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Opinion

Editorial

The calendar no longer says 2020.

And that’s a really good thing. Over the past 10 months or so, those four numbers became synonymous with pandemic, challenge, uncertainty, and more challenge. Turning the calendar over helps psychologically, but it doesn’t change the equation. Not yet, anyway.

In fact, as the experts interviewed for our Economic Outlook section indicated, while there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, there is still quite a bit of tunnel to get through. If this is the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), the end is still a ways off.

And, in some ways, there’s a good chance things will actually get worse before they get better, because, as some experts noted, the relief that many companies received through stimulus initiatives will not be there, or there to the same extent, like they were in 2020. So many businesses will be facing a reality check, and a scary one at that.

But if 2021 looks daunting in many respects, we can look back at 2020, not for painful memories, or only painful memories, but also for inspiration.

Indeed, as we’ve written on several occasions, the best thing about 2020, from our respective, was the manner in which the business community responded to a crisis truly without precedent. Going back to the middle of last March, we wrote about how business owners in this region had been through a lot over the past few decades — recessions, including a ‘great’ one; a tornado; the sudden quiet after 9/11; Springfield’s fiscal meltdown; and so much more. We wrote that this pandemic would be unlike any of those and would test the mettle of this region in ways we could not have imagined.

We were right about that, but we were also right when we said this region was up for the fight. It was, and it is, and a look back at 2020 proves this.

Yes, some businesses have been lost, mostly in the retail and hospitality sectors, and the losses have not been insignificant. Meanwhile, a number of mainstay businesses have been battered and bloodied — MGM Springfield, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Symphony, the Thunderbirds, Union Station, UMass Amherst and all the colleges and universities, every restaurant and performance venue in the region … the list goes on.

But they are still standing, and, in the meantime, a large army of small businesses have responded with imagination, perseverance, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined the region for more than 250 years.

We’re told many of these stories over the past nine months, and they have been inspirational. Businesses that found themselves struggling, through no fault of their own, discovered ways to pivot, find new revenue streams, and, in some rare cases, actually expand and grow their businesses.

If there was any bright spot to 2020 — and there were not many — watching this collective display of courage and determination was it.

And now that the calendar has turned to 2021, nothing has really changed. The operating environment is as challenging as ever, and even moreso for most hospitality businesses, now that winter has set in.

The next few months may be the most difficult yet, but we are confident that those same qualities that helped businesses ride out 2020 will enable them to continue the ride — until the day when ‘normal’ returns and the predicted pent-up demand will provide a much-needed lift to ventures across all sectors.

As the new year begins, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways off. But at least we can see it.

Opinion

Opinion

By Brooke Thomson

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) has worked tirelessly with elected officials on both the state and federal levels to moderate a potentially disastrous 60% increase in unemployment insurance rates next year and to keep the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund on sound financial footing.

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker took a major step toward addressing that issue by filing timely legislation to ensure a two-year schedule freeze and provide the ability to bond the remaining trust-fund deficit and allow it to be rebuilt over time.

Meanwhile, AIM continues to support efforts by the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to persuade Congress to provide additional resources for the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The $900 billion economic stimulus bill recently approved in the U.S. Congress does not provide money for state UI systems, though it does revive the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion to cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses.

Massachusetts businesses now need elected officials to stabilize the state’s unemployment-insurance system by freezing the statutory rate and allowing Massachusetts to authorize bonding.

A day before Baker filed his rate-freeze bill, AIM provided a statement to the entire Massachusetts Legislature calling for a freeze on employer UI tax-rate schedules to shield Massachusetts employers from the upcoming rate spike, which is tied by statute to the overall condition of state UI Trust Fund.

Given the unforeseen economic shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance projects that the fund, primarily financed by direct and reimbursing employer contributions, will be in the red by $5 billion at the end of 2022 and remain insolvent by about $3 billion as far out as 2024.

These initial numbers, left unchecked, would trigger an increase from the current 2020 employer tax rate of Schedule E, or $539 per employee, to Schedule G, about $866 per employee, reflecting an almost 60% increase.

Baker’s bill would freeze the employer tax rate at Schedule E for the next two years, slowing annual employer contribution growth to $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.

AIM thanks Gov. Baker for filing this legislation, and we appreciate the speedy action that the House and Senate have taken throughout this pandemic with legislation to stabilize the unemployment-insurance system for employers and employees.

We urge the House and Senate to take urgent action on this proposed legislation to freeze rates and fund the system through bonding, which will ensure that all claims are paid to individuals, that the trust fund is stabilized with a low-interest loan, and the Commonwealth is able to avoid a statutorily triggered unemployment-insurance tax-rate hike in first months of 2021.

 

Brooke Thomson is executive vice president for Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stuart Anfang, M.D.

The holidays are supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ as one song notes. But for some, it may be the most difficult time of the year after the loss of a loved one.

The holiday season can be especially difficult for those who are preparing to spend these joyous occasions for the first time without a spouse, child, or other beloved family member or friend by their side. These feelings of grief are only exacerbated this year by COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many, plus the general stress of dealing with the pandemic.

It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and even helplessness and hopelessness while navigating the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence, and watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings — or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs — are worrisome signs.

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them. Remember, it’s OK and not a sign of weakness to ask for help.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you — for example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.

Together, you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums or making and displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased. Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, make sure to follow public-health recommendations about masking, social distancing, and gathering in limited numbers.

Many people also find solace in generosity, as this is the ‘season of giving.’ Many people also volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.

For some, the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you. But if you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school, or home — problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself, or wanting to die — that may be time to seek some professional evaluation. A good place to start can be your primary-care provider or a trusted clergy.

The bottom line is, help is available. Do not suffer in silence.

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang is vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

Opinion

Editorial

As 2020 prepares to come to what we hope will be a merciful end (only if our collective luck changes), it is time to look ahead.

It certainly beats looking back.

And as we look ahead, we need to consider what the world might look like when and if something approaching normal returns, and what it means for us. At both the micro and macro level, it doesn’t mean going back to the way things were before.

The world will have changed, in all kinds of ways, and a good many of these changes will be permanent, as in, there’s no going back to the way we were. This goes for the services we offer to customers, how we do business, and where we do business.

Yes, everyone hates Zoom — or really hates Zoom, as the case may be. But even the most ardent of haters will admit that a Zoom session beats investing the time and energy in a drive to Worcester, Boston, or wherever. A Zoom session beats getting up early — and getting dressed (don’t forget that part) — to go to a morning board meeting or perhaps even a session with a client.

And that’s just one example. The same goes for the modern office. As much as we all hear that businesses will return to the office, that workers need the camaraderie, that teams need to be in the same room to be effective, it’s clear that things simply will not be as they were.

“We’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region.”

Companies have learned they can make do with less office space — or without any office space. Individuals have learned they can do their jobs from home, and that ‘home’ doesn’t necessarily have to be close to the office. Which means it doesn’t have to be a densely populated — and very expensive — area. Businesses owners may gradually ditch the current mindset that they need to be in Seattle, Boston, Cambridge, or the Research Triangle, “because that’s where the workers are.” The workers, at least for some jobs, can be anywhere.

If you’re an optimist, this bodes well for the region, and we like to be optimistic. Which is why we’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region. Groups like the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and the Springfield Regional Chamber appear to moving from ‘we might want to think about this’ to the ‘let’s do something about it’ stage.

By that, we mean they’re moving more assertively when it comes to trying to tell this region’s story and putting information in people’s hands — with the goal of motivating people, small businesses, and maybe major corporations to consider the 413 as a place to put down roots or expand.

It has always been that way — and we have always sold it as such — but we haven’t done well in pitching people on the concept, even as Boston has become more expensive and its roads have become more congested.

Maybe the pandemic and the lessons learned while navigating our way through it will change this equation. Maybe. After all, there will be considerable competition from other cities, states, and regions who have learned the same lessons. Meanwhile, this region has never been able to muster the kind of marketing muscle it takes to get a message across to a broad audience.

But it doesn’t hurt to try, and as we thankfully turn the calendar to 2021, it is time to look back a little, reflect on what we’ve learned, and do what we’ve all been trying to do since March — be in a better position after the pandemic than we were before.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

Joe Biden, set to become the 46th president of the U.S., will take office at a singular moment in the history of a nation struggling to confront the convergence of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and social upheaval.

It’s also a singular moment for Massachusetts employers. The change of administrations in Washington will have enormous consequences for employers on everything from federal stimulus to the tenor of labor relations.

Record numbers of voters cast ballots either in person, by absentee ballot, or through the mail in an election conducted amid a second surge of COVID-19 cases around the country. It was an election marked by stark polarization on the issues, a backlash against globalization, the growing influence of technology, and cultural and social struggles.

The new administration and Congress will set the nation’s economic agenda for the next two to four years. Biden’s ability to implement his economic plans will ultimately be determined by two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The issues for employers will range from taxes to business regulation. The most immediate concern for Massachusetts companies and for the Commonwealth itself is the prospect that a Biden administration could break the logjam over a new economic-recovery package as a follow-up to the CARES Act passed in March. Such a package could reopen the door to the popular Paycheck Protection Program for employers and provide financial support to the state as it seeks to close a project budget shortfall of $3 billion to $6 billion.

Biden’s ability to implement his economic plans will ultimately be determined by two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

It is also anticipated that the new administration will initiate a more aggressive federal approach to moderating the COVID-19 pandemic than that taken by the Trump administration. Federal regulations such as a mask mandate and broad health protocols will affect Massachusetts companies that do business in multiple states.

President-elect Biden has proposed raising taxes on corporations and imposing a corporate minimum book tax. He would also increase taxes on individuals with income above $400,000, including raising individual income, capital gains, and payroll taxes.

