Home Archive by category Coronavirus

Coronavirus

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 Special Coverage

Q & A for the Reopening

By Ellen McKitterick and Mark Emrick

Employers are beginning to look at bringing employees back into the workplace and/or opening up their offices after being closed for six to eight weeks. Here is a sampling of the key questions that the HR Hotline staff at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) is responding to.

Ellen McKitterick

Ellen McKitterick

Mark Emrick

Mark Emrick

How do I respond to an employee who says they are afraid to return to work? Each instance needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. If the employee has a valid reason that fits within an FMLA, ADA, or other reasonable accommodation, then be sure to start the interactive process and see if the request is reasonable. Otherwise, general fear is not a valid reason, and the employee would be voluntarily resigning.

How do I respond to an employee who says they don’t feel safe returning to the workplace? Assuming you have taken all required cleaning and disinfecting steps, you can respond: “we are operating a safe workplace. We are operating in accordance with state and local safety and health guidelines. There currently is no recognized health or safety hazard in our workplace.” Otherwise, general fear is not a valid reason, and the employee would be voluntarily resigning.

As we ramp up our operations, we need our workforce to return to the physical workplace. How do I respond to an employee’s request to continue working from home? Employers do not have to permit work from home if it does not fit their business needs; it is not up to the employee. That being said, in our current crisis, it is wise to allow working from home until the COVID-19 situation is under better control.

What if I can only bring my employees back part-time? They have been on unemployment during their furlough. How will this affect their ability to collect benefits? Employees who are collecting any benefit from unemployment insurance (UI) will continue to receive the additional $600 from the federal government at least through July 31. Partial unemployment may still qualify them for some UI; there is a partial-payment calculator at mass.gov to determine the possible benefit.

Can my employees continue to collect unemployment after I have asked them to come back, but they refuse? They can try, but they are not eligible if you have offered work. Employers should notify the Department of Unemployment Assistance of any employee refusing to return.

What do I do if my employee says they are making more money on unemployment than working for me and do not want to return right away? The employee needs to make a decision. Either they take the short-term gain of extra unemployment or the long-term gain of their job. This would be considered, in most cases, voluntary resignation. Their position may not be available when they decide to return to work.

What effects does our recent furlough have on my employees’ flexible spending account and dependent care accounts, the loss of contributions, and amount of time remaining for contributions in 2020? Employees may be allowed to make changes to some accounts, but it would require an amendment to your plan. IRS Notice 2020-29 may answer more questions.

Can I screen or test employees for symptoms of COVID-19 before they return to work? What screening methods should I use? Yes, during a pandemic you can take employees’ temperatures or ask business-related health questions such as “have you had symptoms, a fever over 100.4, or been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19?: Remember that HIPAA and privacy laws apply.

Can I require older workers who are at high risk to continue to stay at home? No, you cannot exclude anyone in a protected class. If they voice a concern, then you should enter into the interactive process and see if a reasonable accommodation may apply.

Do I have to provide face masks for my employees? In Masachusetts, employees will be required to wear them at work, but it is to be determined who has to provide them. Neighboring states are all requiring the employer to provide needed personal protective equipment.

How do I respond to any employee who refuses to adhere to our social-distancing guidelines or wear a face covering in the office? Upon return to work, employers should put employees on notice of any new policy, any special protocols that may apply, and the personal protective equipment that is required. Engage in an interactive process to ascertain any concerns and determine if special conditions may apply before moving to discipline.

What should I do if my employees are complaining about coming back to work and the extra requirements? Employees are entitled to complain about working conditions to fellow employees. They should remain professional and follow all company policies, but they have the right to voice their opinion as long as they are not defamatory or causing disruptions.

Ellen McKitterick is EANE’s newest HR business partner. She advises member organizations on all aspects of employment law, including wage and hour issues, employment discrimination, employee benefits, leaves of absence, and unemployment, and trains EANE members and non-members on harassment prevention, basic employment concepts, employee medical and leave issues, and key management skills. Mark Emrick is a senior HR business partner at EANE with consulting responsibilities for all aspects of the HR function — recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, benefits administration, compliance, performance management, coaching, development, corrective action, and terminations. He is also an experienced investigator for employee complaints and issues.

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 Features

Unwanted Break in the Action

By Mark Morris

Thunderbirds

Nate Costa says the Thunderbirds were on track for their most successful season when it ended prematurely.

When discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, team president Nathan Costa doesn’t mince words.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat this — it’s a challenge, and it stinks,” he said, noting that, with seven games remaining in the regular season, the Thunderbirds were close to making the playoffs when the American Hockey League (AHL) suspended play on March 12, then formally canceled the remainder of the season on May 11.

“I’ve been in the pro-sports world for more than 10 years, and none of us have ever seen anything like this,” he told BusinessWest, using that phrase to talk about everything from the sudden end to the 2019-20 season to the prospects for the season tentatively scheduled to start in just four short months.

And those sentiments were echoed by executives with teams in another sport — baseball.

Indeed, in Holyoke, the Valley Blue Sox will not be playing in 2020 as its league, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), announced on May 1 it would cancel the entire season.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson hopes the Starfires are able to take the field at all this summer.

Meanwhile, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) has not yet canceled its season, but it has pushed back opening day from May 27 to an as-yet-undetermined date, which affects the Westfield Starfires, a team in only its second year of existence.

Chris Thompson, owner of the Starfires, said the student athletes on his roster have already missed the spring college season because the NCAA canceled it due to the coronavirus. He remains hopeful there will be some opportunity for his team to play ball this summer, adding that this will happen only if the health and safety of the players, fans, and staff at the ballpark can be assured.

“From our perspective, we won’t play until it’s safe to do so, but we won’t cancel until we’re told we have to,” Thompson said. “There’s no blueprint for this.”

Taking a Timeout

With that last statement, Thompson, who once worked as an executive with the Thunderbirds, spoke for everyone involved in professional sports. There is no blueprint for how to proceed, but teams can try to plan for the short and long term and adjust for what will certainly be a new normal.

Costa said his team and the AHL are having discussions about what the experience will look like for fans at the MassMutual Center, and other buildings in the league, if and when play returns.

He pointed out that the NHL and the NBA may be able to play in empty arenas because of lucrative TV contracts that provide a great deal of income to the teams, but playing with no fans is just not just not feasible for the AHL because so much of its revenue is from ticket sales, concessions, and other in-arena activity.

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands,” said Costa. “It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands. It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

Before the season was cancelled, Costa was pleased with the momentum the Thunderbirds had been building in their four years as a franchise. Through 31 home games this season, the team had nine sellouts and anticipated at least three more for their remaining games. By contrast, last year they had nine sellouts in their entire 38-game home schedule. He also cited a promotion that received national attention when the team rebranded for one game as the Springfield Ice-o-topes, in a nod to The Simpsons.

With the beginning of a new hockey season four months away, Costa said the AHL has an opportunity to see how other professional leagues handle reopening for games and get a feel for what might work, or not work, as the case may be.

“The NFL will start its season before us,” he noted, “and that will be a real barometer in terms of social distancing at stadiums and what the experience might look like for people going to games.”

He added that state officials and MassMutual Center staff continue to look at ways to make the environment safe for everyone who enters the building. The AHL is also looking at contingencies such as delaying the start of the season to December or January.

“There’s nothing stopping us from pushing back the start and then playing a little longer next year,” Costa said, “especially if it gives us a chance to get a full season in.”

Costa has good reason to be optimistic for a full season next year as it marks the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds and begins a new affiliation with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. “We’re already deep into planning what the fifth anniversary season is going to look like, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”

Thompson had similar thoughts on the Starfires and what lies ahead for that team.

While the FCBL has been working on a plan for social distancing at the ballpark — in this case Bullens Field in Westfield — Thompson said working through an unprecedented challenge like this generates more questions than answers. How teams manage ballpark seating and concession operations are just two of the areas where he has concerns. It even affects travel, as the teams play games in three New England states.

“We usually travel on one coach bus,” he explained. “We can’t afford to have fewer people on two buses; it would double our transportation expense.”

Even if summer baseball happens this year, Thompson said coronavirus has already wrecked a special dynamic in the league. Starfire players often come to Westfield from different parts of the country and stay with local host families for the summer.

“Sometimes a family has an 8-year old Little Leaguer in the house who then has a college roommate for the summer, or we have empty nesters who are looking to host a player or two,” Thompson said. “Host families are one of the great things about summer baseball.”

Now, of course, the model of families hosting players is on hold until next year at the earliest.

Rather, Thompson is now looking to have more players from the eastern part of Massachusetts and the Hartford area of Connecticut so they could commute to games in Westfield.

With the Starfires in a holding pattern, it’s doubtful they will get to play their full 56-game schedule. During this time, Thompson has been reaching out to his corporate sponsors to keep them engaged.

“We’re looking at different ways to use our social-media platforms to get our fans involved and to give our corporate sponsors exposure,” he said.

Finding a Winning Formula

The Thunderbirds are also using social media to extend the reach of their sponsors. Costa said one effective technique has been running ‘rewinds’ of notable games from this season on Facebook. In some cases, the potential audience for sponsors can be larger than in-arena exposure.

“Our Facebook presence has grown to more than 22,000 followers, and on Instagram we have 15,000 followers, giving us a core audience of nearly 40,000 eyeballs,” Costa said, adding that many sponsors have already assured him they will be back next year.

When play was suspended, he placed a high priority on reaching out to season-ticket holders about the seven games they would be missing this year. The team provided options such as a refund for the remaining games, or a credit that would apply to tickets for next season. Costa and his staff also offered a third option.

“We’re setting aside some funds to provide tickets to frontline workers next season at no charge and to recognize all their efforts,” Costa said noting that nearly 25% of the season-ticket holders chose that option.

In a similar move, Valley Blue Sox General Manager Kate Avard said the team had planned to dedicate its opening day in 2021 to “honor and support community organizations and first responders who are currently on the front lines of combating COVID-19.”

As the area’s pro sports teams search for some answers concerning the future, they acknowledge they are hard to come by, noting that perhaps the only certainty is no shortage of uncertainty.

But guarded optimism still prevails.

“We have great community partners who want us to succeed for a long time,” said Thompson, speaking, again, for all those in his profession. “Setbacks like this make us more resilient.”

Coronavirus

BOSTON — Today, the Baker-Polito administration released “Reopening Massachusetts,” the Reopening Advisory Board’s report, which details a four-phased strategy to responsibly reopen businesses and activities while continuing to fight COVID-19.

The Administration also released a new “Safer at Home” advisory, which instructs residents to stay at home unless engaging with newly opened activities, as a way to continue limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Who Can Open Now

Starting today, based on current public health data and trends, Massachusetts will begin Phase 1 of a cautious reopening, and workplaces that are permitted to open are required to follow new safety protocols and guidance.

Each phase of the reopening will be guided by public-health data and key indicators that will be continually monitored for progress and used to determine advancement to future phases. Industries, sectors, and activities that present less risk will open in earlier phases. Those that present more risk will open in later phases.

Based on the public health metrics, manufacturing facilities and construction sites may open effective today with applicable guidelines (more on those later). Places of worship will be able to open with guidelines that require social distancing, and they are encouraged to hold services outdoors.

Hospitals and community health centers that attest to specific public-health and safety standards can begin to provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high risk patients.

Who Can Open on May 25

Starting Monday, May 25, other businesses may reopen, including lab space; office space; limited personal services, including hair salons, pet grooming, and car washes; retail, with remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only; beaches and parks; drive-in movie theaters; select athletic fields and courts; many outdoor adventure activities; most fishing, hunting, and boating; and outdoor gardens, zoos, reserves, and public installations.

Additional sectors expected to open on June 1 as part of Phase 1 include office spaces in the city of Boston with applicable guidelines.

The goal of this phased reopening 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, and/or the entire Commonwealth may need to return to an earlier phase.

The Commonwealth will partner with industries to draft sector-specific protocols in advance of future phases (for example, restaurant-specific protocols will be drafted in advance of Phase 2).

Success in earlier phases will refine criteria for future phases, including travel, sizes of gatherings, as well as additional retail openings, lodging and accommodations, arts, entertainment, fitness centers, museums, restaurants, youth sports, and other activities.

‘Safer at Home’

Effective today, the Department of Public Health also 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.

Protocols for Reopening

Businesses are not required to reopen, and may not do so if they are unable to follow safety protocols. Materials for the sectors eligible to open in the first phase of reopening are included on the mass.gov/reopening website. Guidance for sectors opening in later phases will be posted online in advance of those phases.

 In order to reopen, businesses must develop a written COVID-19 control plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of COVID-19. Required materials are located on mass.gov/reopening, and include detailed sector-specific circulars and checklists to facilitate compliance.

Required materials for businesses to self-certify are located on mass.gov/reopening, and include a COVID-19 control-plan template, which must be retained on premises and provided in the event of an inspection; a compliance-attestation poster to be posted in a location visible to employees and visitors, indicating a completed COVID-19 control plan; and other posters and signs describing rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.

Businesses providing essential services, as defined in the governor’s March 23 executive order and updated on March 31, April 28, and May 15, may remain open and have until May 25 to comply with the general workplace-safety standards, as well as their industry’s sector-specific protocols.

Healthcare

Effective today, hospitals and community health centers that attest to meeting specific capacity criteria and public health and safety standards will be allowed to resume a limited set of in-person preventative, diagnostic, and treatment services.

Effective May 25, other healthcare providers who attest to meeting these standards may resume limited in-person services.

Services that may be performed are limited, based on the provider’s clinical judgment to high-priority preventive services, including pediatric care, immunizations, and chronic disease care for high-risk patients, and urgent procedures that cannot be delivered remotely and would lead to high risk or significant worsening of the patient’s condition if deferred.

Before the phased in-hospital expansion and non-hospital reopening, the following statewide metrics must be met: 30% of hospital ICU beds (including staffed surge capacity) must be available; and 30% of total hospital beds (including staffed surge capacity) must be available.

In order to reopen or expand services, healthcare providers must attest to public-health standards and specific guidelines; ensure adequate personal protective equipment is on hand and a reliable supply chain and other supplies and policies are in place; maintain infection-control readiness (workflow, cleaning, social distancing, etc.); and institute workforce and patient screening and testing protocols. Also, hospitals must have at least 25% ICU and total bed capacity and must reopen pediatric ICU and psychiatric beds if they had been repurposed for surge capacity.

Childcare

Childcare and summer recreation camps will reopen in a phased approach. The state departments of Early Education and Care (EEC) and Public Health are developing guidelines that balance families’ need for childcare with health and safety. The initial reopening plan will focus on families who have no safe alternative to group care by increasing emergency childcare capacity. EEC will also partner with industries returning to work to develop options specific to their workplaces.

In March, the Baker-Polito administration stood up an emergency childcare system to support children of essential workers and vulnerable families with extra virus-mitigation protocols. During Phase 1, the emergency childcare system already in place will be utilized to meet the needs of people with no alternatives for care. Currently, only 35% of the 10,000-child emergency childcare capacity is occupied, and the system has the ability to serve more families to provide care options as more sectors come back online.

Transit

The MBTA has been and will continue to implement measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the system to keep employees and riders safer.

​Riders are required to wear face coverings and must make efforts to distance. Riders are asked to avoid riding transit if they are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Employers are encouraged to stagger schedules and implement work-from-home policies to reduce demand, especially during rush hours.

The MBTA will continue to take protective and preventative measures such as frequently disinfecting and cleaning vehicles and stations and providing protective supplies to workers.

To mitigate risk while providing appropriate levels of service, the MBTA will support the transit needs of essential workers and those returning to the workplace in Phase 1 while continuing with limited service to maximize employee and rider safety. It will ramp up to a modified version of full service by Phase 3, although social-distancing efforts will limit effective capacity on vehicles even after full-service schedules are restored.

The MBTA will also actively communicate public-health guidance and schedule adjustments in-station, online, and over social media.

Supplies

In order to operate, all Massachusetts businesses will need to meet the mandatory workplace-safety standards and relevant sector-specific protocols published by the state. To support businesses, the state has developed a guide to educate business owners on what supplies are needed to return to workplaces, and a portal to connect businesses with manufacturers and distributors. These are now available to business owners at mass.gov/reopening.

Educational materials will be provided to define how an employer should prepare their workspaces to reopen and what products are appropriate for employees to protect themselves at work. While face coverings are critical, medical-grade face coverings are not necessary for non-healthcare workers.

Schools and Higher Education

As previously announced, Massachusetts’ K-12 school buildings will remain closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year, with remote teaching and learning in place. Schools will continue offering essential non-educational services to their communities. Plans are being made for summer learning programs and 2020-21 school year, and will be shared with the public in the weeks to come.

Massachusetts’ diverse higher-education institutions continue to foster teaching, learning, student support, and essential research remotely throughout this time. They are working together and in partnership with the state to ensure a safe and gradual return to campus life. In the upcoming weeks, institutions will develop customized reopening plans with safety of their communities in mind.

About the Reopening Advisory Board

The 17-member Reopening Advisory Board, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, consists of public-health experts, municipal leaders, and members of the business community representing many facets of the Massachusetts economy. Since its formation on April 28, the board met with a total of 75 stakeholder groups including industry associations, regional chambers of commerce, community coalitions, and labor organizations, representing over 112,000 different businesses and more than 2 million workers across the Commonwealth. The Reopening Advisory Board also considered written comments from more than 4,500 employers, organizations, and individuals in the development of its plan.

Coronavirus

Opinion

By Thea M. Lee

This week, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives released the Heroes Act, which would provide critical relief and recovery measures to the U.S. economy and the people and businesses in it.

One of the most important features of the bill is that it would provide $875 billion in direct state and local aid, as well as targeted fiscal help for education and Medicaid spending for state governments. This is an essential step forward, given that state and local governments will need up to $1 trillion by the end of 2021.

The bill would also provide an extension of the unemployment insurance (UI) provisions in prior relief and recovery packages. This is excellent news from both a humanitarian and economics perspective — particularly the extension of the increased UI benefits of $600 a week, which was one of the most effective parts of the earlier packages. The bill includes many other key provisions, including investments in coronavirus treatment, testing, and contact tracing, which are necessary to reopen our economy.

Inevitably, some policymakers will express concerns over the price tag, which is estimated to be on the order of $3 trillion. This concern is utterly misplaced in this crucial moment. What are scarce in the economy right now are opportunities for workers to earn wages and demand for firms’ output.

Fiscal resources are not scarce — interest rates (our best real-time signal of scarcity of the federal government’s capacity to take on debt) remain historically low. We need to use what we have in abundance — fiscal resources — to relieve the crushing constraints imposed on families by the scarce opportunities to work and earn income. Investments financed by greater public debt will reduce the severity of the economic crisis and will help avoid a prolonged period of high unemployment that would do far more serious and persistent damage to the economy. In short, these investments will have a very high rate of return.

Further, the investments this bill calls for are the absolute minimum required to address the magnitude of the crisis we are facing. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, without additional relief, the unemployment rate will average 16% in the third quarter of this year and 10.1% for the entire calendar year of 2021. Those numbers, which were released two and a half weeks ago, are now looking overly optimistic, given that more than 30 million workers have already filed for unemployment insurance and millions more continue to pour in.

A deep concern in today’s legislation is the lack of ‘automatic’ triggers for the expiration of the bill’s provisions. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty around how the economic impact of the coronavirus will unfold. Assigning arbitrary end dates to provisions to sustain the economy, as the bill does, makes little sense when the process could be handled automatically, by having provisions phase out as the unemployment rate or the employment-to-population ratio are restored to near-pre-virus levels. Using automatic stabilizers would not be any more expensive than the cumulative cost of multiple extensions of the programs in the bill — but it would prevent destructive lapses in critical programs while Congress negotiates extensions, and it would alleviate corrosive uncertainty by giving businesses, states, and households crucial confidence around budgeting and planning.

Thea Lee is the president of the Economic Policy Institute.

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]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Proceeding as Planned

Gene Cassidy

Even if the fair goes on as scheduled, Gene Cassidy says, crowd counts could be way down.

Gene Cassidy likes to say those at the Big E ‘manufacture’ the 17-day annual fair that is by far the biggest single event on the region’s calendar.

