Home Archive by category Coronavirus (Page 2)

Coronavirus

Coronavirus

Participants Say It’s Anything but Business as Usual

By George O’Brien

If you call the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast these days, the person at the other end of the line will likely ask you if you want the agency’s hotline.

Almost everyone does.

“We’re getting inundated — we’re getting more calls in a day than we would get in a week or two,” said Meredith Wise, EANE’s executive director, who told BusinessWest the calls vary in nature, but the vast majority of them have to do with workforce issues — whether to lay off people in the wake of this virus or furlough them (we’ll explain the difference in a minute), and how to somehow keep them if they are laid off. But there are other matters as well, especially the many evolving layers of support on the state and federal levels.

“People don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for help — they’re looking for answers, because there’s so much uncertainty, and the picture seems to change every day and even every hour,” said Wise, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging businesses of all sizes as they have probably never been challenged before.

Wise was one of several area business leaders who took part in a roundtable on this virus and the many ways it is impacting the business community — a different kind of roundtable, to be sure. Indeed, there was no actual table, round or otherwise; this was all done via a conference call and some subsequent follow-up interviews as the scene changed. (Editor’s Note: that scene continues to change, and this story will be updated as needed at businesswest.com.)

Through these discussions, we learned what should seem obvious — that, at this time, it isn’t ‘business as usual’ for anyone, and for many, there is no business at all. But we also learned that, in some cases, there is something approaching business as usual, as legal transactions and real-estate deals, both commercial and residential, move forward. Meanwhile, the marketing expert we spoke with had a simple message for businesses of all kinds — “don’t stop communicating.”

Here are the highlights from this COVID-19-style roundtable:

At the EANE

Wise told BusinessWest that, understandably, employers are on edge as they see revenue sources dry up and cash flow interrupted. A good number of calls to the hotline concern what to do with employees — lay them off, furlough them, or try somehow to keep them on, especially if the stimulus package currently being debated includes provisions that provide small businesses access to private bank loans equal to several months of expenses (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.) that would be covered by the federal government if they stayed open, maintained their workforce, and paid their bills.

“People are at wit’s end — do they lay off everyone, do they furlough people, do they shut down this operation, do they keep with that operation?” she told BusinessWest, adding that ‘lay off’ and ‘furlough’ are technical terms with specific definitions, and they are not the same thing.

“With a furlough, you’re still considered an employee — people are not going to get paid, but they’re still on the payroll, and they’re still eligible for benefits — all that stays in place,” she explained. “If you lay people off, they’re no longer an employee. They may get a call-back date, but in essence the business is parting company with that employee.”

And, with a layoff, a company has to pay all accrued paid time off and give the employee a check for that amount on their last day.

Wise said some manufacturers, concerned that business will dry up for a longer term, are laying off people (especially recent hires), while others, especially those with sizable investments in the people they’ve hired, are taking the furlough route with the hope that business will soon pick up or help from a stimulus package of some form will arrive.

“But people just don’t know when this is going to end — will it be by April 1, April 14, or are we going to the end of April or into May?” she said. “I’ve heard people say this could go on for three months and that they can’t keep their workforce going for three months.”

Meanwhile, with regard to the governor’s order to close non-essential businesses, Wise said it will certainly be unpopular with small-business owners not on the ‘essential’ list, but it might help bring a form of normalcy and routine that will replace the daily uncertainty that was annoying, to say the least.

“Let’s just do it and get it over with,” she said as the order was coming down. “This constant drip, drip, drip of changes every day is driving everyone crazy, and it doesn’t let you focus on anything.”

Developments of Note

Jeff Sullivan noted that it’s not business as usual for the region’s banks, and it won’t be for quite some time. But there will be a good deal of business, especially if, as expected, banks play a key role in funneling federal stimulus money to small businesses in the form of what will amount to bridge loans.

In the meantime, banks are keeping busy enough — with everything from customers who want some cash in their pockets during these uncertain times (and that’s many people) to businesses seeking lines of credit, or larger lines, to get through the crisis, to homeowners looking to take advantage of the recent drop in interest rates to refinance. And, again, that’s many people.

“It’s a little strange here … we had a large backlog of loans that were closing during the month of March, so we’ve tried to stay somewhat business as usual with those,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “Most of those are happening, and part of the reason we want to get through that is because the nature of the loan requests we’re going to get are going to change dramatically, from the normal buy, sell, refinance-my-building kind of stuff to building up piles of working capital to get through the downturn.

“I think I’ve heard more of the ‘we need to do whatever we can to keep the doors open’ type of conversations from people,” he went on. “But we’re also hearing about people wanting to refinance their free and clear property so they’ll have a lot of cash because they think there will be some opportunities down the road — there’s a little of that going on, too.”

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of refinancing on the residential side of the equation as homeowners look to capitalize on those interest rates, he said, adding that there is also commercial activity and a limited amount of business expansion happening.

Things should change dramatically with the stimulus package and its likely provision for forgivable loans that will, as he put it, essentially put everyone on unemployment for three months.

“People are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens,” he said as the bill was still being hammered out. “If something doesn’t happen, there will be another wave of layoffs.”

Case in Point

Scott Foster, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, said his firm’s phones might not be as busy as EANE’s, but they are ringing constantly. And many of those who are calling are looking for the same kinds of answers.