Most observers expect regulation of business to become more aggressive in areas such as occupational safety, union activity, and environmental compliance. The development of wind energy, including proposed projects just south of Martha’s Vineyard, is likely to accelerate after several years of slowdowns.

U.S. financial markets are likely to be affected. The stock market generally produces below-average returns during the first two years of a presidency and strong returns during in the second two years as investors gain confidence in the predictability and certainty of an administration.

The nation’s approach to international trade, which was marked by aggressive imposition of tariffs by the Trump administration, may also change under a Biden administration. While the president-elect has refrained from releasing any detailed policy proposals on trade, he has emphasized the importance of training the U.S. workforce for a competitive global environment, a renewed commitment to reducing trade barriers, and a coordinated approach to negotiations with China that utilizes U.S. allies and international institutions.

AIM members should be assured that the association remains committed to representing your best interests whatever direction the political winds might shift. v

 

John Regan is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

As the region pauses to celebrate Thanksgiving and start the holiday season, many are counting down the days until this most painful of years comes to a close.

For the business community especially, 2020 has been a year of never-ending challenges, more uncertainty than anyone would ever want, and decisions that only come in two varieties — difficult and really difficult. Nothing has come easy.

And while none of this will magically end when the calendar gets flipped to 2021, it will be good to put this year in our collective rear-view mirror.

As we begin our work reflecting on this year — and there will be a lot of that, even as we brace for times that could be even more difficult, if that’s possible — it is easy to focus on all the negative. And we’ve done enough of that ourselves.

But we want to take another opportunity to recognize and applaud the fighting spirit of the region’s business community and the manner in which it has responded to all that has been thrown at it with imagination and true resolve.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

And there really is a lot that has been thrown at our businesses — including draconian measures taken in the name of flattening the curve and ever-changing guidance and regulations that often make it so what you were doing last week is impossible to do this week. But, as we said, businesses have responded, and in creative, determined fashion.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

Inspired by Willy Wonka, or so we’ve been told, the promotion involves $1,000 golden tickets that enable the purchaser and a companion lifetime entrance to the Big E, along with a number of other perks.

From what we hear, the 100 tickets sold in less than two minutes once they officially went on sale.

Realistically, $100,000 is a tiny fraction of the Big E’s annual budget, and this promotion is not going to make a serious dent in the staggering losses the company has suffered this year. But it helps — in this trying year, every single dollar helps. And the golden ticket is a perfect example of how companies have had to look beyond what they’ve done, look beyond what they know — and find ways to generate revenue and keep people employed until that day when the clouds will finally break.

But it’s just one example. There are plenty of others.

We’ve seen restaurants get creative and entrepreneurial in their efforts to use outdoor dining, delivery, and curbside service to somehow keep their doors open. We’ve seen event venues and production companies make the difficult adjustment to hybrid and virtual events. We’ve seen nonprofits pivot and use these virtual events to raise money so they can continue to carry out their missions. We’ve seen manufacturers retool to one extent or another and shift to making PPE and other in-demand items. Getting back to the Big E, we’ve seen it tack and put its large indoor spaces to use as storage facilities for cars, boats, and other items.

There are countless other examples of companies taking a very bad situation and making something of it. And as the year draws to a close, we believe these stories can and must serve as inspiration for what it is to come — probably several more months of challenges and those difficult decisions.

Not that anything was ever easy, but we certainly won’t see anything approaching easy for a while yet.

Which means we’ll need to keep exercising our collective imaginations and coming up with our own golden tickets.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the past decade or so, one of the better stories to emerge in this region has been the development of the Ludlow Mills complex in Ludlow.

Acquired by Westmass Area Development Corp. in 2012, the mostly vacant set of jute mills and storage buildings has become home to an eclectic mix of businesses, and is now the site of a residential complex, a rehabilitation hospital (Encompass), and a host of small businesses that cross several sectors.

But this solid business story had been tempered somewhat by the very public, highly visible discord (there’s a diplomatic term) between Westmass and one of its more popular tenants, Iron Duke Brewing.

A disagreement over language in the lease eventually escalated into a bitter and protracted court fight, one that led to hard feelings, plans to relocate the business in Wilbraham, and a new and popular product — Eviction Notice IPA.

For a while, it looked like this court battle was going to end like so many before it — with no one really winning, despite how the ruling came down. It looked for all the world like both sides were going to be out perhaps hundreds of thousands in legal fees, Westmass would be out a good tenant, and Iron Duke would be saddled with the expense and challenge of essentially starting over in a new town and new brewery.

And then … things changed. Not overnight, but as the story on page 6 recounts, they did change.

Amid the heavy baggage from the lawsuit and the disagreement that led to it, the two sides agreed to sit down and talk. And from those talks came some progress and eventually a path to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay in its home at the mill — one of the century-old stockhouses that stored raw material — but expand within that site and perhaps own it someday.

An agreement that didn’t seem at all possible just 18 months ago.

Maybe there’s a lesson in all this — one about communication and listening and getting to understand both sides of a disagreement, on the theory that the more people know and the more people talk, the better the odds they can work out their problems.

Maybe the lesson is to try to do that before egos take over and before the lawyers get involved because, after that happens, it becomes that much harder.

We’re not sure about the lessons. We are sure that what was a good story for the region is now an even better story. Iron Duke will stay where it is, expand, and make the mill complex a better, stronger destination, one that might help attract more hospitality-related businesses like it.

Iron Duke will soon have to change its name to avoid another expensive lawsuit, this one from Duke University as it seeks to protect its brand. But that’s another story.

This story has what certainly appears to be a happy ending, after a plot twist as welcome as it was — that’s was — unlikely.

Opinion

A Chain Reaction of Impact

Back in 2007, BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty recognition program to celebrate the achievements of the region’s rising stars. A couple years later, it created Difference Makers, which recognizes individuals who are, well, making a difference in their communities. The Healthcare Heroes awards followed three years ago, recognizing high achievers in that important sector.

Clearly, we love identifying and writing about people and organizations that deserve the attention; we’re as inspired writing those stories as you (hopefully) are when you read them.

Plenty of women have been honored by all three programs — in many years, in fact, women comprise a majority of winners. So why did we launch the Women of Impact program in 2018? Is it really necessary?

In a word, yes. First of all, while there are many women of achievement in this region — and have been for a long time — not enough of them have received the recognition they are due.

But another reason, one that has become more clear over the first three cohorts of Women of Impact, is that this program spotlights ways in which honorees not only shine on their own, but help other women do the same.

In this year’s class alone, you can read about Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, who has not only personally mentored many women over the years, but cultivated a management team entirely made up of women — in an industry still dominated by men.

And Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, who has devoted her professional life to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls, and finding proactive ways to address them.

And Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, who understands how critical an affordable college education is to women, including low-income women, women of color, and working mothers, many of whom have been thrown for a loop by the pandemic and recession, and rely on HCC’s support to stay on their degree path.

The stories go on, in many cases echoing the honorees’ desire not only to succeed in life, but to make sure women following behind them have the tools they need to do the same and, in turn, inspire the next generation.

This is not the easiest time for women in the workforce. In fact, in September, about 617,000 women stopped working — about eight women for every man who dropped out, in fact — partly due to competing demands from home, especially young kids who need support with remote learning.

Even during more, well, normal times, BusinessWest has long told the stories of not only women who are helping their peers navigate challenges, but organizations like the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, and so many more who’ve made it their mission to help women succeed, now and in the future.

In short, women in this region are making an impact every day. We’re honored to be able to tell some of their stories.

 

Opinion

How to Handle Unemployment Fraud

By Chris Geehern

State officials and Massachusetts employers continue to deal with a surge of fraudulent unemployment-insurance claims generated as part of a national scheme using stolen personal information to attempt to access jobless benefits.

Criminal enterprises with access to stolen personal information from prior national data breaches have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by attempting to file large numbers of unemployment-benefit claims through the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) system.

DUA revealed in July that 58,000 fraudulent claims had been detected, preventing the loss of $158 million. At the time, the Department of Labor said it was working with the state and federal law enforcement to investigate the fraud and hired a private accounting firm to perform a forensic audit. Now, fake unemployment claims are on the rise once again as scammers appear to be targeting public employees.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) has also continued to receive reports from member companies about fraudulent unemployment claims. Companies report in some cases that employees have been unaware that a fraudulent claim has been filed in their names and are thus unable to bring the scam to the attention of their employers.

Employees and employers should work together to address the scam by reviewing a set of online identity-fraud tools developed by DUA. Meanwhile, state officials are providing guidance to employers on how each of the following situations where there is a questionable claim should be handled.

If an employer has received a ‘Confirmation of Employment’ letter, complete the form online. If the person still works for you, select ‘still employed part-time,’ even if the person is a full-time employee. If the person never worked for you, select ‘The claimant did not work for me during the time period stated.” The employer should encourage the employee to file a fraud report and follow the guidance at www.mass.gov/info-details/report-unemployment-benefits-fraud.

If an employer has received a ‘Lack of Work’ letter for an employee who either has never worked for the company or is employed by the company without any break in service for the past year, follow the same instructions as for a ‘Confirmation of Employment’ letter.

If the employer or employee is responding to a ‘Fact Finding Letter,’ complete the form as provided. Employers should inform employees who had a claim filed without their permission to visit the website noted above to report the fraudulent claim and find information and advice on other things they should do to protect their identity.

If an employer has received a ‘Monetary Determination’ with which they disagree, encourage the employee to file a fraud report and follow the guidance at the website.

If an employer is protesting a claim a result of a ‘Benefit Charge Statement’ they are in disagreement with, protests can only be filed online and not by any other mechanisms. On the online form, enter a comment saying ‘fraudulent claim’ and then provide information why you believe the claim was fraudulent (for example, the claimant still works for our company, and when we spoke to the claimant, they said they never filed a claim).