“It’s like putting an automobile together,” he told BusinessWest. “You really can’t cut components out and expect the vehicle to run; it costs ‘X’ number of dollars to produce the fair, and we’re still going to spend that — we have to produce a fair that people are going to want to come to.”

And so, those planning the 2020 edition of the Big E are proceeding with the mindset of including all the parts that typically go into the Big E, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently decimating the local economy and wiping events off the calendar in wholesale fashion.

But while Cassidy is currently certain there will be a Big E — that’s currently — he’s less certain about a great many other things. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t know how many people will come to the fairgrounds this September. He quoted at least one poll showing that 50% of respondents said they would not let the pandemic impact their decision to attend an event like the Big E, but another 40% said they wouldn’t attend such an event unless there was a vaccine for the virus.

And if attendance is down 20%, 30%, or even 40%? “It’s going to be a heavy lift to overcome that, but we can’t afford not to go forward.”

And if the fair should have to be canceled? That has happened a few times during the history of the fair — during World Wars I and II, to be specific — but Cassidy isn’t thinking in those terms, because the economic hit would be extremely difficult to absorb.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future,” he told BusinessWest, adding that such a decision won’t have to be made for some time, and he is obviously hoping, and projecting, that enough progress can be made that he won’t have to take that course.

“I have confidence that we’re going to learn from this bug faster than we’ve learned from anything in the past,” he said. “And I have confidence that, by the time we get to the summer, things are going to start to loosen up; we’ve learned a lot, and we’re going to learn a great deal more — and we will open.”

As he talked about this fall’s Big E and the prospects for it, Cassidy joked that, for a change, the ongoing reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which links West and Agawam and abuts the Big E property, will not be the main topic of conversation this summer and fall.

It will still be a topic — two lanes will be closed until late summer 2021, according to the current schedule — but certainly not the topic.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future.”

Indeed, the bridge is now largely an afterthought as the Big E and the region cope with the global pandemic and questions about both the short term and the long term that simply cannot be answered.

Already, the virus has had a huge impact on the Big E, as it has on any venue that hosts large gatherings. Searching his memory banks — and it was hard to remember back that far because so much has happened, or not happened, as the case may be — Cassidy said the last event event staged at the Big E was an antique and crafts show on March 7 and 8.

Everything since has been wiped off the calendar, including the huge home show scheduled for late in March and the planned Hooplandia, a 3-on-3 basketball festival slated to make its much-awaited debut in June.

Everything is cancelled or postponed through June, he went on, adding that he was not aware of any cancellations for July at this time. Aside from the basketball tournament, this summer was to be dominated by a number of horse shows and a few other gatherings.

But most of the attention has now shifted to the fair, which annually attracts more than 1 million people to the region and contributes more than a quarter-billion dollars to the local economy. At this point in time, the expectation is that the show will go on, said Cassidy, adding that adjustments can and will be made to help maintain the safety of visitors and employees alike.

These will come in such realms as ticketing and accessing the property, he said, adding quickly that, given the nature of fairs — putting a lot of people in very close proximity to one another as they do everything from ride on rides to eat fried dough to watch concerts — there isn’t much more that can be done to facilitate social distancing.

“The fact is … a fair is not the place where you can enforce social distancing,” he said. “We can be suggestive, but that’s not what a fair is. It’s uniquely the American way of life, and it just doesn’t lend itself to social distancing.”

These sentiments explain why there are questions — and concerns — about just how many people will make that pilgrimage to West Springfield this fall, and how many times they’ll make it.

“Citizens are going to decide how close they want to be to other people,” said Cassidy. “And I suspect that there’s a segment of society that may never return to a fair again.”

For now, those planning the fair are proceeding to ‘manufacture’ a fair like those that have come before it — but with some adjustments for the pandemic, obviously.

“We’re building a comprehensive plan for cleaning and disinfecting,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, given the fact that the Big E is an agricultural fair, it has rigorous policies in place for disinfecting the various facilities on the grounds.

Other changes will come with ticketing — there will be print-at-home ticketing, for example — as well as with access to the grounds in an effort to create some distance between people. Employees will wear masks and gloves, and visitors will be wearing masks as well, he said.

As for planning for the fair, it is, in most all respects, right on schedule.

“We’re going at the same speed as we always do,” Cassidy noted. “All the entertainment is booked; the concessionaires are lined up, although many of them are not working currently, and and I hope they can make to September. We’re going full-speed ahead — at this point, the fair is more than 90% ready to go.”

And, as noted earlier, it has all the components that the fairs have had in recent years.

“It costs us about $20 million to run the fair, and we hope to gross about $23 million or $24 million from the fair’s operation,” Cassidy noted. “We can’t produce an event that’s compromised, because people won’t come back.”

That said, one of his biggest concerns moving forward is the massive workforce needed to put on the fair, and the generational nature of that workforce.

“We have grandparents, parents, and grandchildren, all of whom participate in the workforce,” he explained. “And we have hundreds of people who volunteer at the Eastern States, many of whom are over age 65. My job is to protect my 65-year-old as well as any patrons who are in that demographic. That’s what our plan is focused on — how do we protect people who are most vulnerable?”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Special Coverage

For Many Impacted by the Pandemic, It Might Be a Viable Option

By Michael B. Katz, Esq.

One thing I’ve learned in my 45 years practicing bankruptcy law is that most individuals who wind up taking this course of action are good people who have found themselves in bad and unexpected circumstances, most often caused by things that were beyond their control.

People get sick, get divorced, lose employment, and have accidents. Likewise, businesses can be adversely affected by events over which they have no meaningful control. Outbreaks of disease, oil shortages, breaks in the supply chain, changing technology, interruption of their workforce, and many other factors can all cause a business or individual to be unable to stay financially afloat.

Which brings us the COVID-19 pandemic. It represents the epitome of unexpected circumstances and matters beyond our control. Indeed, in an effort to slow the spread the spread of the virus, the state has shuttered all non-essential businesses, leading to unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

In these precarious times, individuals and businesses are finding themselves in dire financial circumstances they could not have foreseen, nor done anything to prevent. Given their predicament, some might be looking at bankruptcy as a possible recourse.

In order to help honest but financially burdened individuals make a fresh financial start, Congress has passed a number of bankruptcy laws. Here are the key types:

 

Chapter 7

This is the type of bankruptcy proceeding that allows certain qualifying individuals to eliminate most of their unsecured debts (those without mortgages) and to make a fresh financial start.

In order to qualify for Chapter 7, a person cannot have filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy within the prior eight years. The person filing, known as a debtor, must also pass a test which limits how much earned income the debtor had earned in the prior year. This is called the means test, and it varies based on the state in which the debtor resides, the number of dependents in the family, and whether there is any earned income generated by the debtor’s spouse.

For example, for a Massachusetts resident, the limitation is $67,119 for a single person, $84,125 for a couple (combined gross income), and then increases in different amounts for additional dependents. These limitations became effective as of April 1, 2020 and are subject to periodic adjustment. Similarly, in Connecticut, the individual cutoff is $66,689, and $88,594 for a couple.

Michael B. Katz

Michael B. Katz

In these precarious times, individuals and businesses are finding themselves in dire financial circumstances they could not have foreseen, nor done anything to prevent. Given their predicament, some might be looking at bankruptcy as a possible recourse.

While most unsecured debts can be eliminated in Chapter 7, there are some types of debts that cannot, including income taxes owed from the past three years, alimony and child support, student loans, and debts incurred due to an accident while driving under the influence. 

One of the major benefits of Chapter 7 for an individual obtaining a discharge is that not only are the debts — such as most credit cards, personal loans, foreclosure and repossession deficiency balances, and medical bills — totally wiped out, they are eliminated without incurring any phantom income, on which both federal and state income taxes would be owed.

Compare this to either making a direct settlement with a lender or credit-card company, or going through a non-judicial, multi-year debt-settlement plan, where anything that is settled with the creditors results in the person receiving a 1099 from the creditor and having to pay taxes on the forgiven portion of the debts. In Chapter 7, Congress has decreed that all discharged debts are tax-free, and therefore no hidden taxes are incurred.

The key aspect of Chapter 7 is that the Bankruptcy Court is trying to help an honest debtor make a fresh financial start. In regard to secured debts — for example, those debts that are secured by a lien or mortgage, most often vehicle loans or a home mortgage — in Chapter 7, the debtor gets to select whether they wish to keep the item and continue making the payments, or to surrender the item and wipe out any shortfall amount that might exist after the secured party sells the item after repossession or foreclosure sale.

While a corporate entity can also elect to file Chapter 7 and have the Bankruptcy Court liquidate its assets and distribute the proceeds to its creditors, it does not get to carry on its business affairs after filing. Only an individual qualifies for a discharge, so a corporate entity must cease all business after it files Chapter 7.

 

Chapter 13

In this type of proceeding, an individual is given an option to repay all or a portion of the debt, if approved by the Bankruptcy Court and Chapter 13 trustee, through a plan of reorganization that generally lasts for a period of three to no more than five years. There is no need to pass the means test to qualify for Chapter 13, and, unlike the restrictions in Chapter 7 that allow it to include only unsecured debts, Chapter 13 can also affect secured debts.

The most common application in Chapter 13 is to use it to stop a foreclosure sale of a debtor’s home or automobile, and it allows the debtor to pay the outstanding past-due amounts over the life of the plan, in addition to requiring the debtor to make the full current payment each month. 

For example, if a lender is owed $60,000 in back mortgage payments, requiring the borrower to pay it in full in order to prevent a foreclosure sale, in a Chapter 13, the debtor could propose to pay $1,000 per month for the 60 months of its Chapter 13 plan, plus pay the current mortgage amount each month so that debtor does not fall further behind. 

These are simplified examples, and the details of a Chapter 13 plan are more complex and would require you to consult with a qualified attorney for more specific advice.

 

Chapter 11

A Chapter 11 reorganization can be filed by an individual who owns a business and operates as a ‘DBA,’ but due to its complexity and expense, it is most often filed by a corporate entity.

The idea of a Chapter 11 is to grant the business a ‘time out’ and give it some element of time to figure out a plan of reorganization to allow it to continue in business. Under 11 USC 362(d), all lawsuits and claims against the debtor’s business are enjoined from proceeding, and the debtor gets time to meet with its creditors and to seek to formulate a formal plan of reorganization.

That plan may propose to pay unsecured creditors a percentage on the dollar, which must be found to be a greater percentage than the creditors would receive in an immediate liquidation of the business and its assets. In some cases, mortgage debts can be reduced to the actual value of the assets that secure the mortgage, so that if the debtor owes a lender $750,000 on a building that can be proven to be worth only $500,000, the debtor can seek to ‘cram down’ the mortgage to a reduced amount of $500,000, and the additional $250,000 gets treated as an unsecured debt, and paid at the same percentage on the dollar as the other unsecured debts.

This is a very simplified version of a Chapter 11, as there are many other requirements that must be fulfilled by a Chapter 11 debtor, and the cases are necessarily complex and sometimes expensive. However, the overall savings to the debtor can be substantial, and they are often the key to a business’ survival.

The court in a Chapter 11 is seeking to be fair to both the debtor and its creditors, as well as preserving the jobs of the employees of a business.

 

Non-bankruptcy Alternatives

There are sometimes options for a business to consider without the need to file a formal insolvency proceeding. They require a skilled and knowledgeable attorney to know how to handle these matters, and they include utilization under Massachusetts state law of an assignment for the benefit of creditors, trust mortgage, or sometimes just using a skilled negotiator to try to convince creditors to accept an informal settlement of their debt, rather than forcing the debtor to use funds to pay for a formal bankruptcy proceeding, when those same funds could be paid toward a voluntary settlement with the creditors. 

In reality, these voluntary settlements are often difficult to finalize because you need to negotiate with multiple parties, who sometimes will not agree to the same terms. In a Chapter 11, the creditors are legally required to accept whatever settlement is approved by the bankruptcy judge, after a plan is voted on and approved by the Bankruptcy Court.

It is important that you not let your pride prevent you from finding the best and most effective solution for your personal or business cash-flow problems. You cannot make an informed decision until you know and understand all of your options, as well as the positives and negatives of each option.

During this pandemic, many fraudulent parties are preying on people, so make sure to do your homework to get the name of a qualified person to advise you or your business. Contact the Hampden County Bar Assoc. Lawyer Referral Service, call your accountant, or do a Google search to find an experienced person to help you or your business. 

Working together, we can all find ways get through these uncharted waters.

 

Michael Katz is the chairperson of the Bankruptcy & Creditors Rights department of the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C., with offices in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, Hadley, and Westfield; (413) 781-0560.

Coronavirus

Analysis

By George O’Brien

As the Commonwealth begins the arduous task of turning its economy back on, the complicated situation conjures images from a scene in the movie Apollo 13.

That movie chronicled what became known as the ‘successful failure’ of that ill-fated flight to the moon almost exactly 50 years ago. Those familiar with the story know that, just over halfway to the moon, an explosion damaged the Odyssey spacecraft’s service module. Long story short, the crew had to abandon the Odyssey for the lunar landing vehicle Aquarius, and subsisted there while those at NASA figured out a way to get the crew home.

To get back to Earth safely, those at NASA had to eventually figure out a way to somehow start up the command module, which had been sitting idle for days, without power, in temperatures far below zero. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember a scene where one of the crew members, frustrated by the slow movement on a firm plan to restart the spacecraft, muttered ‘they don’t know how to do it’ to his colleagues.

At this precarious moment in history, many in the Commonwealth are tempted to say the same thing. Like the Odyssey, the state’s economy has been essentially frozen for several weeks now. Unthawing and restarting it will be a complicated process, and, just as with Apollo 13, there is no shortage of Ph.D.s working on the problem and trying to find a solution.

And, just as with that flight, there is obviously a lot at stake. With Apollo 13, it was three lives. With this pandemic … well, according to a report from the Massachusetts High Technology Council, the jobs of at least 40% of workers making less than $40,000 a year are at risk. Already, nearly 25% of the state’s workers have filed for unemployment benefits over the past six weeks. That’s right — close to one worker in four has sought relief. And the numbers could go higher still.

“It will be different, and it will be different for quite some time. Anyone who still believes a switch can be flipped and we can go back to where we were is sadly mistaken.”

Suffice it to say this will be an extremely complicated process, and those undertaking it have to get it right. If they go too fast or move improperly, a setback will likely prove even more devastating for the state’s economy — an economy that was, as we all know, humming right along.

Indeed, just a few short months ago, the Boston-area economy was absolutely bursting at the seams. Cranes were everywhere, major corporations were moving to the city, and people were looking to high-speed rail as a way to somehow possibly relieve the congestion, sky-high prices, and intolerable commutes that were defining life inside Route 128.

It seems like those public hearings in downtown Springfield on high-speed rail options were years ago, not several weeks ago.

And the same can be said of the employment picture across the state and even here in Western Mass. It was only a few months ago that we were all talking about the skills gap and how companies with vacancies couldn’t fill them. The word ‘ghosting’ became part of the vocabulary, a term used, in some instances, to describe someone who, between the time they were offered a job and was scheduled to start, found something better. Every employer had a ghosting story — or several of them.

Not to carry the Apollo 13 analogy too far (too late), but the state’s economy was absolutely soaring, a rocket ship bound for new heights. And then … the explosion.

Now, the task at hand is to restart the economy and get people back home, to where they were. But that’s where the analogy ends. Home is much different than it was when we left, and there’s no just going back to it.

The return to something approaching normal, or a new normal, will be slow, as in painfully slow, and gradual. It will be to workplaces where people wear masks, work at least six feet apart, and get tested for the virus regularly. It will be to a casino where the slot machines are spaced widely, one might use a long, plastic stick to press buttons on those slots, and where thermal cameras monitor the temperature of patrons. It might well be a phased-in return where those who are older and most vulnerable, as well as those most able to work remotely, return last. It will be to a business community where the vast majority of ventures are simply fighting for their lives.

It will be different, and it will be different for quite some time. Anyone who still believes a switch can be flipped and we can go back to where we were is sadly mistaken. This is made clear by the stubbornly high numbers concerning cases and deaths in Massachusetts, and the fact that, just a few days ago, the governor ordered people to wear masks in public.

The state has to find a way to reopen the economy — it can’t stay closed much longer — and also keep people safe, not overwhelm the healthcare system, and not present a scenario where we take one step forward and two or three back.

Apollo 13 had a happy ending — even if the crew didn’t get to moon. But this isn’t a movie, and we don’t know how it’s going to end.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest

Coronavirus

Opinion

To date, Gov. Charlie Baker has enjoyed strong amounts of support from the business community and state residents in general when it comes to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, a recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University/WGBH News poll showed that 84% approve the governor’s handling of the crisis, and 85% back his decision to extend the stay-at-home advisory and closure of non-essential businesses.

But behind those numbers is growing restlessness and, in some cases, defiance. And it’s all justified. Thus far, the governor has erred on the side of caution — some have even taken to calling him ‘Cautious Charlie’ — but people are tiring of caution. They want action. They want a plan. They want the state open for business again.

They see it happening in other states — and soon, they’ll see it right next door in New Hampshire and Rhode Island — and they want to see it here.

Beyond closing the state’s non-essential businesses — while leaving giant retailers like Home Depot open, creating a demoralizing state of haves and have-nots — and ordering people to wear masks, Baker has provided little real leadership on the question of when and how the state’s economy will reopen. And groups like the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce are starting to demand some answers.

The GBCC and other groups want answers on childcare — those facilities have been ordered closed until the end of July — as well as on public transportation, testing, tracing, and more. They want more than a target date for reopening the economy — they want a plan. The governor’s doesn’t have one yet, and this is a big reason why there is more than a whiff of defiance in the air.

This lack of a plan when most all other states have one is just one example of a lack of real leadership from the Baker administration to date. Here are some others:

• The Soldiers’ Home. This is one of the great tragedies during this pandemic and Baker’s greatest failing thus far. To date, roughly 30% of the 226 residents who were living at the home when the first resident there succumbed to COVID-19 have died. The situation has stabilized, but only because there are many fewer residents. Yes, most of the residents are very old, and nursing homes have been especially susceptible to outbreaks. But a number of lapses enabled the virus to sweep through the Soldiers’ Home like wildfire.

Baker claims not to have known about the outbreak until March 29, by which time several veterans had died, and he further said he was “appalled” by the lack of reporting by the man he appointed to lead the facility, Bennett Walsh — who has no experience running a healthcare facility on his résumé. Meanwhile, Walsh disputes the governor’s accounts, saying he provided daily updates to state officials.

Who’s telling the truth? In some respects, it doesn’t matter. There has been a massive failure of leadership on this matter, and it starts at the very top.

• Golf. To those who don’t play the game, this seems trivial, but golf is a good example of Baker being stubborn and not using basic common sense. There are dozens of businesses that would love to be called ‘essential’ and reopen for business, but for most — restaurants, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and even most retail stores — social distancing is a real issue.

But golf? Most courses boast more than 100 acres, and the busiest of courses might have 100 people on them at given point. That’s one acre per person. It’s easy to social distance, people get exercise (especially if they walk), and at least one small portion of the economy gets to start the process of clawing its way back. New Jersey and even New York are opening golf courses. Massachusetts? Maybe someday. It just doesn’t make any sense.

• His Reopening Advisory Board. The 17-member panel, named last month, is now working “three, four, five hours a day on Zoom calls” with “different verticals” to come up with a plan, the governor said on April 30. The problem is, he should have been saying that weeks before. He knew the day he shut down non-essential businesses in late March that he would need a panel like this to provide needed guidance. He waited a month to put one together, and when he did, he made it far too small and didn’t include representatives from several key sectors, especially tourism and hospitality.

And then, he gave the panel until May 18 to come up with a plan. People doing business in the Commonwealth don’t want a plan on May 18 — they want to start opening on May 18.

We’re still in the early stages of this pandemic, which means Gov. Baker still has plenty of time to show he has what it takes to be a good leader. Right now, he’s getting spotty marks — at least from us — and, overall, a grade of ‘incomplete.’

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Seeking Forgiveness with Little Guidance

By Scott Foster

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), part of the CARES Act, was launched just over a month ago to much fanfare and promise, but has been bogged down since with technical malfunctions, overwhelmed bankers, political missteps, and incomplete guidance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Current guidance on the forgiveness of these loans is scant, additional guidance has been recently posted, and more is expected in the near future. The SBA’s FAQs for PPP have been updated several times a week since they were originally published on April 3, reflecting the current thinking of the SBA in interpreting the CARES Act.