“I’m as busy as ever — the phones are ringing off the hook; people are working and getting things done while they still can,” he said just prior to the governor’s order to shut down non-essential businesses. “It’s mostly about contingency planning, looking at federal aid that’s already passed or is coming down the pike and how it’s going to help them, or staffing decisions — whether to furlough people, lay them off, or keep them on the payroll.

“All these questions are coming, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns,” he went on. “But this is business — people have to make decisions; you don’t get to not make decisions, or the decision gets made for you. So we’re very active.”

Foster said that deals — everything from real-estate acquisitions to business transactions — are still taking place, albeit at a slower pace in some cases.

“I have some real deals … they’re not closing tomorrow, but they’re still going,” he explained. “I haven’t had anyone pull the plug on any deal I’m working on; next week might be a different story, but right now, they’re all charging forth.”

As for the general tone of those in the business community, while many are understandably anxious, there’s also discernable optimism, he said, especially regarding some provisions of the stimulus bill being debated — ones that would essentially ‘mothball’ businesses until the crisis is over, with funds provided by the government to pay people and pay other expenses as well.

“Big sections of the economy are going to go on pause,” he explained. “And if the federal aid is sufficient and businesses reopen in a few months and the economy restarts … there’s a lot of optimism I’m hearing from business owners about what things are going to look like on the other side of this. It might be misplaced optimism, but it’s there.”

Overall, he said most business owners are “keeping their heads on,” as he put it, and not panicking.

“And the main reason they’re not panicking is because everyone is going through this,” he said. “It’s not one business or one sector, it’s hitting everyone, and you’re seeing some people growing — Amazon’s hiring, Walmart is hiring, Domino’s is hiring, online delivery services are hiring … there are some positive things happening.”

‘Cover’ Story

Dave Griffin has been in the insurance business for decades now and has certainly seen almost everything in the course of his career. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different — in all kinds of ways.

That assessment refers to everything from the volume of the phone calls to the very difficult nature of the conversations with the people on the other end of the line.

“It’s been a tough few weeks, obviously,” said Griffin, vice president of Holyoke-based Dowd Insurance. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years here, and you develop a strong relationship with your clients. There have been a lot of hard conversations here this week with people just trying to do whatever they can to keep their business open. They have a real passion for what they do, and it’s heartbreaking to hear that they have to lay off employees and talk about the business like it might not be around.”

While talk of stimulus packages continues, business owners, especially those hit immediately by the crisis — restaurants, hotels, clubs, banquet facilities, and retail establishments — have been dealing with the moment, said Griffin, and most come forward with the obvious question: ‘does my business-interruption policy cover this deadly virus?’

And the answer he has had to give, unfortunately, is ‘no,’ and, as noted, he’s given it to a large number of people.

There is hope that this answer may change, just as it did after 9/11 — terrorist attacks were not covered in most all business-interruption policies, but that law was changed — but for now, the answer remains ‘no.’

If there is any good news for most insurance customers, it is that their payments are generally based on annual sales volume, and as those numbers go down as the pandemic continues, so do those payments. Meanwhile, many insurance carriers are responding to the crisis by providing flexibility on payments and commitments not to cancel policies if payments cannot be made.

While answering questions about policies and listening to his clients, Griffin also offered some perspective on the situation in the form of hope — and expectation — that most of those business owners he’s had these hard conversations with find a way to persevere and come out on the other side.

“Hopefully, we can come out of this sooner rather than later,” he said. “And I have no doubt that this region will rally behind the local businesses.”

And Now, a Word, or Two, or Three, About Marketing

John Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc., told BusinessWest that, while every sector, and almost every business, has its own unique situation with regard to the virus and its impact, there are some common threads, or thoughts, when it comes to marketing in these difficult times.

To explain it, he summoned three words — actually, one word repeated three times — that was essentially the mantra of Doug Bowen, the now-retired president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, a long-time client.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate — that’s what he used to say, and I think that’s practical advice for everyone right now,” he said. “You need to be talking to your employees, and you need to be talking to your customers.”

As for the messages to be conveyed, he said they generally fall into several categories — from informing the public about what’s happening with a specific company during this crisis to speaking directly to employees. In both cases, the messages are generally about reassuring the intended audience.

“You really want to reach out to employees from the standpoint of appreciation and thank them for their efforts,” Garvey explained. “There is a lot of insecurity out there, and anything organizations can do to placate or resolve that is really important right now.”

Such efforts to reassure and thank people become more difficult and more complicated when a company is also laying off or furloughing employees, he acknowledged, but this shouldn’t stop businesses from heeding Bowen’s mantra.

Meanwhile, as for marketing and communicating in general, this is a perilous time, but it’s also a time when your message can be heard, he went on, because people are listening, and they’re looking for information.

“Your whole audience, your whole customer base, is pretty much sitting at home right now,” he noted. “They’re on social media, they’re reading things online, etc., etc. — you have their attention; never have people been more focused.”

That said, advertisers need to send messages that are important or interesting, or they won’t keep that audience’s attention, Garvey went on, and people need to send messages that are sensitive to the times.

Overall, he said many businesses have been so caught up in the day to day of coping with the crisis that they have become “frozen” when it comes to marketing. The “thaw,” as he called it, should come now, or very soon, as something approaching a new sense of normalcy prevails.