In a case where both the employer and the employee acknowledge the claim was not filed by the employee, the employer should fill in the protest form using their UI Online account, and the employee should file a fraud report and follow the guidance at the website noted above.

 

Chris Geehern is executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

 

Opinion

Editorial

You can look in any direction you choose during this pandemic and find developments that are disappointing, sad, and, in some cases, heartbreaking. It’s hard to single out specific stories from all the others.

But in the case of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise that plays in the MassMutual Center, we find a story that is particularly poignant and frustrating — one that shows just how much this crisis has taken from us.

Indeed, this team had become one of the great symbols of Springfield’s renaissance, one of the very bright lights in a city that was once quite dark, figuratively if not literally, one of the reasons why people working downtown had to pay attention to their arrival or departure time because, if they didn’t, they might get caught in a traffic jam — a somewhat annoying, but, for those rooting for Springfield, almost joyous traffic jam.

Yes, the Thunderbirds were a feel-good story, a team that was selling out the MassMutual Center on a regular basis, bringing luminaries like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and even Ric Flair to the city, and setting the bar ever higher when it came to strategies for attracting fans, creating visibility, and involving the franchise in the community.

This is a management team and ownership group that even took home BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur prize in 2018.

And now? This is a team in limbo, a franchise that doesn’t know if, when, or under what circumstances it can again play games. So much is up in the air, and almost everything is out of the control of a management team led by President Nate Costa.

In a way, the T-Birds have become a metaphor for this pandemic. In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

The team is symbolic of the pandemic’s impact on the business community in another respect — a team that did a great job building itself up, literally from scratch, will now have to rebuild. It won’t have to start from scratch, but it won’t be able to just turn the clock back to pre-pandemic days, either.

In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

It will have to work hard to get fans back, build up its presence, and, hopefully, regain everything that’s been lost over the past eight months — and counting.

In many respects, most every business in this region will have to do the same thing. Eventually, although no one knows when, the pandemic will ease, and life will start to return to normal. Companies will have to rebuild what they had and regain the customers and business lost.

And as they do that, they can look to the Thunderbirds for inspiration, a team that built itself up the right way, and will no doubt rebuild itself in similar fashion — using imagination, best practices, and a passion for continuous improvement to set and reach new goals.

What’s happened to the T-Birds is unfortunate on many levels. This team did seemingly everything right; it did everything a forward-thinking company is supposed to do to thrive in the moment and prepare for the future. But in a moment, it lost control of its fortunes and its fate — at least for the short term.

We have little doubt this team will bounce back, eventually, and be part of Springfield’s efforts to rebuild from this crisis. In five short years, it has become a symbol of excellence and perseverance. And moving forward, we hope it becomes a model for how to survive the pandemic and become even better and stronger for it.

Opinion

Opinion

The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.

But the long-term impact may be more concerning.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.

But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.

That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.

It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.

Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.

There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.

And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.

What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.

COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Back in the spring of 2017, as BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, were preparing to launch a new recognition program focused on the region’s large and critically important healthcare sector, the magazines hosted a meeting with members named to an advisory board assembled to help guide the initiative off the drawing board.

The first question asked at that session concerned the name given to the program — Healthcare Heroes. “How do you define ‘hero?’” one panel member asked.

The reply was that the magazines wouldn’t be defining ‘hero.’ That task would fall to those nominating individuals, groups, and institutions, and the judges assigned the task of evaluating those nominations. In short, the answer to that question was ‘heroism is in the eye of the beholder — and there are heroes all across the broad healthcare sector in this region.’

Never has that sentiment been truer than during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, for this year’s program, the magazines opted not to use the traditional categories that have defined this program, such as ‘Caregiver,’ ‘Emerging Leader,’ ‘Innovation in Healthcare,’ and even ‘Lifetime Achievement,’ and instead seek general nominations involving those who in some way stepped up and stood out during this pandemic, on the theory that heroes came in all kinds of categories this year.

And we were right. Nominations were submitted for both individual EMTs and the CEOs of medical centers; for manufacturing companies that shifted their production lines to make PPE and individual home healthcare providers; for entire staffs at local hospitals and specific teams at area service providers.

Everyone nominated this year is a true hero, and the judges had a very difficult time deciding which stories were truly the best. But as the accounts  reveal, these judges did a commendable job.

These stories are, in a word, inspirational, and they clearly convey both the depth of the crisis and the determined, imaginative responses to it. These stories are touching, but they are also powerful in that they reveal the kind of dedicated, creative, and, above all, compassionate individuals working within the healthcare sector in this region.

The stories are all different, but the common theme is individuals, groups, and organizations seeing needs in the midst of this generational crisis, and rising to meet them, such as:

• The staff at Holyoke Medical Center coming together under very trying circumstances to take in residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home at the height of the tragedy there;

• Three patient advocates at Berkshire Health Systems leaving their behind-the-scenes jobs to become frontline nurses at a BHS facility on the other side of the state;

• Home health aide Jennifer Graham, a junior at Bay Path University, volunteering, when few others would, to work at emergency tents set up to care for the region’s homeless population;

• Baystate Health President and CEO Mark Keroack providing needed leadership to not only his institution, but the region and state as the pandemic reached this region last spring;

• The Nutrition Department at Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc., which creating new programs and protocols to ensure that hot meals were delivered to the area seniors who need them; and

• Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, director of Spiritual Life at JGS Lifecare, who stepped into the breach and provided needed guidance and support to residents, family members, and especially the staff members providing services at the height of the crisis.

These are just some of the stories in our special section introducing the Healthcare Heroes of 2020 that will resonate, possibly generate tears, and certainly leave you proud of this region and those individuals and institutions serving it.

Opinion

Editorial 2

Amid a tumultuous presidential election, the contentious plans to fill a Supreme Court seat, and continued upheaval on the broad matter of racial equality, additional stimulus measures to help individuals and businesses weather the pandemic have seemingly been pushed to the back burner, if not off the stove.

Indeed, while there are almost weekly pronouncements of optimism that a stimulus package may soon be passed, overall, there seems to be little actual movement toward getting a deal done, even as the pandemic shows no signs of easing and the announcements of massive job cuts — the latest from the likes of Disney and several of the major airlines — continue to dominate the business news.

In our view — and in the view of untold numbers of owners of businesses both large and small — this is no time to be taking our eyes off the ball. Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures.

That’s because … well, anyone can look at a calendar and see that there’s more trouble around the corner. Fall is here, and winter is right behind it. A second wave of the virus is predicted, and some would say it is already here. And while some states are actually loosening restrictions on what businesses can open and under what circumstances, the threat of another shutdown like the one that crippled this state’s business community looms large.

Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures

The harsh reality is that many, if not most, businesses have not come close to recovering the losses they’ve sustained over the past six to seven months. We’ve interviewed business owners across virtually every sector of the economy, from printers to restaurateurs to banquet-facility operators, and many are reporting that revenues are down 60%, 70%, or even 80% or more from last year.

And, as we said, winter is coming, which means restaurants that had been holding on, or nearly holding on, with outdoor dining will have to close those areas soon. It also means all events have to move indoors, which means, essentially, there can be no events. It means businesses and individuals that are hunkering down and reducing their spending in every way possible will only ratchet up those efforts even further.

In this climate, businesses, nonprofits, and, yes, individuals will need additional support. Individuals will need stimulus checks and unemployment benefits — perhaps not the additional $600 a week that has hampered efforts to bring people back to the workforce, but some assistance. And small businesses especially will need another round of Paycheck Protection Act support. Those checks bought business owners some invaluable time during the height of the crisis, and from all indications, more time is needed.

No one knows when the pandemic will actually subside and we can return to something approaching normal. What is now clear, at least to most observers, is that this won’t happen anytime soon. This business of printing money and incurring trillions of dollars in debt to help people and businesses through the crisis is at the very least unnerving and perhaps dangerous. But now that we’ve started down this road, we have to stay on this path and do what’s needed to minimize the damage from this generational catastrophe.

 

Opinion

Editorial

Over the years, we’ve written a number of times about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring those trying to start and grow their own businesses.

This component of economic development, one that is often overlooked amid efforts to attract large businesses, open new industrial parks, and grow new business sectors like biotech, is vital because small businesses have always been the key to the growth and vitality of individual communities and regions like Western Mass.

Just as important, these small businesses — everything from restaurants to dry-cleaning establishments; from dance studios to clothing stores — help give these communities their identity and make them more livable.

And that’s why we’ve been a strong supporter of what has become a movement of sorts in this region to encourage entrepreneurship and help those who have made the decision to put their name over the door — figuratively if not, in many cases, literally. Within this movement has been the creation and development of what’s been called the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has many moving parts, from agencies that support entrepreneurs to colleges with programs in this subject, to venture-capital firms that provide the vital fuel to help businesses get to the next stage.

This ecosystem has always been important, but it’s perhaps even more important now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s because — and you know this already, but we need to remind you — a large number of small businesses are imperiled by this crisis. Their survival is not assured by any means, and as the calendar turns to fall — with winter not far behind and no relief in sight from this pandemic — uncertainty about the fate of many businesses only grows.

As the story on page 6 reveals, agencies and individuals that are part of the ecosystem have been working to help businesses navigate their way through this whitewater, be it with help securing a grant from the local chamber of commerce or a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or making a successful pivot to a different kind of service or a new twist on an old one that would help with all-important cash flow.

Meanwhile, the work of mentoring those in business or trying to get into business goes on, often with powerful results, as that same story recounts. Initiatives such as WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) creates matches that provide rewards to both parties, but especially the young (and, in some cases, not so young) women working to turn ideas into businesses and smaller businesses into larger, more established ventures.

It would have been easy to put such initiatives on the shelf for several months until the pandemic passes, but we don’t know when it’s going to pass, and the business, if we want to call it that, of supporting people like Nicole Ortiz, who recently put her food truck on the road in Holyoke, and Leah Kent, who wants to grow her business that supports writers and helps them get works published, must go on.