Many businesses have already received their PPP loan proceeds and are wondering: how should I use these funds? How do I document that use? Will all of my PPP loan be forgiven? Unfortunately, until the SBA issues complete guidance — or Congress amends the CARES Act, which is quite likely — we are all in a bit of limbo, but let’s start with what we know today.

What is the covered period? The eight-week period starts on the day your PPP loan was disbursed/funded. Therefore, if your loan was funded on April 15, your covered period should be from April 15 to June 9. Only expenses that are related to the covered period are potentially forgivable.

What expenses are forgivable? First category: payroll expenses, including health insurance and retirement expenses, subject to a cap of $100,000 per year for salary per person. This translates into a $15,384 cap on forgivable compensation. Self-employment income is included in payroll expenses, but the amount that can be forgiven is 8/52nd of that individual’s self-employment income for 2019. Second category: rent (or interest payments on your mortgage) and utilities. But the forgivable amounts in this category cannot exceed 25% of the total amount to be forgiven (said another way, these expenses cannot be greater than one-third of your payroll expenses). Therefore, incurring payroll expenses during the covered period is critical to receiving any loan forgiveness.

If I have $100,000 in forgivable expenses, but I have fewer employees on payroll, does that matter? Yes. The CARES Act provides that any forgiveness is reduced proportionately to the extent your full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) during the covered period are fewer than the FTEs your business had either at the start of 2020 or early 2019. However, the CARES Act also provides that, if you rehire any employee laid off between Feb. 15 and April 26 by June 30, that employee then counts as a FTE during the covered period (but this won’t increase the amount of your potential forgiveness, since the forgiveness is based on your actual payroll expenses in the covered period).

I laid off several employees, but now that I have the PPP loan, I’m ready to hire them back. However, they are making more on unemployment (with the $600-per-week temporary federal bonus) than I can pay them. Now what? There are a bunch of interrelated issues here, but the bottom line is this: as long as you offer the employee their job back, then they should no longer qualify for unemployment, and the SBA has indicated that, if the employee doesn’t return after you offer them their old job, that won’t count against you for the FTE test. This is one issue that members of Congress have cited in a push to amend the CARES Act to extend the covered period for certain impacted businesses, so there is a chance we will see an amendment that would, for example, extend the covered period to 16 weeks.

What documentation will I need to provide to get forgiveness? At a minimum, you can expect to need to provide the same information you provided to obtain the loan: payroll records (ideally a report from your payroll provider), proof of rent payments, utility bills, and a copy of your lease. You will also need to document the number of FTEs you have during the covered period and compare that to the number of FTEs that you had in either the 2019 or 2020 testing period.

Should I put the PPP loan proceeds in a separate account? Ideally, yes. This is a recommended best practice. You will need to show that you used these funds for their intended use. If the funds are co-mingled with other funds, that might make it more difficult to demonstrate how the PPP funds were used.

We are an essential business and have not felt any significant negative effects yet. Can we still use the PPP loan funds? This is one of the murkiest areas, and we need further guidance from the SBA, especially in light of recent unhelpful comments from U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. On one hand, every business is America is facing some degree of uncertainty, even if you are up and running. What happens if one of your employees get sick? Or if a major customer shuts down? Or a supplier is unable to meet your needs? On the other hand, if you truly are not feeling any impact, then was the certification you made on the application (“current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations”) really accurate?

We are recommending that you document the uncertainty your business is facing, even if the uncertainty never comes to pass, along with any steps you are taking and costs you are incurring to mitigate the risks. For example, did you increase pay to your employees during the state of emergency? Have costs associated with cleaning or sanitizing your facility increased? You may also want to document what you would have done had the PPP loan not been available. For example, would you have reduced hours or furloughed employees in anticipation of decreased income?

My business is currently closed due to the governor’s order. What should I do? The only way to have any portion of your loan forgiven is to spend the proceeds on payroll. You either need to try to hire back your employees (maybe to only lay them off again at the end of the covered period) or pay back the unforgiven portion of the loan (which is accruing interest at the rate of 1% on any amount not forgiven). Currently, there is no way to use the PPP loan proceeds after the covered period and have those expenses forgiven.

Scott Foster is a partner at Bulkley Richardson.

Coronavirus

Opinion

As we survey the new landscape created by COVID-19, it’s very difficult to find any positive news.

Indeed, businesses are shuttered, jobs are being lost, the closure order for non-essential businesses has been extended until May 18, question marks dominate talk of restarting the economy, and, overall, fear and uncertainty hang over the region like dark rain clouds.

If there is positive news — beyond the ways that individuals and businesses are rallying to support first responders and frontline workers during this crisis — it is that businesses are using the pandemic as a learning experience. And beyond that, they’re utilizing the pause that many of them are enduring to take a long, hard look at everything they do and how they do it — and essentially question everything.

And when we question everything, we often find some intriguing answers.

There are many reasons why we don’t question everything. Often, we’re busy doing other things, such as running our business day to day. Also, this is a difficult exercise that requires not only time but a deep commitment to peeling layers, getting to the bottom of things, and not being afraid of hearing answers to our questions. But often, the reason why we don’t question everything is because things are going well — or we think they’re going well. And why would we stop and question things when we’re doing well?

The pandemic has changed all that. For starters, most people aren’t doing particularly well at the moment. And some, tragically, aren’t doing anything at all. They are completely shut down because they are not considered essential. Meanwhile, some people have more of that most precious commodity — time — than they’ve ever had.

And some others have been left with no option but to rethink what they do and how they do it, because they simply can’t do it that way in the middle of a pandemic when everyone has been ordered to stay at home.

Add it all up, and most businesses, institutions, and nonprofits are using these times to do the proverbial deep dive.

Restaurants are looking at their menus, their presentation, their staffing, their locations, even their wine lists. Nonprofits are looking at how they raise funds and when. They’re also looking at their missions and how they might be altered, broadened, or even tightened. All businesses are looking at how they communicate, how they meet, how many employees they really need, how many of these employees can actually work better from home, and how many square feet of space they actually need. They’re also looking at whether they need to diversify and develop more revenue streams moving forward.

The word you hear over and over and over again is ‘pivoting.’ Some businesses and nonprofits are already doing it. Others know they have to do it. Still others are asking the questions needed for them to know how to do it.

We call this a positive development, because this is what entrepreneurs and companies need to be doing all the time. The best, most efficient companies in the world are constantly looking at what they do and how they do it in a search for ways to continuously improve.

It took a pandemic, but now most every company is doing it. They’re questioning everything.

At a time when positives are hard to come by, this one stands out.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Dropping Down a Gear

By George O’Brien

Steve Lewis spends a good amount of each winter in Florida, and this year was no exception. He was planning on returning to the Northeast in late February, but eventually saw little point in doing so.

As February turned to March, there was even less incentive.

“I figure if you’re going to work from home, you might as well do it where it’s warm and sunny, and where you can play golf,” said Lewis, owner of Steve Lewis Subaru in Hadley, whose Florida address is the Delray Beach area.

But, make no mistake, he is, like most people, WFH, and from Florida he has a very clear picture of what’s happening at his dealership — and within the auto industry itself — during this pandemic. As it is for most all businesses, this an ultra-challenging time that comes with some learning curves and a great deal of uncertainty about what’s going to happen over the next several months.

Sales for March and April of this year are down roughly 50% from what they were over this same period last year, said Lewis, echoing others we spoke with on that estimate. Meanwhile, service work is better, but not as good as in ‘normal’ times. Meanwhile, methods of doing business have changed, with both sales and a good amount of service being undertaken with the customer never visiting the dealership.

And as the pandemic continues, many in the industry, including those we spoke with, said these trends will continue, to one extent or another, even after people are talking about this virus in the past tense.

“We saw this coming — we slowly started to see this change,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, referring to everything from online buying to pick-up and drop-off for service work. “We were one of the dealers that believed this this was going to be the future, and I believe this will train the consumer on just how easy it is to buy a car online. And I think this will push online buying to happen for car dealers sooner than it may have if the virus hadn’t happened. But this was coming.”

As for volume of sales, it is obviously down dramatically, as those projections for year-over-year numbers would indicate. But they’re actually better than some people thought they might be, and they might get better still if consumers gain the confidence to take advantage of a number of incentives now being offered.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a better time to buy in all the years that I’ve been in this business,” said Lewis, who has a roughly a half-century under his belt. Elaborating, he listed everything from lower sticker prices to deferred payments; from gas prices now under $2 a gallon (and likely headed lower) to lower insurance costs resulting from people driving less.

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes Benz of Springfield, agreed that these incentives might be enough to inspire some people who were thinking about buying or leasing and needed something to incite them to action.

“There are some people where it doesn’t matter what the incentives are, they won’t buy a car, and there are people who would have bought the car with or without the incentives,” he explained. “And then there this is middle piece where you can maybe push someone over the edge — they’ll buy if they think they’re getting a really good deal. That has happened, and it’s probably going to continue to happen through May and into the summer.”

And if these incentives aren’t enough, there’s ongoing speculation that, because many car manufacturers have shut down entirely or shifted to making respirators or other products, there may come a day — when, no one can really say — when getting the model you want might become more difficult.

For now, the lots are full, manufacturers and dealers are providing incentives to help clear that inventory, and the world waits to see if and when the economy improves to the point where more people gain the needed confidence to make such a large and important purchase.

That’s the view from Florida, and right here in Western Mass. as well, as this sector works to drive through something that no one currently working within it has dealt with before.

Hitting the Brakes

Lewis told BusinessWest his main role at the dealership with his name on it is to act as a type of cheerleader for his staff. And in the middle of a pandemic, if that’s where we are, there isn’t much need for a cheerleader.

“I get people up and running, but the people who are there are maxed out,” he explained. “We’re bringing people back bit by bit because our business is increasing on a daily basis, but we’re certainly not there yet.”

Elaborating, he said maybe half the company’s employees are back at the dealership, with the service department “insanely busy,” as he put it, and sales working its way back, but volume still well off last year’s pace during what is traditionally a good time for dealers.

On the service side, Lewis, like others we spoke with, said there’s a lot of recall work being done, and some routine, or scheduled, maintenance, but certainly not as much, because people aren’t driving as much, and they’re less inclined to visit the dealership for service — even those who drive the brand he sells.

“Subaru people are very diligent — if they’re 200 miles over their oil change, they think they’re going straight to hell,” said Lewis. “They say, ‘am I OK, is everything OK?’ And we say, ‘yeah, you’re OK.’”

Meanwhile, much of the service work being undertaken doesn’t involve visits to the dealership anyway, as those we spoke with said the pick-up/drop-off method is becoming increasingly popular, and it is likely to stick once this is over. And even those who do come to the dealership for service can’t hang out in the waiting room — at least to the extent they once did — so they’re given a loaner car, even if it’s only for a few hours.

To conduct this type of service, a dealership needs to build an infrastructure, meaning both staff to do the picking up and dropping off and the loaner cars to be left with customers while their vehicle is being worked on. And those we spoke with have been doing just that.

Indeed, Cosenzi said TommyCar saw this coming and put an operation in place. It’s called TommyCar Go.

“We had the infrastructure in place before COVID-19 struck, so it wasn’t a difficult transition for us,” she explained. “We already had the loaner fleet, we already had the personnel in place, we already had the advertising in place and the website organized; for us, we were ahead of the curve when many other dealerships were scrambling to get their operations in place.”

Wirth said Mercedes-Benz now has a fleet of 40 brand-new cars and a team of staff members he would like to grow that is assigned to picking up and dropping off, a service that was starting to catch on before the pandemic forced everyone into their homes, but now has become much more popular.

“Consumers are adjusting to a new normal — they’re not done adjusting, but they are getting more used to it,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re doing more pick-up and drop-off than we ever have before, and we were doing a fair amount before that. And on the flip side, we’re very active with reaching out to people to get service campaigns or recalls that were pending that we would ordinarily just take care of the next time the car comes in.

“And some of this is going to stay with us; consumer behavior will change — it won’t be 180 degrees, but it will be different, and more people will be comfortable with pick-up and drop-off,” Wirth said, adding that his dealership is working to improve the process and is currently researching an app that will enable customers to track where the driver is and when he or she will make that pick-up or drop-off.

Providing Incentive

Meanwhile, patterns are changing on the sales side, again out of necessity. Consumers are doing their shopping online, and increasingly, they’re getting into a new car without having to get into the showroom. And often without leaving their home.

Buyers are directed to the dealers’ websites, the paperwork is now handled via e-mail and DocuSign, and cars are either picked up outside the dealership or, increasingly, in their driveway. And in keeping with the times, the cars are thoroughly sanitized before the keys change hands.

“These are hermetically sealed — they’re like an operating room when people pick them up,” said Lewis, echoing the sentiments of others and speaking for them when he said that dealers are doing their best to make sure buyers get a full tutorial on how everything works, even if the sales associate isn’t sitting in the passenger seat explaining each feature, as has historically been the case.

“Through the internet, we go over the car as best we can,” he explained. “And we invite them back in when this is all over for a complete tour of their automobile.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We’ve done a lot of FaceTiming and Google conferencing, and we’ve set up every kind of conference, from Skype to Google — whatever the customer wants,” she said in reference to creating opportunities to learn all about their car. “There’s been a lot of Webexing.”

As for sales volume, as noted earlier, those numbers are well off last year’s pace, but in some respects better than some might have expected given the damage done to the economy, the huge numbers of people now unemployed, and the high degree of uncertainty when it comes to the future and when the region and the country can return to something approaching normal.

“The way we’re tracking now, April’s going to be about 50% of what it was last year, which is better than we thought,” said Wirth, noting that all the sales have been handled online. “In the beginning, people were thinking that there was no business to be had, but gradually things improved.”

Cosenzi agreed. “There was a lull at the beginning when this first happened,” she noted. “I think everyone was in shock and was really scared. But now, the manufacturers have come out with so many amazing offers, we’re seeing people want to take advantage of that.”

Indeed, the incentives have come in a number of forms, from lower prices, to deferred payments, to protection if the buyer loses their job to COVID-19, and they are commanding the attention of many consumers.

Because most sales are internet-driven, Lewis said, he’s drawing business from a wider geographic area as people shop for the best deal.

“People are really shopping for the best dollar now,” he explained, “because there’s no sales personality involved in the sale; it’s all through the internet, and it’s all about who has the best price, and our pricing is such that we need to move their cars.”

Indeed, his dealership, like most at the moment, has plenty of cars. Lewis said his dealership has a full lot, more cars stored elsewhere, and it’s currently holding up cars at Subaru’s port of entry in Rhode Island.

“We have 150 new cars in stock, and about 100 used cars in stock,” he noted. “That’s about a month’s supply normally, but now it’s a two-months’ supply; we’re paying interest on them, so we’ve got to move them once the floodgates open; I could probably have 300 cars on site right now that are either delivered and on the lot or allocated to us, and we’ve held their delivery up because we don’t have any place to put them.”

Lots of Questions

If sales pick up, as some project they might, and those inventories are depleted, getting new supplies of cars might become more difficult until the manufacturers ramp up production again, noted those we spoke with.

But that day is far off, and there is still a great amount of uncertainty about what can and will happen over the next few months or even the next few weeks, as the stay-at-home order has been extended to at least May 18.

For now, dealers are coping with lots of cars, lots of questions, new ways of doing things, and trends that might become the new norm.

It’s all part of life for a sector that was moving in the fast lane but has had to drop down a gear — or two. Or three.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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 Sections Special Coverage

The New Math

Julie Quink noted that, at her accounting firm — as well as most others — it is tradition to have a large party on April 15, the tax-filing deadline, or perhaps the 16th.

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

Jim Barrett

Jim Barrett

These are celebrations of hard work well done, she told BusinessWest, adding that staff members who have been under a great deal of stress and working long hours and long weeks can take a deep breath and relax, knowing that the worst is over for another year.

This April 15, there was no party at Burkhart Pizzanelli, the firm she serves as managing partner, or at most other firms. And it’s not just because the filing deadline has been extended to July 15 by both the state and federal governments.

It’s because there is still a great deal of stress, and the long hours continue as accounting firms play a huge role in trying to help their clients get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On a personal level, I’ve probably never worked as hard in my entire career as I have this year,” she noted. “I’ve put in many more hours than I have other years, and I know others have as well.”

Quink was one of several area accounting-firm executives to speak with BusinessWest as part of the latest in a series of virtual roundtable discussions concerning COVID-19. Those at the ‘table’ said these are, quite obviously, different times for accountants. While some of the work hasn’t changed, like all those tax returns, some of it has, including efforts to help clients of all sizes and in virtually every sector file for disaster relief (especially through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program), and — now that the money has started coming in — properly manage those funds so that the loans granted are forgivable.

But the work goes well beyond helping clients fill out the necessary paperwork, said Steve Erickson, CPA, partner in charge of Whittlesey’s Holyoke office. He said clients need to carefully manage cash flow, and they also need plans for the short and long term as they address life during — and after — this pandemic, and his firm, like others, has stepped in to assist with this often-difficult work.

“The biggest concern we see is cash flow and advising clients on what’s coming down the pike and making good long-term plans for whatever they’re doing,” he told BusinessWest. “And each one of them is unique; I can’t say that there’s one that’s very similar to the other.”

Meanwhile, the manner in which work is being done is obviously changing as well. Many of those we spoke with are working at home — some or all of the time — while discussions with clients and co-workers are now done mostly by phone, e-mail, or Zoom. And since accountants are working with clients’ sensitive financial information while at home, proper protocols and security measures have been added.

There are lessons being learned. Summing up the comments offered, it seems that those in accounting work much more efficiently — and certainly communicate much better — when they’re together in the same office, sharing ideas and collaborating. As for clients … the remote meetings have worked well, for the most part, and they may be the preferred method moving forward.

“From a positive standpoint, this has shined a bit of a light on our firm as far as our processes, our policies, how we can do things better, and what we should be looking to do better, said Patrick Leary, CPA, a partner with Springfield-based MP CPAs. “Hopefully, we’re going to learn from this and everyone else will learn from this and make themselves a stronger firm.”

“The biggest concern we see is cash flow and advising clients on what’s coming down the pike and making good long-term plans for whatever they’re doing. And each one of them is unique; I can’t say that there’s one that’s very similar to the other.”

Overall, this has been, and will continue to be, an intriguing, challenging, and in most all ways rewarding time for accountants, said those at the virtual table. Clients are calling them — and leaning on them for help — like never before, and as a result, relationships are being strengthened, and new ones are being formed.

Jim Barrett, managing partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said that, for some time, his firm — and most all firms, for that matter — have been working to broaden the umbrella of services to clients and develop relationships that are more advisory and consultative in nature.

The pandemic has in some ways forced the issue.

“This crisis has spurred us to do more consultative and advisory work with clients, not only with navigating the stimulus package, but also navigating any changes in their business, be it with employees or costs,” Barrett explained, adding that this work is certainly ongoing and is likely to continue for some time.

Beyond the Numbers

All through her career, Quink told BusinessWest, she’s prided herself on having the answers when clients have questions.

She still has most of the answers, but COVID-19 has changed that equation as well, because now, the questions are, well, different — in many cases, much different.

“This is my 29th year doing this, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve said ‘I don’t know the answer to that’ as much as I have these past few months, and follow it up with ‘I’ll have to get back to you,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that, in many cases, the answers don’t come easily.

That’s because clients are asking about whether to furlough employees or lay them off; or about whether employees can be ordered back to work; or about how to handle a situation where a laid-off employee is making far more on unemployment than they would on the job — and, therefore, wants to stay laid off; or about what to do with employees who must stay on the payroll for the loan from the SBA to be forgivable, but have no work to do because the business can’t open yet because it’s not deemed ‘essential.’

“People who scrambled to apply for the loan as soon as they could for fear that the funds were going to run out are now starting to receive those proceeds, and they’re asking, ‘if I bring my employees back, what am I going to do with them?’” said Leary, noting that there are many types of businesses that fall into this category. “Do they paint the walls?

“If you’re a lower-wage earner, and you can make the same or more on employment, what’s the incentive to go back to work and help my employer have some of his loans forgiven?” he went on. “It’s a predicament that a lot of companies are facing, and we haven’t seen any real guidance on it.”