“And then,” he said, “the responsibility is to communicate, communicate, communicate.”

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

Coronavirus

The Power of Positive Thinking

By George O’Brien

On one hand, Pam Victor would seem like the perfect person to turn to for advice on how to stay positive and maintain morale during this time of extreme crisis — when everyone’s life and work has been seemingly turned on its ear and nothing seems safe anymore.

After all, she started Happier Valley Comedy with a simple mission — to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world), and she uses improv to help others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure.”

But, on the other hand … the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted, or eliminated, every revenue stream at her disposal. Indeed, Happier Valley carried out its unique mission through classes in improvisation, comedy shows staged at the playhouse she and business partner Scott Braidman built in Hadley (and other venues), and through team visits to area companies and institutions — the so-called ‘Through Laughter’ program — during which those client companies would undertake interactive exercises designed to bolster everything from confidence levels to communication. Victor would also do a lot of motivational speaking in front of audiences large and small.

You can’t do any of that in the middle of a pandemic when people have been asked, and increasingly ordered, to socially distance themselves from one another. Or so Victor thought as the crisis unfolded and escalated over the past few weeks.

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs,” she explained. “So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

But like so many other business owners and managers in these precarious times, Victor is, well, improvising (you knew that was coming) and finding ways to not only make some kind of living, but also stay upbeat, as difficult as that is.

She gave a ‘virtual’ keynote address for the recent Nerd Summit, the partners recently conducted their first virtual stand-up show, they’re looking into ways to teach improv online, and they’re finding ways to stay connected with clients and the rest of the world through ‘happiness tips’ on Instagram and a host of other initiatives.

“We’re trying to think creatively,” Victor said in a voice that conveyed that she and Braidman have no other option if they want to survive this pandemic. And she used that virtual keynote address as an example.

“At first, I was thinking, ‘oh my God, I do an interactive talk — of course I can’t do it virtually,’” she explained. “But that was just my first fearful thought, and then I … figured it out.”

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs. So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

Elaborating, she said she changed the subject of her planned talk and instead discussed the need to improvise in these dire and uncertain times, and how improv can help with that assignment.

“I’m very grateful that I’m an improvisor,” she told BusinessWest. “Because it has been absolutely essential to just stay afloat.”

And while improvising, Victor has thoughts on how others can try to stay positive and maintain morale in their businesses in these uncertain times. And, as with most things in business, she says it starts at the top.

“Be mindful of your tone,” she advised managers. “You could be Eeyore [the Winnie-the-Pooh character] and be the voice of gloom and doom, or you can be a role model of positivity. We’re seeing a little of both from most people because we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s far more helpful to be a voice of positivity and say, ‘we’re in this together, and we’re going to get through this together.’”

Elaborating, she said that, like a Little League coach or a parent, managers should be thinking about praising employees when they can and phrasing thoughts in a positive manner.

“Instead of ‘this is the worst thing that ever happened,’ they should look for a positive, more helpful refrain, like ‘we are going to become stronger as a group,’” she said. “And this becomes a mantra: ‘if we can get through this, we can get through anything,’ and ‘now I know I can count on this team because we’re getting through this together.’”

Beyond that, she said managers, and employees at all levels, for that matter, need to accept the situation and move forward. Many, she believes, haven’t yet been able to do that.

“So many of us are still stuck in ‘I wish things were different,’ or ‘I’m just so mad that this is the situation we’re in’ or fear, like I had, that I’m not going to have a company to go back to, or I’m not going to be able to pay people,” she explained. “What improv helps us with, and what I teach a lot, is how to quiet that critic and that internal voice of fear, because it’s unhelpful, and once we have that voice quieted down, we can focus on problem solving and innovative thinking, and all that important collaborative work that we need to do.”

When asked how one quiets that voice, she said she spent an hour explaining it all during her Nerd Summit keynote. Hitting the highlights, she said the most important thing for people to remember is that this voice — she named it the ‘evil mind meanie’ — is “a big fat liar” and needs to be quieted.

“This thought that I’m having, that my company is going to go out of business … I don’t know how this story is going to end. It’s just a belief, it’s just a fear at the moment,” she explained. “For me to go down the rabbit hole and follow that fear is not helpful or productive to solving the problem of how to keep my company afloat.

“When everything went down, my first reflexive thought was ‘this is it — everything we’ve worked so hard for is lost,’” she went on, recalling those hard days as steps put in place to limit the spread of the virus robbed the company of almost all its revenue streams. “And then, you remember that this is just a belief, and you don’t know how the story is going to turn out, and my job is to be of service to my community and move forward with positivity.”

Beyond all this, Victor recommends that companies, and individuals in general, find ways to stay connected. She suggests everything from Zoom happy hours (“booze optional, everyone pours their own drink”) and Netflix parties to companies sending food or treats to employees’ homes to show appreciation, and even virtual karaoke, something she heard one company was trying.

“You have to find opportunities for fun,” she said in conclusion, “because, when we laugh together, that stimulates a relaxation response and a connection response in humans. And we need that right now — we need to feel normal, even if it’s just for half an hour.”

Victor told BusinessWest that she recently bought a bottle of champagne and put it on ice. There it will stay until the crisis is over.

Needless to say, like everyone else in this region and this country, she’s really looking forward to that day when she can pop that cork. In the meantime, she’s going to go on improvising and finding ways to laugh.

