruth’s Chris Steak House to Hallidor Energy, claiming eight-figure PPP loans.

Few in Washington balked at the need for additional funding. The second round of $310 billion is part of a larger, $480 billion relief package that also includes money for hospitals and expanded COVID-19 testing. Of the $310 billion, $60 billion will be set aside for smaller lending facilities, including community financial institutions; small, insured depository institutions; and credit unions with assets under $10 billion.

The Next Wave

Bankers hope for a smoother process getting the new funds approved.

“It got off to a rocky start and got a lot of bad press — I Googled and found maybe one story with a remotely positive angle to it,” Sosik said, before coming back to Riverside Industries. “This is a story about the good parts of humanity — the work Riverside does and our ability to play a small role in helping them stay alive. They do such incredible work, such necessary work.

“Riverside is a strong organization financially,” he went on. “It’s just that, when funding isn’t coming in, it doesn’t have a war chest to keep dipping into.”

As for Gentes, she’s hoping the loan helps her not only take care of employees, but prepare them to return when the governor says it’s OK to open the doors and restart person-to-person services.

“When we’re ready, we need our workforce to come back, and we need them to be ready to come back,” she said, adding that the organization’s roughly 150 clients are called once a week, maybe twice, to make sure they’re OK. “We’re in the process of developing remote learning, and assessing what each client has available to them in terms of technology to make this happen.”

Countless other small businesses and nonprofits have equally pressing needs, and could use a lifeline, she told BusinessWest. “Without it, a lot of nonprofits will go under.”

Sosik likes hearing that.

“I have to admit, it’s heartwarming to make a difference,” he said. “And I’ve heard some other good stories. There’s so much uncertainty — ‘I’ve put all my blood, sweat, and tears into my business; is it all over for me?’ To relieve that pressure has been a heartwarming experience for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Shaky Ground

Curtis Edgin

Curtis Edgin says the status of jobs often comes down to how far along in the pipeline they are.

Kevin Rothschild-Shea had just gotten off a conference call with employees of his company, Architecture EL in East Longmeadow — one of many he’s undertaken since his team begam working largely remotely.

“We’re doing well. We’ve jumped to working remotely and continue to function,” he said. “We’re maintaining our focus on multi-family and affordable housing, which has been strong, and we’re fortunate to have a number of projects.”

Looking 12 to 24 months out, the outlook is a bit murkier.

“We’re fortunate to have a lot of work in the pipeline, but we’re definitely seeing a reduction in new work and jobs starting out,” he told BusinessWest. “Quite a number of projects have been put on hold given the economic and COVID climate, so we’re seeing new projects hit ‘pause’ to a greater or lesser degree.

“We feel pretty comfortable with the workload right now, but when we look down the road, there are definitely concerns,” Rothschild-Shea went on. “We just want to keep everyone working and employed, keep everyone safe, and keep doing what we do.”

Curtis Edgin, president of Caolo & Bieniek Associates in Chicopee, told a similar story as he keeps in contact with his team remotely as well.

“We’re still busy — it’s not quite as efficient as working side by side and collaborating,” he said, adding quickly that his team has had no problem managing a number of projects currently in the pipeline. After that, though…

“We’re fortunate to have a lot of work in the pipeline, but we’re definitely seeing a reduction in new work and jobs starting out.”

“I think there will be a long-term impact in that people will be afraid — or forced, based on economic reasons, to slow down — until things stabilize and get back to where they need to be,” he said. “Right now, it’s hard to ask taxpayers or a corporation to spend additional money when they’re worried about other things.

“For the near term, we’re going to be busy, then we’ll probably see a slowdown,” Edgin went on. “That’s more of a long-term impact that will eventually correct itself like any other construction cycle.”

That’s the hope, anyway. Meanwhile, as definitive answers about the eventual length of the economic shutdown, and the damage it will cause, are difficult to assess right now, firms continue to plan for an uncertain future.

Moving Forward

Edgin said Caolo & Bieniek has plenty projects in various phases, and how the pandemic affects individual project can vary dramatically between jobs.

“Some projects are able to maintain their schedule,” he noted. “One of our school projects is going on, there’s a lot of site work, so nothing keeps people from working at different ends of the site. At some other projects, interior ones, [COVID-19] is starting to impact the ability to perform the work if people are working side by side. It depends on the project.”

On the municipal side, he explained, everything that needs to be voter-approved going forward — that is, when city and town halls begin ramping back up — may be a harder sell, an any tax increases during these times of sudden unemployment will be met with resistance.

“On the flip side, with the interest rates being so low, now is a wonderful time to continue,” Edgin added. “Many of these municipalities have already secured the approval of taxpayers, selectmen, or whoever makes the decision to actually move forward, and a lot of them getting really great financing rates, getting a lot of mileage out of their dollar.”

On the private commercial side, many companies and developers will wait for the dust to settle. “If they’re already committed, if we’re already moving forward, typically they keep going. If they’re just about to move on a project, maybe they have just a little hesitation.”

Kevin Rothschild-Shea

Kevin Rothschild-Shea says his firm is on solid footing in the short term, but expects work across the industry to slow somewhat after that.

In addition to its usual array of multi-family and affordable-housing projects, Architecture EL has been tackling, among other things, a Holyoke project with Local 104 Plumbers and Pipefitters and a project for Theodores’ in downtown Springfield.

“They’ve had significant slowdowns, as all restaurants have, but continue to look down the road at their overall restaurant needs, and they’re looking to keep that project on track,” Rothschild-Shea said. Meanwhile, he understands that other businesses will respond to the current economic climate by tapping the brakes and preserving cash flow.

The architecture world has responded to the COVID-19 crisis in other ways, too. For example, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched a task force to help inform public officials, healthcare-facility owners, and architects on adapting buildings into temporary healthcare facilities.

“On a daily basis, I am hearing from our architects who feel a deep sense of moral duty to support our healthcare providers on the front lines of this pandemic,” AIA President Jane Frederick wrote on the AIA website. “As our communities assess buildings to address growing surge capacity, we hope this task force will be a resource to ensure buildings are appropriately and safely adapted for our doctors and nurses.” 

“I think there will be a long-term impact in that people will be afraid — or forced, based on economic reasons, to slow down — until things stabilize and get back to where they need to be.”

The task force has developed a model of ‘rapid-response safety space asssessment’ for AIA members that will include considerations for the suitability of buildings, spaces, and other sites for patient care.

“This is a race against time for healthcare facilities to meet bed surge-capacity needs,” Kirsten Waltz, president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health and director of Facilities, Planning, and Design for Baystate Health, also noted on the website. “This task force will help inform best practices for quickly assessing building inventory and identifying locations that are most appropriate to be adapted for this crisis.”

Waiting Game

Meanwhile, life goes on for local firms like Architecture EL, even if the team can’t see each other face to face.

“We see a little loss of efficiency in terms of communicating, trying to connect with the team, but we’re doing well on that front,” Rothschild-Shea said, adding that he conducts at least three project-management conference calls a week. “I’m looking forward to the camaraderie of working together.”

He believes companies, in architecture and elsewhere, will take lessons from these many weeks of remote work, many of them positive, if only an understanding the capabilities technology-supported teams have to do things more efficiently.

“It’s a whole different way of working,” he added. “We’re already looking down the road at the so-called recovery and how we will reintegrate and get back to work. But we expect there will be some changes for the better. We’re trying to look at the positives.”

Edgin said Caolo & Bieniek, like other firms, is able to keep employees busy in the short team because of the long arc of many projects, but no one can really predict the impact of a sustained economic shutdown.

“It’s different here than in retail, where you need to have someone coming through the door purchasing something to pay the sales clerk,” he noted. “We’ve got things in the works in the near term. As for the more intermediate term and the future … we’ll see.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

Hard Lessons

Vacant Elms College Campus

‘Extraordinary.’ That’s how one area college president described the massive shift to online learning that colleges and universities nationwide were forced to undertake back in March. And he’s right. But these are extraordinary times — and beyond the questions about when students can safety return to campus, and concerns about declining enrollment and revenues going forward, are a series of equally extraordinary conversations about what higher education might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, and why.

Back in March, when colleges and universities everywhere began sending students home, the obvious question was, ‘when will they come back?’

That’s still the question — or, more accurately, one of many, many pressing questions.

Here’s another one: when students do eventually come back, how many will not? At a time when enrollment is already declining nationally, mainly due to smaller high-school graduating classes, some trade groups, like the American Council on Education, are predicting a national enrollment drop of 15% this fall, higher for international students.

“On one hand, it could be anxiety about students returning to the campus environment or students wanting to take a pause and see how things are going,” said Harry Dumay president of Elms College. “Then, their financial circumstances might make it difficult for them — although, with the stimulus funds, we are working with families to help them with those concerns.”

Dumay said Elms leaders are preparing for all contingencies when it comes to how and where summer and fall classes will be delivered, though it seems likely that at least the initial summer sessions, starting in May, will have to be remote.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue. Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

“What’s less certain is what will happen in the fall. A number of factors go into making this decision, beginning, of course, with when it’s safe for our students, safe for our employees and faculty, and safe for the general public,” he noted, adding that Elms leadership constantly tracks the guidelines it receives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will not reopen the campus if doing so would provide an opportunity for the pandemic to spike, even if the curve is starting to flatten now.

Working in Elms’ favor, he noted, is the fact that it draws mainly from the Greater Springfield region, and in this current environment, graduating high-school seniors, whether in 2020 or 2021, and their families might prefer to choose a college closer to home.

“Those are discussions seniors and their parents are making around the kitchen table,” Dumay said. “We are certainly working with all of those students who have been admitted to Elms, trying to answer their questions so they can continue to pursue their dreams in a safe manner, and guide them in making those critical decisions in this critical time.”

From its perspective, Elms — and all colleges, for that matter — is making contingency plans of its own if enrollment does come in lower than the target.

“We’ll have a plan-A budget, a plan-B budget, and a plan-C budget. But Elms is on solid financial footing. We’re not wealthy — we don’t have a large endowment — but the institution is financially healthy, and we can withstand some shock in enrollment.”

Carol Leary, who is stepping down in June after 25 years as president of Bay Path University, certainly didn’t expect to spend her final weeks communicating with her staff remotely.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue,” Leary said of … well, virtually all colleges and universities. “Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

With that in mind, she said, “everyone is doing their business-continuity planning and deciding what to do if there’s a decrease in enrollment for the fall. It’s on the table for most institutions, and certainly, at Bay Path, we’re talking about it. But we’re very well-placed in some ways; we usually use 4% or less of our endowment on operating costs. Obviously, when enrollment goes down, it will hit schools harder that rely more heavily on their endowment for the operating budget. I’m not sure that’s going to be an issue here.”

That said, Bay Path may freeze hiring and not fill open positions that aren’t absolutely essential, Leary said, while curtailing travel in the short term as well. “Every institution is looking at how the budget is crafted and may have to make some tough decisions — maybe even some furloughs and layoffs in the future.”

At the same time, she added, most institutions will have to start looking at themselves through a different lens — a topic she recently wrote about in an article marking 25 years in the president’s chair. Specifically, how can higher education, with its ever-spiraling costs, better reach and serve the majority of Americans, including those in lower income strata?

“I think the model and the cost are definitely areas that will change in the future, and the COVID crisis has forced all of us to look internally at how to begin to address those two issues,” she said.

With that, she raised perhaps the most intriguing question of all — how will higher education look when it emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and students do return to campus? Because most in this critical industry — and all four area presidents BusinessWest spoke with for this story — don’t believe it’s going to be status quo.

Digital Dilemma

Before considering those questions, John Cook took a moment to appreciate what a momentous challenge it has been for an entire nation’s higher-education system to go online with very little preparation.

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment forecasts and developing budget options that consider all contingencies.

“It’s been extraordinary for higher education, and certainly at STCC, to make such a comprehensive change,” said Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College. He explained that the college, like most others in Western Mass., was fortunate to be able to leverage spring break to transition to distance learning.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said it was a challenge to help 4,500 students, many of whom had never experienced online learning, to become familiar with all the technology, software, and scheduling. At the same time, many students were losing their jobs — for example, in restaurants and hospitality — and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity among lower-income students.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that,” she said, adding that HCC has hooked students up with Chromebooks and other equipment as needed. “I’ve done several town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, and meetings with students, to answer their questions and validate their feelings and acknowledge the uncertainty they’re feeling.”

Dumay was similarly thankful for the spring-break cushion that gave professors extra time to adapt their courses to the online environment.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that.”

“The faculty were amazing, and they turned it around,” he said. “The courses are being delivered in different ways — some are using live Zoom sessions, some are using asynchronous Zoom sessions, and some used narrated PowerPoint delivery that students can access on their own time.”

Elms recently reached out to all students to poll them on how classes were going, and 30% responded, Dumay said. Of those, the vast majority said they had what they needed to continue their learning online, while about 2.5% reported difficulty with Internet access. In response, Elms is keeping its library open for that reason — with social-distancing measures in place, of course.

“More than 86% feel confident being successful in the online environment; some students said this is a lot more work,” Dumay said, conceding that in-person learning is preferable in most cases, and for myriad reasons. “Elms is a lot more than being academically successful. Part of the value proposition for Elms College is its small, very intimate environment that emphasizes growth of the whole person — the spiritual component, the psychosocial component.”

Trying to replicate that online is difficult, Dumay said, but the college is doing what it can to build an online community where students can connect with each other and access the campus resources they need.

Perhaps no institution in the region was more prepared for the online transition than Bay Path, which has been offering its graduate programs almost entirely online since 2006, and its undergraduate American Women’s College is totally online as well. Leary feels like that’s a path forward to help all students afford an education.

“There will always be people who can afford institutions like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, but the majority of Americans can’t afford that type of education,” she said. “That’s why we’ve created a very low-cost model in the American Women’s College, putting together a well-crafted curriculum and a model that supports students, so very few will fall through the cracks.”

For now, she added, the percentage of classes that will continue online is up in the air.

“Most of us are thinking that summer school will be online, and then then we start looking at the fall. Even if social distancing is lifted, we don’t know what the impact on the college will be — on the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining rooms. As we look to the fall, we’ll be prepared to open, and we’ll also be prepared to go online. We have to be nimble.”

Profit and Loss

Leaders of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have kept in touch about when they might open campuses up, and even then, under what kind of social-distancing parameters, Royal said. As for summer programs, HCC’s first session has already been moved fully online, but because a handful of second-session classes will be more difficult to deliver remotely, that decision is in limbo — not to mention what will happen in the fall.

Christina Royal says many students are dealing

Christina Royal says many students are dealing with not just a shift to online classes, but job loss and food and housing insecurity.

“It’s hard to say definitively what the situation will be in September or October,” she told BusinessWest. “What I’m trying to do is position us so that, whatever the situation, we can pivot on very short notice, and respond even faster than we did this time around, because all the parameters are in place to do so.”

Cook said STCC is currently modeling enrollment projections and working with trustees on a budget that takes into consideration a possible enrollment hit. He noted, however, that community colleges in Massachusetts tend to do well during economic downturns.

Royal noted that trend as well. “We run counter-cyclical to the economy. When the economy starts to go down, people start thinking, ‘what do I need to retool myself, and how can I prepare for a career change?’ — and our enrollment goes up.”

She noted the trend becomes noticeable about 12 months after a recession begins, and, indeed, 2010 — the height of the Great Recession, which began in late 2008 — was HCC’s most recent enrollment peak; as the economy has improved, enrollment has steadily declined.

The question, both she and Cook said, is whether the same rules apply in the current environment, which is not a slow-building recession, but a full-stop economic shutdown that could, in turn, lead to an extended economic lull.

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment,” Royal said. “It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

One wild card in the mix is what she called the “emotional recovery” from what’s happening now. “People have been jarred to their core; they’re concerned about their own safety and concerned about engaging in the world.”

That said, HCC was already planning for a 5% enrollment reduction this fall — largely due to demographic trends — but is now thinking in terms of 10%. “We have to plan for that contingency, and we have to deliver a balanced budget to the trustees. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment. It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

If enrollment does decline by 15% nationally, that represents a $23 billion revenue loss for colleges — money that will be only partly offset by government relief funds. For example, more than 80 colleges and universities in Massachusetts will collectively receive more than $270 million as part of a federal relief package intended to help schools and students during the pandemic. UMass Amherst tops that list with an estimated $18.3 million in aid. Nationally, the Higher Education Relief Fund allocated $12.5 billion to 5,125 colleges and universities.

Collectively, the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts will receive $48.8 million in aid — certainly a help, but not enough to ease enrollment concerns going forward. Cook agreed with Royal that community colleges shouldn’t assume the sort of enrollment bump they usually see during recessions, even though they offer a more affordable model than private, residential colleges.

“This isn’t like any economic downturn the nation has ever experienced in the past, even the Great Recession,” he said. “Because of the public-health impact on people’s lives, it’s hard to assume enrollment will be up in the near future. People are dealing with so much else in their lives, they’re not able to turn their attention to education and workforce development.”