Coping with such questions is a new reality for accountants. Actually, it’s one of many new realities. And they all come on top of the oldest of realties — tax season.

Add it all up — pun intended — and this has been a very different start to the year for accountants. Things began as they generally do, with tax-return work starting to flow in during the winter months and building toward the annual late-March, early April crush. By mid-March, though, as the pandemic reached Western Mass., and especially after non-essential businesses were ordered closed on March 24, things changed dramatically.

Clients were suddenly thrust into a situation unlike anything they’d seen before, said Barrett, and they were calling their accountant in search of some answers and, more importantly, some guidance.

“There’s a lot of companies and medical practices who have never gone through this before, and they’re doing the appropriate thing … their financial people are going through their expenses, they’re going through what needs to be paid and what should be paid — basic business decisions that they’re trying to make under a period of duress,” said Barrett. “What we see is that either the company doesn’t have a financial person — it’s the owner asking us — or they do have a financial person, and that person is, for the most part, by themselves, and they’re looking for advice or just want to bounce their plan off someone to see that it makes sense.”

And as clients started calling with new and different needs, accountants were having to adjust to new ways to work.

Indeed, most have been working at home — another of those new realities that brings its own set of challenges — and thus communicating with clients and colleagues alike in ways other than face-to-face.

“We’ve instituted procedures and policies that we never had before because we’ve never had that many people working out of the office,” said Barrett, whose sentiments were echoed by others at the ‘table.’ “We’re still fine-tuning those moving forward, but it’s changing the way we work, without a doubt.”

Erickson agreed. He said Whittlesey closed its three offices on March 18 and went to remote access. Like everyone else who’s gone through it, he called it a learning experience.

“It was a little bumpy at first, just getting used to the whole thing and trying to stay out of the kitchen and all the snacks in there,” he noted. “But, overall, it’s gone smoothly.”

Quink noted that, while Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its office to outside traffic, some staffers still come to the office most days, and carefully practice social distancing — while taking a number of other steps in the name of safety — while doing so.

“We’re not on top of each other; we have a nice layout so we can maintain the appropriate distance,” she explained. “At lunchtime, it might look like you’re looking at the royal family — there’s one on one end of the table and one at the other end, and we’re always going around and reminding each other about being safe and taking the steps to stay safe; we emphasize that, if one of us goes down, the entire firm is down.”

Forms and Function

But it’s the nature of the work, more than how it’s carried out, that has been the more dramatic, and impactful, change for accountants.

Much of it has involved filing for PPP relief and now helping clients carefully manage that money, but, as noted earlier, it goes well beyond that.

There are all those questions to answer, or try to answer, as the case may be, but there’s also the task of helping companies plan — something that’s very difficult to do in these times — for whatever might happen in the coming months.

“We have spent quite a bit of time with our corporate clients talking about cash-flow management and cash-flow projections,” said Leary. “We’re talking through ‘what-if’ scenarios with a range of clients that runs the gamut, from those in the cleaning-supply business who cannot get enough product in the door to those in the hospitality industry who have shuttered their doors.

“We’ve had some discussions with some distributors and manufacturers who are now being more cognizant of their suppliers and their inventory levels,” he went on, offering a specific example of the consultative work going on. “They’re looking at having redundant suppliers; instead of having just a West Coast supplier, they’re asking whether they should also have one from Canada or one in the Asia market. If borders get closed, do they have a redundant supplier, and what is the proper inventory level? There’s a lot of thoughtful planning going on.”

Erickson concurred, and noted that, while planning, clients of all sizes are grappling with the moment as well, and this means dealing with everything from cash flow to employment matters to discussions with the landlord and the bank about possible deferrals of payments.

Quink agreed and noted that, overall, there are important conversations to be had with clients. And while some of them, especially those with the cleaning companies that have more work than they can handle, are upbeat in nature, most are exactly the opposite.

“We’re having a lot of strategy conversations with clients, and the reality is that some of the clients we’re taking to … we know they’re not going to make it through this,” she said. “So we’re having the best conversations we can to position them so that when that happens — if it happens — they’re at least well-advised.”

While it’s difficult to see any silver linings to the current crisis situation, the accountants at the ‘table’ said they can find some in the way that clients are looking to learn from what’s happened and take steps to not only survive the pandemic but be a better, stronger company for the future.

“There are a lot of people proactively planning for the long term,” Leary said. “And to me, that’s positive; they’re not making impulsive decisions and thinking that this is going to close their doors permanently. It’s more, ‘when we come out of this, how do we do it better?’ And that’s encouraging.”

As for the accounting firms themselves, they’re dealing with the moment themselves, and it’s a challenging time. Most of the consulting work mentioned above is provided at the upper levels, by the partners, who, at the same time, are trying to manage younger staff members, many of them working remotely.

“We’re trying to juggle two things at once, and we’re frustrated that we can’t teach as much, and it’s difficult to manage younger people at home,” Barrett said. “Meanwhile, there’s that thought in the back of our minds … ‘boy, I hope we get paid for this.’”

Indeed, while firms are eager to help, they are advising clients knowing that the bills for their services may wind up at or near the bottom of the pile of those that get paid. Such fears are the basis for comments shared by many at the table that, while this will be a busy year, it may not be a good one when it comes to the bottom line.

This is just one of many stress-inducing matters to contend with during a year that will be unlike any other for the accounting firms in the region.

“The toll that this pandemic has taken on our team from the mental perspective is enormous,” said Quink. “It not just how it’s extended the season, but how it’s added a lot to our workloads.”

Bottom Line

Getting back to the annual April 15 celebration … Quink told BusinessWest there might be a party on July 15, when tax returns are now due. But maybe not.

Tax season will be over, but the work of helping clients navigate their way through COVID-19-generated whitewater will be ongoing.

That’s part of the new reality for accountants, and it will become the status quo for the foreseeable future. It will be a challenging time in many different respects, and one that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘taxing situation.’

George O’Brien 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

Opinion

By George O’Brien

May 4.

Who would ever have known that so much importance would be attached to such a random date on the calendar?

But here we are in late April wishing that May 4 would come. It’s sort of like Christmas or your birthday when you were 5 years old. You couldn’t wait for it to get here, and you inevitably started counting down the weeks and then the days, wishing it would get here faster.

But this is much, much different.

May 4 is the slated end of Gov. Charlie Baker’s already-extended stay-at-home order, imposed to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not that anyone uses an actual calendar anymore, but people have had that date circled for weeks now. That was the date that maybe, just maybe, things could start returning to normal.

People are still hoping that, but overall, there isn’t much hope May 4 will be that day. Massachusetts is still a hotspot for the virus, and the governor says the Bay State is still very much still in the ‘surge.’ Any day now, it’s likely he will announce the stay-at-home order has been extended. It might be a few weeks, it might be until June 1, it might be all the way to the end of the school year — not that school schedules should matter much. After all, the state’s economy does function in the summer, when children are out of school for 10 weeks.

No one knows, but what we do know is that soon there will likely be a new date to circle on the calendar, and a new date for wondering if that is when things will start getting back to normal.

This is no way for a state, for an economy, to function. But that’s the new reality.

Some states have decided they just don’t want to wait any longer. Their dates have already arrived. Time will tell if the proper decisions have been made.

Here, it’s almost certain that we’re going to wait a while longer. And with the waiting comes more anxiety, more questions, more uncertainty about how and when we’re going to turn the economy back on in the Bay State.

It would be easy — and also very tempting — to say, as many others have, that the cure can’t be worse than the disease, and that we need to get on with our lives and get on with the economy. But we can’t really turn the economy back on until people feel safe enough to go to a casino or a hair salon or a restaurant or even the emergency room. And right now, far too many people just don’t feel safe enough to do any of those things.

So, in that respect, these arbitrary dates don’t really have much meaning. It will be the consuming public that will ultimately decide when the economy gets turned back on, not a governor. And at the moment, we can’t exactly set a time for that.

Still, we’ve all looked at that momentarily magical date of May 4 with hope and anticipation — again like a 5-year-old during mid-December, wishing for that day to arrive and thinking time is moving much too slowly. April has been the longest month any of us can remember, and May 4 might be the date when we can start to put all this behind us.

But it seems almost certain that we’ll have a new magical date —  and the hope, and the anticipation, will begin anew.

It’s not like anything any of us have been through before, but, then again, that’s what this pandemic has been all about.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

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]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the Amherst Business Improvement District’s launch of the Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program to provide financial relief to Amherst-wide small businesses affected by COVID-19 closures, through the newly formed Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF). The foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed as a means to develop downtown Amherst cultural projects, such as a permanent outdoor performance space, but has shifted its focus to support Amherst economic stability during this difficult time.

Now, the Downtown Amherst Foundation is expanding its focus to all of Amherst, with the launch of the Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program, executed and managed in partnership with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The goal is to raise $500,000, and $80,000 has been raised so far.

The negative economic impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented. In downtown Amherst alone, more than 70% of surveyed businesses said they could not survive a shutdown through May. The Downtown Amherst Foundation’s program intends to offer microgrants to small, local businesses and individual contractors to meet their short-term financial needs. The grant can cover employee wages and benefits (including benefits associated with employment, such as health insurance), accounts payable, fixed costs, inventory, rent, and utilities. The grants are available for Amherst small businesses, independent contractors, and self-employed individuals who operate brick-and-mortar businesses.

The foundation hopes to have funds in place and be open for applications on May 1, with an initial deadline of May 10. Subsequent deadlines will be announced. Individual donations are needed and will be tax-free. Checks can be sent to the Downtown Amherst Foundation, 35 South Pleasant St., Amherst, MA 01002, and gifts can also be made online at www.downtownamherstfoundation.org.

The new focus addresses the challenges and shortfalls of the federal stimulus package as a way to manage continual fiscal costs to help Amherst businesses weather the uncertainties of the pandemic and put them on sound footing. Amherst’s economy is uniquely aligned with higher education, and the shutdown and closures of the colleges and university hit the town earlier than other communities in the state.

The grant review committee includes Irvin Rhodes, organizational development consultant; Ellen Brout Lindsay, nonprofit consultant; Tony Maroulis, executive director of External Relations & University Events, UMass Amherst; Ralph Tate, investment-management specialist and treasurer of Kestrel Land Trust; and Glenn Barrett, CEO of Ortholite. These community members say they are united in their love of Amherst and have no conflicts of interest as business owners or landlords.

The initial push will be fundraising through Patronicity, an organization that partners with state agencies, foundations, private corporations, and granting organizations to offer pools of funding, often in the form of grants, to the organization’s constituent communities. Thomas Moore of TigerWeb, a digital marketing firm, donated the program’s logo design.

E-mail Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, with any inquiries at [email protected].

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

The New Math

By George O’Brien

Julie Quink noted that, at her accounting firm — as well as most others — it is tradition to have a large party on April 15, the tax-filing deadline, or perhaps the 16th.

These are celebrations of hard work well done, she told BusinessWest, adding that staff members who have been under a great deal of stress and working long hours and long weeks can take a deep breath and relax, knowing that the worst is over for another year.

This April 15, there was no party at Burkhart Pizzanelli, the firm she serves as managing partner, or at most other firms. And it’s not just because the filing deadline has been extended to July 15 by both the state and federal governments.

It’s because there is still a great deal of stress, and the long hours continue as accounting firms play a huge role in trying to help their clients get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On a personal level, I’ve probably never worked as hard in my entire career as I have this year,” she noted. “I’ve put in many more hours than I have other years, and I know others have as well.”

Quink was one of several area accounting-firm executives to speak with BusinessWest as part of the latest in a series of virtual roundtable discussions concerning COVID-19. Those at the ‘table’ said these are, quite obviously, different times for accountants. While some of the work hasn’t changed, like all those tax returns, some of it has, including efforts to help clients of all sizes and in virtually every sector file for disaster relief (especially through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program), and — now that the money has started coming in — properly manage those funds so that the loans granted are forgivable.

But the work goes well beyond helping clients fill out the necessary paperwork, said Steve Erickson, CPA, partner in charge of Whittlesey’s Holyoke office. He said clients need to carefully manage cash flow, and they also need plans for the short and long term as they address life during — and after — this pandemic, and his firm, like others, has stepped in to assist with this often-difficult work.

“The biggest concern we see is cash flow and advising clients on what’s coming down the pike and making good long-term plans for whatever they’re doing,” he told BusinessWest. “And each one of them is unique; I can’t say that there’s one that’s very similar to the other.”

Meanwhile, the manner in which work is being done is obviously changing as well. Many of those we spoke with are working at home — some or all of the time — while discussions with clients and co-workers are now done mostly by phone, e-mail, or Zoom. And since accountants are working with clients’ sensitive financial information while at home, proper protocols and security measures have been added.

There are lessons being learned. Summing up the comments offered, it seems that those in accounting work much more efficiently — and certainly communicate much better — when they’re together in the same office, sharing ideas and collaborating. As for clients … the remote meetings have worked well, for the most part, and they may be the preferred method moving forward.

“From a positive standpoint, this has shined a bit of a light on our firm as far as our processes, our policies, how we can do things better, and what we should be looking to do better, said Patrick Leary, CPA, a partner with Springfield-based MP CPAs. “Hopefully, we’re going to learn from this and everyone else will learn from this and make themselves a stronger firm.”

Overall, this has been, and will continue to be, an intriguing, challenging, and in most all ways rewarding time for accountants, said those at the virtual table. Clients are calling them — and leaning on them for help — like never before, and as a result, relationships are being strengthened, and new ones are being formed.

Jim Barrett, managing partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said that, for some time, his firm — and most all firms, for that matter — have been working to broaden the umbrella of services to clients and develop relationships that are more advisory and consultative in nature.

The pandemic has in some ways forced the issue.

“This crisis has spurred us to do more consultative and advisory work with clients, not only with navigating the stimulus package, but also navigating any changes in their business, be it with employees or costs,” Barrett explained, adding that this work is certainly ongoing and is likely to continue for some time.

Beyond the Numbers

All through her career, Quink told BusinessWest, she’s prided herself on having the answers when clients have questions.

She still has most of the answers, but COVID-19 has changed that equation as well, because now, the questions are, well, different — in many cases, much different.

“This is my 29th year doing this, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve said ‘I don’t know the answer to that’ as much as I have these past few months, and follow it up with ‘I’ll have to get back to you,’”  she told BusinessWest, adding that, in many cases, the answers don’t come easily.

That’s because clients are asking about whether to furlough employees or lay them off; or about whether employees can be ordered back to work; or about how to handle a situation where a laid-off employee is making far more on unemployment than they would on the job — and, therefore, wants to stay laid off; or about what to do with employees who must stay on the payroll for the loan from the SBA to be forgivable, but have no work to do because the business can’t open yet because it’s not deemed ‘essential.’

“People who scrambled to apply for the loan as soon as they could for fear that the funds were going to run out are now starting to receive those proceeds, and they’re asking, ‘if I bring my employees back, what am I going to do with them?’” said Leary, noting that there are many types of businesses that fall into this category. “Do they paint the walls?

“If you’re a lower-wage earner, and you can make the same or more on employment, what’s the incentive to go back to work and help my employer have some of his loans forgiven?” he went on. “It’s a predicament that a lot of companies are facing, and we haven’t seen any real guidance on it.”

Coping with such questions is a new reality for accountants. Actually, it’s one of many new realities. And they all come on top of the oldest of realties — tax season.

Add it all up — pun intended — and this has been a very different start to the year for accountants. Things began as they generally do, with tax-return work starting to flow in during the winter months and building toward the annual late-March, early April crush. By mid-March, though, as the pandemic reached Western Mass., and especially after non-essential businesses were ordered closed on March 24, things changed dramatically.

Clients were suddenly thrust into a situation unlike anything they’d seen before, said Barrett, and they were calling their accountant in search of some answers and, more importantly, some guidance.

“There’s a lot of companies and medical practices who have never gone through this before, and they’re doing the appropriate thing … their financial people are going through their expenses, they’re going through what needs to be paid and what should be paid — basic business decisions that they’re trying to make under a period of duress,” said Barrett. “What we see is that either the company doesn’t have a financial person — it’s the owner asking us — or they do have a financial person, and that person is, for the most part, by themselves, and they’re looking for advice or just want to bounce their plan off someone to see that it makes sense.”

And as clients started calling with new and different needs, accountants were having to adjust to new ways to work.

Indeed, most have been working at home — another of those new realities that brings its own set of challenges — and thus communicating with clients and colleagues alike in ways other than face-to-face.

“We’ve instituted procedures and policies that we never had before because we’ve never had that many people working out of the office,” said Barrett, whose sentiments were echoed by others at the ‘table.’ “We’re still fine-tuning those moving forward, but it’s changing the way we work, without a doubt.”

Erickson agreed. He said Whittlesey closed its three offices on March 18 and went to remote access. Like everyone else who’s gone through it, he called it a learning experience.

“It was a little bumpy at first, just getting used to the whole thing and trying to stay out of the kitchen and all the snacks in there,” he noted. “But, overall, it’s gone smoothly.”

Quink noted that, while Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its office to outside traffic, some staffers still come to the office most days, and carefully practice social distancing — while taking a number of other steps in the name of safety — while doing so.

“We’re not on top of each other; we have a nice layout so we can maintain the appropriate distance,” she explained. “At lunchtime, it might look like you’re looking at the royal family — there’s one on one end of the table and one at the other end, and we’re always going around and reminding each other about being safe and taking the steps to stay safe; we emphasize that, if one of us goes down, the entire firm is down.”

Forms and Function

But it’s the nature of the work, more than how it’s carried out, that has been the more dramatic, and impactful, change for accountants.

Much of it has involved filing for PPP relief and now helping clients carefully manage that money, but, as noted earlier, it goes well beyond that.

There are all those questions to answer, or try to answer, as the case may be, but there’s also the task of helping companies plan — something that’s very difficult to do in these times — for whatever might happen in the coming months.

“We have spent quite a bit of time with our corporate clients talking about cash-flow management and cash-flow projections,” said Leary. “We’re talking through ‘what-if’ scenarios with a range of clients that runs the gamut, from those in the cleaning-supply business who cannot get enough product in the door to those in the hospitality industry who have shuttered their doors.

“We’ve had some discussions with some distributors and manufacturers who are now being more cognizant of their suppliers and their inventory levels,” he went on, offering a specific example of the consultative work going on. “They’re looking at having redundant suppliers; instead of having just a West Coast supplier, they’re asking whether they should also have one from Canada or one in the Asia market. If borders get closed, do they have a redundant supplier, and what is the proper inventory level? There’s a lot of thoughtful planning going on.”

Erickson concurred, and noted that, while planning, clients of all sizes are grappling with the moment as well, and this means dealing with everything from cash flow to employment matters to discussions with the landlord and the bank about possible deferrals of payments.

Quink agreed and noted that, overall, there are important conversations to be had with clients. And while some of them, especially those with the cleaning companies that have more work than they can handle, are upbeat in nature, most are exactly the opposite.

“We’re having a lot of strategy conversations with clients, and the reality is that some of the clients we’re taking to … we know they’re not going to make it through this,” she said. “So we’re having the best conversations we can to position them so that when that happens — if it happens — they’re at least well-advised.”

While it’s difficult to see any silver linings to the current crisis situation, the accountants at the ‘table’ said they can find some in the way that clients are looking to learn from what’s happened and take steps to not only survive the pandemic but be a better, stronger company for the future.

“There are a lot of people proactively planning for the long term,” Leary said. “And to me, that’s positive; they’re not making impulsive decisions and thinking that this is going to close their doors permanently. It’s more, ‘when we come out of this, how do we do it better?’ And that’s encouraging.”

As for the accounting firms themselves, they’re dealing with the moment themselves, and it’s a challenging time. Most of the consulting work mentioned above is provided at the upper levels, by the partners, who, at the same time, are trying to manage younger staff members, many of them working remotely.

“We’re trying to juggle two things at once, and we’re frustrated that we can’t teach as much, and it’s difficult to manage younger people at home,” Barrett said. “Meanwhile, there’s that thought in the back of our minds … ‘boy, I hope we get paid for this.’”

Indeed, while firms are eager to help, they are advising clients knowing that the bills for their services may wind up at or near the bottom of the pile of those that get paid. Such fears are the basis for comments shared by many at the table that, while this will be a busy year, it may not be a good one when it comes to the bottom line.