And it does, because, as we said, the creation and development of small businesses isn’t just one component of economic-development activity in this region; it is perhaps the most important component of all. v

Opinion

Opinion

By Dr. Armando Paez

While experts cannot predict the severity of one flu season from another, this upcoming season will be unprecedented and can pose a severe threat due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The very protection advice we have been stressing for COVID-19 — wearing a mask, frequent hand washing, social distancing — is what is going to protect many people from the flu this year. But the best protection of all is to get your flu shot each year.

Flu season usually begins in the fall around October, but doesn’t peak until December through February. It can sometimes last until May. Because there could be a possible second wave of COVID-19 coinciding with the flu, getting your flu shot this year is more important than ever before.

For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S.

Already in advance of the onset of the 2020-21 flu season, the CDC is reminding people to get vaccinated sooner than later, with October being a good time to get vaccinated. It’s important to realize it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu.

Once again, the CDC recommends all people be vaccinated against the flu, especially pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S. The CDC has stated that providers may administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine with no preference for any one vaccine over another, including the shot or nasal spray.

People who should not get the flu vaccine include children younger than 6 months and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine and any of its ingredients.

In addition to the elderly, vaccination is particularly important for younger children who are also at high risk for serious flu complications, as well as those with heart disease, and pregnant women. The most important complication that can affect both high-risk adults and children is pneumonia. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.

Also, if you have a weakened immune system after contracting COVID-19, it can leave you at risk for getting a more severe case of the flu, or vice versa.

I’m always asked by those skeptical about getting vaccinated, “can the flu shot give you the flu?” The answer is no. This year, I’m also being asked, “can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?” Unfortunately, the answer is also no, but we’re hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 early next year or sooner.

While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, the CDC noted that recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

Remember, it’s never too late to get your flu shot, preferably before flu viruses begin spreading in the community around the end of October.

Dr. Armando Paez is chief of Infectious Diseases at Baystate Medical Center.

Opinion

Editorial

Mayor Domenic Sarno is certainly confident that Springfield will rebound from all the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at it the past seven months or so.

As BusinessWest spoke with him recently, he said at least a few times that he expects the City of Homes to bounce back — and quickly — when COVID is over (whenever that is). This isn’t surprising, obviously; this is what mayors do. And he bases that optimism on the many projects currently in progress, new initiatives likely to move onto and then off the drawing board, and the considerable amount of momentum the city had created before the pandemic changed the landscape back in late winter.

We share his optimism to some degree, but the future of Springfield right now is a giant question mark. And before we go any further, we need to say that most all urban areas, even Boston and New York, are in the same boat and facing the same daunting question.

Which is … what will things look like when this is all over?

In Springfield, the hope is that things will look a whole lot like they did in mid-January. Back then, there were events happening, like Red Sox Winter Weekend. The Thunderbirds were packing them in at the MassMutual Center, while MGM was drawing decent crowds at the casino and bringing people to the city for concerts and shows, benefiting the downtown restaurants and bars. The downtown office towers weren’t full, certainly, but there were plenty of people working in the central business district — enough to support the retail and hospitality businesses in that area.

Now … none of that is happening as the city tries to hang on and fight its way through this. The question is, can Springfield turn back the clock to start of this year and essentially pick up where it left off?

Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. And a big factor in this equation is the commercial office space downtown. Right now, the larger towers are mostly quiet as companies continue to have many of their employees work remotely. And there is speculation that they will remain mostly quiet as businesses adapt to a new way of doing things and considerably downsize their space.

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to Springfield. Boston is facing the same problem, and, to a large extent, so is New York.

But having a critical mass of workers in a central business district is one of the key ingredients in any success formula for such an area. The others are having people live in that district and having them come to visit. All three are important, and without one, more pressure gets put on the other two.

There are housing projects coming together in the broad downtown area — at Court Square and at the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street, to name a couple notable efforts — with the promise of more to come. And there are strong hopes that the vibrancy seen when there were shows at MGM and Symphony Hall and hockey games at the MassMutual Center will return once the pandemic is behind us — again, whenever that is.

But will this be enough to make the downtown area — and the city as a whole — thrive and regain the momentum lost to the pandemic?

Again, perhaps — but it seems logical that the city will not simply be able to turn back the clock; instead, it will likely have to turn the clock forward and find new and intriguing uses for the office space downtown and for the commercial spaces vacated by businesses that didn’t survive COVID-19.

Seven months into the pandemic, we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we have to somehow regain. The question for Springfield — and all urban areas — is ‘what can we expect when all this over?’ And right now, no one really knows.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stacey Lennard

The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) hosts its 24th annual Source to Sea Cleanup throughout September. CRC is asking you to sign up and help spread the word about our plastic problem and the impact on our rivers. In addition to annually coordinating thousands of volunteers to clean up trash in our rivers, CRC continues to work toward solutions to the persistent problem of trash pollution. Plastic bags, bottles, and polystyrene (Styrofoam) are consistently the most-found items during the Source to Sea Cleanup, and these items never fully break down in the environment.

You can help show the problem to help solve the problem. Take a photo, video, or make art inspired by river beauty or river pollution. Get creative, use #RiverWitness, #PurgeThePlastic, and tag CRC on social media. CRC will add your images to an online mosaic photo display and video. Select images will be used to call on decision makers to enact trash solutions to keep trash out of our rivers. Show them this is important to you. Speak up for your rivers.

According to CRC, the solution to this problem is to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place. “It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options,” said Andrew Fisk, CRC’s executive director. “Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

Other solutions are to make recycling easy, effective, and widely accessible; to increase the use of effective incentives like ‘bottle bills’ for recycling aluminum, plastic, and glass containers; and to disincentivize Styrofoam, especially foam dock floats in favor of enclosed foam or non-foam dock materials that won’t send plastic chunks into rivers.

“It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options. Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

We all have a responsibility to solve this problem,” Fisk said. “We are responsible as consumers to make good choices in how we purchase and dispose of products. Manufacturers, businesses, and government are also responsible, and it’s time they do their part. By working together, we can make a real difference for our rivers. These ideas are going to take time, decades even. And we’ll keep at it as long as it takes. But our rivers need change now.”

Over the past 23 years, Source to Sea Cleanup volunteers have removed more than 1,167 tons of trash from our rivers. The Source to Sea Cleanup is a river cleanup coordinated by CRC in all four states of the 410-mile Connecticut River basin. Each fall, thousands of volunteers remove tons of trash along rivers, streams, parks, boat launches, trails, and more. Eversource, USA Waste & Recycling, and All American Waste are the lead Source to Sea Cleanup sponsors.
For more information or to register for the event, visit www.ctriver.org/cleanup.

 

Stacey Lennard is Source to Sea Cleanup coordinator for the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s face it — it’s been a long, hard year. And it’s only September.

Indeed, the pandemic has made this not only one of the most trying times almost anyone can remember, but one of the most tiring, especially when it comes to the seemingly unending barrage of bad news that began back in the dead of winter. Bright spots have been few and far between.

Which brings us to BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award. That’s the new name attached to a program started several years ago called the Continued Excellence Award. By whatever name it goes, this is an important honor, but one that often gets a little lost amid some of our other awards.

This one, sponsored this year and the past few years by Health New England, is presented to a Forty Under 40 winner who has continued to build upon their résumé professionally and perhaps within the community as well.

And this year’s class of five finalists provides a strong ray of light in a year that has been mostly dark. They are:

• Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, is also a winner of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Award. Over the past several years, she has added dealerships to the company’s portfolio and many new lines to the list of nonprofit groups and causes she and the company support, especially Driving for the Cure, which raises money to battle brain cancer.

• Mike Fenton, an attorney with Springfield-based Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin as well as a Springfield city councilor, has been a finalist for this award many times, and for good reason. He represents Ward 2, but he’s had a strong impact across the city, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, is the pure entrepreneur in this group, and a multiple winner of our awards, including Top Entrepreneur in 2016. We’ve followed his story from the very beginning, when his was a struggling brand trying to break out. Now it’s in several states, and is the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• James Leahy, has a day job — with the Massachusetts State Lottery — and a city job, as an at-large city councilor in Holyoke who just celebrated two decades in that role. But his influence extends far beyond City Hall; indeed, he’s become actively involved in a number of Holyoke institutions.

• Peter DePergola is director of Clinical Ethics at Baystate Health. In a very short time, he has become not only a regional and state leader in the emerging field of bioethics, but a national and even international leader as well, particularly as he applies his expertise to the COVID-19 crisis.

The winner of the 2020 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced on October 8 at this year’s drive-in 40 Under Forty event at Mercedes Benz Springfield. But all of these individuals are winners. And, more importantly, the region is the winner for having them working, living, and making contributions inside the 413.

Opinion

Opinion

By Suzanne Parker

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic moment provides an important opportunity to emphasize that full gender equity requires racial justice and equity as well.

While the women’s suffrage movement benefited tremendously from the leadership of black women, it did not advance or include their right to vote. In fact, it took more than a half-century later for women of color to access the ballot with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. has a long history of denying its citizens the right to vote. ​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system. Many of our most heavily debated issues — the economy, healthcare, education, and public safety — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power.

That’s why it’s so important for girls, particularly girls of color, to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through our She Votes initiative, Girls Inc. helps girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and even be inspired to run for elected office one day. Girls are innately powerful and, with the right opportunities and support, can grow up to be leaders and change agents in the world.

​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system.

Often overlooked in the pages of history, women of color have played an instrumental role in advancing civic engagement, voting rights, and social movements for centuries. From abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman to suffragettes and activists like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, black women bravely fought for the rights of women and men long before they themselves were seen as equal citizens under the law or had the right to vote. They endured racial prejudice, discrimination, and even violence to advance justice and freedom for all. As ​educator and civil rights activist ​Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote​, “to struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.”