And she suggests that everyone else do the same.

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

Coronavirus

How to Survive in a Down Economy

By Nicholas LaPier, CPA

Businesses, and especially small businesses, are dealing with a situation that is in many ways unprecedented in both nature and scope: coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, this crisis has impacted almost every industry sector and each specific business, except for supermarkets and online-delivery specialists such as Amazon. No one really knows how long this crisis will last or what the economy will look like on the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic.

Despite the unique aspects of this crisis and the depth of the disruption to the economy in general, there are basic rules, or guidelines, when it comes to business disaster planning, and they apply to the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Here is a quick checklist of items that I use when talking with clients about this crisis — and any down-economy situation.

• For starters, if you don’t have a disaster-recovery plan, create one. If you do have one, take it out of the drawer and review it. Also, modify the plan over the next few months based on actual experience, and create one as you go by documenting decisions and results.

• Consult your most respected business advisors for advice. This list includes your CPA, bankers, and peers.

• Conserve business assets, both cash (cash flow is tantamount to survival in times of disaster) and investments (don’t sell underperforming investments unless necessary).

• Review current operating costs as compared to expected revenues. And if your costs far exceed the projected revenues, first determine how long the shortage is and how the short term can be funded. Options, and there are many, can include:

– Contribute additional owner capital;

– Access your currently available business line of credit;

– Utilize your existing cash reserves;

– Start reviewing all SBA and state lending programs in place now because of COVID-19. You may even want to start the application early — as of this writing, the initial Massachusetts emergency loan program has already been exhausted;

– Review your commercial insurance policies for business-interruption coverage and how to submit a claim;

– Take a reduced owner compensation. Not only will this help cash flow for the business, you will reap some payroll tax savings as a result;

– Assess where a reduction in workforce makes sense;

– Make a careful assessment before incurring new costs and expenses;

– Accelerate collection efforts on unpaid receivables;

– Enhance your selling efforts — increase your social media posts and other media outlets, while staying the course with advertising and marketing campaigns; and

– Consider closing for a short period to curtail as many costs as possible.

• While addressing the short term, business owners must be focused on how the long term can be funded as well. Options here include:

– Additional owner capital/resources;

– Longer-term reduction of owner compensation;

– Continued reduction of workforce;

– Identification of other cost-saving measures;

– Enhanced sales and collection efforts;

– Obtaining SBA, state, or traditional lending programs; and

– Additional loans from non-traditional sources, such as leasing companies and non-equity partners.

As noted earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways unique when it comes to business disasters. It is unlike a natural disaster, a recession, or a terrorist attack like 9/11.

But it is like all those others in that it is a situation that requires careful planning — and execution of a plan.

Nicholas LaPier, CPA is president of West Springfield-based Nicholas LaPier PC CPA; (413) 732-0200; [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, we’re hearing more and more references to the past — and with good reason.

Part of it is an attempt to put this crisis in perspective, and for perspective, you have to look to the past and things to compare this to. That’s why we’re hearing and reading references to 2008 and 2009 — the Great Recession — as well as 9/11, 1987 (the great stock-market nosedive), and, increasingly, the Great Depression of the 1930s, especially as the estimates for unemployment come in; indeed, some of the latest projections are for 20% or more, numbers not seen since 1932.

But we’re also hearing references to World War II, for reasons that involve not so much perspective (although there’s some of that) as inspiration. We’re hearing and reading references to everything from the Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb) to the arsenal of democracy, the phrase coined by Franklin Roosevelt to describe what the United States should — and did — become as the war became a global conflict.

These references and comparisons are essentially spot on. What this country needs right now is a response similar to the one perhaps last seen during World War II — and on all kinds of levels.

Like the arsenal of democracy. In very short order, the U.S. economy went from a struggling peacetime economy — yes, the Great Depression lasted, in most all respects, into the early ’40s — into a thriving wartime economy where manufacturers retooled and produced items needed for the war effort. Examples abound, but the best known is Ford shifting gears — literally and figuratively — and producing B-24 Liberator bombers instead of cars at its famous Willow Run plant (where ‘Rosie the Riveter’ worked). In fact, at peak production, it was rolling out a new bomber every hour.

As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, it’s clear that we need what amounts to a different kind of wartime production — the war against this virus. Just as Ford made bombers, Caterpillar made tanks, Packard manufactured aircraft engines, and Studebaker produced trucks during World War II, today’s manufacturers need to step up, retool, and make surgical masks, respirators, and other items desperately needed in hospitals across the country.

And some are already volunteering to do just that, including Ford, GM, and Tesla. Meanwhile, cruise lines have proposed converting some of their ships into hospital ships, perhaps to care for those who need care but do not have COVID-19, and hotel owners have suggested perhaps converting their facilities into hospitals during this crisis.

These are the kinds of things that happened during World War II, and they need to happen now.

Meanwhile, on the home front during that war, there was sacrifice and a willingness to pitch in and do what was necessary, with drives to collect everything from rubber to aluminum for the war effort. Not everyone was happy with the rationing of many products, but they coped.

Contrast those images with those of people hording toilet paper and partying on the beaches of Florida during spring break, and it’s easy to see that the current generations can learn a lot from the Greatest Generation.