This is just one of many stress-inducing matters to contend with during a year that will be unlike any other for the accounting firms in the region.

“The toll that this pandemic has taken on our team from the mental perspective is enormous,” said Quink. “It not just how it’s extended the season, but how it’s added a lot to our workloads.”

Bottom Line

Getting back to the annual April 15 celebration … Quink told BusinessWest there might be a party on July 15, when tax returns are now due. But maybe not.

Tax season will be over, but the work of helping clients navigate their way through COVID-19-generated whitewater will be ongoing.

That’s part of the new reality for accountants, and it will become the status quo for the foreseeable future. It will be a challenging time in many different respects, and one that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘taxing situation.’ 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

‘Eds and meds.’

That’s the phrase people use when talking about the backbone of this region’s economy. That’s short for education and medicine, and those two sectors really are the pillars when it comes to the economy in Western Mass.

There are others, to be sure — precision manufacturing, tourism and hospitality, financial services, and a huge population of nonprofit agencies. But eds and meds … those are the two areas that seemingly hold everything else up, from the service sector to the broad construction industry; from food and beverage to hospitality.

And now, these pillars of the economy are being seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There will certainly be a trickle-down effect that will touch every sector of the economy, and it will be significant, but for these two sectors themselves, the pandemic brings them the sternest test they’ve ever faced.

Let’s start with healthcare. And the place to start there is there, with the hospitals that dominate that sector. Unable to perform elective surgeries and facing a host of new expenses because of the pandemic, these institutions, which employ tens of thousands of people between them, are facing serious cash-flow challenges.

Yes, these hospitals will receive some disaster relief from state and federal governments, and eventually, they will be able to return to something approaching normal — as in what was happening just six weeks ago — but hospitals are suffering fiscal wounds that will not heal quickly or easily.

As for the other many facets of the healthcare sector, many practices are closed or operating at far less than full capacity as the pandemic has many people reluctant to leave their homes for treatment that simply cannot be administered from six feet away.

Like businesses in other sectors, healthcare practices can apply for disaster relief, and some are receiving it, but almost every business in this sector is being negatively impacted, and some are simply in survival mode. The day will come when people will want to go back to the dentist, the optometrist, and the podiatrist, but one can only schedule so many appointments in a day.

Like other businesses, these practices are losing money they really can’t recover.

Overall, though, the ‘meds’ sector is strong, and it will eventually bounce back. And while the same is likely true for the ‘eds’ side of the equation, these are perilous times for this sector as well.

Indeed, the region’s colleges and universities are, for the most part, ghost towns at the moment. Campuses are essentially shut down, and learning is being carried out remotely. Schools that already seeing their endowments take big hits are facing huge losses as they reimburse students for room and board for this semester. And now serious question marks loom about the fall semester.

Behind closed doors, many college administrators are conceding that students may not be able to return in September, and they may not be able to come back until next spring. Meanwhile, many graduating high-school students, not to mention their parents, are wondering whether a crowded a college campus is the place to be — this fall, next spring, or in general.

This is the time of year when those seniors commit to colleges, with May 1 being a traditional deadline of sorts. Now, that deadline is being pushed back at most institutions in the hope that time will sharpen what it is, at the moment, a very fuzzy picture.

It is almost certain that, between the pandemic and the fiscal hardships it is causing to individuals and families, enrollment will be down, at a time when high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller and many colleges were already facing enrollment challenges.

Like the ‘meds’ sector, the ‘eds’ sector is strong and resilient. Many of the institutions have been around for 150 years or more, and they will survive this. But they likely won’t be the same.

And neither will the region, because these are the pillars of the Western Mass. economy, and they hold up everything else.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Dropped Shots

By George O’Brien

Ted Perez Jr. calls it a “non-winter.” And he’s seen more than a few during roughly a half-century of work at East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, where he’s now the president and head professional.

A non-winter is just what it sounds like — a winter that isn’t. And that’s what this region had in 2019-20, except for those few weeks in early December.

Thus, East Mountain, as it is whenever the weather allows, was open most days all through the first three and half months of this year, so much so that Perez said the club, built by his father in 1960, was on target for its best year in perhaps a few decades.

“Golf certainly isn’t what it was 25 years ago, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a sustained good year,” he said, referring to a downturn that started with the Great Recession and has lingered since. “But we were on course to have as good a year as we’ve had in a very long time.”

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed things in a hurry. All courses in the state were ordered closed in late March, as well as their 19th hole and banquet facilities. By then, pretty much every banquet and event through March, April, and May had been cancelled or postponed anyway.

All this is bad, but what makes it far worse is that Perez and other course owners and managers can’t understand the order — golf is played outdoors, and it’s relatively easy to socially distance — and they can’t plan because no one knows if or when the ban on play will be lifted.

“A golf course is almost like a public park,” said Antillio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club. “People can go out for a walk, and when you’re playing golf, the most people you have together is four, and they’re usually going in different directions on the course. This [ban] makes no sense to me.”

Perez agreed.

“I have 120 acres here — it’s very, very, very easy to maintain separation and keep six feet apart on the golf course,” he said. “I truly don’t understand why there’s even a discussion about it; there should be no debate about this whatsoever.”

To add insult to injury, if that’s the appropriate phrase, most other states, including neighboring Connecticut, have deemed that golf is essential. Well, they’re allowing the courses to open, let’s put it that way. And many in the Bay State are crossing over the line to play, said Cardaropoli.

“A golf course is almost like a public park. People can go out for a walk, and when you’re playing golf, the most people you have together is four, and they’re usually going in different directions on the course. This [ban] makes no sense to me.”

Overall, the pandemic has impacted every facet of the golf business, said Jesse Menachem, president of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., adding that this is a long list. It includes greens fees and cart rentals, obviously, but also fundraising tournaments, leagues, food and beverages (a huge component of every club’s revenue stream), those banquets, retail (if people aren’t playing, they’re not buying clubs, balls, and new shoes), and more.

“Depending on how long this goes … if we cannot allow for golf operations to exist for another four, six, or eight weeks, that’s going to put courses in a very tough position,” said Menachem in early April, noting that the golf industry creates 25,000 jobs and is a $2.7 billion business. “This is prime time, not just for daily access, but for acquiring golfers and getting new members for private clubs.”

The best hope for course owners and managers is that, as the state begins to turn its economy back on — and that won’t happen before May 4 — golf courses will be on the list of businesses that can begin operating, with restrictions, to be sure. If that’s the case, courses will have lost several important weeks of on-course revenue and who knows how many weeks or months of banquet and food and beverage revenue.

“That’s certainly not ideal,” said Perez, “but we can cope with that.”

However, if courses can’t reopen on May 4 or soon thereafter, then what has been a challenging time for the golf industry will reach a new, unprecedented level of pain.

“From this point on, every week is critical to lose,” said Perez, noting that courses in this part of the country make more than 75% of their revenue between mid-April and mid-September. “This is revenue you just can’t make up.”

No Course of Action

It’s called ‘Good Friday, Bad Golf.’ It’s an annual event at East Mountain, a start-of-the-season gathering staged when most people have the day off from work and they’re eager to take the sticks out of the basement.

“It’s a huge golf outing — 140 players — and prime-rib dinner, the whole nine yards; when you add everything up, the golf, the bar, the snack bar, the dinner … it’s a huge day,” said Perez, noting that it obviously wasn’t a big day this year. “That’s gone; that’s been wiped out, and I can’t make it up.”

The question on everyone’s mind, and the question that can’t be answered, is how much more will be wiped out during the 2020 season?

Indeed, golf, like many other businesses, is in a state of limbo, or suspended animation. Courses can be maintained — that work has been deemed essential — but no one can play on them. Some still try, but such covert activities have drawn the ire of elected officials, if not the course owners themselves; Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s very public threat to barricade the city’s two municipal golf courses to keep people off them made headlines across the state.

For those managing courses, they can deal with the present, and they are (more on that in a moment), but, as noted, they can’t plan for the future because they have no idea what it looks like.

Overall, it’s not a good place to be.

“You can’t give anyone any answers because no one knows what’s going to happen,” Cararopoli said. “The governor says it may be May 4. What it it isn’t? No one knows.”

Elaborating, he said the many question marks about the future are wreaking havoc on the banquet side of the ledger. “We’ve lost so many events already — weddings, bar mitzvahs, proms, showers, birthdays,” he noted. “And no one can rebook because they don’t know what’s going to transpire over the next few months.”

As for dealing with the present, club owners and managers are doing what they can to cope. Perez has filed an application for relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and received initial approval. He was quick to note that this money can mostly be used for payroll, so when it comes to his myriad other expenses, he’s cutting corners in any way he can.

“I’m penny-pinching everything I can,” he noted, adding quickly that he’s not sure when he’ll be getting his PPP loan, adding to his cash-flow anxiety.

At Twin Hills, Cardaropoli has had to lay off a number of staff members — mostly on the banquet and food and beverage side of the house — and is unsure what to tell employees when it comes to if or when they might return.

As for the members … well, they are in a state of limbo as well, said Cardaropoli, adding that overall membership numbers are understandably down as some who might normally commit in the late winter or early spring — and that’s when a good number do — are waiting to see what happens before they sign on the dotted line and write a check.

“It’s made a big difference — March and April are the biggest months for having new members sign on,” he explained. “Now, because of the situation, fewer are signing on because they don’t know when they can start to play; membership is at a standstill.”

As for those who have signed up and started paying … if the season starts soon, fees may not have to be adjusted much or at all, Cardaropoli said. But if courses stay closed for several more weeks or months, that will certainly change, he went on, adding that it is unknown at this time just what services clubs will be offer to offer to members in 2020.

These scenarios are playing out at public and private courses across the state, said Menachem, adding that his organization continues to monitor the situation and diplomatically lobby the governor to let the courses open.

“We absolutely want to continue to advocate for our business and allow for access to golfers and enable these businesses to operate,” he said. “But we want to be respectful and realistic given what’s going on in this state, the country, and the world.”

Like Perez, Cardaropoli, and all other course owners and managers, Menachem sees golf as solid exercise and good release for those who are cooped up in their homes, and a business that should be open.

He said it would be easy to make adjustments that would enable people to play and stay safe. These include limiting carts to one passenger each — or eliminating them altogether and requiring people to walk; spacing out tee times to eliminate large gatherings at the first tee and reduce the number of people on the course at one time; limiting payments to contact-less options; pulling the cups out of the holes an inch or two to keep the ball from falling in; and keeping the flagsticks in the hole or eliminating them as well.

Perez agreed.

“Typically, we get eight foursomes an hour — a group goes out every seven and a half minutes,” he told BusinessWest. “Make it so you only have five tee times, one every 12 minutes, so you get a little more separation on the golf course. These are some of the things other golf courses are doing.

“I have a friend in Connecticut … this is what she’s doing. She’s gone with no carts, and she said it couldn’t have gone any smoother,” he went on, noting that more than 40 states allow golf courses to be open, with some restrictions. “And she’s getting 140 to 150 golfers a day. If I could get 100 players a day, I could weather this storm; zero a day just doesn’t work.”

Bottom Line

Indeed, it doesn’t.

That’s the reality for area course owners and managers today. They’re guardedly optimistic that things will change soon, but they simply don’t know.

Golf, the game, is hard. Golf, the business, has been just as hard for the past several years. And now, it’s become even more difficult.

Coronavirus

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest; [email protected]

Coronavirus

Coping with a Changed Landscape

Kate Phelon says she misses her members.

Claudia Pazmany recalls the early days of this crisis, when she was bought to tears on an almost daily basis by the stories related to her by devastated business owners.

Nancy Creed says it’s become her mission to provide members with comprehensive and reliable information as they try to navigate their way through a crisis the likes of which they’ve never seen before.

Collectively, these chamber of commerce directors — Phelon in Westfield, Pazmany in Amherst, and Creed with the Springfield Regional Chamber — spoke not only for each other, but for colleagues across the country as chambers confront COVID-19.

And ‘confront’ is certainly the right word.

Indeed, as individual chambers work to keep members informed and assist them with the task of keeping the doors to their businesses open (figuratively if not literally — many of them have been ordered closed), they are in what amounts to survival mode themselves, especially since they are not at present eligible for federal stimulus money, though they’re lobbying to be included in the next stage of funding. And some of them may not, in fact, survive.

“I was on a call recently with our national association,” Creed recalled. “And they were saying that they expect 25% of the chambers not to survive this.”

The reasons for such dire predictions are obvious. Indeed, to serve their members, chambers rely on revenue from two primary sources — membership fees and events. And both are imperiled in some ways, the latter far more than the former, although overall membership and simply collecting fees that are due are certain to be impacted by this crisis.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I was on a call recently with our national association. And they were saying that they expect 25% of the chambers not to survive this.”

As for those events, they range from the small — monthly after-5s, for example — to the large — the annual golf tournament in Westfield or Amherst’s Margarita Madness are in that category — to those in between, like regular breakfasts and legislative luncheons. Some events have been rescheduled for later in the year, but others have simply been lost, like Westfield’s popular St. Patrick’s Day breakfast — the first time it hasn’t been held in 40 years.

“At the same time as we’re worried about our members, we’re also worried about our chambers,” Phelon said. “There’s a huge concern for the chambers — we’re not having our events, which generate much of our revenue, and many of our members are really struggling.”

On March 6, the Springfield Regional Chamber staged its annual Outlook lunch at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield. For many business leaders in the Pioneer Valley, that was the last large gathering they attended. Everything since has been wiped off the calendar; BusinessWest has no need to publish its Chamber Corners section dedicated to listing upcoming chamber events because there are none for at least several more weeks.

But while chambers work to maintain their own bottom lines, their primary function of late has been a conduit of information to members who desperately need it.

They’re doing it through their websites and webinars, through polls — the Springfield Regional Chamber has conducted a number of them — and through conference calls with state and national leaders, during which they relay questions from their members, such as a Tele-Town Hall with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, staged by the Springfield Regional Chamber on April 7.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“At the same time as we’re worried about our members, we’re also worried about our chambers. There’s a huge concern for the chambers — we’re not having our events, which generate much of our revenue, and many of our members are really struggling.”

Phelon said she and other chamber leaders have taken part in regular conference calls with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Mike Kennealy, secretary of Housing and Economic Development; and a host of other officials. It started with one call a week, and now there are two, she noted, adding that such sessions have not only provided information to the chamber leaders, but provided them a chance to convey what’s on their members’ minds.

“They want to hear from us — they want to know what the issues are,” she said. “They take all our questions, and it’s been very helpful for us.”

Meanwhile, chamber leaders have been doing a lot of listening — and that in itself has been hard.

Pazmany said Amherst, a college town with no college students and restaurants, taverns, and museums that can’t open, has been particularly hard hit.

“It’s like summer here — only it’s far, far worse than summer,” she said. “No one needed for summer to arrive this soon; many businesses in this community have been just devastated by this.”

Overall, most chambers are experiencing what their members are experiencing — an ultra-challenging time dominated by questions that are often difficult to answer.

Plain Speaking

Since the pandemic fully arrived in Western Mass., and especially since the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close, the primary function for area chambers has been to act as a combination sounding board and conduit for information.

And the emphasis has always been on providing information that is accurate and reliable, said those we spoke with, adding that there is plenty of news, if it can be called that, which does not fall into that category.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

“It’s like summer here — only it’s far, far worse than summer. No one needed for summer to arrive this soon; many businesses in this community have been just devastated by this.”

“We’re trying, on a daily basis, to grab credible sources, and we really rely on the administration, because that takes rumor out of it — it comes straight from the horse’s mouth,” said Creed. “Our polls are just to get a pulse of the community so we can see what’s going on and pivot as we need to and gauge the sentiment of the business community — so it’s by no means scientific.”

Elaborating, she said her chamber has been partnering with other groups, such as the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, in an effort to inform business owners, but without overwhelming them.

“If there are other subject-matter experts out there, we want to partner with them instead of recreating the wheel,” she explained, “because there’s so much information, so much activity, that we certainly don’t want to overwhelm members — they already have enough on their plates.”

Pazmany said her chamber has created a ‘Resources for Business’ page on its website that is updated daily in an effort to help keep members informed at a time when they cannot gather in a room for a breakfast or educational seminar.

Phelon said her chamber, like all others, has been focused on providing information and connecting members to resources, which is what it has always done, except now it’s doing more of it, and that role has perhaps never been more important.

“Some chambers are putting information out daily, and we’re doing it at least weekly,” she said, adding that chambers are doing all this under unique circumstances.

“Most of us are dealing with reduced staff, some of us are working at home, some of us are in the office,” Phelon went on, noting that chambers are considered ‘essential.’ She does go into the office, but remains at least six feet away from her assistant and sanitizes the space on a daily basis.

Pazmany said her chamber, located on Main Street in downtown Amherst, has closed that office and has staffers working at home, in a nod to edicts concerning social distancing.

“We have a very small space, and we’re used to getting a lot of people in the door, and we thought that keeping the office open wasn’t the right thing to do given the circumstances,” she explained. “We like to say that, while the door may be locked, we’re open for business.”

While life has changed for chambers, it has for their members as well, certainly, and chambers are adjusting as these members struggle to keep their own doors open.

“We’re giving our members options on payments, and we’re even deferring it for 60 days,” Phelon explained, noting that many chambers are doing the same. “We understand the impact this is having on their business, and we want to be sympathetic.”

She noted that one additional challenge for chambers is that the needs of the members vary, generally with the size of the venture, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for providing assistance.

“We’ve got our very small micro-businesses that really need the help — it’s overwhelming for them; they’re struggling, and they don’t know if they’re going to make it,” she explained. “We also have major corporations that have an HR department and have significant resources, and everything in between. So it’s challenging.”

Lost Days

Beyond providing information, the other major role for chambers, historically, has been to provide networking opportunities for members. And it is this role that has been most impacted by the pandemic.

Indeed, gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned, which effectively eliminates after-5s, breakfasts, tabletop events, golf tournaments, annual meetings, legislative luncheons, and more — events staged to inform, bring members together, and generate revenue.

While some events have been pushed back or canceled altogether (like the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Westfield), chambers are looking to create what are being called ‘virtual networking events.’

They’re not exactly like the real thing, said those we spoke with, but they do enable people to see one another and interact, even if it’s on a computer screen, rather than in a local restaurant, golf course, banquet hall, or the showroom at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield. That was the site of a large after-5 involving a number of chambers early in March, said Pazmany, adding that, in a number of ways, that seems like a long time ago.

“We had 300 people there — it was a great event,” she recalled. “Who could believe that we’re now all sequestered in our homes?”

While looking to stage some events virtually, chambers are pushing their spring events further back into the calendar year. Phelon had a legislative luncheon slated for later this month and is now eyeing June. Meanwhile, her golf tournament, that chamber’s largest fundraiser, slated for East Mountain Country Club, was set for May, but it’s now rescheduled for June 22, with the hope that this is far enough out.

Pazmany said all of her chamber’s events into June have been canceled or moved back. Margarita Madness has been rescheduled for Sept. 24, but she’s not sure if that will work.

“We thought it was a safe date, but you just don’t know,” she said. “Every day I look at all the statistics, and I can’t tell you that date is safe.”

Creed told BusinessWest that the Springfield Regional Chamber is fortunate in several respects. For starters, it was able to stage perhaps its largest fundraiser of the year, the Outlook event, before the ban on large gatherings was put in place. Also, the chamber has reserves that it has not had to tap into as yet, and it has been able to “repurpose” staff members — its events coordinator has been shifted to member-engagement duties, for example — rather than lay them off, as some chambers have.

While the Outlook lunch went on as scheduled, the Springfield Regional Chamber has been forced to move its Fire & Ice signature cocktail event, which gave area bars and restaurants a chance to shine, said Creed, noting that it was scheduled for March. The next large fundraiser is the Super 60 event, which is scheduled for mid-fall and thus has not been impacted yet.

“Our events are so diversified that, if we lost one, we would still be in good shape,” she noted.

It remains to be seen if other chambers can say the same.

Spreading the Word

Summing up the situation for the business community and the chambers serving it, Phelon again spoke for all her colleagues.

“We’re all feeling … I wish I knew the right word; we’re all feeling the pressure and the concern,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re trying to stay positive, too, thinking ‘this will pass.’ But there are so many unknowns. This is unprecedented.”