Future Shock

If there’s a positive lesson from the pandemic to bring into the future, Royal said, it’s the massive potential of technology to streamline education and make it more affordable and accessible.

“What’s happening now isn’t online learning; it’s emergency remote learning. I don’t want people to think that someone having to pivot and put together course materials with one or two weeks notice to deliver for the second half of the semester is the bar of online learning,” said Royal, who has a Ph.D. in instructional design and spent years heading up distance learning for a large community college in Ohio.

“I think of the potential for more innovative learning designs, highly interactive simulation labs augmented in virtual reality — those are more sophisticated than what we see in online courses now,” she added. “I believe the promise of online learning will be realized someday, but that’s going to require more inclusion and investment and professional development to really expose our educators to the possibilities.”

Some good can come out of every crisis, Leary said, citing in particular the rise of telemedicine, which will likely get a permanent boost from the COVID-19 crisis, as well as companies learning the value of remote work, lower emissions generating cleaner air in cities right now, and, yes, a greater focus on how to not only teach students remotely, but do it better.

Another takeaway, Royal said, might be a new focus on process improvement that extends well beyond remote learning. “If something takes six steps but we’ve learned how to do it in three, why are we going back to six? So, when we open our doors again, we’ll be looking at how we can streamline processes — and how to offer more virtual services in general.”

She’s not speaking about classes here; rather, it’s the routine business of paying bills, getting forms signed, and other administrative functions. “They might want to do that remotely, at 8 in the evening, at their computer, while they’re thinking about it. So, I see a lot of room for process improvement and streamlining student services overall.”

STCC is also learning it can offer value through streamlining its admissions, enrollment, and financial-aid operations online, “to make it more seamless for our students to work through the experience of getting into college and staying with the college,” Cook said — even while continuing to promote the face-to-face value of its campus advising center.

Meanwhile, through the online transition, “we’ve learned that we can move pretty quickly,” Cook said. “Sometimes higher education gets painted as slow to respond, slow to adapt, but we’ve demonstrated that we can move quickly and with a degree of grace when we need to.”

Dumay said lessons learned from the COVID-19 shutdown might change college life in America in ways both good and bad. On the positive side, while online learning can’t replicate the important interpersonal development built by campus life, going online has demonstrated there is a bigger place than college leaders might have imagined for remote programs.

“This will alleviate a lot of the fears people have about the efficacy of online learning. They’ll realize they can do it where it works, so we can have a lot more learning in the online environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean education will move completely online. The residential experience is a rite of passage for the growth of a lot of American youth. It would be a loss if we didn’t return to that at some point in the future.”

More worrisome, Dumay said, is the potential this crisis has to shut down many schools completely.

“It may be that some don’t make it and close their doors,” he said, noting that the most vulnerable colleges include many that serve lower-income, first-generation students, often students of color. “If higher education became less accessible, that would be an unfortunate casualty of this pandemic.”

Grade: Incomplete

The presidents who spoke with BusinessWest had a lot to say — much, much more than could fit in this story — but, while their comments were insightful, they were in many cases less than definitive. After all, it’s hard to speak definitively about a pandemic — and an economic shutdown — that offer no sure timeline.

“Within our student body and our employees, people are really hoping for clarity — that’s the element in short supply right now,” Cook said. “As we continue to work with these health guidelines, as we flatten the curve and pay attention to social distancing, when and how will that allow us to get back to some version of where our value lies — leveraging on-campus resources like labs and simulation?

“No one knows when we’ll get back to leveraging those resources,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of hope around that — and worry, because those are incredible resources for our students.”

In short, it’s impossible to deliver all the value a college offers over a computer screen, from miles away. In the meantime, everyone is learning valuable lessons — which is, after all, the point of higher education.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19

Play Another Day

That’s the way the ball bounces — at least when a major regional sporting event gets upended by a global pandemic.

Given the sweeping impacts of COVID-19, and with no timeline in place for reopening the region’s economy and tourism, organizers of Hooplandia, the planned 3-on-3 basketball tournament and festival scheduled for this June, announced that the event has been postponed to 2021.

At the same time, the organizers reaffirmed their commitment to the event in 2021, and, in creating a legacy celebration for the Springfield region and the birthplace of basketball, outlined a series of smaller events in 2020 to engage the community and build momentum toward next year. The newly scheduled dates for Hooplandia are June 25-27, 2021, with games hosted by the Big E Fairgrounds and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Boys and Girls Clubs in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut will remain the lead philanthropic recipient of the event, which was slated to host 2,500 teams and 10,000 players.

“We are heartbroken that the road to Hooplandia has been closed to us in 2020, but we are fully committed and excited about bringing this to life in 2021,” said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of Eastern States Exposition. “There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from businesses, community partners and organizations, and basketball fans from throughout the Northeast, and we are grateful for validating this vision and being a part of it. While we cannot properly structure and execute the event this year because of these extraordinary circumstances, we are already working on our plans for next year.”

Added John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, “from the beginning, the intent has been to build a legacy event that will last and grow for decades, celebrating basketball and its culture in this region and beyond. Like everyone, we look forward to normalcy and our great traditions, and want Hooplandia to be one of those. The passion for Hooplandia and the sport has been awe-inspiring to me, and I know this event will be of championship caliber in 2021.”

To help build a bridge to the 2021 Hooplandia, a number of smaller events are being planned, with details forthcoming. Those include:

• Hooplandia at the Hall of Fame Enshrinement. A series of 3-on-3 courts and games will be curated for outdoor play in the parking lot of the Hall during Springfield Celebration Day on Sunday, Aug. 30, as part of Enshrinement Weekend activities. The festival environment will feature food, music, and entertainment.

• Hooplandia World Slam Dunk Championship at the Big E. High-flying entertainment comes to the Big E fair (Sept. 18 to Oct. 4), with a spectacle of slam-dunk artists from around the world competing for the title of Hooplandia World Slam Dunk Champ. Date to be announced.

• Hooplandia Showcase Games on the Court of Dreams at the Hall of Fame. During the winter of 2020-21, a series of high-profile 3-on-3 games will be scheduled for competition on the legendary hardwood. Details to be announced.

All teams that have registered and paid for Hooplandia will be issued full refunds. Teams of players age 8 and under were slated for free registration in 2020, honoring the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant — Bryant wore #8 during a portion of his Los Angeles Lakers career in the NBA. The free under-8 registration will be extended to the 2021 event.

Hooplandia’s Instagram account (@hooplandia) and website (www.hooplandia.com) will provide ongoing information and plans for the event and its transition.

Coronavirus

Progress Report

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, took part in a Tele-Town Hall staged by the Springfield Regional Chamber on April 7 to talk about some of the relief measures flowing out of Capitol Hill to help families and businesses battered by the COVID-19 pandemic — specifically, the large-scale economic shutdown it has caused. Here are some takeaways from that conversation.

Why was it important to take action in Washington quickly?

“We’re weathering an unprecedented public-health crisis, one that demands an unprecedented response from the federal government,” Neal said. “I’m proud of what we were able to do quickly.”

Those measures include the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid-leave benefits to employees affected by the coronavirus emergency and new tax credits and tax relief to employers; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which delivers tax rebates to families, a payroll-tax credit to employers, and expanded unemployment assistance to states; and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to businesses to pay their employees during the crisis.

Implementation of these three phases of relief has been challenging, Neal conceded, but once problems are worked out, lawmakers will move on to a fourth phase, expanding on much of what has already been set in motion while eyeing large-scale economic investments like infrastructure (more on that later).

He stressed that the pandemic is a health crisis first, and praised the healthcare workers on the front lines of the crisis. “They have done a first-class job trying to contain this disease. It’s important to understand that we can’t get back to rebuilding our economy until we’re able to corral the healthcare challenges.”

“Economists agree that we need to get money into the hands of people in the lower and middle income groups fastest because not only do they need it, but they’ll spend it.”

That’s why short-term relief measures are so critical, he went on. “The most important thing to do was to get a cash infusion to people on the middle and lower economic scale, who will spend that money on the day-to-day necessities families need,” he said, listing food, rent, and medications among them.

So, when are the rebates coming?

Neal noted that people whose direct-deposit information is on file with the IRS will see the funds — $1,200 per adult and $500 per child, in most cases — as soon as this week. After that, paper checks will begin to flow, starting with those on the lower end of the income scale.

“Economists agree that we need to get money into the hands of people in the lower and middle income groups fastest because not only do they need it, but they’ll spend it,” he said. “The most important thing we did is get cash to taxpayers quickly, to make sure there’s cash in their pockets to put food on the table.”

Why are some small businesses struggling with the loan-application process?

“Part of the problem is there’s no book on the shelf for this one,” Neal said, adding that banks are concerned about liability. One solution might be to relax what are commonly called ‘know your customer’ standards, so banks are willing to take on new clients in this situation.

How does the CARES Act address organizations helping people avoid loss of housing?

The CARES Act and PPP apply to all nonprofit organizations as well as for-profit entities, Neal noted. As he and his colleagues have heard about increased housing needs as people’s income situations become more uncertain, they’ve been talking about ways to address this, such as bolstering the low-income housing tax credit. As it stands, the CARES Act does include $4 billion for homeless assistance.

Does the CARES Act discourage people from working by dramatically expanding unemployment assistance?

With some people already having trouble making ends meet, to cut their salary to the level unemployment benefits would typically pay — at a time when the economy is being put into what one of his staffers called a ‘medically induced coma’ — is too much to bear, Neal said.

“We had long, contentious conversations that went on for a couple of days, and I understand the argument made by the other side, and they understand our argument as well,” he added. “In the end, the better idea is to get people what they need right now.”

What can we expect in phase 4?

“I think infrastructure is the immediate need,” Neal said. “The president has already volunteered a number of $2 trillion, and I’m accepting of that. We need, at this time, to address this very core economic issue, and we have the opportunity to do it, given that interest rates are close to zero.”

One area of focus should be broadband access, he noted. “There are areas of this country that don’t even have 911 access, areas of Massachusetts where parents drive to the library parking lot at night so their kids can do homework.”

Then, of course, are needed improvements to highways, bridges, airports, water and sewer, and rail, the latter being a particular interest among lawmakers and municipal officials in Massachusetts. “Infrastructure is investment, and that’s how we should treat it — and, by the way, it’s badly needed.”

When should people expect to get back to work?

Simply put, “when we rein in the pandemic,” the congressman said, noting that health professionals at all levels are constantly assessing the track of the virus to make those determinations, but no one should expect the economy to rev back to life soon, despite President Trump’s stated wishes to the contrary. Instead, Neal said, people should listen to people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has emerged as the public-health face of the pandemic.

“It’s the role of the professionals to advise when the pandemic is under control, because it could flare up again,” Neal said. “I think every time Dr. Fauci steps to the microphone, people should say, ‘this is the standard; this is what we should be doing.’ He has wide regard from Democrats, Republicans, and everyone else on Capitol Hill.”

Do you have any final thoughts?

“People are actually taking the advice of public officials in social distancing,” Neal said, and that’s good — and he understands how frustrating that routine may become as the weeks drag on. But there are worse sacrifices to make. “I saw a cartoon describing veterans and what they went through — Vietnam, Korea, World War II — and all we’re being asked to do is stay six feet from each other.”

At the same time, Neal said, “we’ve heard from those on the ground about the need for more supplies and personal protective equipment, and once a vaccine is available, we want to make sure it gets to people for free.” Other healthcare-related measures being put in place are 90-day medication refills so people don’t have to visit pharmacies as often, and expanded telehealth services so people can see their doctors from home.

As for the fiscal measures put in place so far, “even though it’s been described as stimulus, many of us consider it relief and recovery,” he went on. “I will predict unemployment insurance has to be extended, and we need more money for small-business assistance … as well as more direct payments to American families.”

—Joseph Bednar

Health Care

Life on the Front Lines

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer for Baystate Health.
Photo courtesy of Baystate Health

Dr. Andrew Artenstein isn’t the first to notice the lack of cars on the roads, but he’s certainly among those most invested in those open roads.

“When I leave work, I’m used to traffic, and there’s no traffic,” said the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health. “Every day feels like Sunday out there. The streets are a lot quieter. Hospitals don’t have visitors, so the hallways are quieter.”

Fewer people out and about means the social-distancing movement has largely taken hold in Western Mass., meaning fewer transmissions of the novel coronavirus and fewer cases of COVID-19 than would be present if people weren’t staying home. The question is, how much difference will it make in the end?

“I can tell you that I don’t know the effect, but I do know anything will help,” Artenstein told BusinessWest. “It’s the right thing to do, and it will hopefully blunt the peak. It will not prevent it totally, but if you can blunt the peak, flatten the curve, we can possibly manage the surge.”

What that surge will represent wasn’t clear at press time, when the state had tallied close to 17,000 cases of COVID-19 — a number that may be much higher as you’re reading this.

Based on expert estimates, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that coronavirus hospitalizations in the state will likely peak between April 10 and April 20, with the total estimate of coronavirus cases in the state ranging from 47,000 to 172,000 over the course of the epidemic, or about 0.7% to 2.5% of the population.

“It appears the community has done a really good job of generally heeding the recommendations from our national and state public-health experts, which is, if you’re not sick, don’t come to the hospital,” Artenstein went on. “People still need other types of care; people still have cardiac issues or lung issues or kidney issues. That’s not going to stop. But people who don’t need emergency or hospital-level care, for the most part, are finding care in other ways, which is what they’re being told to do. That keeps people from transmitting infection in hospitals, and keeps them away from other patients who might be sick.”

That means patient volume for non-urgent matters is indeed down at Baystate, with some of that work being moved to telephone or telehealth platforms (more on that later), as well as outpatient clinics and urgent-care centers, all of which are also trying to enforce social distancing as best they can.

What is on the rise in the emergency room are cases of respiratory illness, fevers, and coughs, with many of those being admitted and testing positive for coronavirus.

“It appears the community has done a really good job of generally heeding the recommendations from our national and state public-health experts, which is, if you’re not sick, don’t come to the hospital.”

“There’s clearly a lot of transmission going on in the community, which is exactly what you’d expect from a pandemic,” he said. “If you look at the data, the vast majority of people [with the virus] are not sick enough to need to go to the hospital, but they’re still infectious and potentially transmitting it if they’re not isolating themselves.”

Artenstein should know all about the effects of isolation on pandemics. He founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, so “I have a fair amount of experience with these things. But this is a unique experience … a 100-year event.”

It’s an event that has seen Mercy Medical Center, like Baystate, shift from a strategy prioritizing preventive wellness to one that focuses on readiness and the immediate response to coronavirus — and an expansion of capacity where possible, said Dr. Robert Roose, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

“At this point, we have been heavily focused on increasing our available beds and staffing to continue to respond to the needs of the community, and we have been seeing increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID — and the acuity of those cases continues to increase,” he told BusinessWest.

That increase in the number of patients requiring hospitalization reflects what Mercy’s leaders are tracking on a national level, and he expects the trend to increase over the coming weeks.

HCC Police Captain Dale Brown stacks boxes

HCC Police Captain Dale Brown stacks boxes of personal protection equipment for delivery to area hospitals.

“In regard to our local preparedness, we have a robust surge plan that identifies three different levels of escalation to increase our capacity to treat increasing numbers of patients,” he explained. “We’re also coordinating with other local and regional hospitals on a surge-capacity plan in the event we need to share resources among different hospitals in the region.”

Testing, Testing

What would help predict and manage the coming surge is a more robust array of testing resources, but local hospitals are still hampered by a limit on how much is available at the state level.

“At the present moment, we’re prioritizing testing patients who are symptomatic and in need of care in the Emergency Department, as well as healthcare workers and first responders,” Roose said. “We’re prioritizing those groups per the CDC, and as testing capacity increases, then we’ll be able to offer more testing as it becomes more readily available.”

Artenstein reported the same protocol for priority test groups: patients hospitalized with symptoms, employees showing symptoms, and some first responders who are symptomatic. “We know it’s not in our control; it’s a national issue, and we’ve been severely limited in our ability to test. It’s starting to improve because of a tremendous effort by people at Baystate and some of our government officials to help us get more testing and more capacity and more rapid turnaround time. We’re starting to see an improvement, but it’s still not where it needs to be.”

As for the coming surge, Baystate began preparing for that in a number of ways over the past few weeks, including the construction of a rapid-response triage facility just outside the entrance to the ER. It holds around 40 chairs — each of them six feet apart — for individuals entering the ER.

“There’s community transmission of the virus at this point,” said Dr. Niels Rathlev, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, when the project was announced last month. “And we really are preparing for more patients showing up for screening. This is not to expand testing; the real issue is to try to keep patients that don’t require admission to the hospital — acute emergency care — and screen them rapidly out here.”

Construction of the triage center is a step that mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country, Rathlev noted, adding that some areas, such as the state of Washington, established such centers weeks ago in anticipation of a surge in visits to the ER and the critical need to triage those coming in. Meanwhile, field hospitals are being created at sites like Worcester’s DCU Center and the Boston Convention and Exposition Center.