When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — making racial discrimination in voting illegal — it marked more than a century of work by black suffragists to secure voting rights for all people, which finally would include them. To this day, however, obstacles to voting still persist for black Americans and communities of color, including voter suppression, ​photo-ID requirements, early-voting cutbacks, under-resourced polls, and inadequate funding for elections.

Young people of color face additional barriers. ​Mail-in ballots, which many young people complete (as well as first-time ​voters and people of color), have been found to be rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tougher voting rules, difficult absentee-ballot procedures, and irregular school and work schedules serve as additional obstacles to young people exercising their right to vote.

Increasing voter participation is critical for democracy. With Nov. 3 just two short months away, we must do everything we can to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have begun preparations to educate people about the health risks, make polling places as safe as possible, and also encourage voting by mail. We must also urge Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support such efforts, as the funds provided in the CARES Act fall tremendously short of what is necessary.

Millions of eligible voters, many of them women and people of color, are not active in our political decision making — and we need them to be. During this year’s centennial celebration, we remember the women who paved the way for future female voters and political leaders, and the work that remains to ensure ​all​ girls and young people grow up in an equitable and just society.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley; (413) 532-6247.

Opinion

Editorial

Eric Lesser might be on to something.

In fact, we’re pretty sure he is.

During a recent installment of BusinessTalk, the podcast produced by BusinessWest in conjunction with Living Local, Lesser — the state senator from Longmeadow and staunch advocate for high-speed rail linking Western and Eastern Mass. — was asked about that project, which has lost some of its visibility, if not its traction, in the midst of the pandemic. In short, people seemingly have other things to worry about right now.

He was asked specifically if the project might still be needed given the way the pandemic has clearly shown that people can work remotely and, thus, may not have to physically get from Western Mass. to Eastern Mass. in order to work for a company in Boston or Cambridge.

He answered first by saying the rail line might be needed now more than ever because people will — eventually — need to see one another again, albeit perhaps not as often. High-speed rail would enable them to do so in a manner that is efficient, would help take cars off the road and thus reduce congestion, and might level the playing field between east and west in this state by helping to reduce one of the boundaries to high-paying jobs in emerging fields like IT and biosciences.

But he went further, arguing that building the rail line now would not only accomplish all that, but would help move this region and the entire state out of a pandemic-induced recession that will likely be with us for years.

“The economy desperately needs this,” he said. “At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, we built 800 airports … we need to be ambitious about where we’re going, and the economy is going to need the investment, the stimulus. East-west rail would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy almost immediately from construction alone.”

He’s right, and this is the way state and federal officials need to be thinking moving forward as they go about finding ways to help individuals and businesses — and the nation as a whole — dig out of this hole created by the pandemic.

The comparisons to the Great Depression are appropriate — we are now in an economic downturn comparable to what happened 90 years ago in many ways: everything from the long lines at the unemployment office to the long lines at what were then soup kitchens and are now food pantries.

While World War II eventually ended the Great Depression, massive construction projects launched during the mid-’30s created millions of jobs that enabled families to survive those years. But those projects did much more than that. Indeed, they addressed needed infrastructure issues, vastly improved the nation’s transportation system, and paved the way for development of many western and Sun Belt states.

Projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were game changers in many different ways — especially the way they provided jobs at a time when people desperately needed them.

State and national leaders should be thinking about projects like east-west rail in the same light. Such initiatives can not only solve recognized problems, they can help lessen the already-crippling damage from this pandemic. And there are many other projects that can be undertaken, right here in this region, from repairing roads and bridges to renovating parks and bike trails.

There is a tendency among some to look at the damage from the pandemic as temporary, something that will be fixed once the virus has run its course. The accumulating evidence would seem to indicate otherwise — that it will take years to repair damage done to individual communities and a wide range of business sectors. The key to repairing this damage is jobs, not stimulus checks or even PPP money.

Lesser’s right. The high-speed rail project is more important now than it was before, and there are many projects that fit that description. The state and the nation can learn from what happened 90 years ago and make needed, prudent investments, even at a time of extreme challenge, to help all of us through this crisis.

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

Opinion

Opinion

The recent news that two small businesses located in the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — will be closing permanently due to a sharp decline in business from the pandemic provides more direct evidence of the damage being done to the business community from this crisis.

A number of small businesses have already closed over the past four and a half months, and those numbers will surely rise as the pandemic continues to keep people in their homes. Many of these closings are seemingly unavoidable — they involve businesses, such as event venues, bars, and restaurants, where people gather in large numbers indoors, something the pandemic has made all but impossible if people want to stay safe.

But some could be avoided if the residents of this area find ways to provide needed support. Many are already doing that, but these numbers need to grow if the Western Mass. business community is to avoid losing more of its valued members.

And we say valued, because that’s exactly what they are. Businesses are not simply establishments that occupy space in buildings and provide goods and services. They are part of the community, and often a big part.

They employ people. They pay taxes. They support organizations like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. Their employees often serve on boards and commissions and lend their support to local causes.

When a business closes, we lose a lot more than a place to buy shoes. When a restaurant closes, we lose more than our favorite pizza joint. When a tourist attraction shuts its doors, we lose more than a place to take the kids on a Saturday.

Supporting local businesses has always been important, but it is even more so during this crisis because so many of them are imperiled. As we have chronicled over the past several months, ventures in every sector of the economy have been rocked by this pandemic.

Indeed, companies recording sales of 60% or 70% of last year’s totals are having a good year. And most are not in that category, with declines of 70%, 80%, or even 90% over last year. Many of these businesses have been helped by assistance from the federal government in the form of PPP loans, SBA loans, and small grants from individual cities and towns. But many have exhausted those funds, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in accounting to understand that most businesses simply cannot sustain losses like this for much longer. And some have already concluded that they can’t sustain them any longer.

With each headline like the one about Serendipity and Alchemy closing, there is regret about what we’ve lost. And as mentioned earlier, we lose more than a shop that sells an item or makes good Italian food. We lose tax dollars, and we lose a piece of our community.

There are many ways to support a business even if you can’t visit it in person — from buying a gift certificate to getting takeout to buying online. And by exercising these options, we can perhaps avoid losing some of the businesses that still call Western Mass. home.

Opinion

Editorial

If you read between the lines when scanning or listening to the comments made by MGM Springfield officials in the run-up to the reopening of the facility this week, it’s easy to see that they have some real concerns about whether the restrictions they’ve been placed under will enable them to succeed.

“We’re excited to be here in this moment,” Chris Kelley, president and COO told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities. “We have significant occupancy constraints that the business will be opening with, but we approach this moment with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our guests and this community again.”

We’re not sure how much gratitude, but we are sure that these occupancy constraints and other restrictions, put in place to keep guests and employees safe, are going to present stern challenges for the casino operators.

Roughly two-thirds of the slot machines will be disabled in the name of social distancing; many table games, including roulette, craps, and poker, will be shut down; capacity in the restaurants will also be limited, again in a nod to social distancing; the bars will be closed and drinking will be limited to those playing the games that are still open; large gatherings, such as concerts and shows, are still prohibited.

Add it all up, and then add in the cost of retrofitting the casino for play in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s fair to wonder whether opening is even a sound business decision given the high overhead at such facilities. That question remains to be answered.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is whether the city and the region need this facility open for business. To that question, there is a resounding ‘yes.’

Indeed, the tourism industry has been absolutely battered by the pandemic, perhaps harder than any other sector. Hotels, restaurants, bus companies, tourist attractions, and other businesses, have been crippled by this. And the announcement that there will be no Big E this fall dealt that sector another huge blow.

We’re not sure how much reopening MGM Springfield will help those businesses — many visitors to the casino don’t make any other stops before or after they do their gambling — but any help would certainly be appreciated.

There’s also the support the casino provides to other businesses, especially its vendors. We’ve written much over the past few years about how important MGM’s business is to these vendors — from the sign makers to the dry cleaners — and the trickle-down, while limited in some respects, is very real.

And then, there’s the psychological factor. Much of Main Street in Springfield was shut down by the pandemic, from shops to restaurants to businesses in the office towers. It’s starting to come back somewhat, with outdoor restaurants on Fort Street, Worthington Street, and by One Financial Plaza, and the office towers slowly (as in SLOWLY) but surely coming back to life.

MGM is another, very important, piece of the puzzle. With the casino again welcoming guests, Springfield, the region, will seem all the more open for business after a dreadful spring.

We’re under no delusions here. Reopening MGM is not going to dramatically alter the fate of many of the businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic. But it might provide a spark — another spark to be more precise — as the region tries to fight its way out of a disaster unlike anything it’s ever seen.

MGM’s managers are certainly not thrilled with the hand they’ve dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it, show they can operate safely, and eventually build their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Opinion

Big E Cancellation a Major Blow

Going back to the early days of the pandemic, one of the overriding questions on the minds of many in this region, and especially its business community, was: will there be a Big E?

Late last month, we finally learned the answer: no.

In many ways, that verdict, arrived at after lengthy discussions between Big E organizers and officials in West Springfield, was not unexpected. Looking at the situation objectively, one had to wonder how organizers could possibly stage a fair that draws more than 100,000 people on a good day and keep not only these visitors safe, but also the workers, vendors, and area residents.

It just didn’t seem doable, even to those who really, as in really, wanted the Big E to happen.

And that’s a large constituency, especially within the business community, where many different kinds of ventures benefit greatly from the 17-day fair and the 1.5 million people drawn to it annually. That list includes hotels, restaurants, tent-rental companies, transportation outfits, food vendors, breweries, and many, many more. These businesses have already lost so much to the pandemic, and now they’ve suffered perhaps the biggest loss of all.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Indeed, the year-long (at least) challenge of surviving the pandemic just became a little sterner for all kinds of businesses within the 413.