It is, and for chambers, it’s an extreme challenge that comes when they already had their full share of challenges.

Like their members, to come out on the other side, they’re going to have to be resourceful, persistent, and willing and able to find new ways to do business.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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

Coronavirus

The Bottom Line

By Michael A. Fenton, Esq. and Mark J. Esposito, Esq.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched the lives of billions across the globe. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker recently extended an emergency order directing that all non-essential businesses cease in-person operations and banning large gatherings.

Michael A. Fenton, Esq.

Michael A. Fenton, Esq.

Mark J. Esposito, Esq.

Mark J. Esposito, Esq.

With each closure, cancellation, or indefinite postponement comes a flurry of legal questions pertaining to contract law. Indeed, the postponement of the comic-book convention scheduled to take place in Boston in March has already resulted in a lawsuit stemming from a disagreement over a contract.

This article focuses on how contracting parties may be excused from certain obligations due to COVID-19.

To a great extent, businesses are in uncharted waters. The last comparable public-health emergency occurred more than 100 years ago: the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Partly as a result of that rarity, instructive legal precedents are also few and far between. In these unprecedented times, the often-overlooked doctrine of impossibility of contract and the underlying legal concept of force majeure are positioned to play primary roles in the interpretation of contracts during the coming weeks and months.

Doctrine of Impossibility of Contract

The doctrine of impossibility of contract may be raised as a defense in response to a lawsuit seeking to enforce a contract. Under the legal theory, if both parties entered into the contract assuming that a certain state of facts would continue to exist, and that assumption turned out to be wrong, without the fault of either party, the obligation to perform under the contract would be excused (Chase Precast Corp. v. John J. Paonessa Co. Inc., 409 Mass. 371, 373 [1991]). While the doctrine of impossibility of contract may be (somewhat) succinctly summarized, it is not necessarily so easy to interpret in practice.

The circumstances triggering the doctrine of impossibility need not be written into an agreement in order for the doctrine to apply. However, the applicability of the legal theory can be expressed in a contract through what is called a force majeure clause.

Force Majeure

Black’s Law Dictionary defines force majeure as “an event or effect that can be neither anticipated nor controlled; esp., an unexpected event that prevents someone from doing or completing something that he or she had agreed or officially planned to do. The term includes both acts of nature (e.g., floods and hurricanes) and acts of people (e.g., riots, strikes, and wars).” Force majeure intersects with the doctrine of impossibility when a contract cannot be performed as intended because of a war, natural disaster, or the like.

The general definition of force majeure can be customized in an individual contract. Each contract should be reviewed carefully to determine how force majeure is defined, if at all, and to assess whether the current pandemic circumstances preclude enforcement of the contract obligations.

Force majeure clauses are clearly implicated if they explicitly include pandemics or public-health crises within the contractual definition, but what about less obvious situations? Does the COVID-19 crisis qualify as an unanticipated, uncontrolled ‘act of nature’ or ‘act of people’? The pandemic certainly is an unexpected event that is preventing a great many people from doing or completing a great many things. But an insurer being sued in Louisiana disagrees.

Which Applies?

In the midst of the current health crisis, parties with (and some without) a force majeure clause in their agreements find themselves wondering if the doctrine of impossibility of contract applies. Is a commercial tenant required to continue to pay rent to a landlord, when the leased premises have been ordered closed by the governor because of a public-health emergency? What rights does the landlord have in the same situation? Surely the tenant anticipated that it would be able to operate its business out of the space; otherwise, there would have been no reason to rent it. What specifically did the parties think at the time that they entered the agreement?

The general definition of force majeure can be customized in an individual contract. Each contract should be reviewed carefully to determine how force majeure is defined, if at all, and to assess whether the current pandemic circumstances preclude enforcement of the contract obligations.

The general definition of force majeure can be customized in an individual contract. Each contract should be reviewed carefully to determine how force majeure is defined, if at all, and to assess whether the current pandemic circumstances preclude enforcement of the contract obligations.

If the doctrine of impossibility of contract applies, whether through the express provisions of a force majeure clause or otherwise, contracting parties must determine what obligations are excused and to what extent. Most contracts will not be completely invalidated by a force majeure event. Rather, force majeure will operate to relax certain obligations based on the facts and circumstances (e.g., extending deadlines, waiving mandatory production requirements, abating rent, or other payments owed).

It is worth noting that many commercial leases have provisions that expressly define what qualifies as force majeure and narrowly enumerate what obligations can be excused under it. Many commercial leases state plainly that the tenant’s obligation to pay rent cannot be excused by triggering the force majeure provisions. Where losses are realized as a result of the doctrine of impossibility of contract and/or force majeure provisions in a contract, an aggrieved party might reasonably consult with their insurance carrier as business interruption insurance could conceivably be a useful tool in mitigating these losses. Unfortunately, insurance companies are almost uniformly denying such claims.

Uncertain Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. While contractual obligations are the last thing many of us want to be thinking about during this time, it is an undeniable truth that business and professional obligations are on the minds of many as we struggle to honor our commitments. For some, the doctrine of impossibility of contract and force majeure contractual provisions may provide some measure of relief from obligations, while it will only further compound the damage for others who seek to enforce such obligations.

Michael A. Fenton, Esq. and Mark J. Esposito, Esq. are attorneys at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C., and specialize in business and estate planning, commercial and tax-exempt bond financing, real estate, litigation, and bankruptcy; (413) 737-1131; ssfpc.com

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

By George O’Brien

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

That was one of the many — as in many — poignant thoughts left with the audience as Randy Pausch, the 45-year-old professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon, who had been recently informed that his pancreatic cancer was terminal, delivered what became known, famously, as the “Last Lecture.”

I was thinking of that quote — and some of the others — as a I contemplated what this pandemic has wrought — not only for business owners and managers, but for everyone. Indeed, it was Pausch who said, “time is all you have, and you may find one day that you have less than you think.” Tragically, so many have had such a day because of this crisis.

But it is that remark about experience that has been on my mind lately.

None of us wanted any of this, and we’re getting plenty of experience, which we have to hope will make us all stronger one of these days.

These thoughts about experience are especially relevant to the entrepreneurs out there — all of them, but especially the younger ones, the ones this region has devoted so much time and energy to nurturing in recent years.

Indeed, there has been what amounts to a movement, a strong movement at that, in Western Mass. to encourage entrepreneurship and mentor those who aspire to work for themselves. We see it in the programs administered by Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke, and other organizations, and in the work of the Grinspoon Foundation and the massive gathering its hosts each spring to recognize entrepreneurs at each of the region’s many colleges and universities.

Almost every one of the entrepreneurs, whether they’re developing an app or baking cupcakes, brewing beer or planning to put a food truck on the road, has a business plan. And it’s quite safe to say that not one of those business plans has a page with contingencies for a global pandemic.

It’s just not something you can remotely plan for. And for many of these entrepreneurs, it will provide the sternest of tests.

The pandemic has brought life, and almost all forms of commerce, to a halt. For those already in business, the crisis will certainly set them back in some way. It might force some of them to close their doors.

As for those still in the aspirational stages, this will likely put some dreams on hold — or perhaps inspire some different dreams.

What we all have to hope in this region is that these young entrepreneurs, whether their venture survives this crisis or not, never stop dreaming — because those dreams form the basis of the economy in this region in the decades to come.

As they contemplate the present and the future, and gain all this experience from not getting what they wanted, these young entrepreneurs may want to remember some other remarks from Pausch’s last lecture.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt,” he noted, referring to his own situation and his response to it, but also life in general, “just how we play the hand.”

He also said this: “it’s not how hard you hit; it’s how hard you get hit … and keep moving forward.”

Everyone’s getting hit extremely hard right now, and they have to dig deep and find some way to keep moving forward.

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus

A Time to Collaborate

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of virtual roundtable discussions with area business leaders concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on virtually every aspect of life and business. For this installment, we talked with five area bank presidents — Steve Lowell at Monson Savings Bank, Chuck Leach at Lee Bank, Tom Senecal at PeoplesBank, Jeff Sullivan at New Valley Bank & Trust, and Michael Tucker at Greenfield Cooperative Bank — about how this crisis is impacting this important sector and in what ways the region’s banks will be assisting those businesses impacted by the pandemic.

By George O’Brien

Steve Lowell

Steve Lowell

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

Chuck Leach

Chuck Leach

Steve Lowell called it a “fireside chat.”

That’s how he chose to describe his efforts to reach out to customers during this time of crisis and communicate a number of key points.

“With my wife holding my phone in front of me and me speaking onto the camera … we put it on our YouTube channel and sent out an e-mail blast with a link to it for our customers to get an update,” said Lowell, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, adding that, like the creator of the original fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt, he used his to talk with people directly and work to calm fears at a time when many are afraid. “We wanted to assure our customers that we’re here, we’re operating, and we intend to remain here and continue operating.”

The need for a fireside chat and the method of delivering it show just how different these times are for banks and their customers, commercial and consumer alike. Most of those in both categories are in some form of distress, and they’re looking to their bank, especially if it’s a smaller community bank, for help.

And the banks are providing it, in the form of everything from deferments on mortgage payments and commercial loans to interest-only payment options if customers prefer that option, to refinancing large numbers of mortgages to enable consumers to take advantage of lower interest rates.

And, for commercial customers, these banks will be the conduits for federal assistance to be provided to distressed businesses as part of a $2.2 trillion relief package. A key part of that package is the so-called Payroll Protection Program, which includes $350 in forgivable loans for companies that keep everyone employed.

The system went live, if that’s the right term, on Friday, April 3, and in a manner of minutes, area banks were being overwhelmed by business owners desperate to apply.

“We had more than 300 calls Friday morning,” said Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank. “We sent an e-mail blast out to all our commercial customers at 11 in the morning saying, ‘hey, guys, you’re tying up the phone lines!’ And that was actually well-received — the calls slowed down a little.”

Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, reported a similar response at his institution.

“On Friday morning, we put up a link on our website and an e-mail blast to all our commercial customers, and in the first hour we had 1,300 clicks on our link for that application,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of demand, curiosity, and need for this process.”

Indeed, there is, and as a lead player in funneling these funds, banks that were already challenged in many ways will have exponentially more work and stress — this at a time when all of them have many staffers working remotely and taking in new responsibilities.

Meaning their role will change and become broader in scope.

“In many ways, it’s analogous to what some of the manufacturers are doing now: a company that was making clothing for a baseball team a few months ago is now making masks and gowns,” said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “We’re going to go through a version of that and have to retool and pivot and think about the new SBA loans that are part of the relief package as different than how we usually do business.”

 Meanwhile, the banks are coping with a new reality when it comes to how buainess is done in the wake of the pandemic. Most have closed their lobbies or reduced hours to a large degree, with business conducted by appointment only. This means more customers are using online banking and automated tellers, technology that is new to many, and that brings its own set of challenges — and opportunities. Meanwhile, employers are working remotely and finding new ways to work as well.

“On Friday morning, we put up a link on our website and an e-mail blast to all our commercial customers, and in the first hour we had 1,300 clicks on our link for that application. There’s an enormous amount of demand, curiosity, and need for this process.”

“For some who didn’t bank digitally, they’re beginning to be forced to use it, and at our institution, for the most part, we’re getting extremely positive feedback on this,” said Senecal. “Surprisingly, many people who were afraid to use it are liking it now, and I do think this will change the behavior of people in the future to adapt to it more quickly.”

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, agreed that both customers and employers are adapting to new ways of doing things.

“We’re getting everybody — customers, clients, and employees — more on board with a different way of working through electronic channels,” he told BusinessWest. “As for employees, we were thinking more about working from home before this; we were having conversations already, and we knew we could do it technology-wise, but this just triggered an acceleration of that, which has been healthy for us.”

Overall, these are different and somewhat complex times for banks in that they and their customers are relying more heavily on technology to do business. And yet, it’s a time when many customers need a close banking relationship perhaps more than they ever have.

“Whether it’s in traditional retail or banking, there’s been this drumbeat of ‘everything’s going digital,’” Leach said. “But what this crisis has also illuminated is the need for human contact, albeit by phone or e-mail. When you’re trying to go back and forth with a bank on deferment or interest-only — when you’re solving problems — you still want to talk with someone. Those are not transactional exercises.”

What banks won’t be focusing on this year, said Senecal and others, is earnings. That’s because the bottom line clearly will not be as attractive as it has been in recent years — not with interest rates down to zero, residential customers refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of these lower rates, and other revenue streams being heavily impacted by the pandemic (more on that later).

Lending a Hand

The size and scope of the pandemic’s impact on the local business community was already abundantly clear before those phone calls and e-mails regarding the Payroll Protection Program started coming in that Friday morning. But within just a few hours, area bankers had some fresh perspective.

Indeed, desperate for some relief from their cash-flow headaches and concerned that the well would run dry, even with $350 billion dollars in it, owners of businesses of all shapes and sizes were frantic to initiate the process of staking a claim to some of the relief money.

“They were advised to call their local banker, and … they did,” said Senecal, adding that the banks, often working with a third party to assist with the workload, constitute the front end of this process — taking the applications and, eventually, cutting checks to the companies whose loans are approved.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which does the approving, constitutes the back end, and right now, that back end is backlogged.

“I heard on a conference call recently that the SBA typically does roughly $3 billion a year in SBA loans,” said Senecal. “Now, they’re trying to do $350 billion in a week. They are not equipped for the volume that we’re all giving them, or trying to give them.”

Senecal and others said the sheer volume of applications has caused the system to crash temporarily on occasion as banks and the third-party companies many are working with flood the SBA with loan applications.

Lowell said his bank, which is processing the applications itself instead of using a third party, started submitting applications first thing on April 4 (a Saturday), and by noon, it had received word that a number of them had been approved — maybe $20 million worth of loans.

But that’s merely the first, or second, step in the lengthy process of getting money into the hands of business owners, he went on. “No loans have been closed, and they can’t be closed until the SBA comes up with the promissory note that they want us to use. Until they do that — and they say it could be any day — nothing can close.”

 Such closures may begin this week, but that would be a best-case scenario, said those we spoke with, adding that, thus far, loan requests are coming in all sizes and from businesses in every sector.

“The SBA typically does roughly $3 billion a year in SBA loans. Now, they’re trying to do $350 billion in a week. They are not equipped for the volume that we’re all giving them, or trying to give them.”

The good news, amid all this talk of backlogs and computer crashes, is that it is highly unlikely that the money will run out. And if it should run out, there will likely be additional stages to the overall stimulus package.

“There’s $350 billion to disperse,” said Senecal. “I heard that, as of yesterday [April 6], $38 billion had been approved. That’s roughly 11% of the entire amount. For people to start thinking, ‘they’re going to run out of money’ — that’s not going to happen. It’s just a very slow process.”

A New Normal

As noted earlier, while banks are still conducting business, it is certainly not business as usual. Most all establishments have either closed their lobbies or established ‘by-appointment-only’ policies, in efforts to safeguard both customers and employees.

Drive-through windows are open, as are ATMs, and institutions with ITMs (interactive teller machines) report a dramatic increase in usage — out of necessity. Overall, those we spoke with reported a few bumps and a slowing of the pace of activity as customers began using new technology, but, overall, a relatively smooth transition, if it can be called that.

“It’s been surprisingly smooth,” Lowell said. “And I say surprisingly because I wasn’t sure how customers would respond. But they have been great. We’ve had people getting documents notarized, opening accounts, and more right through the drive-up. And while it was very busy initially, it has slowed down; we extended hours originally because we didn’t know what to expect, but we’re thinking of reducing things and going back to our normal hours to give our staff a break.”

Returning to the subject of digital banking, Senecal, speaking for all the others at the ‘table,’ said his bank has been gently pushing its customers to embrace new technology like ITMs. The pandemic has provided a great assist in these efforts, and most customers are enjoying the ride, if you will.

“Whenever a customer has done it, you get this reaction like, ‘oh, my God, this is unbelievably easy,’” he said of ITM use. “Like all of us, you need to be pushed toward new technology — it can be intimidating — and the more we push or force people, and they understand the environment we’re in, they’re learning that it’s not so bad.”

But the pandemic has also brought some staffing challenges, said many on the panel, noting that, as they try to keep employees safe, they are limiting the number of people working at one time. And there are other constraints as well.

“We have people in some critical positions who are in the National Guard,” Senecal said. “So we’ve had to readjust some of some our staffing. But otherwise, we have not diminished our services at all; we’re doing everything through the drive-up.”

Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, said one of his branches actually had to be closed for a short period because the spouse of one of his workers, a first responder, had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

“We had split our staff into Team A and Team B at each location,” he explained, noting that the employee in question is on Team A. After deep cleaning and sanitizing the office, it reopened with Team B, with Team A on self-quarantine.

Such developments could not have been imagined even three weeks ago, but they are now part of a new norm for banks.

As for the types of business conducted, the bank presidents we spoke with said that, by and large, people understand that their money is safe, and there has been an inflow when it comes to deposits, rather than anything approach a rush to withdraw money. Meanwhile, commercial activity has slowed tremendously, as might be expected. But on the residential-mortgage side, business has been booming.

‘Crazy’ was the word used by most all them.

Meanwhile, another word uttered over and over by those around this virtual roundtable was ‘outreach.’ Indeed, while taking calls from commercial clients with questions and issues, area banks have been making them as well.

“We’ve been doing a ton of customer outreach, particularly in the hospitality area, and there is a large concentration of those types of businesses in Berkshire County,” Leach said. “We’ve done a lot of proactive outreach with that sector, and there has been a significant number of loan modifications, including more than 80 interest-only and three full deferments on the commercial side.”

All methods of communication have been used, from snail mail — although not much of that anymore — to e-mail, to that fireside chat Lowell gave with the assist from his wife.

“We’ve been trying to be creative as to how we get the word out,” Lowell said. “I recently recorded several commercials that are going to be on radio stations, as well as a brief TV spot using my phone; we’re trying to be creative and take advantage of technology.”

Tucker agreed, noting that his bank has used videos on its Facebook page and other vehicles for communicating a simple but direct message: “we’re here, and we’re going to try to help.”

Earnings Statements

While the banks will play a large role in helping businesses stay afloat during this crisis, they will have to be mindful of their own bottom lines as well. Those we spoke with are projecting that this will be a very challenging year in that regard for all those reasons mentioned above.

“Margins were shrinking before this,” Tucker said. “And now, with no interest coming in for a while, that’s going to put even more pressure on banks. The good news is that the banks here are well-capitalized and have the ability to weather this, but 2020 will be a very difficult year at the end of the year when you see the numbers.”

The banks we spoke with are all mutual banks, meaning there are no stockholders. And their presidents said their respective boards understand the unusual circumstances as well as the need for these institutions to step up and help the community get to the other side of the pandemic.

“None of us are focused on earning this year; we’re doing everything to make sure our communities get through this and economically come out of this in a great position.”

“Most of us, if not all of us, are sitting on a good amount of liquidity, so we’re in a position to take these steps, suffer through a few months of losses, and still fund things that need to be funded,” Lowell said. “And on the regulatory front, everything that we’ve heard from the FDIC, federal examiners, and others is that they are encouraging us to keep this economy running and help people — and they won’t hold it against us, as long as we do it within reason and do it within the confines of safety and soundness and don’t take on excessive risk.

“I think we’re going to be prudent, and the last thing we want is to see any of our customers not get through this,” he went on. “We’re going to be looking to our existing customers first, and then, if we can help other people, we’ll try to do that, whether it’s through the SBA or direct lending, or some of the other programs.”

Sullivan agreed, saying this will be a unique opportunity for the banking community to collaborate, as perhaps never before, and work collectively to steer the economy out of extremely dangerous whitewater.

“I don’t see this as competition or anyone trying to be opportunistic about this,” he told BusinessWest. “The size and scope of this problem is huge, and part of what we want to message to the community is that the industry is collaborating to get through it.”

Senecal agreed. “The focus is to get through this year and be there in support of the community,” he said. “As mutual banks, we’re here for the community, and all of us have enough capital to sustain a really bad year. None of us are focused on earning this year; we’re doing everything to make sure our communities get through this and economically come out of this in a great position.”