Capacity concerns also cross over into the realm of protective equipment like masks and gloves. Roose said Mercy is working aggressively with suppliers to make sure it has what it needs. “I will say we have supplies, but I don’t think any hospital around here feels particularly comfortable with the amount they have because there may be a large influx of patients at any time.”

It’s a problem that has required some creativity. Earlier this month, Patriots owner Robert Kraft sent a team plane to China to pick up 1.2 million N95 masks. In all, Kraft partnered with the state to purchase 1.4 million masks for Massachusetts, and purchased another 300,000 protective masks for New York.

Locally, institutions have stepped up enthusiastically to meet the need. Springfield Technical Community College’s (STCC) School of Health and Patient Simulation donated personal protective equipment — including surgical masks, isolation gowns, and exam gloves — to Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, Holyoke Medical Center, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital, in addition to emergency medical services personnel in the West Springfield Fire Department.

“We recognize there is a critical need for personal protective equipment at hospitals and medical centers,” said Christopher Scott, dean of the School of Health and Patient Simulation at STCC. “By donating our supplies, we are doing what we can to protect the healthcare workers who are running short on masks and other protective equipment. The community needs to work together to ensure we defeat this pandemic.”

Holyoke Community College donated similar equipment from its health-science programs to area hospitals. HCC Police Captain Dale Brown spent a day last month conducting an inventory of collected supplies — including boxes of isolation gowns, exam gloves, masks, goggles, hand sanitizer, and microbial wipes — at the Campus Police station. A representative from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency picked everything up to coordinate delivery to area hospitals.

“At this point, we have been heavily focused on increasing our available beds and staffing to continue to respond to the needs of the community, and we have been seeing increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID — and the acuity of those cases continues to increase.”

Even Dakin Humane Society pitched in, donating its in-house supply of disposable surgical gowns and booties, along with other personal protective equipment, to Baystate.

“We’ve seen news stories about the need for protective equipment being faced by those in human healthcare, so we reached out to Baystate Medical Center because they’re local,” said Karina King, Dakin’s director of Operations. “We anticipated that human health workers would need these supplies soon, so we recently stopped using disposable items at Dakin and found alternative equipment, including smocks that could be laundered and re-used instead of being disposed of.”

A researcher from UMass Amherst contributed in a different way, with a dose of data. Richard Peltier, a professor in the university’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, partnered with Dr. Brian Hollenbeck, chief of Infectious Disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, to test in his lab whether used N95 facemasks were still effective at blocking infectious particles after sterilization. They determined that, yes, masks could be safely sterilized and reused.

“While these are ordinarily disposable protective devices for medical workers, these are not ordinary times,” Peltier said, “and this science shows that sterilized face masks will protect our healthcare providers who are working under extraordinary conditions.”

Across the Distance

In short, there’s a lot going on to both help hospitals prepare for the surge and to reduce non-critical traffic as much as possible. To that end, a number of institutions have stepped up their telehealth efforts, including Valley Health Systems, which includes Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Medical Group, and River Valley Counseling Center.

“We are expanding our capabilities to meet the needs of our patients, especially those with ongoing health concerns that need to be treated and in contact with their healthcare providers,” said Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of HMC. “It is important for everyone to maintain their health and safety regarding pre-existing conditions, as much as it is to protect from COVID-19.”

Behavioral Health Network (BHN) introduced a new program, BHNTeleCare, that allows individuals to continue counseling sessions with their therapists from the safety of their own homes.

According to Katherine Wilson, president and CEO of BHN, “this innovation in the way we provide therapy and counseling services is groundbreaking and allows us to render services where people are. This is particularly critical as a result of the needs that have emerged due to the spread of COVID-19. It allows a counseling avenue for those suffering anxiety and in need of support during this time of crisis affecting individuals and families.”

Meanwhile, MHA also introduced its new TeleWell virtual service delivery, which allows mental-health clinicians and their clients make virtual connections using a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“With social distancing now part of daily life, people who receive therapy for emotional support, or who would like to, may experience uncertainty when it comes to making and keeping office-based appointments,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations for MHA. “TeleWell provides another option by enabling people to keep their appointments virtually. Every day, more BestLife clients are using this option.”

All these efforts — including simply staying at home to avoid transmission — are helping, Roose said.

“I cannot stress enough how important the efforts of the community are in ensuring that our healthcare providers and resources adequately meet the needs of this crisis,” he said. “Physical distancing, diligent hand washing, isolating and quarantines when appropriate — those are the efforts that will flatten the curve and lessen the impact of this disease, and ensure that our healthcare providers have what they need to provide the care the community needs.

Meanwhile, Mercy’s incident command center continues to keep in contact with the entire Trinity Health system every day. “And every single day, I stress the importance of efforts we can all take to impact this disease. It’s something we all have the power to impact if we take proper precautions and follow the guidelines around physical distancing and quarantines. I can’t stress that enough.”

Those community efforts don’t guarantee Massachusetts won’t become as strained as New York City, Artenstein said, but they help.

“My feeling is that April is going to be very challenging in Western Massachusetts, and after that, I don’t know,” he told BusinessWest. “It quite possibly could extend well into May. I don’t think we’ll be completely out of the woods, and I do think, if you look at epidemics and pandemics, there are second and third waves sometimes.”

For example, he explained, the Spanish flu of 1918 saw a second wave late that year, and an even worse third wave arrived the following spring. COVID-19 has the potential of following a similar track because it’s new, and people haven’t built up the blanket of underlying immunity that keeps seasonal flu, while dangerous as well, under control.

“With each passing day, it becomes clearer we’re living in an unprecedented time, and with that comes uncertainty,” Roose added. “As this pandemic evolves, we are all called upon to learn quickly, work collaboratively, and constantly change how we do things. This is a community crisis, and it takes involvement and the efforts and support of everyone in our community.”

Ready for the Surge

Roose emphasized that he greatly appreciates those efforts, not just in the community, but from the selfless healthcare workers on the front lines.

“I could not be more inspired and impressed by our teams of providers, clinicians, nurses, everyone showing a commitment to putting patients first and responding to the needs of the community,” he said. “In a crisis like this, people show their true character, and it’s clear to me we’re much stronger together, and our teams are rising to this challenge.”

Artenstein agreed.

“I’ve never seen a group of more dedicated, committed, and compassionate people than I’ve seen here,” he said. “They’re working hard in adverse conditions.”

At the same time, he added, “they’re nervous, scared for their familes, and scared for themselves — and they have the right to be scared. But our people are true to their mission to provide excellent, compassionate care.”

No matter what form the April surge may take.

“This is a very unique point in our history — one that, hopefully, we’ll look back on and not have to relive.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

On the Home Front

On one hand, it’s good to be working — many people during the COVID-19 crisis have lost their jobs. However, those who continue to clock in every day, only from home, often face challenges they never had to contend with before, from balancing work with their kids’ education to the anxiety and loneliness that can accompany a lack of face-to-face contact. But that’s today’s new normal, and no one can predict for sure when people might start heading back to the office.

As the office manager at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, Allison Lapierre-Houle has plenty to do, but enough time to do it. Usually.

“I handle all the administrative tasks — anything HR-related, financial-related, pretty much everything outside what the architects do,” she said, adding that she’s never had to work outside her set hours — until recently.

“Now, I’ve been working on weekends a little bit, at night a little bit, because I have to take constant breaks in between for homeschooling, and all of the distractions that come with running a house and doing my job at the same time.”

Like so many others right now, Lapierre-Houle is still doing that job, only she’s doing it from home — as a single mother of a first-grader and a third-grader, ages 6 and 9.

While the school provides a remote learning plan that students are expected to follow, and daily assignments to complete every day using Chromebooks and Google software — as well as Zoom meetings with classmates — children that young aren’t exactly self-directed, she noted.

“If they were in high school, it would be completely different. In first grade, she literally just learned to read, and now she’s expected to go on the Chromebook and complete assignments. So I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home

It’s challenging for Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home with two young kids — but at least they can help take a photo for BusinessWest.

David Griffin Jr., vice president of the Dowd Insurance Agencies in Holyoke, is able to split the child-tending duties with his wife, who works for Travelers in Hartford. They’re both home these days, juggling their jobs and home responsibilities as parents of two young ones, ages 2 and 3.

“We’re making the most of it,” Griffin said. “She has a more set schedule than me. Obviously, I have clients calling me, and I can’t plan when the client calls me with questions I have to go through. I get as much done as I can in the morning and late at night, and answer calls and help customers throughout the day. Right now is their greatest time of need, so I have to make myself available and be there for them to lend an ear and give some advice.”

Jim Martin knows that feeling — of working from home at a time when customers have more pressing needs than perhaps ever before. As a partner at Robinson Donovan specializing in corporate law and commercial real estate, he’s been working with clients on their submissions for the Paycheck Protection Program, deciphering the regulations and grappling with an ongoing series of often-confounding changes to them. “My clients need straightforward legal advice on what needs to be included,” he told BusinessWest.

“I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

He’s providing that advice — and much more — largely from home, as the firm’s Springfield office is maintaining the core minimum of personnel needed to connect everyone else during a trying time.

“We were well-prepared for this; we had anticipated this may be necessary, so we had a network in place that allowed people to remotely access their desktops from home,” he explained. We got everyone equipped, so when someone comes in with mail, it’s scanned and distributed to every lawyer and the support staff. And we have remote dictation, so I can dictate right to my adminstrative assistant from home. We feel we were pretty well-prepared to make the transition to working remotely.”

While Martin doesn’t have children at home, he empathizes with those who do, as day cares are closed and people generally can’t come by to babysit.

He does, however, sometimes have to vie for the landline with his wife, a clinical doctor of psychology who continues to see patients, who are dealing with all sorts of issues, from depression to anxiety to domestic violence, all of which can be exacerbated by the current health and economic crises.

“People who need therapy, they need it more now,” he said. “She fortunately has access to certified confidential means of communication, video communication and things, but sometimes it’s over the phone if folks don’t have technology. So, I’m in one room, she’s in another, and sometimes it’s stressful in the house.”

Workers from most sectors are dealing with the same situation — doing their part to keep their companies afloat while often keeping a household together. But they’re recognizing something else as well — a general patience and understanding among those they deal with, and a recognition that we’re all in this together, even as people grow more anxious to get back to their old routines.

Alone Time

Before COVID-19, Seth Kaye, a Chicopee-based photographer, would get up each morning and go to his office to work and have meetings with clients.

“For me, that’s the biggest difference right now, just not being around people at all,” he said. “I would routinely have coffee breaks or lunch with friends and colleagues; that’s how meetings would be done, face to face. Right now, everything’s over Zoom, which has been fantastic, but nothing face to face.”

Seth Kaye

Seth Kaye is among many professionals who miss face-to-face interaction with clients.

He brought his entire workstation home, so he’s able to stay in contact with clients and even book new work.

“In terms of contracts, there’s nothing for me to photograph right now, as the commercial events have all been canceled for the foreseeable future. Weddings are the lion’s share of what I do, and people are postponing those to later this year or 2021. But business is still going on. People are still getting engaged. I’m still booking new couples to 2021. The world hasn’t stopped, and people are still planning for the future. That gives me an enormous amount of optimism.”

And also a chance to pivot to other business needs, Kaye added. “I’m trying to take the to work on my marketing and work on personal projects and try new things.”

Griffin said the team at Dowd is pivoting in other ways. “We have five offices and 47 employees, and we’ve been able to get everyone up and running from home; we’re still at full capacity. Of course, the insurance industry is considered an essential business.

“Everyone wants to make this work, but it’s been tricky to say the least,” he added, noting that technology has been a huge help. Because the company uses an internet-based telephone system, everyone was able to take their phones home and plug them into their computers.

“Our receptionist is working from home, and she answers live and transfers the calls,” he said. “And most of the staff have two computer screens in the office, and they brought one of the screens home. So it’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Lawyers are as busy as insurance agents these days, and Martin is a good example, whether it’s helping small businesses with federal stimulus programs or assisting companies scrambling to prepare for all contingencies during the pandemic.

“I spent some time over the last two weeks dealing with transfer ownership issues between shareholders and and/or partners, so if people own a company, either shares or in a partnership, they are now feeling it’s important to establish and confirm in writing how the shares will be transferred … and what the conditions are,” he explained.

Meanwhile, employment laywers are dealing with unemployment and leave issues, while real-estate attorneys grapple with pending projects held up by wholesale postponements of meetings with planning and zoning officials, and estate planners see an uptick in business from families getting their affairs in order (see story on page 24).

The list goes on — and most of the work is being done remotely.

“It is a challenge, if you haven’t worked from home before,” Martin said. “I know some people work from home regularly, but for those of us who haven’t, it’s a big adjustment period. At least it is for me.”

It certainly has been for Lapierre-Houle, and also her kids.

“I definitely find myself, especially in the evening, saying to them, ‘it’s a school night,’” she said. “For them, it doesn’t feel like a school night. They think they can get up whenever they want and stay up as late as they want, but I’m trying to keep us on schedule — they get up like for school, and I sign on to work at 8.”

Convincing students to treat these days like regular school days is undoubtedly something parents of older kids grapple with as well. And kids of all ages are likely tiring of the social isolation.

“They can’t see their friends except behind a computer screen … that’s a significant emotional challenge because they don’t understand the social aspect. But they still have to learn and do their schoolwork,” Lapierre-Houle noted, adding that the warmer weather gives a reprieve in that they can go outside — but also provides an additional distraction because they want to be outside, rather than inside doing schoolwork.

She does appreciate her boss, company president Kevin Rothschild-Shea, who, she says, has always emphasized work-life balance, which has made this transition a little easier for employees. “He’s always been very flexible with families or children, but there’s still pressure to get work done, not to mention all the distractions at home.”

New Routine

Clients have been equally understanding of the current situation, Griffin said. “They’re not giving us a hard time — ‘I need this in two hours.’ Again, turnaround times are out the window, and people have been very accommodating and very understanding of that.”

On a personal level, he does miss meeting clients in person. “There’s nothing like going out and seeing clients face to face and talking with them, trying to see what their energy level is, how business is going … I do miss that. I’ll be excited to get that aspect of things back because it is missed. Now we have to make do with what we have, and everyone is in the same boat together — it’s not like we’re at a competitive disadvantage because of it.”

“It’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Kaye told BusinessWest that’s been a challenge for him as well.

“I would see people regularly, just in passing or at the coffee shop — the day-to-day stuff we take for granted, now that we’re not able to have that routine. The routine now is different,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s a temporary new normal, but that human contact is gone right now.

“I’m taking the quarantine thing seriously, aside from pharmacy drives and having people put food into the trunk of my car when I order it from local farms,” he added. “I haven’t had any face-to-face contact in about three weeks. Some of my friends are doing the same. Some of our parents are not, which is interesting. But the social aspect being gone is definitely challenging.”

As the virus has still not peaked, the next couple weeks will bring more of the same, and though people he talks to are starting to go a bit stir crazy, they’re adapting as best they can, Kaye said.

“The people I’ve been speaking with, whether it’s clients not sure what their plans are going to be for 2020 or talking about postponements, they’ve been really nice about it. They have their needs as business owners, and I have my needs and concerns, and so far everyone has been really great.”

That first coffee-shop meeting will still be pretty satisfying, though — whenever that might be.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Opinion

Everywhere you look, the news on the COVID-19 pandemic is sobering and, in many cases, frightening.

But what we’re reading and hearing about what has gone on at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke goes beyond that. This news is heartbreaking and, at the same time, disheartening.

We don’t know all the details, but what we do know is that people have died (six was the latest count at press time last week), many others have tested positive for the virus, and protocols were not followed. And it’s clear that the first two developments are a result of the third.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told the media this week that people started dying at the facility very early in March, and no one was told about this — not him, not anyone in state government, and none of the family members of the veterans receiving care at the facility. This at a time when it was clear — or should have been clear to all — that the virus was spreading like wildfire through the facility.

According to various media reports, Morse, frustrated in his efforts to get information and receive assurance that a very dangerous situation was being addressed, resorted to calling Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. Soon thereafter, a team of health specialists was dispatched to the 68-year-old facility.

As details continue to emerge, the story becomes more distressing and alarming. It appears that, from the start, the virus was not taken seriously, not by Bennett Walsh, the facility’s superintendent, who has since been suspended, and apparently not by Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena.

Indeed, there are troubling reports that a Soldiers’ Home staffer who wore protective gear after treating the first veteran who displayed symptoms of the virus was reprimanded for doing so and sent a letter saying his behavior “unnecessarily disrupted and alarmed staff.”

There are other reports that veterans from infected areas were mixed with veterans from other floors, prompting comments that the spread of the virus through the facility could have been halted or slowed.

In comments to the press about the matter, Gov. Charlie Baker called what’s happening at the Soldiers’ Home a “gut-wrenching loss that is nothing short of devastating to all of us.” He went on to say that the first priority is to stabilize the situation and support the health and safety of residents and families, and the second priority is to get to the bottom of what happened.