And the community loses out as well. The Big E isn’t just an annual event, it’s a century-old tradition that has become part of the fabric of this region.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the Big E provides more evidence — not that anyone needed any — of just how cruel this pandemic has become for business owners, most of whom have worked diligently to abide by the rules and do everything they can to position themselves to survive COVID-19.

Indeed, so much of this fight to survive involves matters far out of the control of these business owners — from orders to shelter in place to the many details and deadlines (often coming without any real warning) with regard to reopening the economy, to the loss of key customers, such as the Big E and MGM Springfield, which is due to reopen soon after being closed for nearly four months.

As the stories that begin on page 6 clearly show, business owners have done whatever they can do to pivot, create new revenue streams, and simply try to weather this storm. But the pandemic keeps throwing more challenges at them, with the Big E’s cancellation being the latest.

The silence on Memorial Avenue this September will be deafening. And the blow to the region will be significant.

Opinion

Moving Beyond the Blame Game

Family members of veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home didn’t need a 174-page review by a former federal prosecutor to tell them that something went terribly wrong at that facility in March and April, leading to the deaths of 75 residents.

But the report did what it was commissioned to do — analyze the facts concerning what happened at the home and come to a conclusion as to how this tragedy was allowed to play itself out and answer what was, for a time, the most pressing question about all this: ‘who is to blame?’

Indeed, in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations at the Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature both used the phrase ‘get to the bottom of this’ (unofficially or unofficially) as the scope of the tragedy grew, as did the thirst for answers. And the report has certainly identified some people to blame.

Starting with state officials for not only giving the job of running the home to a veteran (Bennett Walsh) who had no experience leading a long-term-care facility, but then failing to provide adequate amounts of oversight to Walsh and others charged with the care of veterans. But Walsh is also singled out for triggering a series of decisions that allowed COVID-19 to race through the home, affecting residents and staff members alike.

With language that can only be described as heartbreaking, the report recounts the thoughts of one staff member after management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe: “[I] will never get those images out of my mind — what we did, what was done to those veterans … my God, where is the respect and dignity for these men?” Other staff members were quoted as saying, “all in this room will be dead by tomorrow.”

While the report is certainly a valuable document, the veterans who died, their families, and staff members who lived through this horrible tragedy want so much more than a document that chronicles what happened and assigns blame. They want and need for this catastrophe to lead to meaningful and permanent changes that will ensure that no one will ever say, ‘where is the respect and dignity for these men?’ again.

That is our hope as well, and while the governor and legislators sound sincere when they say this is their overriding concern with the regard to the Soldiers’ Home, we know from history that when stories disappear from the front pages of newspapers, the will to implement meaningful change dissipates.

We can’t allow that to happen in this case.

Changes proposed by the governor, including several not in the report, include creation of a consistent policy at Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea for the hiring of a superintendent; creating more oversight by hiring an assistant secretary within the state Department of Veterans’ Services who would serve as an executive director for the state’s two soldiers’ homes and report directly to the secretary of Veterans’ Services; expanding the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities from seven to nine and requiring that the two additions each have either a clinical or administrative background in healthcare; and, most importantly, perhaps, making immediate and long-term capital improvements to modernize residential units and furnishings to address infection control — renovations are currently underway on one floor, but a more comprehensive plan of modernization and improvements is certainly needed.

History also shows us that, following some of the worst tragedies in history — the Triangle fire in New York City, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and even the Titanic’s sinking — reviews that initially focused on laying blame eventually led to serious, and often historic, reforms.

If that can happen with the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, then perhaps those veterans who bravely served their country will not have died in vain.

Opinion

Editorial

Words and money.

That’s mostly what the business community has been throwing at the problems magnified by the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in recent weeks.

The words have come in the forms of statements from CEOs expressing outrage over what has happened and support for Black Lives Matter. And they’ve come from everywhere, including many companies in this region. Some went public, others were kept internal, but they all struck the same general tones.

The money? It has come in the form of pledges made by corporations to fight racism and increase black wealth, and there have been many of them — from Bank of America, Walmart, Bain Capital, and myriad others.

While the words and monetary donations are welcome, the corporate world, and we’ll include nonprofits in this, needs to do more — much more. It needs to take steps that are sustainable and, well, institutional, to generate the kind of real change this critical moment in time demands.

Businesses large and small need to take the inititiative to not only understand systemic racism and the many forms it takes — that’s the key first step, because so many still do not understand it — but then take steps to address it with changes that become embedded in these companies’ cultures.

As the story on page 6 reveals, there are some signs that this might happen. Signs such as phone calls and e-mails to the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), a 501(c)(3) created several years ago after several area leaders were inspired by what they heard while on a City2City trip to Grand Rapids, Mich. What they saw was a city making slow but steady progress in efforts to understand and combat racism by bringing diverse audiences together in a room and talking about an issue that so few want to talk about.

Through these discussions, individuals and groups come to better understand that racism is real, it is systemic, and it needs to be addressed.

In recent years, HRIPV has hosted more than 800 people for its signature two-day session, which, overall, strives to help attendees understand there is only one human race.

Many of the phone calls and e-mails mentioned earlier involve individuals, groups, businesses, and nonprofits that have attended one of these sessions and want to know, essentially, what more they can do to address this age-old problem.

And as Vanessa Otero, the interim director of HRIPV, told BusinessWest, the ‘what’s next’ involves helping businesses and institutions move beyond acknowledging and comprehending racism to a point where they become anti-racist.

To help them get there, the institute is working to formalize and institutionalize a broader roster of services that include half- and full-day training sessions for board and staffs, onboarding services for companies to help ensure that new hires are ready to engage with an anti-racism work environment, and policies and procedures audits, designed to identify blind spots that disproportionately have an adverse effect on people of color.

We hope the institute builds the infrastructure needed to build and sustain these programs and that area companies and nonprofits embrace them. In the meantime, these same businesses and agencies need to take a hard look at their policies and practices, as well as the makeup of their boards and workforces, with an eye toward creating not only diversity, but equal opportunity.

Many have taken some positive steps in these directions in recent years, and to their own benefit, but much work remains to be done.

In short, while the words in statements and press releases and the checks with several zeroes on them are welcome and often helpful, this moment in time — and that’s exactly what it is — cries out for more.

Opinion

Opinion

A quick look around downtown Springfield and other area communities would reveal that the economy, which had been in a kind of deep freeze for the better part of three months, is showing signs of coming back to life.

Let’s start with the tents. Indeed, they’re an interesting symbol of how the restaurant industry is emerging from a state-forced hibernation of sorts that saw them relegated to takeout service only. Such tents are now to be found in a number of parking lots, alleyways, and even closed streets as restaurants try to claw back with outdoor dining.

Perhaps the most visible sign of all this is Fort Street in downtown Springfield, where the owners of the iconic Student Prince restaurant have placed several tents and created an atmosphere that not only speaks of Europe — where outdoor dining is far more commonplace — but prompts one to wonder why it took a pandemic to create something like this. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that will be in place until the fall, and could become a yearly addition to the downtown landscape. Let’s hope it does.

And there are other signs of life as well, including the pending reopening of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, and other attractions. Tourism has become a huge part of this region’s economy, and this economic engine, if you will, won’t be firing on anything approaching all its cylinders until this sector roars back to life.

And that’s the sobering news amid the positive signs we’ve seen lately. Indeed, while these businesses are reopening, they are not roaring back — yet, anyway. As the story on page 10 reveals, hotels and tourist attractions have had a miserable spring, and the summer is dominated by question marks about whether the tourists will come back, and how many of them.

There is optimism that concern about traveling in anything but an automobile will spark a surge of interest in so-called staycations that might benefit the region and its many tourist attractions. The theory goes that, instead of traveling across the country or to other countries — or even Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, for that matter — residents of this state and neighboring states might take in the attractions of Western Mass.

We have to hope some of this happens.

But matters are complicated by several factors, starting with the MGM casino and the many restrictions likely to be placed upon it. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still discussing a number of guidelines, but at the moment, craps, poker, and roulette will not be allowed, and overall capacity might be set at perhaps 25% of previous levels. These restrictions will make it difficult for MGM to operate in anything approaching a profitable manner, and they will also limit the number of visitors who might come to the casino and then take in more of the region.

Then there’s the matter of the Big E. Huge questions surround what the 2020 fair might look like and whether there will even be a 2020 fair. No Big E, or even a much smaller Big E, would be a huge blow to the hospitality industry that depends on it.

So, while there are some signs of life in the region when it comes to the economy and tourism, we still have a long way to go. v

Opinion

PPP: The Feds Need to Do More

As you read the accounts of individual companies grappling with the pandemic in the June 8 issue of BusinessWest — we call them ‘COVID Stories’ — a number of themes and similarities emerge.

The first is that virtually every business in every sector of the economy was hit, and hit extremely hard by this. We talked with people in healthcare, service, tourism and hospitality, the sector known as ‘large events,’ marketing, retail, and more, and all of them said the same thing — that the floor was virtually taken out from under them back in mid-March.

Another theme is that businesses have responded with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new products to develop, new ways to do things, and new opportunities wherever they arise.

Still another theme is that these new revenue streams and opportunities haven’t produced results that come anything close to what these companies were doing before the pandemic, a time that now seems like years ago, but was really only three short months ago.

Which brings us to one more common thread among the stories presented this month in a series that will continue into the summer — the fact that these companies needed help, received it, and will very likely need more help if they are going to fully rebound from this crisis.

Indeed, most all the companies we spoke with received support in the form of loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, an acronym now very much part of the current business landscape.

“Most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’”

Some struggled to get it and waited nervously for the money to land in their accounts. Others haven’t really touched it yet and don’t know exactly what to do with it because they can’t bring their people back to work because there is, as yet, no work to do.