Lowell might have summed up the situation, and the sentiments of everyone at the ‘table,’ by saying in conclusion: “it will be an interesting year; I don’t anticipate any of us are going to make a lot of money, but we’re all in good shape at the start of this, and I see us all coming through it the end while helping people stay in business.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Signs of the Times

By George O’Brien

Hyman G. Darling

Hyman Darling

Liz Sillin

Gina Barry

Hyman Darling says the calls started coming in several weeks ago.

At first, there were a few, and then, as the news about the COVID-19 pandemic became steadily worse and the grim reality of the situation became ever more apparent, the volume started increasing.

On the other end of the line were people looking to update a will or estate plan, or, more likely, finish the one they’d started but never finished or finally get started with one, he said, adding that there are obvious reasons why.

“Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has the virus, and they’re worried — about their parents, their brothers, their cousins … somebody,” said Darling, a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson and one of the region’s pre-eminent estate-planning specialists. “And there’s more people sitting at home with less to do; they’re paying attention to this and thinking about it. The news is very distressing, and people are responding to it.”

Meanwhile, healthcare workers, and especially those on the front lines of the crisis, don’t have to watch on TV — they can see it right in from them — and, thus, they’re responsible for many of these calls to Darling and specialists like him across the area.

This phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly keeping area estate planners much busier than they were, providing some much-needed peace of mind to those who are watching the news and seeing the death tolls rise, and even adding some new phrases to the lexicon, like ‘driveway signing.’

That’s the phrase Liz Sillin, an estate-planning specialist with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, summoned as she talked about one of the more challenging aspects of this development: documents need to be signed and notarized, and at this moment (things may well change), Massachusetts does not allow electronic signatures for such documents as wills and healthcare proxies.

That’s why there really are signings in the driveway — and with all the proper precautions taken for preventing or at least minimizing the spread of the virus.

“We take as many steps as possible to keep us all away from one another and not cross-contaminate the paper,” said Sillin, who has now been part of a few of these elaborate exercises, which involve the lawyers and four participants — the party creating the document, two witnesses, and a notary. “Everyone brings their own pen, and everyone steps back while one person signs, preferably without touching the paper with his or her hand. We use lots of hand sanitizer; we use a clipboard, and we sanitize the clipboard. It’s kind of a bizarre process, but there are people for whom getting these documents done is paramount, and if remote signing isn’t legal, this is the only way we can do it.”

Mike Simolo, an estate-planning specialist with Springfield-based Robinson Donovan, who, like most all of his counterparts, has taken part in a few driveway signings himself, agreed. And, like others we spoke with, he said that, while it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to get people to do what they should have some time ago, he’s glad that many have been motivated to get this important work done.

“People who had been putting this off for one reason or another are suddenly deciding not to put it off anymore,” he said. “They’re calling up, hoping to get a plan a plan in place sooner, rather than later.”

With the accent on sooner.

And while their phones are ringing more often, those we spoke with noted that they are apprehensive that some, in an effort to get something done, and in a hurry, will take shortcuts, perhaps visit one of the legal websites out there, or, worse still, take the DIY route.

“This is LegalZoom’s dream situation,” said Simolo, referring to the popular website that provides legal assistance. “People are waking up, watching the news, and realizing, ‘I don’t have anything.’”

He said that, while people can certainly take that route, he projects that many who do will leave out something or make a mistake that could have serious implications later, when loved ones are left to settle an estate (more on that later).

For our upcoming issue’s focus on estate planning, BusinessWest looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting many to get important estate-planning work done, and how the legal community is responding.

Where There’s a Will…

As she talked about her greater workload and when and why it came about, Gina Barry, another partner and estate-planning specialist with Bacon Wilson, used the story of a pharmacist at one of the local hospitals — an individual with a number of the health risks that make him especially vulnerable to the virus — to touch on a number of the relevant points in this intriguing development.

“He’s working long hours in the hospital,” she said, “and he was terrified — and he probably still is — that, because of his high-risk concerns, he would be one of those who would contract the virus and not survive it.

“We started his plan a few years back,” she went on. “Recently, he e-mailed me and said, ‘I have no right to ask this, given that I delayed a bit, but can you rush?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, I can rush.’ I dropped everything and got it done.”

Continuing that story, Barry said this individual managed to get the notary from the hospital and two of his co-workers together to sign these documents, and she Zoomed in for the gathering to make sure everyone was signing in the right place.

As noted, this anecdote touches on a number of the many elements of this story, from the fear exhibited by healthcare workers to the need to move fast; from the logistics involved with getting a signing done to the technology used by lawyers to get the documents signed, sealed, and delivered.

And it’s a story that is now playing itself out countless times across the region.

Indeed, while not everyone calling to write or update a will or a related document is in healthcare — and the lawyers we spoke with said these individuals have been given first priority —  most everyone is terrified. And they’re also in a hurry.

And, for the most part, estate-planning specialists are able to accommodate them.

Simolo said a process that might normally take several weeks can be expedited and handled in perhaps a week to 10 days, with a fairly simple will being done in just a few days.

Meanwhile, many of these wills and other documents — living wills and healthcare proxies are also being sought — are being created in what would be considered non-traditional ways. Indeed, since face-to-face meetings are all but out given new social-distancing guidelines, estate-planning specialists are using the phone, Zoom, and other vehicles for communicating with clients and getting documents reviewed.

“People don’t care about coming in now,” said Darling. “They’re happy to do the telephone messaging, e-mails, Zoom … as long as it gets done, they don’t care if they meet us in person.”

Interest in getting documents written and notarized is especially acute among those in healthcare, and often it’s those individuals’ loved ones who are getting the ball rolling.

“I’ve been contacted by the husbands and wives of doctors,” Simolo said. “They’re saying, ‘let’s get this done as soon as humanly possible.”

Sillin agreed, and noted that there is interest among those old and young to have their affairs in order.

“Just today, I got a call from someone who is a doctor  — he’s very young and has a young family,” she explained. “He’s in a facility that has cases around him, and he’s like, ‘yikes, I have to do something.”

But interest is across the board, said those we spoke with, adding that some of those calling are finally getting around to having these documents written, while others are realizing that the ones they have are dated and need to be made current.

“People are at home reading about nothing but COVID-19,” said Sillin. “They begin to contemplate this aspect of life, and we’ve been getting a lot of calls from people of all ages who want to get going on some estate planning.”

Simolo agreed.

“It’s mostly been people who don’t have a plan in place or had a plan in place 25 years ago, when the kids were 3,” said Simolo. “Now, the grandkids are 3 — that kind of thing.”

But while those we spoke with are certainly pleased that their phones are ringing more — for themselves, but especially for their clients — they are concerned that many may try to do this work online or even draft something themselves.

“It’s been my experience that, nine times out of 10, something’s missing from those documents,” said Darling, adding that, in many other cases, documents are not signed properly. “You get what you pay for, and mistakes made now can be very costly later — not for the deceased, but for their loved ones; litigation is very expensive in a will contest, not to mention the emotional stress that it brings on family members.”

Barry agreed and summoned an analogy she’s used many times during her career — too many to count by her estimate — when talking about do-it-yourself wills and related documents.

“You can pull your own tooth, too,” she said. “But would you rather visit a dentist or tie a string to a doorknob and try it that way?”

Peace of Mind

Finishing her story about the pharmacist in one of the local hospitals, Barry said that, at the conclusion of the signing — which, again, she witnessed via Zoom — she asked her client if he now had some peace of mind.

“He signed, and his shoulders must have dropped like four inches visibly,” she told BusinessWest. “They were up around his ears, and he just relaxed and dropped his shoulders. And I said to myself, ‘this is why we’re doing this.’”

And doing a lot of this.

There aren’t very many bright spots to be found in the midst of this pandemic, but this is clearly one of them. People across the region are becoming proactive and getting needed documents in place.

And that’s allowing many more people to sigh, relax, and drop their shoulders.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

I called Evan Plotkin for a story I was doing on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the commercial real-estate sector.

It’s one of many stories I and others here have been working on as this crisis unfolds, and I had many questions for him involving everything from how property owners can assist tenants hard hit by the virus to what may happen to the office market after all this is over.

And Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, a family-owned business that manages a number of properties across the region, was — as he seemingly always is — more than willing to discuss such matters.

But first, he wanted to talk about his mother, Judy.

A resident of a local nursing home, she was displaying symptoms of COVID-19 and had been taken to the hospital. And he was naturally quite concerned. He answered all my questions, but the tone of his voice made it clear that his mind was elsewhere — and where it should have been.

Less than 48 hours later, he posted a message on Facebook that his mother had passed away, providing more tragic evidence of something all of us already knew: this virus wasn’t somewhere else anymore. It’s here. And it’s killing people.

For months, it had been somewhere else. First, it was in China and a place none of us had ever heard of before called Wuhan. Then it was in South Korea, Italy, and Spain. And when it came to this country, it was still somewhere else. It was in Washington State and California, New York and New Jersey.

Not anymore. Now, it’s here.

This became all too apparent during a week we won’t forget, although we’re certain to see more like it.

This was the week we (and everyone else in this country) learned of the tragedy at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Many heroes of a number of different wars have contracted the virus, and more than a dozen have died, some with strong ties to this area. The sorrow being expressed across the region — almost everyone knows someone in that home or knows someone who has a father or grandfather there — is tinged with controversy surrounding reports of missteps in the handling of the virus and an unwillingness to take the matter as seriously as was necessary.

During that same week, Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize Springfield, posted a note on Facebook that her father had died in a Hartford Hospital soon after testing positive for COVID-19.

“This virus is devasting and cruel,” she wrote as she explained that she and other family members could not be with her father as the end came. “His healthcare professionals are heroes! Do your part to help all of us — STAY HOME!”

Loveless, as you might know, was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers Award in 2014. And in the ‘gee, it really is a small world’ department, Evan Plotkin received that same honor a few years later.

It is a small world, and this virus is making it even smaller — in every way we can imagine.

It used to be somewhere else, this virus, this invisible menace. But not anymore. It’s right here, right now.

Plotkin, the Difference Maker, honored for all he has done to help revitalize Springfield and restore the vibrancy he remembered from his youth, wanted to talk about how his mother was a difference maker in her own right.

“She was a career volunteer for Baystate Medical going back to the late 1960s,” he wrote in an e-mail the day before she died. “She served as chair of the board of trustees, the first woman to hold that position. My entire life growing up, I thought my mother was an employee of Baystate; it wasn’t until later on that I realized that she did this as a volunteer.”

Judy died in the hospital she served for so many years on April 3.

And, tragically, she won’t be the last.

In case there was any doubt at all, the virus isn’t ‘somewhere else’ anymore. And it’s time to heed Colleen Loveless’s advice.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest; [email protected]

Coronavirus

Pitching In

By George O’Brien

It’s called an ‘intubation box,’ or an ‘InTuBox,’ to be more specific.

As that name suggests, this is a box that helps shield healthcare workers while they are intubating a patient, thus helping reduce the likelihood of spreading infection.

Pia Kumar says the product was conceptualized by an anesthesiologist in Taiwan, and in what would still be considered limited use, it has proven successful in doing what it was designed to do. And now, the company she serves as president, Universal Plastics in Holyoke, will start to produce them for healthcare providers, with the first boxes due to roll out of the plant on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke early next week.

Production of the boxes is part of the company’s efforts — which mirror those of manufacturers across the region and, indeed, across the country — to adjust and retool for what many are calling a ‘wartime’ economy, while helping a healthcare sector desperate for essential equipment.

Indeed, in addition to the intubation boxes, the company is also producing face shields that can be used by those in healthcare industry and other sectors as well. Even individuals with compromised immune systems can use them at a time when everyone is trying to reduce their exposure to the dangerous virus.

Production of those shields commenced recently, and the company is on pace to produce roughly 1,000 of them per day, said Kumar, adding that these efforts were inspired by need, and the company’s desire to help meet it.

In a way, the story of how Universal has launched these initiatives — and how it is carrying out this specific mission — is a microcosm of the many-tentacled saga of COVID-19, touching almost every aspect of the pandemic, from the economic impact to the plight of the healthcare community as it girds for days that will be even worse than they are now, to the manner in which companies and individuals are going above and beyond.

Let’s start with the economic impact. Universal, like most every company in every sector, has been hard hit by the pandemic. Some of its major customers are in aerospace, one of the hardest-hit sectors, and many of its products — from seat backs to tray tables to arm rests — wind up in commercial airliners.

“It’s been very tough … we have a good company and a great workforce, and we’ll rebound from this, but this is certainly a very difficult time,” she explained. “Our number-one business is aerospace and airline interiors, and I don’t have to tell you how that’s doing these days, so our work has really slowed down.”

So the company was looking for ways to keep people employed and also contribute to what in many ways has become a war effort, said Kumar, adding that the company already produces a number of products for the healthcare industry — from diagnostic testing equipment to containers for sharp instruments — and has been hard-pressed by those customers to keep producing them in this time of great need.

“We were seeing how this situation was getting worse and how there was a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment], and we thought about what we could make in-house that we could give to hospitals and other healthcare provides locally and across the country,” she told BusinessWest, adding that two items that quickly emerged were face shields and the intubation boxes.

With the former, it’s a relatively simple product and one that it is certainly in demand. “We offered it around, and we’re getting a lot of interest from a lot of hospitals,” said Kumar. “That’s because these are reusable, they’re durable, and they can used by a number of people.”

She listed doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and workers in nursing homes, among others in the healthcare profession, and even individuals going to the grocery store — although those in healthcare are the company’s first priority.

As for the intubation boxes … as information about the product, which was conceptualized as the COVID-19 virus started its spread, started to filter into the healthcare community, some doctors approached Universal with inquiries about whether it could produce the item.

“It really started just last week,” she explained. “Baystate Medical Center reached out, as did a hospital in Miami, and we just thought the product was practical and made a good deal of sense.”

The company created a prototype and is slated to begin production on April 6, she went on, adding that some orders have been placed for a few hospitals in other markets, and Baystate is currently testing the product.

But producing these items will pose some challenges, said Kumar, noting that many employees at Universal, fearful of the spread of the virus, have not been coming to work.

But production of the face shields and the intubation boxes proceeds as remaining employees press on, assisted by some front-office workers who have stepped into the breach.

“People have rallied behind this PPE effort with the face shield and the intubation boxes,” she told BusinessWest. “Some of the people in our front office are helping with the assembly of these face shields — everyone is pitching in, rallying behind this, and coming together.

“We’re not looking to turn a profit here — we’re selling these items at cost,” she said in conclusion. “We’re just trying to keep ourselves busy and do a little good if we can.”

From all appearances, she and her staff are succeeding with both missions.

George O’Brien 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.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Strong Medicine

As COVID-19 continues to upend nearly every aspect of life in the U.S., Congress has been working to relieve suffering Americans. Having passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18 in an effort to limit the spread of the pandemic and support relief efforts, Congress turned to stabilizing the economy. After days of furious negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and Trump administration officials, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. With a $2.2 trillion price tag, the act is the most expensive piece of legislation ever passed.

The act passed in the Senate by a unanimous vote late on March 25 and was passed in the House of Representatives on March 27. The President signed the bill into law later that day.

The CARES Act looks to make a significant impact on the economy by providing loan forgiveness, supporting small businesses, enhancing unemployment insurance, and providing federal loans to industries severely impacted by the pandemic. In addition, it provides tax relief and tax incentives for individuals and businesses alike. The majority of the tax relief is designed to increase liquidity in the economy, largely through the relaxation of limitations on business deductions and the deferral of taxes, but also with the introduction of recovery rebates for individuals.

In this article, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., in conjunction with its affiliation with CPAmerica, presents some of the key elements of the CARES Act and how they will impact individuals and businesses.

INDIVIDUAL TAX RELIEF

Recovery Rebates

The most well-publicized provision is the $1,200 recovery rebates for individual taxpayers. The rebate amounts are advance refunds of credits against 2020 taxes, and equal to $1,200 for individuals, or $2,400 for joint filers, with a $500 credit for each child. The amount of each rebate is phased out by $5 for every $100 in excess of a threshold amount. This threshold amount is based upon 2018 adjusted gross income (unless a 2019 return has already been filed), and the phaseout begins at $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for heads of households, and $150,000 for joint filers. Thus, the rebates are completely phased out for single filers with 2018 (or 2019, if applicable) adjusted gross income over $99,000, heads of household with $136,500 (or higher, depending upon whether status is established because of children), and joint filers with $198,000.

In order to be eligible for a recovery rebate, the individual must not be: (1) a non-resident alien, (2) able to be claimed as a dependent on another taxpayer’s return, or (3) an estate or trust, and must have included a Social Security number for both the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, and eligible children (or an adoption taxpayer identification number, where appropriate). The act includes additional rules for the application of the credit.

The Secretary of the Treasury has been directed to provide the rebate as rapidly as possible.

Retirement Plans

The CARES Act also waives the 10% penalty on early withdrawals up to $100,000 from qualified retirement plans for coronavirus-related distributions. For purposes of the penalty waiver, a coronavirus-related distribution is one made during the 2020 calendar year to an individual (or the spouse of an individual) diagnosed with COVID-19 with a CDC-approved test, or to an individual who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of quarantine, business closure, layoff, or reduced hours due to the virus. Any income attributable to an early withdrawal is subject to tax over a three-year period, and taxpayers may recontribute the withdrawn amounts to a qualified retirement plan without regard to annual caps on contributions if made within three years.

This relief is commonly granted by Congress in the wake of major disaster declarations, such as those made after a major hurricane.

The act also waives all required minimum distributions for 2020, regardless of whether the taxpayer has been impacted by the pandemic.

Charitable Contributions

The CARES Act enhances tax incentives for making charitable contributions for the 2020 tax year. First, it allows an above-the-line deduction of up to $300 for charitable contributions made by individuals. This allows an individual to claim a deduction for a charitable contribution, even if the individual does not itemize deductions.

Additionally, the percent-of-adjusted-gross-income (AGI) limitations are increased for all taxpayers as well as for specific types of contributions. For the 2020 tax year, individuals can claim an unlimited itemized deduction for a charitable contribution, which is normally limited to 50% of AGI. In the case of corporations, the usual 10%-of-AGI limitation is increased to 25% for the 2020 tax year. Finally, the contribution of food inventory, the deduction for which is normally limited to 15% of AGI, is increased to 25% for the 2020 tax year.

Student Loans Paid by Employers

The act provides for an exclusion of up to $5,250 from income for payments of an employee’s education loans. In order for the exclusion to apply, the loan must have been incurred by the employee for the education of the employee (so, for example, the loan must not have been incurred to pay for the education of the employee’s child). The payment can be made to the employee or directly to the lender. The exclusion only applies for payments made by an employer after the date of enactment and before Jan. 1, 2021.

The $5,250 cap applies to both the new student-loan repayment benefit as well as other educational assistance (e.g., tuition, fees, books) provided by the employee.

BUSINESS TAX RELIEF

Employee Retention Credit

The CARES Act grants eligible employers a credit against employment taxes equal to 50% of qualified wages paid to employees who are not working due to the employer’s full or partial cessation of business or a significant decline in gross receipts. The credit is available to be claimed on a quarterly basis, but the amount of wages, including health benefits, for which the credit can be claimed is limited to $10,000 in aggregate per employee for all quarters. The provision contains several requirements defining qualified wages, qualified employees, and qualified employers. The credit applies to wages paid after March 12, 2020 and before Jan. 1, 2021.

This is very similar to the paid leave credits granted to employers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law on March 18, with some changes to the requirements. Most significantly, neither the employee nor the employer have to be directly impacted by infection.

This is also similar to the employee retention credits Congress provides after major disasters, but with different requirements and limitations.

Payroll Tax Deferral

In order to free up employers’ cash flow and retain employees during times of quarantine or shutdown, the CARES Act defers the payment of payroll taxes. Payroll taxes due from the period beginning on the date the CARES Act is signed into law and ending on Dec. 31, 2020, are deferred. The 6.2% OASID portion of payroll taxes incurred by employers, and 50% of the equivalent payroll taxes incurred by self-employed persons, qualify for the deferral. Half of the deferred payroll taxes are due on Dec. 31, 2021, with the remainder due on Dec. 31, 2022.