He’s right, but he can’t forget about the second part of this equation. It seems clear that this situation was mishandled from the beginning and there was a disturbing lack of transparency with regard to how the matter was addressed. People are angry, and they have every right to be.

What’s most disturbing about this travesty is the setting in which it took place. The Soldiers’ Home cares for those who served their country in times of war and then looked to that same country to take care of them when they needed help. To say that the leaders of the Soldiers’ Home failed them — and their families — is a huge understatement.

As one family member of a resident told the media, “there are a lot of heroes in that building.” He’s right, and those heroes certainly deserve better.

Commercial Real Estate

Developing Story

Jeff Daley, CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp

Jeff Daley, CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp

Jeff Daley boasted a long career in development, with experience on the municipal, state, and private realms, when an intriguing opportunity came about last year: the role of CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp., which oversees a number of newsworthy projects in the region, most notably Ludlow Mills. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect municipalities and developers on a larger scale — and help generate the sort of economic activity and job creation that makes communities strong.

Jeff Daley was working for the state in 2005 when it created a district improvement financing (DIF) program, essentially a tool that enables towns to capture incremental tax revenues from new private investment to pay for public improvement projects.

A decade later, while leading his own development firm, CJC Development Advisors, he put that knowledge to good use on the Longmeadow/East Longmeadow line. It’s the sort of experience — working with muncipalities and developers — that he brings to his latest role as CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp., which he took on last summer.

The project he referenced was a campus of sorts being developed by two entities — Baystate Health, which was building a multi-practice healthcare center on the Longmeadow side, and Berkshire Healthcare, which was building East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center on that town’s side of the line.

“I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”

“They needed about $3 million in public infrastructure to make those projects work,” Daley recalled, referring to the extensive road, water, and sewer work undertaken a few years ago along the Dwight Street corridor. So CJC put together a DIF by which new tax dollars from the two developers’ private investment paid for the debt service for the $3 million worth of public infrastructure.

“It was the first municipal DIF in the state,” he recalled. “And it’s a huge success. Those projects would not have come to fruition, either the larger Berkshire Health building out back or the Baystate Health facility up front. They just couldn’t make it work if they had to put $3 million into public infrastructure.”

Daley wants to bring that problem-solving spirit into his current role leading Westmass, where his responsibilities include negotiating corporate acquisitions, land sales and leases, and incentive proposals; applying for grants; and marketing resources and development services to organizations and businesses considering investment in the region, as well as evaluating opportunities for new industrial-park development and coordinating federal, state, and local economic-development grants and resources.

“If there are projects that need to be done, communities may not have the staff on hand to manage projects, and we can provide services for the development of projects,” he told BusinessWest. “And, in concert with that, we’re working with developers. They may not know all the programs that are out there, and those are the kinds of programs I want to instill at Westmass. When communities and/or developers have questions about development and how to go about programs, I want them to think of Westmass first. And if we can’t do it, we’ll tell you we can’t and set you up with who can.”

After all, development is good for communities, in many ways. But his passion is more organic than that, because when Daley sees development, he sees jobs.

“I believe the creation of good, stable jobs is really most impact you can have on communities. If people are working, they have money to spend, which is good for the economy. But it’s also providing a stable environment for kids to grow up in, when mom and dad are working and able to pay the rent. I look it as more granular economic development, as opposed to just building buildings and putting people to work. It affects everybody down to young kids in our communities, and that’s important to me when we’re doing developments.”

Park Life

The former executive director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, Daley worked on several projects in the downtown area, which certainly needed more energy and vibrancy. He left that job in 2014 to work for a couple of construction companies before launching his own company in 2016.

“At CJC, I worked with a lot of clients, including municipalities and private developers, working on putting financial plans together for public infrastructure, commercial-development projects, and such,” he explained. “We did construction management for private developers, did a couple of urban-renewal plans, and strategic planning for those projects.”

When the opportunity arose to head up Westmass following the untimely death of its former CEO, Eric Nelson, the job seemed to mesh well with Daley’s experience and passions.

“My business was going very, very well, I had very good clients, and it was a hard decision to make,” he recalled. “But I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”

Like Ludlow Mills, one of the agency’s signature projects. Last summer, Westmass announced state and federal funding to construct Riverside Drive at the rear of the complex, making the development accessible to substantially more development. The site already includes 75 Winn Development apartments in Mill 10 for those over age 55 and is host to Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts.

Creating a city street behind the property creates frontage for several properties and makes it more palatable for companies to access water and sewer, which makes the sites more attractive to lease, he explained. That project is scheduled to wrap up later this year.

In all, about 35% of the 7 million square feet at Ludlow Mills is rehabbed and active. “There’s a lot of activity,” Daley said, noting that Westmass moved its main leasing office to the site in December. “Additionally, we have about 80 acres off the east side of the back road, Riverside Drive, that is high, dry, and flat. There are some wetlands, but about 50 or 60 acres that are developable out there, and by doing this new road, it’s going to get them frontage in order for us to go out and market it to companies. So that’s really exciting.”

Meanwhile, Ludlow Mills is waiting for historical tax credits on the clock-tower portion of the development, a $20 to $30 million investment that will be what Daley called “the showpiece of our investment.”

“We’re really excited about that,” he added, noting that Ludlow is building a new senior center at the site. “That’s going to be a beautiful building to showcase the property from the eastern side. So there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of people are interested, and it’s not just storage facilities; there’s a lot of jobs in there. These people are coming in and creating jobs in machine shops and other facilities that really attract businesses. This is one of our marquee projects we’re looking to grow for a long time.”

A few miles away, the Chicopee River Business Park, which Westmass has owned for 25 years, tells a different story. Harvey Industries purchased a parcel a number of years ago, but Westmass is still looking to market the mostly vacant, 170-acre complex.

“We really want to look out for the long-term benefit of the park. We are selling it as a bulk sale for 170 acres, but we’ll work with people to do what’s best for them,” he explained, noting that the location is attractive for industry, with its proximity to I-291 and the ability to get trucks in and out without disturbing residential neighborhoods.

On the other hand, Westmass’ other industrial parks — in Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Westfield — are full, Daley noted. “We continue to build parks and take on projects that benefit Western Mass., both with jobs and creating quality of life for people. That’s the endgame of Westmass; we work to get parcels ready for sale and make sure the right businesses go into them.”

Step by Step

Westmass made a real-estate deal of a different kind in December, moving its corporate offices to Monarch Place in downtown Springfield, which Daley sees as an opportunity to raise the organization’s brand and presence, while continuing its work connecting developers, municipalities, and other entities.

“We can work with towns and cities and private developers as well, and act as their economic-development arm, whether it’s putting together public infrastructure financing, putting together urban-renewal plans, putting together plans for strategic development in communities — all that is needed out there,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s the exciting part. A lot of cities and towns don’t have the ability to do that because they don’t have the staff or the means to take on those sorts of projects. We can, here at Westmass.”

He harkens back to his time in Westfield, when the city tapped into numerous funding sources to develop urban-renewal projects downtown and elsewhere.

“We just dug deep and figured out what we could do. There are more programs out there than people realize. They go about their daily business and it’s not their job to know about the programs, but Westmass can help them see what’s available for public infrastructure programs, for land deals — we can put together the infrastructure to get their project done.”

Which is good — not just for communities, but the individual families living in them.

“I believe everything good starts with people working, and the things we do to help projects get to the finish line and get developed really impact thousands of people around Western Mass. every day,” Daley said. “That’s what I’m passionate about. If people are going out to work and working hard every day, it’s a different life at home. Every little bit helps.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at businesswest.com

Construction

Essential Questions

Since the state ordered most workplaces to close their doors last week, there has still been plenty of work going on — just less of it, in most cases, including in construction. Amid that slowdown are questions — is construction considered an essential function during this time? — and concerns, particularly concerning the amount of work being postponed in the short term and the potential long-term impact of a broad economic shutdown.

Is construction essential?

Well, to those who make their livelihood in that field, sure. Which is why they’re pleased that Gov. Baker, in his March 23 order to shutter most businesses in Massachusetts for two weeks, included among the exempt, ‘essential’ services “construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction.”

That’s broad enough to include most firms — but it does nothing to prevent individual jobs from being shut down due to widespread uncertainty about the impact of coronavirus on the overall economy.

“Since Governor Baker made his announcement, I would say maybe 25% to 30% of our projects were postponed or put on hold. Some just didn’t want any outside contractors on their site,” Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, said — only two days after Baker’s order.

The news isn’t all bad, she added, especially concerning work that’s critical to a client’s supply chain. “Our phone is still ringing, and we’re still seeing some quotes going out.”

That’s worth noting, especially as many businesses, like bars and restaurants, have closed up shop completely for the time being, Campbell noted. “We’re still working, so we’re still feel quite fortunate. But, quite honestly, I don’t know what this means in the future. We have a pipeline of work, but I don’t know when this is going to break.”

For his part, the governor doesn’t want construction to slow down too much, announcing last week that his administration is finalizing guidance to establish standards around safe practices for construction work during the outbreak of COVID-19. At a press conference, he noted that, when a project is shut down, “you may be shutting it down permanently in some cases.”

While Boston Mayor Martin Walsh ordered construction sites to shut down for two weeks, and a few other communities have followed suit, Baker is trying to avoid a broad rollback of work that could have a long-term ripple effect.

“We have a lot of housing construction currently going on in Massachusetts. To completely lose, potentially, all of that new housing for the Commonwealth, housing stock, would be a tremendous loss,” the governor added. “There’s public construction that’s going on that needs to be completed. Some of it has to do with upgrading existing infrastructure, but a lot of it has to do with expanding infrastructure that people have deemed critical and important, that needs to be continued and finished.”

In other words, essential work. Which is why Campbell hopes the economy comes back to life soon, though not at the expense of public safety.

“We have a lot of housing construction currently going on in Massachusetts. To completely lose, potentially, all of that new housing for the Commonwealth, housing stock, would be a tremendous loss.”

“The president is saying Easter, but I think that’s too aggressive,” she said, adding that she thinks other economic experts’ projections of an early-June return to normal activity seems more realistic.

“But then I fear what that means,” she added. “I made a commitment to myself two weeks ago that we’re not going to do layoffs; we’re going to go two weeks by two weeks. We are keeping people busy; when we have jobs, they’re put on jobs. We’re doing additional things in house to make sure they have a full week’s paycheck and health benefits. So, right now, my business brain is still working, but the empathy and social side of my brain and heart have me worried about my employees.”

Vital Arguments

Across the U.S., the construction sector in in varying shades of limbo at the moment because the federal government recently released a list detailing industries whose workers are “essential” and should continue normal work schedules. Although the document lists industries for which construction is critical, construction itself was not explicitly included — and some states consult that list when determining which industries can work during shelter-in-place orders, notes Stephen Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America.

“Halting construction activity will do more harm than good for construction workers, community residents, and the economy,” he said in a statement last week, noting that construction firms are already acting to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the face of the outbreak, including increased hygiene and halting group gatherings of staff, on top of the fact that construction workers already wear protective equipment, including gloves that will help protect them and their co-workers.

“Given the precautions already in place, halting construction will do little to protect the health and safety of construction workers. But it will go a long way in undermining economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages they will need over the coming days,” Sandherr added. “At the same time, these measures have the potential to bankrupt many construction firms who have contractual obligations to stay on schedule or risk incurring significant financial penalties.”

Boston’s temporary construction ban — which excludes “emergency work,” including emergency street repairs and utility hookups — has alread caused concern due to the threat of delay-related claims, note Steven Gates and John Gavin of the international law firm K&L Gates, writing in National Law Review.

“Although each contract needs to be examined individually, many contracts contain force majeure clauses that may excuse delays based on the city’s ban on construction or delays generally caused by the outbreak,” they explain, noting that an analagous situation was the restrictions put in place in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, when courts recognized that the circumstances could support a defense of impossibility.

During the temporary shutdown in Boston, some companies are looking to make an impact against coronavirus. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported that Suffolk Construction of Boston is donating more than 1,250 N95 protective masks to the Mass General Brigham hospital network so they can be used to protect patients and medical personnel. The firm has also reached out to other construction companies in the Boston region to encourage them to donate their masks to local hospitals to assist in the effort.

Spreading Anxiety … and Hope

Back in Western Mass., Campbell said her company’s policies and protocols for a time like this are in order, and they’ve always been diligent about cleanliness and reducing the spread of germs.

What she’s more concerned about is the long-term damage any sort of major construction-industry slowdown will produce. The global financial collapse of 2008 spurred the Great Recession, but because of how its projects were scheduled, Chicopee Industrial Contractors had strong years in 2008 and 2009.

“Then, wham, it was like hitting a brick wall,” she said. But at least there was time to see the tough years coming. “With this, we felt it right away with everyone else, and usually we don’t because of the type of business we are.

“If you go back to every recession when I’ve been interviewed by BusinessWest, I’ve made the same statement — ‘I’ve seen nothing like this before,’” she continued — and she especially feels that way right now, even though no one can tell whether the current climate will, in fact, bring on the ‘R’ word.

“I feel every recession should be the same, right? You play by the rules and come out on the other side,” Campbell went on. “I don’t know. With the stimulus package, I hope there’s help for small businesses, yet the other side of me knows, with all the increases in taxes we’ll see, we’re going to be chasing our tails for quite a long time.”

In AIM’s report on employer concerns surrounding COVID-19, Gary MacDonald, executive vice president of AIM HR Solutions, said those he’s spoken with have, like Campbell, been busy exercising the empathy part of their brains because they know workers are worried.

“I made a commitment to myself two weeks ago that we’re not going to do layoffs; we’re going to go two weeks by two weeks. We are keeping people busy; when we have jobs, they’re put on jobs.”

“We have seen an overwhelming sense of concern from companies about their employees’ welfare. ‘How can we best keep them safe? What can we do to keep them employed? If we have to reduce our workforce, how do we continue pay and benefits the best we can?’” he noted, adding that his team has answered countless calls from worried AIM members during the past two weeks. “The crisis has really brought out the best instincts of employers as they fulfill their responsibilities as the keepers of economic opportunity in Massachusetts.”

In short, he added, “we hear this consistent expression of compassion, care, and ‘we are in this together.’”

Sandherr said he hopes that concern is reciprocated by lawmakers and governors who can, in some ways, impact the amount of construction work going forward. “We understand the need for social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus. But needlessly shutting down projects where workers are already protected will not help. Instead, it will threaten the livelihood of millions of craft professionals, force many small and family-owned businesses to shut down, and undermine the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters, including the coronavirus.”

Right now, Campbell said, her employees are not too frightened.

“We’re telling them we will get through this — and it is we — and we will come out on the other end,” she told BusinessWest. “But other people I’ve talked to are panicked, and rightfully so. How many people have six to eight months of income in their savings accounts? I know all the financial advisors say to do that, but most do not.”

At a time when everyone — employers and workforce alike — are in an unprecedented kind of limbo, that other end can seem frustratingly out of reach.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Doing Their Home Work

While much of the national conversation around COVID-19 has centered around how prepared the government and healthcare sector are to deal with the pandemic, another sector has been asking itself similar preparedness questions.

That would be IT firms, especially those who handle the networks of business clients at a time when companies are sending employees home en masse — not to take time off, but to work remotely.

“We took the initiative on this last week,” said Jon Borges, president of JBit Solutions in Westfield. “Even if we had clients who did not have remote users, we went to all our clients and prepped them ahead of time with instructions: ‘if you do choose this, here’s what you need to do with their home PC, here’s what to do with your work PC.’ We support 600 to 800 desktops, so we have to get ready for this.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Easthampton, has been similarly proactive, staying in regular contact with clients as the COVID-19 threat emerged. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended avoiding gatherings of 50 of more people on Sunday — and President Trump topped that by discouraging groups of more than 10 the following day — businesses really got serious about keeping their workers away.

“When they gave that mandate, that changed everything. Companies have to give employees the ability to work remotely,” Hogan said — and he feels good about how his clients are taking on the challenge. “My IT team is cranking. I feel pretty good about it. We feel prepared, no panic at all, and we’re communicating constantly with our clients.”

He explained that cloud-voice and managed-IT clients are already configured to work successfully and securely from any remote location. “I also reached out to my other clients that are still operating in an on-premise platform. There are options for remote connectivity, but they do not have the flexibility of our cloud. The good news is that we can spin up our cloud instances very fast for our clients.”

Most of Hogan’s clients have already been migrated to Microsoft Office 365, which allows them to work seamlessly from home, collaborate, and have built-in videoconferencing, he added. “And we are offering webinars to help our clients embrace working remotely.”

In short, he and Borges, and plenty of others in the Pioneer Valley, are helping businesses of all kinds adjust to a new normal — one that, right now, offers no real timeline for when the old normal will return.

Hogan’s preparations for a week like this didn’t begin recently.

“Maybe we had a premonition,” he joked, “but we started moving clients to the cloud almost 10 years ago when nobody wanted to be in the cloud — when there was this fear factor, fear of the great unknown. But I’ve shifted my entire voice base to the cloud over the past eight years. The beauty is in explaining to clients what they have already. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They have the software in place for all their people to work remotely. They just have to remember how to do it.”