The program isn’t perfect, and there are some bugs to be worked out, but overall, this measure has done exactly what it was designed to do — provide a lifeline to businesses that desperately need one. PPP has enabled companies to meet that most basic of obligations — meeting payroll — at a time when so many would not have been able to do so.

But as these stories make painfully clear, most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’

What should happen is the government offering another round of support to companies that can demonstrate real need — and, again, that’s most of them. The recovery is not going to be V-shaped or even U-shaped. It may be several months before there is, in fact, real recovery.

And the federal government has an obligation to help businesses get to that point. When the PPP was first conceptualized, the thinking was (we presume) that, in eight weeks, the worst would be over and things would start to return to normal. It’s still early in the game, but mounting evidence suggests that is not the case.

‘Normal’ is still a long-term goal, and it’s clear that companies will need additional support to be able to keep paying people and staying upright until better days arrive.

As one business owner we talked with said, and we’re paraphrasing here — ‘the government caused this problem by ordering a shutdown … so now, they own the problem.’ He’s right.

Already, there are far more ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs on properties across the region than there were three months ago. A number of businesses, many of them in the broad realm of hospitality and tourism, have already failed. Many more will fail in the months to come if they don’t get the support they need — not only from local consumers, but from the federal government itself.

PPP isn’t perfect, but it works. And we’ll likely need at least one more round of it to enable businesses to survive this pandemic.

Opinion

Riots Reflect Deeper Issue of Racism

Editor’s Note: In the wake of recent incidents in Minneapolis and other communities, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO Roger Crandall issued the following letter to employees.

In response to the racist acts that have come to light over the past several weeks, I wanted to directly address the deep frustration, anger, and sadness weighing heavily on all of us, especially the African-American and black community. The tragic and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the delays in bringing justice against those responsible, as well as the ugly confrontation in Central Park, have been vivid reminders of the prejudice and bigotry that continue to exist in our country.

Importantly, while we mourn for each of these victims, our hearts ache for many others previously killed under similar circumstances, including those whose names we don’t know, simply because there was no video or witness. These losses of human lives are staggering, unjust, and incomprehensible — and are taking a painful, emotional toll on our country.

The violence and riots of the past weekend are symptoms of the deeper issues of racism, inequality, and hopelessness that continue to exist in America today, and reflect the expressions of a community that feels its voice is not being heard. These issues have shaped everything from where people live to the healthcare they receive, to their access to education, to their treatment by the justice system. We see the results of this today during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people of color have shouldered a far greater impact, with the African-American and black community accounting for a higher proportion of deaths compared to other racial groups.

This is a vast, systemic problem, and I wish I was writing to you today with a crisp, detailed plan for how we will fix it. I don’t have this plan, and frankly no one does. But I can tell you instead what MassMutual is doing and what is on my mind.

First and foremost, I want to voice my — and the executive leadership team’s — support for our colleagues in the African-American and black community. Your voices, perspectives, and feelings matter to us. While I can’t begin to understand the full extent of your pain and hurt — how fear and discrimination are part of your everyday activities, or how you may worry as a parent when your child goes for a jog or enters a store — I want you to know we firmly stand with you as allies and advocates. Each of us can make a difference simply by asking how others are doing and spending time listening to their experiences, fears, and concerns, so we can learn more about what we can do as allies to take meaningful action and offer our support.

Secondly, at the heart of who we are and who we have been since our founding nearly 170 years ago is a company of people helping people. I want to reiterate that MassMutual’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is non-negotiable, and part of our core values and our promise to Live Mutual to make our world better. We will honor the memories of the victims of these senseless acts by influencing real change, and we are working with a cross-functional team, including representatives from our Passages Business Resource Group, to identify the best way to engage and act as an organization to advance how we address these complex issues.

Most immediately, Passages hosted a ‘Brave Space’ discussion recently to talk about these recent events and consider ways we can work together to build a sustainable, lasting effort to fight inequality and recognize and value the differences among us. While outside our walls, we are also actively working to unify business leaders to use our collective voices to drive change in our communities and workplaces.

In the meantime, I promise you this: MassMutual will stand with the victims of racism and hate crimes of any kind, with the people fighting oppression, and with everyone seeking to turn their sadness at recent events into actions that will build a better world. This is not the country I want to leave to my children and grandchildren. We can — and must — do better.

Opinion

Editorial

If you watched Gov. Charlie Baker at his highly anticipated press conference to announce the state’s reopening plan last week, you may have been very disappointed.

The governor said he is trying to create a balance between keeping people safe and attempting to resurrect an economy that was seen by many as being one of the strongest in the country — although not anymore, thanks in part to the governor.

If balance is the goal, this plan — if we can really call it a plan — falls way short. It doesn’t move quickly or profoundly enough, and it leaves far too many of the small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy without any real chance to weather this storm.

In short, Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside (if they can); a situation where a yoga school with eight students is put in the same category as a Planet Fitness with thousands of members.

As most everyone knows by now, the Baker administration’s reopening plan has four phases — named ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal.’ On May 18, a day every business owner had circled on his or her calendar, the governor gave some details on phase 1. Manufacturing and construction could restart immediately, with restrictions, as could places of worship, while hospitals and community health centers can now provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions. On May 25, laboratory and life-sciences facilities can open; offices can reopen, except in Boston; and recreational-marijuana shops can reopen, as can salons, barber shops, and pet groomers. Retail facilities can open for remote fulfillment and curbside pickup.

Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside.

But there are no details on phase 2, which includes restaurants and lodging, some healthcare facilities, and playgrounds and pools, or phase 3, which includes bars, casinos, gyms, and museums. All that’s known is that each phase will last at least three weeks and could be extended before moving on to the next stage, depending on factors like COVID rates, testing, and healthcare-system readiness.

For small businesses, this slow, plodding pace and lack of details makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan and — more importantly — stay alive. The governor’s plan is anything but a plan, and it will spell the demise of many small businesses.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, put things in perspective when he told BusinessWest, “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 those protocols. They’ll need to plan, order 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.”

The reopening panel could have recognized the needs of small businesses and implemented common-sense protocols to allow them to open. Instead, it chose not to. Clearly, there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for just how endangered our state’s small businesses are, or what will become of our cities and towns if they are allowed to die on the vine.

These businesses need more than a belated plan with cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) named stages. They need a common-sense blueprint for effectively reopening an economy that’s been shut down for two tortuously long months.

The governor’s ‘plan’ is anything but that.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mary Flahive-Dickson

Seemingly, there is very little time for reflection these days. As we move from one news report, one Zoom meeting, one emergency to another, it is not lost on us that this is now our norm; life has changed. Restlessness is nationwide. Our communities are apprehensive at best, and our seniors are even more isolated now than any other historical time.

Social isolation, while defined as a lack of relationships and meaningful contact with society, needs to be further contemplated and gauged in our elder population as COVID-19 continues to force us to shelter in place, while begging for social and physical distance.

Caregivers, as catechized members of the front line, are being asked to rise to the challenge of defense against physical and social isolation of seniors.

Our elders are seemingly the target of so many evil pathogens and infections as their immunologic response has slowed and their physicality is compromised. Add life-changing risk factors such as retirement, death of loved ones, and the global nature of our society to the geriatric mix, and oftentimes the result assumes the form of social and physical isolation and loneliness.

Isolated and lonely seniors are at an increased risk for additional physical and emotional health conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and cognitive decline. With the loss of a sense of connectivity to the outside world and specifically their community, our elders run the risk of a decrease in wellness and a general decline in health.

Additionally, and especially in the current COVID-19 theatre, physical and emotional needs such as activities of daily living (ADL), companionship, and personal care may not be satisfied or executed. This situation is yet another nail in the proverbial coffin of enabling an immunologic response to infections, therefore rendering individuals less able to fight off disease, while increasing their risk of mortality.

Conversely, elders who engage with society, continue to be active and cognitively stimulated, have conversations, and have their ADLs satiated oftentimes experience increased positive influential health opportunities and many times are able to maintain the state of wellness longer.

Our role as caregivers is to facilitate an improvement or at least a maintenance of independence, health, and well-being of our elders. By providing for and assisting them with activities of daily living, promoting self-care, and reinforcing social support and a sense of community, caregivers continue to promote and disseminate multiple dimensions of physical and emotional health and wellness among this population.

As society continues to seesaw under the cloud of COVID-19, the senior population is not exempt from partaking in groups, programs, and activities which can help in thwarting physical and social isolation and loneliness. In fact, for the seniors, it is just the opposite. No populace has seen a furthering of isolation more than the seniors.

And, with home care widely accepted as a significant player in promotion of health and wellness, staving off mortality and reduction of admissions to institutional care such as hospitals and skilled-nursing facilities, caregivers’ roles should be touted as the front-line essential necessity they have always been, albeit unpronounced.

Mary Flahive-Dickson is chief operating officer for Golden Years Home Care Services.

Opinion

Reflection

By Darby O’Brien

Darby O'Brien

Darby O’Brien

It was 40 years ago — May 1, 1980 — that I started Darby O’Brien Advertising out of a side porch in Holyoke. Charlie Keenan worked with me on copy and concept and Carolyn Harrington handled the books. We outsourced design to Susan Fentin and Kerry Gavin from Brooklyn.

It all started with three clients: A.O. White Clothiers, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, and the Mt. Tom Ski Area.

The staff of three worked at one desk — a cheapo folding table with a tacky vinyl top. The first call we got was from Eddie Fauteaux from A.O. White and the folding table collapsed. Good start.

The inspiration for me to start a business was my great-great grandfather, Daniel O’Connell, who came over from Ireland and started a construction company. All I ever wanted was to build ads as good as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons built buildings, roads and bridges. My father was vice president of that company. 