But there are many, many signs of generosity and caring being seen today — everything from MGM Springfield and other venues donating food items to food pantries to the Community Foundation’s creation of the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, to NBA players donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help arena workers who are now among the unemployed.

To get through this, we’re going to need a lot more stepping up, sacrificing, and using all our talents and imagination to help in this new war effort.

For inspiration, all we have to do is turn the clock back 75 years.

Coronavirus

By Andrew Morehouse

We’ve all been to the supermarkets. Households are stocking up on food in response to coronavirus (COVID-19). But let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of individuals across Western Mass. who can’t even get to a supermarket — elders, people with disabilities, and households who must rely on unreliable public transportation. Others can, but they can’t even afford to buy enough food to feed their families, much less stock up for two weeks’ worth as suggested by public officials.

To make matters worse, many of these households have children whose schools are now closed and are not providing essential school breakfasts and lunches that so many families rely on to feed their children day in and day out. Some but not all schools are preparing meals for children to pick up at schools or at ‘summer’ meal sites (check out www.meals4kids.org/summer).

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and its network of 174 local feeding partners across all four counties — Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden — continue to operate as we do year in and year out, providing healthy food to the most vulnerable in our communities. We are all establishing measures to prevent transmission of coronavirus, such as social distancing, hand washing, and wearing protective gloves to ensure that our visitors can receive healthy food safely.

Many food pantries are now pre-packaging food to hand out, often outdoors, in order to minimize contact. Most, if not all, of the meal sites are now making meals to go, which patrons can pick up and take with them. If you are in need of food assistance, visit our website, www.foodbankwma.org/get-help, for a listing of all local feeding sites, and be sure to call prior to visiting to make sure they are open.

We’ve instituted similar safety measures at our biweekly and monthly Mobile Food Bank.
Twenty-one of the 26 sites continue to operate in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food is nonexistent. We’ve instituted similar safety measures at senior centers where volunteers distribute bags of groceries to thousands of elders monthly at our 51 brown-bag sites. Many remain open, and we are also working with those that have closed to seek permission to continue to distribute food in their parking lots.

Right now, we have enough food to distribute through our vast regional emergency food network. This is likely to change as the coronavirus persists. You can help by donating — every dollar you give provides four meals. We also have enough volunteers, but this is also likely to change. Please visit www.foodbankwma.org/volunteer for updates.

In addition to distributing food, we are working with our partners across the Commonwealth and nationally to advocate for public food assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continues to have the greatest impact in nourishing those who receive this federal benefit. Most SNAP recipients are children, elders, people with disabilities, and individuals working part-time and on minimum-wage incomes. SNAP provides nine meals for every meal provided by food banks. And SNAP is proven to be the single most powerful economic stimulus. This is no time to be cutting SNAP benefits; in fact, we should be increasing them.

Now is the time for all of us to band together as a community to ensure the health and food security of everyone.

Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Inc. in Hatfield.

Coronavirus

Don’t Lose Touch

By Meghan Rothschild

The last two weeks have been an unprecedented storm of chaos for anyone managing a business, small or large. Effectively communicating changes in event plans, services, and fundraising strategies is no small feat and requires consistency and strategy. Staying in touch with your clients and customers has never been more challenging, yet more important.

We at Chikmedia have been navigating these communications challenges not only for clients, but for ourselves as well. Remaining calm, proofreading before you click ‘post,’ and applying a strategy are your best bets. We’ve drafted some go-to tips and tricks for ensuring your business looks polished and communicative during this time.

Identify your primary team/spokesperson during this time. As is true with any crisis, you must put together your decision-making team. Your primary spokesperson should not be the president or business owner, as you need a buffer for filtering information between the key decision maker and your primary audiences.

Outline and implement compliance strategies. Explain what you are doing to comply with CDC recommendations, such as, social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizing, and encouraging staff to work remotely.

Write your plan down. Make sure you have committed to compliance policies that work for you and your business. Don’t say you’re offering hand sanitizer if you don’t have it in house yet.

Ensure your entire team is up to date. Your staff should be well-versed in what the plan is moving forward. Arm them with the copy points they need to communicate effectively to the public, your customers, and other important constituents. 

Make a public statement. If you haven’t done this already, you should, immediately. Even if you are not currently operating or client facing, you must acknowledge what is happening in the world; otherwise, you appear reckless and out of touch. Include information on how it will impact your customers and your business.

Use all of your channels when communicating. Use e-news, social media, signage, your website — whatever you currently use to communicate to clients.

Continue to post. Even when you do not have an update, you must continue to acknowledge and keep your customers informed. They will want to hear from you regularly.

Navigate the official updates from the CDC. Make sure everything you post has been confirmed by two sources and is factual. Do not share content that is not confirmed, not vetted, or from unreliable sources.

Continue to produce regular content. Don’t make it all about COVID-19. Do not stop posting or let your social channels go dormant, as algorithms will penalize you. It may feel awkward to post regular content, but it’s important to maintain some consistent messaging and normalcy on behalf of the business.

Start developing your post-virus plan now. How are you going to get people back through the door when this is all over? Will it be through an event or a major sale? What about a big contest or giveaway? Be thinking about how you will re-engage your audience when the competition will be at its highest. Do not wait: have the plan prepared and ready to go for when the world begins to spin again.