That, of course, is where the training, webinars, and other forms of communication come in.

“We were out there early on — we were an early adopter in this industry to promote cloud voice,” he added. “Why invest in equipment you have to be rotating every few years because it becomes obsolete? We’ve been on a quest to have zero obsolescence.”

Borges said many of his firm’s clients already have employees who work at least occasionally from home, so they have access, even if it might not be implemented throughout the whole company.

“Most clients are in networks of 10 users or more, and in those networks, firewalls act as a VPN [virtual private network],” he explained. “As long as they have that, it’s just a matter of how many licenses they need. To be honest, most of our holdup is just talking to clients and making sure what users should have access and make sure they have enough licenses. If we need to make an order, our vendors are getting bombarded, so it’s taking two or three days to come through.”

For smaller companies who don’t have that capability, Borges said, software like LogMeIn or GoToMyPC can be purchased. “Clients don’t need hardware — we will set them up on an app such as that.”

In any case, the most complicated element is training and initial setup. Once users are set up remotely, their home computer interface typically looks exactly like their work PC.

For IT professionals like JBit, clients run the gamut — in his case, encompassing insurance agencies, office settings, construction firms, wholesalers, cannabis dispensaries, and a host of others. In addition to remote access to desktops, Borges is helping clients navigate how to transfer VoIP phone connections to homes, set up meeting apps like RingCentral, and implement a number of other solutions.

“Most medium- to large-sized businesses should have hardware in place,” he added. “It’s a matter of getting licenses, educating staff, and rolling it out.”

The challenges of sending one’s entire workforce home can be both technical and non-technical, Hogan noted. “You have to deal with local wi-fi connections, which aren’t as secure as at work, and then you’ve got kids at home playing Fortnite,” he said, adding that part of this transition is setting expectations for what employees need to accomplish remotely and then establish some accountability, so they don’t get too distracted by the kids.

Remote work poses business-law issues as well, which is why Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. will present a free webinar on Friday, March 20 from noon to 1 p.m. for employers to discuss how coronavirus COVID-19 is impacting the workplace. Registration is required by clicking here.

“COVID-19 is changing the way we live,” said John Gannon, a partner with the firm. “Schools are closing, travel is in flux, and events are being cancelled or postponed. Over the past few weeks, and in particular the last few days, we have received countless questions from employers about how coronavirus is affecting the workforce. Can employers send people home? Can they ask questions related to why employees are out? What about paying people who cannot come to work? Can or should they temporarily modify time off policies? Will there be a legislative measure calling for paid sick leave and/or unemployment expansion for those unemployed?”

The webinar will discuss the legal obligations of employers during a pandemic, as well as practical considerations and common-sense suggestions, and a lengthy Q & A session will follow, giving participants a chance to ask specific questions.

There’s no doubt that countless employers across the U.S. are asking those questions today, from mom-and-pop shops to the region’s largest employers, including MassMutual, which asked all employees who have the ability to work remotely to begin so earlier this week.

“We had already previously canceled non-essential domestic and international business travel and large-scale events, proactively tested our work from home capabilities, restricted non-essential guests at our facilities, and enhanced our cleaning protocols at our office, all of which continue,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This is our latest effort to reduce the potential spread of this virus; protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community; and assure the continuity of our business operations.”

So, yes, the call to stay home affects the vast majority of industry sectors and companies of every size. Which is why Hogan and others in the IT world are so busy right now — even as much of his own staff is currently working remotely as well.

“My industry has changed so much,” he said. “But we understand the urgency; we understand the mission-critical applications that people need 24/7/365. We know how to prioritize clients — we run our call center like a medical triage — and we’re getting things done.”

Coronavirus Cover Story Features Special Coverage

Life in Limbo

It was becoming clear weeks ago that the novel coronavirus would have some sort of economic impact once it washed ashore in the U.S. — but it’s still not clear, and perhaps won’t be for some time, how severe and wide-ranging the damage could be, as people cancel travel plans, curtail business operations, shut down college campuses, and take any number of other actions to stay safe. It’s a fast-moving story, and one that’s only beginning.

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had barely shown up in the U.S. when some of Bob Nakosteen’s students in an online graduate economics course started dropping the course because they were dealing with a more immediate issue: supply-chain interruptions in their own companies.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it,” Nakosteen said. “Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.

“A situation like this interacts with the ethic of lean production,” he went on. “People keep limited inventories — and that’s great as long as there’s a supply chain that’s frictionless and reliable. As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one. And that’s what you’ve got now.”

Editor’s Note:

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting this region and its business community in ways that are far-reaching and unprecedented. Visit COVID-19 News & Updates  and opt into BusinessWest Daily News to stay informed with daily updates.

More than a week has passed since we spoke with Nakosteen — a professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — for this story, meaning another week for the supply-chain situation for manufacturers and other companies to deteriorate.

In fact, when it comes to the economic impact of the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, now officially a pandemic, virtually everything has only gotten worse.

“We have to assume everything will be affected. Airlines are experiencing reduced demand, cancelling hundreds and thousands of flights,” he said, noting that reduced tourism will hit numerous sectors, from hotels and restaurants to ground transportation and convention halls, that rely on travelers.

“How many firms are curtailing business travel? The NCAA now plans to play playing games with empty stands,” he went on, a decision that became official soon after — not to mention the NBA suspending its season outright. “What happens to the people who provide parking and concessions? Now multiply that over hundreds or thousands of events that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of months. It’s going to have an economic effect.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst is one of several area colleges and universities that are sending students home and will conduct remote classes only for the time being.

Nakosteen’s own campus is certainly feeling that impact. The day before BusinessWest went to press, the five campuses in the UMass system suspended in-person instruction and will transition to online course delivery, at least through early April and perhaps beyond. That followed a similar move by Amherst College, whose president, Carolyn Martin, told students the college was taking to heart the announcement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. is past the point of totally containing COVID-19. Other area colleges have since followed suit, or are considering their options.

“While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects,” she said, using language that will no doubt be similar to the statements other colleges, in Massachusetts and across the U.S., are currently preparing. “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

While all travel is slowing — for example, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have both curtailed out-of-state business travel by government employees, and President Trump issued a European travel ban — Don Anderson, owner of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, has seen vacation travel take a major hit.

“We’re a society where, when you’re growing up, you eat your meal, and then you get your dessert. Now we have a situation where people are not having their dessert — their vacation,” he told BusinessWest. “Imagine kids not going to the islands or not going to a park, to the annual parade, not going anywhere. We are a society that works our butts off, we put in overtime, so we can have our time off. To have a year with no time off, that’s not who we are. As Americans, we want our vacation, we want our escape, so we can recharge and come back and work our butts off again.”

But they’re increasingly calling off those vacations, even though Fauci told reporters last week that cruise ships, with all the precautions they’re taking (more on that later), are safe for healthy young people.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it. Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.”

“The bottom line is, we are unintentionally punishing ourselves by not having an escape. A good portion of our customers are going on trips, but many are not,” Anderson said, adding that he expects the industry to recover after the crisis is over. “That’s what we’re all hoping. Otherwise, it’s a dire situation for the industry and even more so for the economies that travel impacts directly and indirectly, including the United States.”

For now, though, businesses of all kinds are in a sort of limbo, bearing the initial brunt of an economic storm spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself — no one really sure how severe it will get, and when it will turn around.

Sobering Education

Many companies, from small outfits with a few employees to regional giants, are grappling with similar questions about what to do if the virus threatens their workforce. On that upper end, size-wise, is MassMutual in Springfield, which has certainly talked strategy in recent days.

“MassMutual is taking appropriate action to protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community and assure the continuity of our business operations,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This includes limiting non-essential domestic and international business travel and ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including proactively testing work-from-home capabilities.”

In the meantime, MassMutual is limiting non-essential guests at its offices, enhancing cleaning protocols at its facilities, and limiting large-scale meetings, she added. “We are continuously monitoring this evolving situation, reassessing our approach, and staying in close communication with our employees.”

Most importantly, Crisco said, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home, and the company is also communicating basic guidance on how to prevent the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting touched objects and surfaces.

Kevin Day, president of Florence Bank, told BusinessWest the institution has disaster plans in place for a host of circumstances, from epidemics to natural disasters, and has developed strategies for meeting basic customer needs in case staffing is reduced.

Bob Nakosteen

“As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one.”

“We just checked with all our managers and asked, ‘are we comfortable that everyone is cross-trained enough, so that, if your area was out, we could function?’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘yes, we have the plans right here, we know exactly what we’d do.’

He understands, however, that no one can anticipate the extent of the crisis quite yet.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen challenges in the past. Whatever challenge is presented, we’ve just got to get the right people in the building together and think about how to continue to do what we do, which is open the door and serve the customers. We have those things in place,” Day said. “As it ramps up, and all of a sudden your employees start coming down with it, the escalation would get much greater, and you might have to take more draconian steps.”

‘Draconian’ might be a word some people used when they first heard about the college shutdowns, but there’s a logic behind that move.

“While at this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on our campus or in the surrounding community, we are taking these steps as a precautionary measure to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, said in a statement to students. “By reducing population density on campus, we will enable the social distancing that will mitigate the spread of the virus. There is presently no evidence that our campus is unsafe, but our transition to remote learning is intended to create a safer environment for all — for the students who return home and the faculty and staff who remain.”

He conceded that the move is a massive disruption for students and families, but said the university is committed to helping those with the greatest needs on an individual basis. Meanwhile, the Provost’s office is working with the deans to identify laboratory, studio, and capstone courses where face-to-face instruction is essential, and students in these courses will be notified whether they can return to campus after spring break.

At the same time, Martin said Amherst College will consider making exceptions for students who say it’s impossible to find another place to stay.

“It saddens us to be taking these measures,” she added. “It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College, but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

Elementary-, middle- and high schools may close as well, after Gov. Charlie Baker, as part of his emergency declaration last week, freed school districts from mandatory-days rules, so that they have the flexibility to make decisions on temporary closures due to coronavirus.

Specifically, the longest any school district will be required to go is its already-scheduled 185th day. No schools will be required to be in session after June 30. Schools may also disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year.

Reaction or Overreaction?

While some economic impacts may be inevitable, Anderson questioned whether some businesses are being hurt more than others based on, in his case, media spin that has focused on a couple of recent outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Honestly, I’m more concerned walking into the supermarket — that tomato I’m grabbing or fresh produce I’m purchasing, I don’t know how many people before me have touched it. I don’t know who’s touching the elevator button. I don’t know who entered their pin number on the debit/credit-card reader. Even when we voted, everyone who used the polling booth shared the same pens,” he said, adding quickly that election officials in East Longmeadow, where he is a Town Council member, did occasionally wipe down the voting surfaces and pens, as did other communities.

“What we do know is there’s been well over 20,000 deaths of American citizens from the flu this season alone, but I’m not seeing large, front-page stories about that,” Anderson noted. “Why aren’t there long lines out of the local CVS or Walgreens to get the flu vaccine?”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

The key, he said, is a balanced and measured response — and for people to use healthy practices all the time. As one example, he noted the hand-washing stations at the entrance of all restaurants on cruise ships. While at least two cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages, those still operating strictly follow those protocols.

“You have dedicated crew reminding everyone and watching so you wash your hands before going in,” he said. “It’s not something you see in stateside restaurants. But on cruise ships, you have to wash your hands. These washing stations were a consequence years ago of the norovirus impacting a small number of cruise-ship passengers. As a result, the incidences onboard ships has lowered.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Travel Assoc. President and CEO Roger Dow worried about bold moves like barring European travel. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said in a statement.

While many businesses struggle with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the anxiety it’s causing among Americans, others see it as a chance to expand their services.

For example, the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 response team last week comprised of attorneys in the areas of business, finance, employment, schools, healthcare, and cybersecurity. Understanding that each business will be affected differently, the firm noted that taking proactive measures may help minimize the risk of business interruptions, and the COVID-19 response team has developed — and posted on its website — a catalog of issues to be considered by each business owner or manager.

Meanwhile, Associated Industries of Massachusetts published an expansive guide to employment-law issues that might arise due to the virus, dealing with everything from quarantines and temporary shutdowns to remote work and employee privacy issues. That guide is available at aimnet.org/blog/the-employers-guide-to-covid-19. John Gannon, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, also answers some relevant questions in this issue.

Righting the ship if COVID-19 sparks an actual recession could be difficult, for a number of reasons, writes Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy for the Atlantic. She notes several reasons why a coronavirus recession could be difficult to reverse in the short term, including its uncertainty, demand and supply shocks at the same time (that supply-chain issue again), political polarization in the U.S., the global nature of COVID-19, and the fact that monetary policy is near exhaustion, as the Federal Reserve has already cut rates to near-historic lows, leaving little room to maneuver in the coming months

“They really don’t have much space to cut,” Nakosteen added. “Normally when the economy runs into trouble, the Federal Reserve runs in to the rescue. The problem now is we don’t have much room to rescue.”

He also cited the psychological factor that can quickly turn economic anxiety into something worse. “People say, ‘oh my God,’ they start drawing in their tentacles, and that’s when you have a recession.”

Lives in the Balance

None of this is to suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 outweigh the human ones. This is, foremost, a health crisis, one the healthcare community, particularly hospitals, are bracing for.

“We have an emergency preparedness committee, but those policies are sort of general,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of Infection Prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “We’ve had a lot of incidents in the past decade — we’ve prepared for Ebola, measles, H1N1, a lot of things. But each epidemic is different in how it’s transmitted and what to watch for. With each epidemic, we have to go through the emergency preparation plan and figure things out.”

Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, echoed that idea. “We have a standard infection-control committee and a plan that we would activate whenever we have a surge of infectious-disease patients,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular situation is rapidly evolving. We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) continues to offer guidance to the public at www.mass.gov/2019coronavirus. It’s also urging older adults and those with health issues to avoid large crowds and events, while individuals who live in households with vulnerable people, like elderly parents, should also consider avoiding crowds. The DPH is also issuing guidance to long-term-care facilities, where sick visitors could endanger dozens of people very quickly.

Still, coronavirus is also an economic story, one with a plot that’s only beginning to take shape. It also may be a long story, with no end in sight.

“We’re in a position where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we can speculate on what parts of the economy are going to be affected,” Nakosteen said. “We’re all watching it play out without a whole lot of idea how it will play out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Natural Transition

Kevin Day

Kevin Day

In some ways, Kevin Day is no stranger to running Florence Bank — he was already overseeing about 90% of its departments as executive vice president, a series of responsibilities he gradually took on after coming aboard as CFO in 2008. So he was a natural choice to succeed John Heaps Jr., who recently stepped down after 25 years as president. Day’s mandate is simple — keep a bank known for its steady, organic growth moving forward, and keep cultivating the culture of teamwork that allows such growth to occur.

When Kevin Day joined Florence Bank as chief financial officer in 2008, he was responsible for finance, facilities, and risk management. He must have been doing something right, because his role later expanded to include compliance in 2013, residential lending in 2014, and retail banking in 2016, at which time he earned the title of executive vice president.

“Gradually, my role expanded to where, all of a sudden, I looked back one day and said, ‘wow, 90% of the bank reports to me. How did that happen?’” he said.

That broad oversight made him a natural choice to replace John Heaps Jr., who stepped down as president of Florence Bank in January after 25 years in that role. On May 1, he’ll retire as CEO as well, and Day will take on that title, too.

“Gradually, my role expanded to where, all of a sudden, I looked back one day and said, ‘wow, 90% of the bank reports to me. How did that happen?”

“In my CFO role, I tended to have fingers in a lot of different places anyway — rate setting, strategy in many areas, facilities. We had started to expand into Hampden County. I had full responsibility for that transition, along with retail responsibility,” Day explained. “Then, a few years back, when John said, ‘hey, retirement’s coming up for me. Would you be interested in stepping in after me as president?’ I said I’d be happy to.

“You know, honestly, that wasn’t a role that I came here for,” he added. “My philosophy in life in general, but certainly in business, has been ‘just do the best you can.’ It’s the key tenet I spoke to our employees about at our meeting when I was promoted. I said, ‘the number-one thing you can do is just do your best in whatever role you have.’ And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do. I would have been happy to sit here as CFO the rest of my career, but when John decided to move on, I said, ‘yeah.’”

The job is the culmination of not only more than 11 years at Florence Bank, but a lengthy career spent in the financial world, including roles at more than a half-dozen other banks. This change, at least culturally, promises to be a smooth one, he noted.

“Every job transition I’ve ever had, it takes a year to figure out, ‘what have I gotten into?’ — whether it’s good or bad,” he explained. “After a year, you can look back and say, ‘wow, this is what this place is all about.’ I don’t have any of that here. I know many of our customers, I know our staff, and they all know me. It has been extremely smooth.”

Much of the credit for that has to do with the culture fostered by Heaps over the past quarter-century, Day said — one that emphasizes teamwork in all dealings.