My father also co-signed the loan from Security National Bank that helped me move the agency out of the side porch and put in a couple real desks. What a risk that was for him, considering it took me five schools and six years to get out of high school. I used to tell my dad, “The longer I go, the smarter I get.”

Al White, the owner of A.O. White, was on the board of the bank and when Wally Burnett, the president of Security National, called for a reference, Al said, “I’d bet my last buck on him.”

 We moved into Baystate West a month later. 

We spent a decade-plus in downtown Springfield. First in Baystate West and then in the historic Stacy Building, where they built the first American gasoline-powered car and where one of our clients, Taylor Street Dental, operates today. 

We had a good run in Springfield. Had a lot of lunches at the Fort and met many great people who became longtime clients and friends, including Brian Trelease, Denis Gagnon and many more. In 1991, we moved to the Village Commons in South Hadley where I designed the playhouse office, met Bill Ochoa, and began another series of adventures.

Just like Daniel O’Connell’s — and one of our best and longest-running clients, Excel Dryer — I’ve been lucky to have the next generation join the business. Joe and Gainer. That’s the best thing that’s happened over 40 years. When I’m gone, they’ll probably sink it. But what the hell.

 A couple of things said about the agency have stuck with me. Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, said, “Nobody will fight harder for a client than those guys.” And Peter Picknelly, president of Peter Pan, said, “They do different good.” 

We’ve always gone over big with guys named Peter.

Hey, it’s always been about the creative. And I’ve always said about the ideas, “They’ll never buy it, but let’s do it anyway.”

It’s a strange time to be celebrating anything right now, but things have always been a little strange with this agency. It’s been a wild ride. But like I’ve been saying from the start, keep your dukes up.

Darby O’Brien is founder and president of Darby O’Brien Advertising.

Opinion

Editorial

“Free money.”

That’s the phrase one of the region’s bank presidents used in a recent interview with BusinessWest to describe funds contained within the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) being administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

He’s not entirely accurate with that choice of words — these loans are forgivable only if the companies receiving them keep everyone on the payroll for the prescribed period. But ‘free money’ is essentially what this is, if those requirements are met.

And the lure of free money is obviously quite strong, because interest in this program is off the charts. And as news starts to leak out about some of the large, national companies that are receiving this free money, it’s clear to us, and most everyone else, that some of it — and, unfortunately, a large portion of it — is not going to the desperate small businesses that need it most.

Hedge funds, national restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and J. Alexander’s, and a host of other large, public companies have all received several million dollars from the $369 billion fund, which was totally depleted less than two weeks after the program was officially launched. Meanwhile, Harvard University, with its $40 billion endowment, received nearly $9 million in aid from the federal government through the CARES Act — specifically, a $14 billion fund to support higher-education institutions during the pandemic. More ‘free money.’

Actually, Harvard received less than some other either Ivy League schools — Columbia and Cornell each got almost $13 million.

Whatever those numbers are, they represent poor allocation of money that is desperately needed to keep smaller businesses afloat during these ultra-challenging times. Harvard could certainly use $9 million, but it doesn’t need $9 million — not nearly as much as hundreds of struggling small colleges across the country do.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House could certainly use the $20 million it received, but it doesn’t need it to survive like the myriad small restaurants pushed to the brink of collapse need it.

Before we go any further, we’ll acknowledge that big companies have just as much right to apply for, and receive, stimulus money as the small ones do. They’re not breaking any laws by doing so. And we understand that a job saved is a job saved, whether that job was provided by a national taco chain or the corner pizza joint.

But the reality is, with a great many small businesses across this country, when it comes to the pandemic, we’re not talking about a bad quarter or a bad year — we’re talking about survival.

And while it wasn’t written into the legislation that created the Paycheck Protection Program and other forms of relief, enabling threatened companies to survive was, or should have been, the intent.

Moving forward, it should be. Many more relief measures will be passed in the months to come, and with these, Congress should be more diligent about who is eligible and who is actually awarded funds.

Meanwhile, we encourage those larger businesses to follow the lead of Shake Shack, the giant chain that was awarded PPP money and then gave it back amid the outcry from smaller businesses left high and dry.

“As we watched this opportunity play out over the weeks, it was very clear that the program was underfunded and wasn’t set up for everyone to win,” Shake Shack CEO and Chairman Danny Meyer said of his decision. “By returning our $10 million, that $10 million can go back into the pot and go to the people that deserve it.”

He’s right about that, and by ‘deserve,’ he means the hardworking small-business owners who simply don’t have the resources to weather this storm.

These are the people who deserve this ‘free money,’ and we’re hoping that, from this point forward, more of them wind up getting it.

Opinion

Opinion

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?

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.

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.

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.

Opinion

Editorial

Those in this region who have been in business a long time — and even those who have had their name over the door since the start of this century — have seen and endured quite a bit.

Indeed, over just the past 20 years or so, there’s a been the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the resulting downturn in the economy, followed by 9/11, soon after which the phrase heard most often in businesses across every sector was ‘the phones just stopped ringing.’ Later, of course, there was the Great Recession, when the phones again stopped ringing, as well as — all within a few months — a tornado, a hurricane, that snowstorm on Halloween, and the resulting power outages. There’s also been a workforce crisis, a skills gap, the arrival of the Millennials (who get blamed for everything), family medical leave, and who knows what else.

Like we said, businesses have been through a lot.

But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.

Look at what’s happening. Colleges are telling students not to come back from spring break while they figure out how to handle all classes remotely. Communities and organizations are canceling events like the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade and postponing others to future dates, hoping matters will improve. States are declaring emergencies, and people are being advised to avoid large gatherings. The stock market is in ‘bear’ territory.

Communities haven’t taken steps like this World War II, if they even took them then. Or since 1919, when the Spanish Influenza pandemic raced around the globe, killing millions.

The worst thing about all this, as we said, is that people can’t rely on experience, because there is simply none to fall back on. This isn’t like a recession or a tornado or a terrorist attack in New York.

“… businesses have been through a lot. But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.”

They still ran the St. Patrick’s Day Parade during the Great Recession. The region’s colleges stayed open after 9/11. No one cancelled meetings and conventions following the tornado in 2011.

This is different. Very, very different.

So what do we do when we can’t call on experience?

We rely on common sense, our strengths, and our ability to innovate. In short, this is what has seen us through all of those downturns and natural disasters mentioned above.

And by innovation, we mean our capacity to look at what we do and how we do it, and find new and perhaps better ways. And if we can do that, we’re not simply hunkering down, waiting things out, or trying to survive; we’re making ourselves stronger and more resilient.

Looking back on 2008 and 2009, as companies coped with the worst downturn in 80 years, many found ways to better maximize resources, and especially people, while also creating new avenues for revenue and growth. Those challenging days provided a stern test, and the businesses that passed it certainly reaped the benefits of their perseverance and resourcefulness by becoming more resilient overall.

In short, they learned something, and they benefited from what they learned.

Coronavirus will likely present another stern test, and it will require a similar response — creativity and innovation.

And it will require something else as well — a firm understanding that small businesses (and large ones as well) are being severely impacted by this and need any form of support you can give them. From pizza shops, coffee shops, restaurants, and taverns losing the business of college students who won’t be returning, to banquet facilities losing scores of events scheduled for the coming weeks; from Holyoke shops that won’t get that huge parade bounce to travel-related businesses seeing cruises and flights canceled — businesses are hurting. And they’ll need help to get through this.

That’s what we mean by uncharted territory.

Opinion

Opinion

By Paul Caron

If you Google ‘health insurance profits,’ it’s clear the industry is doing very well in the U.S. According to one article, the five largest insurers — Anthem, Cigna, CVS Health, Humana, and UnitedHealth Group — cumulatively expect to collect almost $787 billion in 2019.

A share of Anthem’s stock is more than double what it was just five years ago. Cigna’s stock price has not quite doubled in the last five years, but it is close. Humana stock has also doubled in five years, and UnitedHealth Group’s is worth about three times as much in that same time frame. Only poor CVS is down — but you get the picture: it’s good to be in the health-insurance industry.

The primary reason health insurers are doing so well is due to Obamacare, which mandated people in this country get health insurance. In some ways, the health insurers are no different than the gas or electric companies — they are monopolies, and you have to pay them. The federal government has been very good to that industry, and it’s about to happen again.

Legislation in Congress to end surprise billing, is going to put billions in the pockets of health insurers. Now, surprise billing is a terrible problem. In case you don’t know, you get a surprise bill when you go to a hospital that is in your network, but the doctors you see are not. This typically happens in emergency situations, because many hospital emergency rooms are separate entities from the hospital and are not covered by the same insurance plans. Surprise bills in the six figures aren’t uncommon.

In some ways, the health insurers are no different than the gas or electric companies — they are monopolies, and you have to pay them.

This legislation, sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and essentially replicated in the Democrat-chaired House Energy and Commerce and Education committees, is problematic regardless of its good intentions. These bills purport to end the practice by putting the onus on ER doctors and other emergency services to either cut their prices or allow insurance companies to reimburse them at the local median cost. These bills require a negotiation between insurers and emergency-services providers, but it’s not a negotiation if one side knows a federal law will allow them to pay less if they can’t reach agreement.

Another wonderful gift for the health insurers from Uncle Sam.

The problem for the American people, and workers, is that many emergency services are going to suffer or be pared back, in order to ensure that health-insurance companies remain grossly profitable. If this legislation becomes law, services like air ambulances will be crushed. If you live in a rural area, it’s hard to see how emergency helicopters will continue to service remote areas if this legislation becomes law.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in six emergency-room visits in 2017 was out of network, which substantially increases the cost of care. This situation cannot persist.

But it just doesn’t seem fair that health insurers, again, get to walk away unscathed, while hospitals, emergency-services providers, patients, and the American taxpayer will be left paying more to ensure that healthcare is accessible.

Paul Caron served as a Massachusetts state representative from 1983 to 2003.