Net Operating Losses

The act allows for a five-year carry-back of net operating losses (NOLs) arising in 2018, 2019, or 2020 by a business. Businesses will be able to amend or modify tax returns for tax years dating back to 2013 in order to take advantage of the carry-back. Under current law, only farming NOLs are allowed to be carried back, and the carry-back is limited to two years.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated the carry-back of NOLs for tax years ending after 2017 and allowed for the indefinite carry-forward for NOLs. Prior to the TCJA, an NOL could be carried back two years, with longer carry-back periods for NOLs arising from a casualty or declared disaster or farming losses.

The CARES Act also eliminates loss-limitation rules applicable to sole proprietors and pass-through entities to allow them to take advantage of the NOL carryback. Additionally, the act allows for NOLs arising before Jan. 1, 2021 to fully offset income. Under current law, NOLs are limited to 80% of taxable income.

Minimum Tax Credits

The TCJA eliminated the alternative minimum tax for corporations for tax years after 2017, but allowed corporations to claim a refundable portion of any unused minimum tax credits through 2021. The amount of the refundable credit is limited to 50% of any excess minimum tax in 2018 through 2020, before being fully refundable in 2021. The act accelerates the year for which a fully refundable credit can be claimed to 2019, and allows corporations to elect to claim the fully refundable minimum tax credits in 2018.

Business Interest Expense Limitation

The TCJA limited the amount of allowable deductions for business interest (regardless of the type of entity) for tax years beginning after 2017. The limitation is generally the amount of business interest income for the year plus 30% of the taxpayer’s adjusted taxable income for the year. The limitation does not apply to taxpayers with average annual gross receipts for the prior three year below an inflation-adjusted amount. For 2020, this amount is $26 million or less.

The act increases the limitation amount to 50% of the taxpayer’s adjusted taxable income for 2019 and 2020 (with a special allocation election required for partnerships for 2019). In calculating the limitation for 2020, the taxpayer may elect to use adjusted taxable income for 2019.

The option to use 2019 adjusted taxable income in calculating the limitation is meant to counteract the likelihood that incomes will not be higher in 2020 because of the economic environment, whereas 2019 was generally a very high revenue year for businesses.

Qualified Improvement Property

When Congress drafted the TCJA, it allowed for 100% bonus-depreciation rules to apply to all MACRS property with a recovery period of 20 years or less. Before the TCJA, qualified improvement property was depreciated as 39-year residential real property, unless it separately qualified as 15-year qualified leasehold improvement property, 15-year retail improvement property, or 15-year restaurant property. Congress eliminated the three separate categories of 15-year improvement properties with the intention of making all qualified improvement property 15-year property. However, it failed to do so, and as a result, qualified improvement property is depreciated as 39-year property and not qualified for bonus depreciation.

This is known in tax circles as the ‘retail glitch.’ A technical amendment has long been promised and had been included in early drafts of several pieces of legislation since the TCJA became law in December 2017. However, it never made it into the final version of any piece of significant legislation voted on by either chamber of Congress.

The CARES Act corrects this congressional oversight by defining qualified improvement property as 15-year property, thus allowing 100% of improvements to be deducted in the year incurred. The change is made as if included in the TCJA and, thus, is effective for property acquired and placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017.

The closures and quarantines related to the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially hard on small businesses, which include restaurants and local retail stores. This technical correction allows any expenses incurred by owners to make improvements to the physical premises related to these businesses to be accelerated into the 2017 or 2018 tax year on an amended return, or the 2019 tax year on a return due July 15, 2020.

Excise Tax Relief

The act also provides a temporary exception from alcohol excise taxes for alcohol for use in or contained in hand sanitizer produced or directed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration related to the pandemic. The act also suspends excise taxes on aviation and kerosene used in aviation fuel. The exception and suspensions are applicable to 2020 only.

ADDITIONAL PROVISIONS

The CARES Act is a massive act, the majority of which does not have a tax impact. However, some smaller, but no less significant, provisions impacting federal tax are sprinkled outside of the tax-related division of the act. These provisions include:

• The exclusion from tax of any forgiven small-business loans, mortgage obligations, or other loan obligations forgiven by the lender during the applicable period;

• A safe harbor from the definition of a high-deductible health plan permitting telehealth services to be included, even though such services do not carry a deductible;

• The inclusion of over-the-counter menstrual products as qualified medical expenses for purposes of distributions from health savings accounts and health flexible spending arrangements;

• Pension funding relief for failures to meet contribution requirements to defined benefit plans during 2020; and

• Allowing certain charitable employers whose primary exempt purpose is providing services to mothers and children to use small employer charity pension plan rules.

Coronavirus

Quick Action

Mike Vann says the phone started ringing only a few moments after the e-mail blast went out last Friday to clients and other companies across the region.

It wasn’t a flood of calls, but there were several, and he expects there to be many more in the days and weeks to come. That because his company, the Vann Group, a business consulting firm with a number of specialties, has assembled what it is calling a ‘COVID-19 Crisis Response Team’ to help businesses deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

And a good number of businesses are already in what could be called crisis mode, and the ones that aren’t will likely end up there.

“A lot of companies are going to hit with serious cash-flow issues; if they’re not there now, we probably will be at some point,” he said, adding that a major trust of this new service will be helping companies make sense of the massive, $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed last week, as well as other forms of assistance, and decide which path is best for them.

“There’s a number of different options there — there’s the payroll-protection program within the CARES Act, which will certainly get the most attention, but there’s also the SBA disaster loans and whatever the states are doing,” he explained. “And there’s a variety of options on the federal side; we’ll help people navigate what makes the most sense.”

Vann said creation of the team — comprised of himself, his father and company founder Kevin Vann, and Vann employee Nick Carella — was inspired by incoming calls from clients who had questions that needed answering and a desire to get on top of the situation, to whatever extent that’s possible.

“They’re calling and asking, ‘what does this mean, how do we go about it?’” he noted. “So we thought we would try to get ahead of it a little bit and formalize something so people know they can come to us to help them out.”

The team will provide resources and guidance to support businesses as they navigate those critical strategic, financial, and general business issues that are impacting their organization. More specifically, the team will be assisting organizations with:

• Assistance with the identification and submittal of applications for grants, loans, and other relief programs that a business may qualify for;

• Negotiation support with lenders, landlords, and vendors as well as practical guidance on how to deal with hard business issues; and

• Development of cash-flow models to provide a plan for managing the financial aspects of the business, which will be necessary in determining loan and grant requests.

The team is also launching what it’s calling the “Getting to Next” workshop to help individual companies formulate a strategic action plan for getting through the current period of uncertainty while being ready to capitalize on opportunities once the curve is flattened. The facilitated session is approximately two to three hours and results in a clear and concise plan of attack for the next 30-90 days.

Vann told BusinessWest that how companies respond to the many challenges they’re facing in the coming weeks will be critical to their survival. In such an environment, a proactive response is needed, he added.

Looking for such a response, a number of companies have already called looking for help. And, as might be expected, they cover a wide spectrum of business sectors because virtually all of them are being impacted in some way, shape, or form.

“We’ve heard from financial-services companies, a printing company, a landscaper, and some pretty good-sized service businesses,” he noted. “And, of course, there’s the restaurant scene as well; it runs the gamut.”

Some of these businesses were existing Vann Group clients, but others were not, he went on, adding that this could well become a solid opportunity for the firm.

“A lot of business owners will need help with just stabilizing the business,” he told BusinessWest. “That includes cash-flow projections and looking out from that standpoint, because we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

A New Reality

The massive federal stimulus that took shape last week brought some clarity to how the government would address troubling impact of COVID-19 and the large-scale economic shutdown that has emerged in response to this public-health crisis. Other efforts on the state and local levels aim to help businesses and families struggling with job loss and the suspension of livelihoods. Of course, the true relief will come when this viral threat subsides and businesses ramp back up. But no one knows exactly when that will be.

The news came in quickly — and landed hard.

Last Thursday morning, the Department of Labor issued its first unemployment-claims report since much of the country began implementing, in various ways and at various speeds, some form of economic shutdown to slow the spread of coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, known as COVID-19.

The news was not good. The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed to a record-breaking 3.28 million for the week ended March 21 — nearly doubling expectations of 1.64 million claims. The previous record was 695,000 claims filed during October 1982.

It’s a big problem — and sometimes, big problems require big solutions. Which is why lawmakers in Washington spent much of last week hammering out a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at helping families facing sudden job loss, small-business owners trying to survive, and entire battered industries ride out what is increasingly looking like a severe disruption to America’s economic way of life.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth,” Scott Foster, a partner with Bulkley Richardson, said the morning after details of the stimulus became known.

Among its many provisions, the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act appears to apply to every for-profit business with fewer than 500 employees, including sole proprietors, Foster noted. The act would allow these businesses to obtain a loan — at 4% interest with a 10-year repayment term — to cover payroll costs, including healthcare premiums and paid time off, rent, utilities, mortgage payments (interest, not principal), and interest on other pre-existing loans for any eight-week period falling between Feb. 15 and June 30.

“To summarize, if you are a business and are willing to keep your employees on the payroll, pay your rent or mortgage, and stay in business, the federal government is prepared to pay your rent, your utilities, and your payroll — for employees making under $100,000 annually — for eight weeks, and the payment is tax-free,” Foster said. “It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

Unlike most other loans, this one will be forgiven in an amount equal to the sum of payroll costs, payments of interest on any covered mortgage, payments on any covered rent obligations, and covered utility payments. And to encourage businesses to retain their employees, the amount to be forgiven would be reduced if the business reduces its workforce.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth.”

Families will receive a simpler but shorter-term fix — a tax rebate totaling $1,200 for most adults and $500 for each child — which will be distributed as checks in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, states will get help in the form of a $150 billion grant fund, to be distributed proportional to population size, with a minimum of $1.25 billion for states with the smallest populations.

For many of the impacted, it’s a start, at a time of unprecedented anxiety — after all, the country has never voluntarily shut down activity on a massive scale due to a health threat, or for any other reason. This issue of BusinessWest details many of the ways businesses and families are coping, and plenty of advice from local professionals on the best ways to do so. It’s a story that changes by the day, but read on for a snapshot of where we are now.

Targeted Assistance

For many, the COVID-19 threat really hit home the morning — March 23, to be exact — when Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public at least until April 7, while continuing to operate remotely when possible.

Those ‘essential’ businesses include healthcare and public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; critical manufacturing; transportation; energy; water and wastewater; public works; communications and information technology; financial services; defense industry base; chemical manufacturing and hazardous materials; and news media.

Everyone else is being asked to work at home, and most area companies were already moving in that direction before Baker’s mandate. The Springfield Regional Chamber polled its members last week about how the order impacted their operations. Almost two-thirds — 62% — said their employees were already working remotely, 27% said they began remote work after March 23, and 11% said they temporarily closed all operations because they cannot work remotely.

The threat of a longer shutdown looms, and may be foreshadowed by the governor’s order last week to keep all schools and most childcare programs closed at least until May 4, while requesting that educators gear up for the long haul by developing and enhancing online-learning capabilities.

“It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

In the meantime, a number of relief efforts have popped up at the federal, state, and local levels. For example, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will offer low-interest federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans for working capital to Massachusetts small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. Applicants may apply online at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

This week, the Baker-Polito administration also announced economic support for Massachusetts small businesses with the Small Business Recovery Loan Fund, a $10 million fund that will provide emergency capital up to $75,000 to Massachusetts-based businesses impacted by COVID-19 with under 50 full- and part-time employees, including nonprofits. The application is at empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Meanwhile, Common Capital offers a Fast Track Loan Program to address the needs of local businesses that need quick access to capital. Applicants seeking funding from the program to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can contact Kim Gaughan, loan fund manager, at (413) 233-1684 or [email protected] for more information.

The Baker-Polito administration also announced steps last week to keep vulnerable families in their homes, preserve the health and safety of low-income renters and homeowners, and prevent homelessness due to reduced or lost income. Specifically, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will temporarily suspend terminations of federal and state rental vouchers under its purview, while MassHousing is transferring $5 million to the DHCD for a COVID-19 Rental Assistance for Families in Transition fund to assist families facing rent insecurity.

In addition, the state Division of Banks has issued new guidance to financial institutions and lenders urging them to provide relief for borrowers — several banks have already committed to do so — and will advocate for a 60-day stay on behalf of all homeowners facing imminent foreclosure on their homes. Finally, affordable-housing operators are being urged to suspend non-essential evictions for loss of income or employment circumstances resulting in a tenant’s inability to make rent.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts will delay the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes in the restaurant and hospitality sector for up to three months, while waiving all penalties and interest. And, of course, the IRS has informed all taxpayers that this year’s filing deadline has been moved forward three months to July 15.

Nonprofits are being squeezed by the crisis as well. In response, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) established the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with a lead gift of $1 million from MassMutual and contributions from a number of area businesses. The fund will provide resources to Pioneer Valley nonprofits serving populations most impacted by the crisis, such as the elderly, those without stable housing, families needing food, and those with health vulnerabilities. To make a gift, visit communityfoundation.org/coronavirus-donations or e-mail [email protected].

Meanwhile, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation have established the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County to rapidly deploy resources to community-based organizations as they respond to the impact of the coronavirus in Berkshire County. Numerous corporate funders have already emerged. To donate, visit berkshireunitedway.org/donate. Nonprofits can request funds at berkshireunitedway.org.

Finally, to help individuals in need, the United Way of Pioneer Valley established the COVID-19 Recovery and Relief Fund to provide aid and resources to those affected by the current public-health emergency. Funds collected will help families and individuals impacted by the pandemic to meet their basic, childcare, housing and financial needs. Visit www.uwpv.org for more information.

Hunkering Down

Resources such as these are critical because there’s really no telling when the region and country can return to some semblance of economic normalcy. Judging by what the medical community knows about how aggressively coronavirus spreads, the health costs of emerging from this collective cocoon too soon are too great — the healthcare system would simply be overrun. That’s why ‘flattening the curve; has become the watchword of the day.

Unfortunately, many businesses feel overrun in a different way. The Springfield Regional Chamber conducted a different poll recently, asking members what level of impact they expect the COVID-19 crisis have on their business.

More than four-fifths have major concerns; 34% say the crisis may put them out of business, while 47% say it will significantly impact their financials. Another 15% say they’ll be impacted financially but expect to weather the storm, while 4% say it’s too early to know.

In many ways, it’s too early to predict many things related to COVID-19 and its impact. Meanwhile, a nation increasingly shelters in place, seeking relief and solutions where they can find them, and hoping for the best.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

By George O’Brien

By most accounts, this region is still in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the experts are saying it will several months before things will return to something approaching ‘normal.’

But while we have a long way to go, it’s certainly not too early to begin speculating about what ‘normal’ will be, whenever we get there. And it’s fair to say that ‘normal’ won’t look like it does now. In fact, it could look much different because of what we’re all experiencing — and what we’re all learning — during these unprecedented times.

Some questions come to mind even as we’re only about a week into the state’s shutdown of non-essential businesses. In no particular order:

• Will men ever wear ties again?

• Will anyone ever print out a document again?

• Will anyone ever go into a bank branch again?

• Will anyone visit a car dealership again?

• Will companies ever again lease out all the space they’re leasing out now?

• Will we still need college campuses?

• Will we ever need to meet anyone in person again?

The answer to all these questions is ‘yes.’ But the more accurate answer, when we examine things closely, is probably ‘yes, but certainly not as much.’

OK, maybe guys will go back to wearing ties as much as they used to, but … then again, maybe not. Probably not. A good number of them had decided they no longer needed to long before this crisis, and now, this club, if that’s what you want to call it, is certain to get bigger. Maybe much bigger.

As for the rest of those questions, life with COVID-19 has certainly changed how we do things, and maybe for the rest of time, not just until we get that signal that it’s safe to go back in the water, whenever that might be.

Let’s start with paper. Most offices were at least trying to use less paper, but many weren’t exactly fully committed to the task. Now, as offices are relying on other forms of communication, and in many cases, they can’t hit the ‘print’ button, many are learning that it’s OK not to have a print copy of everything. And when the smaller bill comes in from the office-supply company, it’s a good bet that things won’t go back to the way they were.

As for leasing office space, some companies will go back to the same footprint. But it’s safe to say many will find that having employees work at home when they can isn’t just for snowstorms and pandemics. Not everyone wants to work at home, certainly, but if the spouse and the children are not at home at the same time as you are when you’re working — unlike now — it begins to look more doable and more attractive.

Yes, there are limitations, and some people have already found that working at home is like being retired in that you lose track of the day and date. Meanwhile, it can be lonely, and many are finding they need to be around others and just hear the sound of a human voice. But now that some are doing it, they find they can do it.

Bank branches? Some young people can boast that they’ve never been in one. And now, many who are not so young are joining those ranks. People who were intimidated by new banking technology found themselves without a choice — and many have now found themselves saying ‘that wasn’t so bad’ or even ‘that’s pretty cool.’ And, by that way, the same goes for office technology as well.

As for meeting people face to face, this will probably stage some kind of comeback. Skype, Zoom, and all those other platforms are fine, but there’s nothing like sitting across the desk or the coffee-shop table from someone. Although … many people are starting to think those aforementioned options are almost as effective, and they save time, gas, and money. They’ve been around for a while, but now that people have a need to use them, they are.

This doesn’t mean auto dealers, bankers, college presidents, and insurance agents won’t ever meet as a group or an association again. But technology is now showing us that there are other ways to meet collectively.

As noted, we’re still in the beginning stages of this crisis, but we’re already learning things. We’re learning that the technology we were afraid to use for some reason is nothing to be afraid of. We’re also learning new and different ways to do things, and it’s likely we’ll keep doing them that way when this crisis is over.

That’s why things on the other side will certainly look much different.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

 

Remember that classic scene in Young Frankenstein (even you Millennials have seen it, I’m sure) when Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced Frankensteeen), and Marty Feldman (Igor) are in the graveyard digging up the corpse that will become the monster. Wilder says, “what a filthy job!” Feldman says, “it could be worse.” Wilder asks, “how could it possibly be worse?” Feldman says, “could be raining.”

And then it starts pouring.

Life has felt like that these past few weeks. Someone will say, ‘how could it be worse?’ And it starts raining, in a proverbial sense. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have lost some, most, or all of their revenue streams. People are running out of toilet paper — or they’re really, really afraid that they will. We lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (The who?) People stuck at home are losing their patience, if not their minds, and we’re just really getting started with this pandemic. And then it snowed on Monday!

There are no sports! How many times can we watch the Patriots beat the Falcons in replays of Super Bowl LII? We know how it ends! The Masters has been postponed if not cancelled. Golf courses are apparently not on the ‘essential’ businesses list put out by the governor’s office. How can golf courses not be on the essential businesses list?

If anyone says ‘it could be worse,’ our immediate temptation is to say, ‘no, it can’t.’

To borrow from Dickens, these really are the worst of times. This is worse than any downturn in the economy, worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. It’s worse because there is so much uncertainty — about today, tomorrow, three months from now, and a year from now.

Not only that, but life is different now. Everything is weird. If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger. If we’re out at the store, we look at everyone as if they might have the virus, and the look isn’t a good one.

Everyone is on edge about their jobs, their life savings, their 401(k), their health, the health of their loved ones. You can see it in their faces, and if you’re talking to them on the phone (which we all are), you can hear in their voices. You can also hear them yawn, because people are not sleeping, by and large. Who could sleep with all this going on?

If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger.

And yet, there is something else, something far more powerful and positive going on, and it’s worth noting.

Yes, there are now security guards and even off-duty police in the toilet-paper aisle in many supermarkets. And yes, sales of guns and ammo are skyrocketing. And yes, we’re already starting to see a rise in reported instances of domestic violence. But despite all this, it’s abundantly clear to me that people are caring more about each other.

And it’s about time.

People don’t just put their initials at the end of an e-mail anymore. They say ‘be well,’ ‘stay well,’ or ‘take care of yourself.’ And they mean it. People are bringing food and coffee to those who are shut in (and that’s most people now). Co-workers are being nicer to each other. When I dropped off the golf cart at a club in Connecticut last Saturday, I walked over to the attendant who was parking it — someone who would likely be unemployed in about 27 hours — and said (from six feet away), “good luck to you — hope you get through this OK.” And I meant it.

You’re seeing a lot more of that these days, and this, more than anything else, will get us to the other side — whenever and whatever that happens to be.

Yes, it could be worse. It could be raining. It seems like it’s already raining — pouring, in fact. But there’s a little sunlight trickling in.

And it might be just enough.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.