John Heaps Jr., who served as president of Florence Bank for 25 years

John Heaps Jr., who served as president of Florence Bank for 25 years, grew its assets and reach steadily over that time, including a successful and ongoing push into Hampden County.

“That’s the key. It’s one of two key principles I live by. The other is simplicity. I don’t like things complex. When you make decisions when you can’t understand things, you get it wrong more often than you get it right,” he went on. “John always explained things and discussed things. And with all the moves we’ve made, everyone’s been on board.”

Those moves have been many in recent years, including that aforementioned Hampden County expansion (more on that later). And Day is excited to see how the bank continues to evolve from his chair in the office he never thought he’d occupy.

Part of the Team

Immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration at UMass Amherst, Day worked for five years as a CPA for the accounting firm Arthur Young & Co. in Worcester. When he looked for a career change, he got into banking “totally by accident.”

Well, not exactly — he had been rubbing shoulders with bank controllers, treasurers, and presidents as part of his CPA work, and always found their work interesting. When a position became available as a controller for Consumers Bank, also in Worcester, “it hit all my criteria,” he recalled, and he jumped into a new role.

After three years, the bank was sold, and he jumped off for a position in New Hampshire, where he lived for 25 years and raised a family, working for a number of institutions. “I learned a lot in each job, some from really good experiences and some from really tough experiences, but all of that shapes who you are. Several things I went through in the banking world were really awesome experiences, and some I would never want to repeat again.”

“I learned a lot in each job, some from really good experiences and some from really tough experiences, but all of that shapes who you are. Several things I went through in the banking world were really awesome experiences, and some I would never want to repeat again.”

His next stop was Unibank in Central Mass., where he worked for 15 years, and figured he would remain there as CFO for the rest of his career. But he was intrigued by a job description from Florence Bank, also for a CFO — and by the interview process itself.

“The way we do interviews here, particularly for senior people, is the president and all the senior officers individually interview you. I spent the whole day here, basically every hour talking to a different person, and that really impressed me,” Day recalled. “Number one, it gave me insight into all the different people who were here running the various areas of the bank. And what struck me was, ‘wow, these people are really nice.’ They were very genuine, and the bank’s a good bank — I could tell that from the financials.”

In 2008, at the height of a global financial crisis, it may have been a dicey time to switch banks, he said, but because of Florence’s financial health — Heaps had been steadily growing assets and services since his arrival — and the impression the senior staff had made during those interviews, Day accepted the job.

Job one was moving forward from a time of great difficulty in the industry, he added. “Things started moving in a decent direction. We had low capital ratio at the time, so we put a plan in place to improve that. The economy became better, and the plan worked; our capital levels rose, and we started making decent money, and things just came together.”

That sense of teamwork and collaboration helped, he told BusinessWest. “Every organization likes to think of themselves, ‘oh, we’re a team.’ But very few actually are. We really have a great team. We’re careful to bring people in who buy in and agree with the culture we have. That sense of teamwork is important, which makes my transition to president really easy, honestly.

“There’s no jealousy, no backstabbing,” he added. “That’s one of the things that drew me in the first place. These people aren’t climbing over each other, they’re working together.”

Heading South

Lately, they’ve been working on a multi-phase expansion into Hampden County. Florence Bank, headquartered in its namesake town, has long been a Hampshire County institution, with branches in Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Northampton, and Williamsburg.

But in the past three years, it opened up branches in West Springfield and Springfield, with a site in Chicopee to follow in 2020, and then perhaps two to four more in the next five years.

“I’ve been intimately involved in site selection, branch design, branch staffing, setting up everything related to that,” Day said. “It’s been a great deal of my day-to-day responsibilities over the past several years.”

When he announced the first move a few years ago, Heaps said a recent spate of mergers of community banks in Hampden County created an uncommon opportunity for a mutually held bank that makes decisions about what’s best for customers and the community without input from stockholders.

And a geographic presence needs to be a part of that strategy, Day said — even in the mobile age.

“Branching is changing,” he noted. “Banking in general has gone electronic. Customers can do so much more away from the branch. But they still need to know who they’re banking with, and we feel you’ve got to have a footprint, and people have to be able to see you. If we’re not physically in the communities, it doesn’t feel like we’re there.”

“I feel bad for people who get up in the morning and sort of dread coming to work. I’ve enjoyed coming to work most of my career. But coming here is the best of anything I’ve done. I’m glad I’m ending my career in a place like this.”

Although online and mobile banking are now omnipresent, he went on, customers still want a place they can go to get questions answered and problems solved. “No one wants to wait on the phone — talking face to face is still important, even with all our convenience and technology. Our electronic channels are expanding, but if you have a problem, you want to go to a branch.”

That presence is a form of marketing, but traditional media messaging is important, too. The bank’s marketing emphasizes the tagline ‘always,’ reflecting its mutual form of ownership, which assures, among other things, that it can’t be forced into a sale or merger with another bank.

“We’re always going to be here,” Day said. “You never have to worry that next year we’ll be owned by someone else, and the decision makers will be in Connecticut or Boston or New York or California. The decision makers work here and live here.”

That mutual model is important to many people in the Pioneer Valley who grew up in a community-bank culture, he added. “Our mutual model is what allows us to be local and stay local. When you’re owned by shareholders, those shareholders are from who knows where, and their goals and objectives can be vastly different from what ours are.”

He added that he knows customers who have been with the bank 40 years or more, through all phases of their lives — and all the financial challenges life brings, from buying a home to paying college tuition to saving for retirement.

“I don’t know anybody who really loves change, but it’s a fact of life. You’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “It’s good to know that your banking situation is something that won’t change. Florence will be here.”

In a Good Place

During Heaps’ 25-year tenure as president, Florence Bank’s capital has grown from $24 million to $161 million, and assets have grown from $283 million to $1.4 billion, and from four branches to 11 — soon to be 12. Meanwhile, the staff has doubled from 112 full-time employees to 221 now.

While the future will see at least a couple more branches, Day said the focus will continue to be on steady, organic growth, as opposed to the merger-happy way some local banks have grown over the past two decades.

The coming years will also bring a continued emphasis on community giving, as evidenced by the 18th annual Customers’ Choice Community Grants Program, celebrated at Look Park on March 10, where 57 nonprofits received $100,000 in awards based on voting by bank customers. The program has given more than $1.2 million since its inception.

“Our customers love it, the community loves it — it’s just a heartwarming event,” Day said. “We give a lot outside that program, but this is a step above. It just cements our core mission to help as many people as we can, as best we can.”

Active in the community in other ways, Day is currently a member of the board of directors and the finance committee for United Way of Hampshire County, a board member for the Springfield Rescue Mission, a member of the finance committee for Westfield Evangelical Free Church, and board president for the Northeast Center for Youth and Families.

But serving people through his job gratifies him just as much.

“I think it’s the people I work with,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, they’re all extremely competent in their disciplines, but I’ve worked in places with really smart people who are not fun to work with. Here, they’re smart and good at what they do and nice to be around.

“I feel bad for people who get up in the morning and sort of dread coming to work,” he added. “I’ve enjoyed coming to work most of my career. But coming here is the best of anything I’ve done. I’m glad I’m ending my career in a place like this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Engineering Change

Ashley Sullivan

As recently as last year, Ashley Sullivan didn’t expect to one day sit in the president’s chair at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun — but that was OK, since she enjoyed her job so much. Now, as the firm’s leader, she gets to emphasize and expand on what she likes, including a culture of mentorship and growth that encourages employees to continually learn and pursue more responsibility, all in service to clients with ever-changing needs.

There was a time last year, Ashley Sullivan said, when the principals at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) weren’t sure how the company’s succession plan would proceed, or who would be its next leader. But they knew they had to talk about it.

“So many other companies are at the same age, where the leaders are getting ready to retire, so what now?” said Sullivan, who was named president of the 26-year-old geoenvironmental engineering firm in January. “I kept hearing maybe they’d look for an outside buyer, and I think it was just put off, put off, put off, because they were having fun doing what they were doing.”

But the conversation had to proceed, she went on. Of the three founders, Jim Okun works part-time, Kevin O’Reilly plans to cut back as well. While Mike Talbot plans to be around full-time for awhile, the firm needed direction for the future.

“They didn’t want to close the doors. We have a great company and a great staff,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I think people at different stages, so it was maybe people wanted different things, and it was just put off.”

When the conversation got serious, the solution, they found, was right in front of them.

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company. Once you get past that, it gets a little easier.”

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company,” she said. “Once you get past that, it gets a little easier. So it was just something we had to work through and negotiate through. The choice ended up being, can we transition internally? Can we make this work? Do we have the people to make this work? And we just fought like hell to make that work.”

The transition has been well-received, said Sullivan, who came on board at OTO 20 years ago. Since then, she has been instrumental in growing and developing business in the geotechnical and construction services of the company. She has also been a key mentor to junior staff and an advisor to upper management, as well as an influencer on the firm’s marketing, work culture, and business development (more on all of that later).

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“The energy here is fantastic. Last year was tough — when you’re working on any sort of change, it’s hard because everybody’s a little nervous: ‘what does this mean for me?’ And sometimes you lose focus on the overall goal,” she explained. “We have the clients, we have the work. We just had to figure out how to keep it going. So last year there was a little uncertainty and fear, for lack of a better word. This year, once the paperwork was done, the energy is through the roof.”

Culture Matters

It was during a time when she was working fewer hours that Sullivan came to understand and appreciate her workplace and its culture.

“They allowed me to have a flexible schedule when I had children, and it was something you didn’t see a lot at that time,” she said, noting that she cut back to 24 hours in 2005, sometimes more if she was needed, and was still working 32 hours not too long ago. Not surprisingly, she’s a strong advocate of work-life balance.

“I was still allowed to progress and advance my career in that way, and now I can say that it works. You can let people have a balance of where they want to be home. I wanted to get my kids on and off the bus, but I wanted to have a meaningful career too, and I found that difficult at 40 hours. So it’s something that I strongly feel works, and I want to continue to develop that culture here.”

Sullivan also instructs the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. In this role, she guides graduating students through a mock building project where many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women,” she said. “We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Teaching also requires her to constantly learn more, she added. “Plus I was doing something I loved, working with students. The energy in a classroom … it just re-energizes me. Mike Talbot is now teaching a class because we see the benefit to being in community. I’ve hired a couple of my students — I have an intern from there now. It’s a great feed to get great engineers. It’s been so helpful in ways I never thought it would be.”

Sullivan enjoys being a mentor in other ways as well, including for young engineers at work.

“I love to build confidence in people,” she said. “I was a very shy kid, and I think engineering, amazingly, somehow gave me confidence in school, and that’s what I like to do for other people. I like to encourage them or say, ‘you can do more than this,’ or ‘here are some habits that will help you,’ and you see them just soar.

“There are so many amazing people here,” she said, and she strives to encourage them. “‘You got this.’ ‘You can do this.’ ‘Go to that meeting; you’re going to kill it.’ What can we do to help you?’ That’s what really gets me excited in the morning, helping people and seeing them achieve — and seeing how it builds on itself and builds on itself.”

But encouragement comes not just in words, but in opportunities. She cited the example of Christine Arruda, who started with the company in an administrative role, then took classes in drafting and computer-aided design, and now manages much of the firm’s industrial-hygiene work as a technical specialist.

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work at the One Ferry Street project.

“It’s not uncommon here for people to come in and try different things. We have a culture of, ‘do you want to try to do that? Let’s do it.’ It’s a growth mindset, and I want that to continue and explode,” she said. “What do people want to do? What are some of their goals? Let’s get people into the roles they enjoy and then support them in whatever ways they can be supported. You get people doing the things they really enjoy.”

Much of the company’s evolution over the year has been tied to industry trends and the shifting needs of clients, and this focus on continuing learning serves that growth well, she said, again citing Arruda’s interest in radon, which is something schools have been concerned about in their buildings.

“Our big thing is, how can we provide value for a project?” she said. “There are only so many clients in this area. To be successful, we have to continually adapt to what clients’ needs are. So we’re always adapting and growing, and I think people who work here like that.”

Changing with the Times

Change — and taking advantage of opportunities — have been constant since the early days of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun. Before the three founders launched their venture in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut.

The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women. We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

Sullivan said Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, so the firm now focuses more on-site redevelopment.

“The big cleanups mostly are done, but you still have things that were left in the ground because they said it’s OK to leave them in the ground, but if you’re going to redig or redevelop that site, you need to manage it,” she explained, noting that it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, so geotech services on redevelopment projects are becoming more important. “We shift to what our clients need.”

The end result is often satisfying, especially when a vacant eyesore, like the old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton, come to live.

“Those are some of our favorite projects, because whenever we see a property get redeveloped and reused and come back to life, that just benefits the neighborhood, the community, and us. Those are great projects.”

Suffice to say, Sullivan loves her job on a number of levels, and wants her employees to feel the same way, which is why she keeps raising the bar when it comes to culture, mentorship, and growth.

“We’re not afraid to ask for help,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that she brought in a leadership group — the Boulder Co., based in Connecticut — to cultivate soft skills and leadership training.

“We had a retreat, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s really giving people skills like emotional intelligence and how to get over fears of speaking in public and how to work together better. It’s led to a big energy change here, and you’re seeing people step out of their shells and believe they can do more,” she explained. “We always know we need to be technically proficient and get that training, but sometimes, as engineers and scientists, we forget about the other half — that all our work is based on relationships, and if we continually work on that, we’ll do well.”

It’s a message Sullivan doesn’t mind sharing far and wide.

“My goal right now is to be one of the best places in Springfield to work because I think that’s how you attract the best people,” she said. “One of the reasons I stayed here was because I was able to do these things.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Age of Automation

The design trend known broadly as home automation comes in many forms, from a command to Amazon’s Alexa to turn off the lights to a smartphone app that controls door locks and room temperature — and a dozen other functions — from across the country. This technology is attractive, says one local expert, because it solves problems in a very individualized way — and people like technology that makes their lives easier.

When people think of home automation, what comes to mind? Heat controls and security cameras, for sure. Maybe the TV and music, or door locks, or window blinds.

Bill Laplante also thinks of his shower.

“I have a digital control panel in my shower,” said the president of Laplante Construction in East Longmeadow, noting that he inputs a ‘user profile’ that gives him the exact temperature and flow he wants. “My wife has a different profile, so hers is four or five degrees cooler, and a different shower head. A lot of this stuff is pretty cool.”

It’s stuff that’s becoming more common in the modern home, as the rise of what’s known as the ‘Internet of things’ has people connecting any number of household functions to the Internet and controlling them from smartphone apps.

“Take lighting systems. We changed our bulbs, and now the lights are controlled by cell phone,” Laplante told BusinessWest. “I’ve gotten pretty lazy with the technology — instead of getting up to turn on the lights, I just grab my phone.”

But he’s not just enjoying smart-home technology at his own house; he’s building homes for customers who increasingly demand such features themselves. He works with EPOS Systems in West Springfield — a company whose motto is “Your future home. Today.” — on whole-home automation systems that run off one app, known as Control4. But people can take an a la carte approach as well.

Bill Laplante says homeowners have many options when it comes to automation, but many today are opting for full-home systems that run off a single app.

“I see a combination of both. Some people, usually in the higher-end homes, will want a whole-house smarthome system that’s controlled by one app and can do multiple things with lighting, television, heat, cameras, all of that stored on one app,” he explained. “And then there are other people who want less expensive options, who have multiple apps that do different things, but it’s not necessarily controlled by one central program.”

The uses for such a system are myriad.

“When you’re away for vacation and you forgot to turn your heat down, you can do it remotely. Even the door locks — you can send a code from your phone to unlock the door for someone cleaning the house or someone coming over to watch your kids,” Laplante said. “Control4 is really a home-management system, a technology-management system. You can create lighting scenes, you can control television, music, security, garage-door cameras — virtually everything that could link together, you can link through this central system.”

The popularity of so-called ‘smart homes’ is only expected to increase as more people experience it and costs continue to drop. According to Forbes, the value of the smart-home device market will grow from $55 billion in 2016 to $174 billion by 2025.

Dan Crouss says home automation is about solving problems — and quality of life.

Dan Crouss, owner of EPOS, said homeowners have many points of entry to choose from.

“Sometimes you start out small, but then we tie in the music and the TVs and all that stuff into one app. You kind of piecemeal it as you go — start small and work your way up over the years. Some people do it all at once when they build their house, but usually it’s small increments.”

And it’s not as foreign a concept as some people may think, he added.

“Everyone’s got some type of automation from their phone, even if it’s just Siri or Alexa controlling the lights. What we do is take it a step further, put it into one app instead of having 15 apps. Everybody’s got a little bit, but we’re able to tie it all into one interface.”

Problem Solvers

EPOS was launched in 2007, the merger between two companies, Perfect Sound and Olympic Electric. Its services have evolved considerably since then, both because technology is always advancing and because people are attracted to products that make their lives easier, Crouss said.