Should you have questions or need assistance, don’t hesitate to shoot us a note at [email protected]. You can also visit our website, www.chikmedia.us, for more information.

Meghan Rothschild is president of Chikmedia.

Coronavirus

Offering a Lifeline

It’s called Prime the Pump — an appropriate name, at a time when the pump is threatening to run dry for area restaurants.

A statewide shutdown of restaurants and bars has proprietors worried about the future, with many building short-term strategies around takeout and delivery, gift cards, and other features (see story here). But local government is doing its part, too.

“In conjunction and on top of federal and state loan assistance programs, the city will immediately move to offer $222,679 in grants, up to a maximum of $15,000 for qualified restaurants,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said this week in announcing the initiative. “As my administration continues to review any and all options to assist our residents and business community during these challenging times, I have asked my chief Development officer, Tim Sheehan, to see what we could do immediately to ‘prime the pump’ to start to spur a shot-in-the-arm relief and recovery initial assistance program for our restaurants and their employees.”

Added Sheehan, “while the small-business support being advanced by the federal and state government is beneficial, it is clear to me that more creative and flexible financial lifelines need to be established for the small businesses, especially restaurants which have disproportionately felt the economic impact resulting from the coronavirus mitigation measures designed to protect us all.”

For more information and details on how to apply, contact Sheehan at (413) 787-6024 or [email protected].

Read on for other financial resources available for small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

• 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.

Small businesses, private nonprofit organizations of any size, small agricultural cooperatives, and small aquaculture enterprises that have been financially impacted as a direct result of COVID-19 since Jan. 31 may qualify for loans up to $2 million to help meet financial obligations and operating expenses which could have been met had the disaster not occurred. Eligibility for Economic Injury Disaster Loans is based on the financial impact of the coronavirus. The interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for private nonprofit organizations.

Applicants may apply online, receive additional disaster-assistance information, and download applications at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela. Applicants may also call SBA’s Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or e-mail [email protected] for more information on SBA disaster assistance. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may call (800) 877-8339. The deadline to apply is Dec. 18.

• This week, the Baker-Polito administration also announced economic support for small businesses with a $10 million loan fund to provide financial relief to those that have been affected by COVID-19. The Small Business Recovery Loan Fund 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. Loans are immediately available to eligible businesses with no payments due for the first 6 months. Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. has capitalized the fund and will administer it.

To apply, complete the application found at empoweringsmallbusiness.org. Completed applications can be e-mailed to [email protected] with the subject line “2020 Small Business Recovery Loan Fund.”

• Meanwhile, Common Capital offers a Fast Track Loan Program to address the needs of local businesses that need quick access to capital. Loan proceeds may be used for most legitimate business purposes, including purchasing inventory or equipment, and for working capital. The program offers a loan decision in two to three business days for loan requests up to $50,000, with funding typically within a week after approval. It is a credit-score-based program for businesses in operation at least one year. Those approved will be eligible for no-cost business assistance from Common Capital staff and consultants.

Applicants seeking funding from the program to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will need to answer the following questions: What steps have you taken or are you planning to take to address the financial health of your business in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Please be specific. What is the typical cash-flow cycle for your business? How are your revenues affected by external factors, such as seasons, weather events, or the school calendar, among others? How much revenue did your business have month by month in 2019?

For more information about Common Capital and its loan programs, contact Kim Gaughan, loan fund manager, at (413) 233-1684 or [email protected].

• State and federal government entities are also looking at tax-relief efforts. At the state level, Massachusetts will postpone the collection of taxes to provide relief to the state’s restaurant and hospitality sectors by delaying the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes. Taxes that are due in March, April and May will instead be collected on June 20 for businesses that paid less than $150,000 in sales and meal taxes or less than $150,000 in room-occupancy taxes in the year ending Feb. 29. The state will also waive all penalties and interest. Gov. Charlie Baker said the state Department of Revenue would finalize emergency regulations to establish the tax relief measures before week’s end.

In addition, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that individuals and corporations can delay their federal tax payments for 90 days due to the coronavirus pandemic. Individuals can defer up to $1 million in payments for 90 days from the April 15 deadline. Corporations can defer up to $10 million in payments for 90 days. During that time, the IRS will not charge interest or penalties. Mnuchin’s announcement did not delay the April 15 filing deadline.

The IRS has established a special webpage (www.irs.gov/coronavirus) focused on steps to help taxpayers, businesses, and others affected by the coronavirus. This page will be updated as new information is available.

• Nonprofits are being squeezed by the current 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 a $500,000 contribution from CFWM. Big Y, Easthampton Savings Bank, Greenfield Cooperative Bank/Northampton Cooperative Bank, and PeoplesBank have also committed to contributing. Other area businesses and philanthropic organizations are being encouraged to contribute to the fund, as is the general public.

The fund will provide flexible resources to Pioneer Valley nonprofit organizations serving populations most impacted by the crisis, such as the elderly, those without stable housing, families needing food, and those with particular health vulnerabilities. Funds initially will be given to existing community-based organizations who currently serve vulnerable populations and who are best able to identify those requiring crisis services.

Those interested in making a gift to the fund should visit communityfoundation.org/coronavirus-donations or contact the Community Foundation at [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. They have already committed more than $600,000 for these efforts through a coalition of philanthropic organizations, businesses partners, and generous individuals.