“Home automation can start out as a simple Alexa that turns on lights. Then door locks and heat are two things people usually do. Being able to unlock your door for somebody when you’re not home is a big deal. And with heat, I can save a lot of money. I get home at random times because of my job, so, if I’m getting home at 5:30, I can log on at 4 and pump up the heat a little bit, so when I get home, it’s nice and warm, but I saved a lot of money during the day.”

Then homeowners may add options from there, he added, from window shades — which can be adjusted or programmed to bring some extra sunlight into the house during the winter or keep it darker and cooler in the summer — to strategically placed cameras, both for outdoor security and to monitor the interior of a home when residents are away for the winter.

“Sometimes you start out small, but then we tie in the music and the TVs and all that stuff into one app. You kind of piecemeal it as you go — start small and work your way up over the years. Some people do it all at once when they build their house, but usually it’s small increments.”

“You can get a notification on your phone if you have movement at the front door,” Laplante said. “And you can pull up the camera view and pull up the audio and say, ‘can I help you?’ and do it all remotely. You can be on vacation and you’re answering your door, essentially. There are all types of things like that that are pretty cool, and most manufacturers now are incorporating things like this into their own apps and making everything as seamless as possible.”

As he noted earlier, many people opt for buying individual devices, such as one that manages the garage door.

“When your car pulls into the driveway, it will automatically open the garage door rather than actually pushing a button. You can also let somebody in your garage door remotely with your app. So you have individual products like this, with their own apps, which create the, quote-unquote, ‘smart home,’ or you can have a central control system that controls all of the various components of the house.”

The whole-house system can be preset for any number of situations, from delivering the exact heating and lighting arrangement upon waking up in the morning to creating a variety of ‘lighting scenes’ in the kitchen, such as for cooking, dining, or hosting a party — or telling the Christmas tree when to turn on and off every day.

“Basically, what home automation does is solve people’s problems, and everybody’s got different ones to solve,” Crouss said. “When my kids were growing up, they’d get off the bus and would put in their [front door] code, and I would get a text to let me know my daughter was off the bus. Or let’s say cleaners come to your house, who bill by the hour. There’s a time stamp when they put in the code and a time stamp when they lock the door.”

As another example, “people with oil tanks have smart sensors that automatically e-mail you when the tank is getting low, or e-mail people who deliver the oil. A lot of people with vacation homes show up, and the oil is way down. This is a way to avoid that problem.”

Price and Promise

In Forbes, Bernard Marr, a futurist, author, and business and technology advisor, recently noted a few developments on the horizon when it comes to smart homes. One is increasing standardization, as manufacturers of smart-home devices are increasingly ensuring their products and services will work on platforms provided by Amazon, Google, Samsung, and Apple to capture the broadest customer base.

He also sees smart homes actually becoming smarter over time as they make use of machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and other technologies that are capable of making decisions and learning. Smart thermostat systems from Nest and Honeywell already use machine learning to adapt their behavior to the inhabitants of a house, based on observing and then replicating their habits, and that trend should accelerate to other devices as well.

Finally, the global rollout of 5G, as well as improved wi-fi technology, mean smart-home devices will be linked by faster, more powerful networks, meaning better access to data and processing resources in the cloud.

“The smart-home technology has come way, way down in price,” Laplante said, especially when it comes to buying multiple devices. “The Control4 system is nice because everything runs through one app. But people have multiple apps on their phones for multiple things anyway.

“There are many different components,” he added. “The cost depends on how much you bring into the system. The big advantage to having a one-hub system is that everything runs through that system, so you’re going to one app.”

EPOS continues to introduce new services, Crouss said, like ‘smart outlets’ that can reboot cable or Internet if it goes down, rather than having to deal with physical plugs and wires. In fact, those devices can now send a signal on their own and be rebooted automatically when a problem is detected.

“Most of my customers want this technology, want to be able to do those things,” Laplante said. “Especially when you’re going away, you want to be able to control things, you want to keep an eye on the house. If you go away for the winter, you want to be in contact with your home, to monitor the temperature and see if there are any issues.”

Not to mention that much of this technology — whether it’s changing the music coming out of the ceiling speakers or stepping into a perfect shower — is just, well, fun.

“It’s something the average person today is expecting — especially the younger generations,” he said. “They grew up with technology, and they expect it. And it is kind of neat.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Shifting the Balance

Visiting Angels Director Michele Anstett

When Michele Anstett opened a Visiting Angels franchise with her husband in 1999, it was only the ninth branch of a home-care company that now boasts more than 500 locations in the U.S. and overseas. Home care in general had yet to proliferate; maybe a dozen agencies were offering such services in the Pioneer Valley.

The law of supply and demand meant there were more caregivers than jobs, which was great for companies, she noted.

“We had more control, and they were more willing to do what we said. Because there were fewer agencies for these caregivers to go to, they had less choice. They were easier to hire back then — you could find a well-trained one easily because there was a deeper pool, and they were more experienced. The pay was lower — like $7.50 an hour when we started. And more of them were willing to work full-time. They were more likely to take whatever you could give them.”

These days, that balance has shifted, to say the least. Home-care services, both small independents and national chains, now dot the region, and workers are in demand.

“Now, it’s not us with the control,” Anstett said. “They have the control. They can pick where they want to go. They can choose how many hours they want to work. They’re less willing to take whatever you want to give them.”

It helps, she said, that her Visiting Angels franchise, now celebrating its 21st year, is a known name with deep roots in the community.

“You don’t have someone down the hall where you can yell, ‘hey, can you help me?’ This can be a challenge for some nurses, but the nurses we have appreciate meeting with a patient exclusively, being able to develop relationships they often don’t have time for in an acute-care setting.”

“When we first started, there were only a few businesses like this. It was just emerging, and it was something that was really needed,” she told BusinessWest. “Our model was based on what people wanted. We matched the caregiver to the client. We weren’t telling people, ‘we’ll come here at this time.’ We made it all about the client. But we also matched them with a caregiver, and they could meet their caregiver and say, ‘yes, this works,’ or ‘no, this isn’t a good fit.’ There’s a lot of work in matching a personality, skill level, schedule — it’s really challenging.”

That philosophy hasn’t changed over the years, but the challenge has become more intense with increased competition for certified nursing assistants, home health aides, and personal-care assistants.

Also more challenging is the level of care many patients require, in an era when hospital stays are shorter and Americans are living longer than ever before.

“I was a home-care nurse fresh out of nursing school in the early ’90s, and compared to the patients we saw then — even compared to five years ago, really — the patients are much higher acuity, much more complex, and they really need a lot of care coordination and are on so many medications,” said Priscilla Ross, executive director of Cooley Dickinson VNA & Hospice.

“One of the biggest roles of the home-care nurse is reconciling those medications, because medication errors are one of the most common reasons for rehospitalization,” she went on — for example, people often don’t follow instructions, or aren’t aware of certain drug interactions, or are mixing pharmacy prescriptions with mail-order drugs. “Things are so much more complex than years ago, with hospitals focused on shorter stays, and there’s pressure on skilled-nursing and rehab facilities for shorter stays as well, so people are coming home with more needs.”

Michele Anstett (second from left) with some of her team at Visiting Angels, from left, Julie Dewberry, Helen Gobeil, and Natali Pilecki.

For this issue’s focus on the business of aging, BusinessWest spoke with several home-care professionals about what’s appealing about this critical work, what’s challenging, and why those challenges are only increasing as the senior population in the U.S. continues to swell.

Return to Form

The VNA has a sizable clinical staff, as many of its clients have been in and out of hospitals or acute rehab settings. But the focus isn’t on the illness itself, Ross said, but returning people to functional status in the short term. “They want to get back to making dinner, doing the laundry, taking care of grandchildren. With nursing and rehab, that process can happen much more quickly.”

She noted that the national shortage of non-medical home health aides may be more pronounced than the shortage of nurses, but it’s a struggle for organizations to recruit both. For nurses, not only is the pay scale less than in, say, a hospital setting, but some nurses don’t like the autonomy and independence that home care requires; they’d rather work in a team setting. Of course, other nurses desire the opposite, and relish the idea of focusing on one patient instead of several at a time.

“You don’t have someone down the hall where you can yell, ‘hey, can you help me?’ This can be a challenge for some nurses, but the nurses we have appreciate meeting with a patient exclusively, being able to develop relationships they often don’t have time for in an acute-care setting.”

Julie Dewberry, marketing and recruitment specialist for Visiting Angels, agreed. “They like the one on one,” she said. “They don’t have the pressure of one person with five different patients. Some come from nursing homes and say they don’t want to do that.”

Helen Gobeil, staffing supervisor for Visiting Angels, said determining who will be a good care worker is as much art as science.

“It’s a mother’s instinct — you’ve got to feel it,” she said about sitting with prospective staff. “You see they’re caring, they want to work, they really enjoy elders. They don’t call them old people; they respect them. I have to feel it.”

That ‘feel’ can be as simple as whether the interviewee makes eye contact, Anstett said. “What’s their demeanor? Are they a warm and caring person? If they’re warm, caring, and compassionate, that’s the basis, and we can move on to skill.”

That skill can be reflected in many ways — their degree, their experience, perhaps a referral. Sometimes, the agency will bring on someone whose only experience was taking care of their grandmother. “If they have good character, we’ll put them on a companion case, with a mentor, and help them get more education. We didn’t do that before. Now that the pool is lower, we’re trying to find ways to bring in more people.”

One way is to offer more training to staff. In addition, Visiting Angels has done well bringing on nursing students from area colleges, who are able to supplement their income while gaining on-the-job experience. “They’re very good workers,” she said.

The shallower pool of talent is only one growing challenge; a tougher financial climate is another. Wages are higher — Anstett said her goal is to keep what she pays workers above Massachusetts’ minimum wage as it creeps toward $15 over the next few years — as well as higher recruiting costs and expanded paid medical and family leave in the Bay State.

Finally, as noted earlier, workers increasingly eschew full-time work and often make home care one of two jobs, and they increasingly resist set shifts in favor of flexible schedules.

“We are a known name with deep roots, but it is a challenge,” she said. “We do well, though — we’re finding people of quality. Because of our experience, we understand what makes a good caregiver and who wouldn’t make a good caregiver, and how to screen them properly.”

Constant Mission

Roseann Martoccia, executive director of WestMass ElderCare, says her 45-year-old organization’s goal has long been in line with the goals of the home-care industry.

“From the beginning, our mission has been constant: to help people remain at home with the supports they need,” she said, noting that most people, as they age, want to remain in their homes, with some measure of independence.

To help them achieve that goal, WestMass ElderCare offers a broad range of supports, not just home care, aimed at helping seniors live independently. These range from nutrition services — it delivers about 1,400 hot meals daily in seven communities — to adult foster care; from housing support to personal-care management, helping people with chronic conditions or disabilities direct their own care by hiring and supervising personal-care attendants.

In the realm of home care, the goal is similar to other agencies: to help transition people from rehab settings into the home, and to maintain their function there.

“Our goal is to provide compassionate care and guidance so people can live in their homes and communities,” Martoccia said. “When we visit the home, we’re setting up a plan of care. What is your family doing? What do you need help with? What do you want help with? What’s most important?”

“Generally, people have chronic conditions, and their family may be at a distance, or they may not have a lot of family supports,” she continued. “In that case, we might be providing more services to them, helping them with many things they may not be able to accomplish on their own.”

WestMass focuses on the needs of family caregivers as well as patients, she added — people who have to work or raise families, but still want to make sure their parents or grandparents are OK.

“A lot of times, we hear caregiver stories about how what we do helps them and gives them peace of mind,” she said. “They may be checking in daily or weekly, but they know services will be coming.”

Cooley Dickinson VNA & Hospice has a different model than home-care agencies that focus on non-clinical assistance, often over the long term. Instead, it hires nurses and physical, occupational, and speech therapists, among other team members, to help clients transition from an acute or rehab setting to home life over a shorter term. Involving family caregivers in the process is often critical.

“We offer things your average person can’t provide without some training — wound care, IV therapy, or teaching about disease processes and how to manage an illness and manage medications,” Ross explained. “We’re teaching family members how to do wound care, how to provide care at home.”

The other side of the company is hospice care, which can be a longer-term engagement for people who are grappling with terminal illness and the decisions that come with it.

“What matters to you? What are your goals? How do you want your care to play out? It’s really hard to have that conversation, introducing that sense of taking away hope from people,” Ross said.

“But often, when you open those conversations, you’re relieving a burden for the patient and their family, and giving them an opportunity to actually talk about the elephant in the room — and that can lead to earlier access to care,” she went on. “Studies show that the earlier patients get on hospice, the better they do in the course of their terminal illness and the better the family does in the bereavement process.”

Giving Back

There’s a large, framed photograph at Visiting Angels of an aide with Anstett’s mother-in-law, who required home care due to Alzheimer’s disease around the time she and her husband opened the franchise; she passed away a few years ago. It’s a reminder that these services hit close to home for many people, and they’re important.

And not just for the clients, said Natalie Pilecki, the company’s administrative specialist. For workers in this field — at least the good ones — it’s more than a job.

“Spending time with the elderly is always nice,” she told BusinessWest. “The hours are good, the flexibility is always good, and they enjoy socializing with the elderly. Every day is different — it’s different every time you walk into their house.”

A good work experience starts with the employer, though, Anstett said. “I think we all have to value our workforce. We did a survey of our caregivers, about what’s most important to them. They put the highest value on how they’re treated. Pay was second, and benefits third. We listen to our caregivers, and those are the things we work on.”

She noted that one client has been with the company for 13 years, just one of many long-term connections being made.

“You develop a relationship with clients and their families. It’s about giving, and when you give, people respond. The job gives back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Into the Breach

Cybersecurity experts say there’s still plenty of misunderstanding when it comes to the reality of data threats. For example, it’s not just big companies being attacked — these days, everyone is a target, and data thieves are becoming more subtle and savvy with their methods. That means companies need to be more vigilant — but it also means career opportunities abound in a field that desperately needs more young talent.

Everyone knows what cybersecurity is. Fewer know what people who work in the field actually do — and how much they earn.

And that’s a problem, Tom Loper said, when it comes to drawing young talent into a field that desperately needs it — and will need it for many years to come, as the breadth and complexity of data threats continue to evolve.

“That’s why we need to start with the high-school students,” said Loper, associate provost and dean of the School of Science and Management at Bay Path University. “They don’t really understand cybersecurity, and that’s a big problem because we have this incredible shortage of folks qualified to work in cybersecurity.”

Bay Path is doing its part, he said, not only with two undergraduate programs in the field and a graduate program in cybersecurity management, but by actively promoting those tracks to incoming students with undecided majors.

“We allow them to take cyber courses that first semester just to try it out, and the whole faculty is steering them toward it because the pay is so good in this field. Most of the ones who take it, believe it or not, they stay in that field,” he said, noting that about 90 students are currently enrolled in the three programs. “That’s a pretty good number for a small school like this. Now, we’re trying to get more high-school students to understand.”

“Companies are becoming more savvy. They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked.”

Loper said Bay Path’s programs are tailored specifically to the requirements of various cybersecurity careers, so students can get entry-level jobs immediately and go on to earn whatever further industry certifications they may need. “We have graduates making $60,000 to $80,000 coming out of school with these degrees. And if they get some experience before graduation, they’re worth even more.”

Tom Loper said cybersecurity is a complex challenge best tackled from a region-wide, ‘ecosystem’ perspective.

To that end, Bay Path recently won a grant from the Mass Cyber Center at MassTech to support internship and workforce experiences for students. That’s just one aspect, he said, of the way the region can build a cybersecurity hub from what he calls an “ecosystem perspective,” one that encompasses high-school and college students, workforce-development programs, government agencies, and business sectors where cybersecurity is important. These days, that’s most of them.

“Companies are becoming more savvy,” said Mark Jardim, lead engineer at CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked. But they are calling us and saying, ‘how can we be more protected?’”

Chris Rivers, vice president of Phillips Insurance in Chicopee, agreed that more companies are coming around to the threat potential.

“It sometimes depends on whether they’ve had an incident or a near miss,” he said, adding that, while people may hear news reports about data breaches at large companies, no business of any size is totally immune.

In fact, “smaller businesses tend to have less security, and sometimes it’s easier for hackers to get in there, taking credit-card information or any type of information, really. Think of a law office, and the risk of private information being taken and used against clients.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack. And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

“If you have a breach and data is stolen,” Rivers added, “it can get pretty costly.”

Data security has become a primary form of business insurance at all commercial agencies, but a policy to recover damages, even a comprehensive one, isn’t enough; the long-term brand damage, Rivers noted, is much harder to quantify. “Once your reputation is gone, it’s gone.”

The fact that businesses are catching on to this reality, combined with high-tech advances that will making defending against cybercrime more challenging, has created significant opportunities in what promises to be one of the most important career fields over the next decade.

Human Nature

Charlie Christianson, president of CMD and its sister company, Peritus Security, said data breaches cost companies $11.5 billion in 2019. And the threats come in many forms.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack,” he told BusinessWest. “And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

The human element to data breaches is still prominent, as e-mail phishing schemes remain the number-one way cybercriminals gain access to networks. These often arrive with URLs that are very close to a legitimate address. More importantly, phishers are ever-honing their ability to replicate the tone, language, and content of the supposed sender.

“They look incredibly realistic,” Christianson said. “A week doesn’t go by where we don’t get one and say, ‘wow, this looks good.’ For people who don’t live it every day, it can be very easy to fall into the trap. The trick is to just stop and think about it before you click on it.”

These attacks are more specific and targeted in the past, he went on, but they’re not the only way data thieves are getting in. Another is through employees’ personal devices, which don’t typically boast the security features of a large corporate system.

“Devices are hit and used to launch an attack, or they’re infected and brought into a secure environment. What’s on that device can get into the corporate network and spread,” he explained, which is why many companies have tightened up their BYOD (bring your own device) policies.

“That’s slowing down as businesses are becoming aware of the risk,” Jardim added. “We’re actually seeing a trend of slowing down the bring-your-own-device idea in the workforce; companies are saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do that because attackers are using those vulnerabilities.’”

The trend known as the internet of things, or IoT, poses new threats as well, Christianson said.

“When people think about securing their network, they think about their computers, their servers, their tablets, things like that. But they don’t think about the SimpliSafe security system or the time clock that hangs on the wall or the voice-over-IP phone system they use every day. You have all these devices that aren’t being maintained — they just let them run.”

He knows of one company that was attacked through its security-camera system, and said segmenting networks is one way to minimize such a threat. “That shouldn’t be on same network as your finances.”

The defenses against breach attempts are myriad, from password portals and multi-factor verification of online accounts to geoblocking traffic coming from overseas.

“A lot can be done with training,” Christianson said. “The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

Mark Jardim (left) and Charlie Christianson say cybercrime is constantly evolving, and so must the strategies businesses employ to prevent it.

It’s definitely a challenge, Jardim added. “We have to protect every single door and window, we have to be right 100% of the time, and a hacker just needs to find one vulnerability.”

Cultivating an Ecosystem

That list of threats and defenses — which only skims the surface — drives home the need for a more robust cybersecurity workforce, Loper said.

“We believe you have to take a regional approach to cybersecurity,” he noted. “We don’t believe you can just think of yourself as island unto yourself. Whether you’re a big organization or a small organization, you’re part of the supply chain, and there are opportunities for breaches. Everyone is connected.”

Boosting workforce-development programs is one spoke on the wheel. “It needs more attention. At one point, we didn’t have enough tool and die makers. The Commonwealth got behind it, and now we have enough. Something like that is going to happen in the high schools, and across this region, where we’re retraining people to work in this space just because there are so many opportunities.”

“The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

One plan is to develop a ‘cyber range,’ which is a simulated IT environment that emulates the IT structure of businesses, Loper explained. “We can bring people into the cyber range and help them deal with threats to a simulated environment.”

All these strategies are running headlong into the rise, in the very near future, of 5G wireless connectivity, which will dramatically increase data speed — and perhaps security threats as well.

“The threat we have now is going to go on steroids with 5G and with IoT,” Loper said. “The opportunties for business development will be greater than ever, and the opportunities for penetration will be greater than ever as well. It’s amazing what’s happening with 5G — it’s mostly good, but pretty darn challenging.”

Those threats provide business for commercial insurers, and that coverage is important, Rivers said, but businesses have to think about their own common-sense defenses as well.

“As we do renewals or reach out to clients, we try to bring out what policies are available to them to protect them from different things,” he noted. “It’s easy for us to recommend everything, but there’s a cost, so we try to inform them what’s out there so they can make decisions — ‘do I want this? Do I want that?’”

Rivers cited a statistic from Philadelphia Insurance Companies, which reports that the average cost of a data breach is $204 per lost record, with more than half of such costs attributable to lost customers and the associated public-relations expenses to rebuild an organization’s reputation.

“It’s one thing to take the data out, but when your brand is affected because you’ve had this incredible breach, that’s something else,” Loper added. “Your brand is what people think it is; it’s not what you think it is, like in the old days. Now, just look on social media, and that tells you what your brand is. Cybersecurity is one of those things that, if not done properly, can undermine your brand so quickly.”

In the end, Jardim said, the idea is to minimize risk.

“I always joke, the most secure machine is one that’s shut off in a locked room, but you have to find a balance,” he said — one that employs measures from simple common sense to choosing the right firewall.

“We see clients who have $5 million businesses buying a $100 firewall from Staples. You’re not going to protect your infrastructrure with that. You need the right equipment for your size. You need professional stuff for your business — you can’t use the same equipment you buy for your house for your business.”

“Well, you can,” Christianson added quickly, noting just one more way people might take a limited view of cybersecurity threats — and come to regret it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions

Making a Match

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the region’s recent momentum and new attractions have made it a stronger sell to event and convention planners.

Conventions are good business for a city like Springfield. But they don’t exist in a vacuum.

“We’ll ask if they have time for things outside their program,” said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Are they bringing spouses? Will they have time, either pre-event or post-event, to go to Yankee Candle, or Six Flags, or the Seuss museum?”

“That’s part of their convention experience as well,” added Alicia Szenda, the GSVCB’s director of Sales. “They might be at the MassMutual Center for three or four days, but they might do a couple off-site events, too. We can help them — ‘OK, do you want to do the Springfield Museums? The Hall of Fame? What is it that your group is interested in?’ Because we do want them to have a good experience and feel welcome.”

Both Wydra and Szenda share a philosophy that, while conventions and major sporting events positively impact the region during the weekend or week they’re around, they also pose an opportunity to draw convention-goers back in the future — either as a group for future events, or individually, as leisure travelers.

That’s why attracting convention business focuses not just on the venue, lodging, and amenities involved in the event itself, but on the entire region.

“Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer,” Wydra told BusinessWest. “Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

And when they’re here, they’ll spend money, from hotels and restaurants to gas stations and recreation destinations, Szenda added. “We’re really lucky we have great attractions, and that’s enough to keep people entertained while they’re here and get them to come back.”

The convention and event mix in 2020 is a diverse agenda, one featuring newcomers and repeat business alike. The city recently hosted the New England Fence Assoc., which the GSCVB had been trying to bring in for years, as well as the New England Region Volleyball Assoc. (NERVA). In its sixth straight year here, the latter event filled 2,000 hotel-room nights over the course of a weekend.

The city will also host the Amateur Athletic Union volleyball super-regional in March — partly because someone who took part in the NERVA event liked what he saw from the city. “We’re hoping that becomes annual as well,” Szenda said.

Other upcoming events include the largest collegiate fencing competition in the country and a First Robotics event at the Eastern States Exposition, both in April; a gathering of the National Assoc. of Basketball Coaches in May; and Hooplandia in June. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In all cases, Szenda said, the goal is to match what an organization needs with what a venue — and the city and region — have to offer. Take the International Jugglers’ Assoc., which convened in Springfield last year.

“This group was looking to go anywhere in the country, so we looked at their parameters and put together a proposal. They needed a convention center, two full-service hotels within walking distance, a historic theater, and a fun kind of bar atmosphere with a stage. I read that and was like, ‘that fits perfectly here,’” she recalled, noting that Symphony Hall was an ideal theater, and Theodores’ fit the bill for the bar.

Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer. Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

The GSCVB will also suggest gathering options that planners might not know about — perhaps a cruise outing on the Lady Bea, or an outdoor reception at the Springfield Museums. “You can have a unique dinner event on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nowhere else in the world can you do that event. We try to be creative, and try to really hype the assets we have.”

Rising Interest

The GSCVB has seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and Szenda is constantly talking with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out. Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options and assembling tourism information about the region.

The bureau also boasts a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“At the end of the day, it’s about sales,” she said. “We go to trade shows, but we also get leads from locals who live around here who might be part of national associations or hobby groups or special-interest groups who want to bring the event they travel to every year here. Once we make that initial contact, the process becomes pretty streamlined. We want to get all the information we can from them — how many room nights do they need? What kind of venue do they need?”

Organizations based in New England already see Greater Springfield as a convenient location, with interstates 90 and 91 intersecting here, and they might be aware of its recreational and hospitality options. Those from far away, though, may need some convincing, and that’s what Szenda does when she attends those industry trade shows, where she may schedule appointments with up to 30 meeting planners or sporting-event organzers to talk about how this region suits their needs.

“We’re Western Mass. — we don’t have the cachet of a first-tier city, like Boston or Chicago,” Wydra said. “With national groups, a lot of times, that’s where a local person comes into play.”

For instance, the National Square Dance Convention, a national gathering of Daughters of the Nile, and a large insurance convention all landed in Springfield in recent years because a local member got the ball rolling. “I think the local tie to national groups is a really important and powerful one for us.”

One selling point is that national groups that hold conventions in the Pioneer Valley get plenty of local attention — everyone knows they’re here, and are often excited about it.

“We tell the event planner, ‘you’re going to be a big fish in a little pond,’” Wydra said, noting that Daughters of the Nile held its convention in Orlando the year before coming to Springfield. “I don’t know if the local people knew they were in Orlando. But when they came to Springfield, there was a story or photograph in our mainstream media, talking about this group, every day they were here. You kind of take over our city, our region.”

Another plus? Springfield is a different city than it was five years ago, with MGM Springfield, the Seuss museum, and ongoing Basketball Hall of Fame renovations among the recent major stories.

“I go to these trade shows, and all they want to know is what’s new,” Szenda said. “With some cities, they sit there and say, ‘we’ve got the same stuff,’ but we’ve been able to go every year and say ‘this is what’s new, this is what’s new.’”

Wydra agreed. “That makes our job so much easier and more exciting. The sell is easier when we can say we’ve added these things.”

Key Connections

‘It takes a village’ is a bit of a cliché, Wydra admitted, but in the GSCVB’s case, it really is true, especially when it comes to booking events and providing the kind of experience that will bring people back.

“It does take a village to host a group of people. Everyone’s got to work together,” she said, adding that the region is fortunate to have assets like Eastern States, a campus-like setting with plenty of parking and room for large equipment, not to mention a modern convention center in the heart of Springfield and a couple of anchor hotels downtown complemented by a growing roster of lodging options around the region.

“Anyone who lives here and belongs to a group or goes to an event they want to host, they should contact me,” Szenda said, putting that sales hat back on for a moment. “If we get the site visit, we have a better shot of landing that event.”

“We do the work for them,” Wydra added. “We try to make it as easy as possible, but those local leads are so important.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Care Connections

Kathy Burns says Mercy LIFE’s team approach to care has helped seniors maintain and even improve their health.

Celina Conway tells the story of a man who arrived at Mercy LIFE after five years in a nursing home, and was so weak, he couldn’t even hold a cup with both hands. After five years receiving services there, though, he felt stronger than he had in a decade — since before his nursing-home stay, in fact.

“They’re getting stronger,” said Conway, the facility’s director of Enrollment and Marketing. “There are people who came here in wheelchairs and now walk — quite a number, actually. Those are not uncommon stories.”

Mercy LIFE is a PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) program run by Trinity Health PACE that will celebrate its sixth anniversary on March 1. PACE programs are on the rise in the U.S. because the role they play — providing a range of health programs aimed at keeping seniors out of nursing homes — is becoming more prominent.

“We’re serving people who could be in nursing homes. The model was designed as a place for folks who need some care and need some eyes on them on a more regular basis than an elder living independently,” said Kathy Burns, the center’s executive director. “In fact, everybody who joins us has to be, in the eyes of the state of Massachusetts, clinically nursing-home eligible. And they tend to thrive here because of the intensive care management we do with this big, multi-disciplinary team.”

Indeed, that team includes primary-care doctors, home-care nurses, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians, social workers, among others, all working as a team on each enrollee’s individualized care plan. And it’s not just healthcare; it’s also a place for seniors to socialize, participate in activities, and be generally engaged in life.

“Everything is under one roof, kind of like a nursing home, but nobody lives here; they go home at the end of the day,” Conway said. “When people enroll in the PACE program, they agree to have all their services provided by the staff here, including primary care.”

It’s a managed-care model not far removed from accountable care, the model that has crept into hospitals nationwide, which involves teams of providers being paid by insurers to keep patients well over a period of time, rather than being paid for each treatment, test, and hospital stay.

“It’s actually the precursor to accountable care,” Burns said, noting that, about 40 years ago in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, families wanted a place for their elders to go instead of a nursing home — a central location where they could bring in health services. Medicare funded a trial run, and the model worked. A second PACE site followed in Boston, and today, 131 PACE programs provide services at 263 centers nationwide, serving about 51,000 participants.

Why? Because the model works, Burns said, giving one example of how such programs keep people healthier while saving money.

“We get a good idea how this person functions, what’s important to them, what their goals are, how we think we can meet their needs. They have the ability to say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but typically, once they walk in the door, they’re sold and they do want to enroll.”

“Everybody on the team is equally important in their observations of what’s going on with the elder. Let’s say a driver who’s driven Mrs. Smith here every week for a long time notices, ‘boy she’s really out of sorts today.’ He’s supposed to come in and tell his boss, who will come to the morning meeting and say, ‘Mrs. Smith isn’t right today.’

“So Mrs. Smith is sent right down to the clinic, and we’re going to look at her,” she continued. “And if she’s got, say, a UTI brewing, we’re going to get her on some antibiotics and take care of her right here instead of her going home, where the infection gets worse, and she ends up in the ER with delirium because the infection makes her delirious, and all of a sudden she’s in a psych ward spending Medicare or Medicaid’s money unnecessarily because what she needed was antibiotics, which we can take care of right here.”

Safe Haven

Mercy LIFE currently enrolls more than 300 seniors, about 100 of whom are on site on a typical day.

“We explain to people this is a different way to have your healthcare delivered, and we have conversations to make sure they want care delivered this way,” Conway said. “We want to help them live safely at home.”

If, after being assessed by a nurse, they meet the criteria of needing nursing-home-level care, team members speak further with them and their family members, she went on.

“We get a good idea how this person functions, what’s important to them, what their goals are, how we think we can meet their needs. They have the ability to say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but typically, once they walk in the door, they’re sold and they do want to enroll.”

Conway said Mercy LIFE enrollees are assessed and placed into one of four different activity levels, from totally independent to needing more help to memory care, and it’s not uncommon for people to move from one level to another over time. “If people are concerned they won’t find people like them, they will.”

The rehab gym is a popular spot where participants can get stronger, she added. Some sign up for time with a personal trainer, while others might work in small groups or one on one to deal with specific issues, such as balance.

“They always think they’ll get weaker and less mobile as they age, but we’re lifers; we’re planning to be with them for life. So we’re trying to do preventive care, which is less expensive than dealing with a crisis after an episode where somebody falls.”

Occupational therapists on the team also spend time in the home, and are always scoping out issues that could be dangerous, Conway noted.

“We are responsible for everything. So if someone needs a grab bar, or someone needs a toilet set, we are going to order it and deliver it ourselves, which is better than getting a script and going to the medical equipment store. It’s very personalized service. When we work as a team, we prevent so many hospitalizations, emergency-room trips, that sort of thing.”

Burns added that the attention and engagement seniors get at Mercy LIFE brings a richness and measure of security they might not find on their own. “It’s an intensive model of oversight that really keeps them safe at home, happy at home. A lot of folks who come here had spent years at a time just sitting at home watching television. Now they’re doing all kinds of interesting things in our day room, while they’re seen by doctors and therapists.”

And the care plan is different for everybody, Conway said as she walked with BusinessWest past a conference room where an interdisciplinary team was meeting, as they do multiple times each day, to discuss whatever issues may have arisen with some of the people in their charge.

“We’ve helped 550 people over the past six years,” she added. “We don’t discharge people to hospice. We serve people until the end of their life. It’s a beautiful model. To see people when they enrolled and then see the progress and the support they get is very rewarding.”

Burns agreed. “A lot of families have been incredibly grateful for that gift.”

Effective Model

Burns and Conway both came back repeatedly to the financial benefits of preventive care and the value of preventing incidents before they arise. “If you don’t have an ambulance ride, an ER visit, a hospitalization, and a rehab visit, you’re saving a ton of money right there,” Conway said. “I know our interdisciplinary team members work hard to prevent those four key things. Everybody’s happy as a result of that.”

There is no cost to the vast majority of the seniors or their families (there is a private-pay option for a small percentage of participants). Medicare grants the program a flat monthly premium, while MassHealth provides funding as well. However, this year, MassHealth reduced its rate by 2.1%.

“We’re advocating for some of that to be brought back,” Burns said. “The problem for small but effective programs like ours is they’re easy targets for things like that. And we’re really hoping MassHealth will consider pulling back that decrease.”

Those who work at the West Springfield site see that effectiveness every day, Conway said. “This is mission work. I don’t think you’ll find anyone working at Mercy LIFE for the money. They stay here because they enjoy it so much.”

She told BusinessWest she appreciates the chance to tell the Mercy LIFE story because many people still have misconceptions.

“People think it’s home care, they think it’s adult day health, they think it’s a doctor’s office … but it’s all of those things,” she said.

“It sounds too good to be true,” Burns added. “But it just works.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]