Early partners and funders include Adams Community Bank, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, Berkshire Bank Foundation, Donald C. McGraw Foundation/Blackrock Foundation Fund, Feigenbaum Foundation, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Joseph H. and Carol F. Reich Fund of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Josephine and Louise Crane Foundation, Mill Town, Northern Berkshire United Way, Unistress, Williams College, and Williamstown Community Chest. The partners encourage other institutions, companies, and funders to contribute to the fund.

Donations to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund can be made at berkshireunitedway.org/donate. Nonprofits can request funds through a simple, rolling application process that can be found 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. As the pandemic unfolds and schools, events, and workplaces close, hourly, low-wage workers and many others will experience unprecedented financial hardship. In Massachusetts, two in five workers lack sufficient savings to withstand a sudden loss in wages.

Funds collected for this emergency relief fund will help families and individuals impacted by the pandemic to meet their basic, childcare, housing and financial needs. This fund will also help to continue United Way programs such as Thrive and especially Mass2-1-1, a free referral hotline providing access to services such as emergency assistance and real-time COVID-19 information. Individuals can dial 211, United Way’s 24/7 information and referral hotline, from any Massachusetts number to get information related to the virus.

Visit www.uwpv.org and follow the link to ‘COVID-19 Relief’ for more information.

Coronavirus Features

Lessons Learned from Experience

By Nancy Urbschat

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Many of you are experiencing work at home for the first time, and without the luxury of months of planning like those at our marking firm, TSM Design, did when we decided to go virtual on Jan. 1, 2019.

We are now in the midst of a global pandemic, and socially distancing people is the only way to flatten the COVID-19 curve. (Now that’s a sentence I would not have imagined writing, let alone living through. But here we are.)

These are challenging times for everyone. Our concept of normalcy is changing daily. We barely have time to catch our breath before there are new rules of engagement. Businesses have gone from limiting the size of meetings to prohibiting travel and work-at-home orders.

During TSM Design’s morning Zoom on March 16, we started the meeting discussing the impact the virus was having on our lives. Our conversation then turned to all of you who are just starting to work at home. We wondered if we could be helpful sharing what we’ve learned during these past 15 months.

Your Office

• Create a designated workspace in your home. The kitchen or dining-room table is not ideal.

• If possible, position your desk by a window. Then don’t forget to open the shades.

• While you’re working with no one else around, you have the luxury of cranking up the volume on your favorite tunes. No earbuds necessary!

• Don’t assume that your reputation for a messy desk is suddenly going to change now that you’re home.

Virtual Meetings and Conference Calls

• Be mindful of your meeting attendees’ view inside your office.

• If your video is on and no one can see you, uncover your camera. (This has happened on more than one occasion.)

• If you have a barky dog, leave your audio on mute until it’s your turn to speak.

• Project a professional image — at least from the waist up.

• Try never to schedule a virtual presentation with multiple attendees gathered around one computer screen. It’s deadly when you can’t see audience reaction.

• If you have a camera, please turn it on. Keep the playing field level. If you can see me, I ought to be able to see you.

• Provide tutorials for people who are new to videoconferencing platforms.

• Assume the role of facilitator. Pose questions, talk less, listen more.

Productivity

• Take a brisk walk before you start your workday.

• Maintain a regular morning meeting with your team. We try to Zoom every day at 8:30 a.m.

• Try to get your most challenging work done early in the day.

• Save your work frequently — especially if you have a cat that likes to walk across your keyboard.

• Keep a running to-do list. Go ahead and celebrate what got crossed off at the end of every day.

• Don’t sit for hours on end. Get up. Do a few stretches. Walk around the block.

• Don’t eat at your desk. Go to your kitchen and make lunch. Savor it. Then go back to work.

• Give yourself permission to give in to small distractions. If there is a pile of dishes in the sink that’s bothering you, do the dishes. Then go back to work.

Your Mental Health

• Get a good night’s sleep, with plenty of deep sleep and REM. It might be a good time to buy a Fitbit or other device to track your sleep and your heart rate.

• Eat healthy, and stay hydrated.

• Use your newfound virtual-meeting tools to stay in touch with family and friends.

• Schedule a Zoom dinner party.

• Take care of one another.

• Be kind to everyone.

Some Final Thoughts

After a while, the novelty of working from home may wear off. If and when that happens, we hope you’ll remember all of the service-industry workers who have to show up to work in order to get paid. And remember the healthcare workers who are on the front lines, doing battle against the virus, who continue to be in harm’s way without adequate masks and other critical protection.

No one knows how long social distancing will be required or whether more dramatic actions will be necessary. We find ourselves wondering whether people are taking this pandemic seriously and doing what’s necessary to avoid a bona fide human catastrophe. Recent photos from Fort Lauderdale beaches were mind-boggling. Yet, in that same social-media stream, there were posts about acts of courage and heroism.

This is a defining moment for us. Will future generations take pride in how we were able to make sacrifices, pull together, and care for each other?

Your Homework Assignment

So, first-time work-at-homers, get yourself set up, settle in, and shoot me an e-mail about how it’s going.

Nancy Urbschat is president of TSM Design; [email protected]

Coronavirus

We’re in This Together

From the Better Business Bureau

We don’t know how long COVID-19 crisis, with its shutdowns and social distancing, will last, but small businesses certainly need your support to make it through these uncertain times.

This crisis is affecting all types of small business. This includes places you use every day, such as your local coffee shop or favorite lunch place, but also businesses that might not immediately come to mind. The closures and cancellations hurt services like home-improvement contractors, daycare providers, dry cleaners, and car mechanics, as well as healthcare businesses, such as your dentist or chiropractor. Even business-to-business fields, such as the graphic designer who designs your office’s brochures or the accounting firm who does the books, are feeling the impact.   

By closing their doors temporarily, small businesses are helping to keep their customers and employees healthy. But the loss of income makes it tough to cover ongoing expenses like rent and salaries. These tips help ensure your favorite businesses have the cash they need to make it through these lean times.  

Here are the Better Business Bureau’s practical tips on how everyone can support small businesses — with or without spending money.

• Buy a gift card for later. Many small businesses that have had to close are offering gift certificates at discounted rates for when they open back up. Look on their websites and social accounts.

• Skip the refund and take a rain check. If you paid in advance for an event, such as theater or concert tickets, a class, or a service, consider taking a credit for the future instead of asking for a refund. These businesses will appreciate not needing to issue so many refunds right now.

• Commit to future work. While right now may not be the best time to start that home-renovation project, your contractor will appreciate you committing to future projects when business opens back up. The same goes for any future event or project.

• Shop (locally) online. Local shops and vendors may have closed their physical doors, but many still run online shops. Look for them on social media or check the their website for links to their online marketplace.

• Look for virtual classes. People who work in training or professional development — this can be anyone from your personal trainer to the person teaching your office’s public-speaking workshop — are finding creative ways to move their instruction online. Even though your local gym is closed, your favorite yoga teacher may be hosting a live class online. The same goes for people who offer professional trainings. Now may be a good time to brush up on your skills through an online course.

• Get takeout or delivery. Many restaurants and breweries are now offering takeout even as they close their dining rooms. Support these local institutions by getting your food or drinks to go and enjoying them at home.

Not everyone has the financial resources to pay in advance. So, if your own wallet is feeling the pinch, here are some free ways to support small businesses.

• Write an online review. This is a good time to finally get around to reviewing your favorite local business. These five-star reviews help companies rank well in search engines and on other listing services. This is an easy, free way to show your favorite small businesses that you support them.

• Like and share on social media. Help your favorite business reach a broader audience by liking and sharing their information on social media. This will help them reach future customers and gain more exposure.

• Tell your favorite businesses that you appreciate their work. These are tough times. Keep morale up by reaching out to the businesses in your community and letting them know that you appreciate their hard work.

Coronavirus

‘Getting to the other side.’

That’s the mantra you’re hearing now. Or one of them, anyway. That and ‘flatten the curve.’

Business owners and managers across the region and across the country are talking about the ‘other side,’ that magical place when and where we can talk about the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense.

It seems a long way away, and it probably is. It could be a few months. It could be several months. It could be 18 months, according to some sources. We have to hope it’s not that last number.

Whenever it is, the assignment is to get there, and it’s already becoming painfully evident that some won’t.

Those that will get there will have to call upon every bit of imagination, persistence, and resourcefulness they possess, because, as we’re already seeing with the restaurant sector and other aspects of the hospitality industry, the challenge is already significant and will only get worse with time.

Indeed, it was just a few weeks ago that people were talking about rescuing the White Hut in West Springfield. Now, the talk is of how to rescue not only every restaurant in the 413, but businesses in virtually every sector.

In this battle, resilience and resourcefulness will be the key attributes, and we can already look to the restaurant industry for some inspiration in those regards. Indeed, while most all of those businesses have had to lay off people, many are winding ways to keep people employed as long as possible while also looking for whatever revenue sources they can, including delivery, takeout, and even bringing the restaurant experience into one’s home — a concept still in the formative stages.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners are already exploring every form of relief possible, including state and federal assistance, SBA loans, and more — something many businesses will have to do. And they are collaborating on an effort called Strength in Numbers, which encourages area residents to support their favorite eateries by buying gift certificates now for use later, with a 20% incentive.

And we can also look to that sector for inspiration in other ways — everything from how area residents are, in fact, supporting those businesses, to their positive outlook at a time when their world has literally been turned upside down.

Indeed, we like what Peter Rosskothen has to say about all this. Perhaps no business owner in the region has been hit harder. His multi-faceted stable of businesses is grounded in hospitality, especially banquets, gatherings, and fine dining. At the moment, he can’t host a wedding, a meeting of the Holyoke Rotary Club, or BusinessWest’s Difference Makers banquet (yes, that was scheduled for tonight — March 19 — at the Log Cabin, but has been moved to Sept. 10).

Still, he’s finding ways to stay positive.

“The best we can do is utilize our smartness and fight through this as much as we can,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a very resilient country; we’ll come out of this, and something good will come out of this — I’m convinced of that. We might be struggling a little bit, but something good will come out of this.”

We agree. Such optimism, by itself, isn’t going to get us to the other side, when we can finally, thankfully, look back on all this. But it certainly helps.

In these times, many people will be working remotely. In addition to accessing BusinessWest online, readers may wish to add their home address. To do this, e-mail [email protected], visit  https://businesswest.com/contact-us/subscribe/, or call 413.781.8600.