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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 18: Aug. 12, 2020

Thom Interviews Paul Silva & Kelly Minton of Innovation Accelerator

Innovation Accelerator teaches nonprofits how to develop, test, and deploy new mission-aligned, revenue-generating programs. Co-founders Paul Silva and Kelly Minton join Thom Fox to discuss how they are helping Western Massachusetts nonprofits identify unrestrictive revenue streams to offset funding challenges brough about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 17: Aug. 10, 2020

George Interview Senator Eric Lesser

George interviews Senator Eric Lesser and they discuss, in detail, the ENDURE Act, which authorizes $455 million to provide relief to communities and stimulate economic development in an effort to combat devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Features Special Coverage

Mission: Accepted

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito admits he’s struggling somewhat with Zoom and conference calls — not the technology, but the nature of those forms of communication.

He’s a people person, and he likes meeting them face to face — and not on screen or over the phone.

“I enjoy going to events and networking — that’s how I meet people,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any opportunities like that since he’s arrived, and he’s looking to the day when they return. “Zoom is OK, and I’m getting good at it, but it’s not the same.”

But it is reality in the summer of 2020, and this is how Belsito, chosen late this spring to fill the rather large shoes of Mary Walachy as executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, has been going about what will remain his primary assignment for the foreseeable future.

And that is to ‘meet’ as many people as possible and come to fully understand the many issues and challenges facing the Western Mass. community.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid,” he explained, adding that, since arriving in early June, he’s been doing a lot of listening, with the intention of acting — and collaborating with others — on what he’s hearing.

It’s an assignment he accepts with considerable enthusiasm, and one to which he brings an intriguing background, blending work in financial services, government (he was district director for state Sen. Edward Augustus), higher education (he was executive assistant to the president at Assumption College in Worcester, his alma mater), and philanthropy; most recently he served as president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation in Worcester and assistant vice president for Community Relations.

And he intends to draw on all that experience in a role that involves everything from community outreach to regional problem solving, but mostly comes down to what Belsito calls “impact philanthropy.”

“A lot of my work has been grounded in community work,” he said, using that phrase to describe many of his career stops. “Getting involved and influencing has always been part of my DNA, and it’s generational in many ways — my family was very involved in the community in Worcester.”

This devotion to community work, as well as an opportunity to continue and build on Davis Foundation initiatives in literacy, early-childhood education, improving the Springfield Public Schools, and other endeavors, drew him to the Davis Foundation, created by George Davis, founder of American Saw & Manufacturing, and his wife Irene, and the opportunity to succeed Walachy, whose work he has admired from Worcester.

“The work that Davis has done in literacy and specifically early education is well-known throughout the Commonwealth,” he noted. “I had known them from that lens of an active member in a peer community trying to work on the same issues; Mary is a household name in the early-education space throughout the Commonwealth, and her name is often brought up as someone to model in her guidance on how to pull these programs together.”

Coming to Springfield from Worcester, Belsito said there are many similarities between the state’s second- and third-largest cities (with Worcester being the former), and common challenges. These include everything from education to economic development and job creation. But they are different and unique communities with their own “personalities,” as he called them.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid.”

“Worcester and Springfield are not the same, although they do have similar traits,” he noted. “It’s my job to listen and maybe take some of my experiences from Worcester and share those with folks in Springfield. Maybe one in 20 will catch and improve the lives of children and families.”

Meanwhile, recent events have brought other priorities to the fore, including the plight of the region’s nonprofits, many of which have been severely impacted by the pandemic from the standpoints of revenue and sustainability, and the broad issue of racial justice, which the foundation has helped address through creation of the Healing Racism Institute, now a separate 501(c)(3), but still very much affiliated with the Davis Foundation.

Educare Springfield

Paul Belsito says his primary goal is to build on the foundation created by the Davis Foundation with initiatives such as Educare Springfield, a unique early-education facility that opened its doors last fall.

And these emerging issues are dominating many of those discussions he’s been having as he goes about listening and building relationships.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Belsito about his new role, but especially about the challenges facing Springfield, the region, and its large core of nonprofits — all of which have looked to the Davis Foundation over the years for not simply financial support, but also direction and leadership.

Moving forward, he said the foundation will be continuing in those roles and constantly looking for new ways in which to make an impact and move the needle.

Background: Check

Tracing the steps that brought him to the Davis Foundation’s suite of offices in Monarch Place, Belsito said his professional career started at Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester, where he served as a trust administrator, working with families to help manage their assets and trusts.

While in that role, he started doing volunteer work within the community, and before long, his career aspirations changed.

“All of a sudden, everything flipped, and the volunteer work became a career,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in 2005, he started working for Augustus, now the city manager in Worcester. After a stint as a private consultant, he became executive assistant to the president at Assumption, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the work he did at the State House.

“I worked for a state senator who was very driven by policy, not politics,” he explained. “His mindset was, while we were in that building, how could we improve the lives of people not only in that district, but across the Commonwealth? The policy piece was very important to me, and it carried over to the higher-education piece.”

From Assumption, he went to Hanover Insurance, which, like MassMutual in this market, has historically been deeply involved in the community, often serving as a “catalyst for change,” as he put it.

He started in community relations and eventually became president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation.

“As we began to pivot on how to not only make the company a world-class company but also the city in which it was headquartered, I did a lot of work with the Worcester Public Schools, with the Hanover Theater, and various organizations within the community that really helped to round out the experience for children and families so that they would be successful out in the community,” he said, noting that perhaps the most significant initiative launched by the Hanover Foundation is the Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) college-readiness program in the Worcester Public Schools.

“It was an honor to work for a company that was so committed to impact philanthropy,” he went on, “which is trying to move the needle and have outcomes and data that support the investment that you’re making.”

Slicing through his job description at Davis, he said it’s to generate this type of needle-moving philanthropy — or more of it, because the foundation has been involved in a number of potentially game-changing initiatives, including Cherish Every Child, a nationally recognized Reading Success by 4th Grade program, the advocacy group Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and, most recently, the effort to establish the innovative Educare Springfield early-education center, which opened last fall near the campus of Springfield College.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work. They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.”

The desire to continue such initiatives and create more of them brought Belsito to Springfield (via Zoom) to interview for the Davis job, a job posting that came about as he was looking for a new challenge after spending a short stint working for the city of Worcester on its COVID-19 response.

“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success program what would work best for our community.”

Forward Thinking

Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.

But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work,” he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.

“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,” he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will consistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspectives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”

Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.

“Many nonprofits are in a vulnerable state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacerbated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to provide the services they need.

“Even from the start of my interview process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its repercussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”

What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.

And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listening to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.

“I’m a believer that, when you pull people together, there’s usually a solution that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.

‘Meeting’ the Challenge

Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual methods for meeting and getting to know people.

It’s not as he would want it, but it is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.

Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.

He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring.

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Step Inside

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Step at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

Dave DiRico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Cohen

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

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

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

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

Warning Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

By All Accounts

By Jim Moran CPA, MST

Jim Moran CPA, MST

Jim Moran CPA, MST

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has provided taxpayers affected by COVID-19 with some relief in the area of retirement-plan distributions and loans.

A coronavirus-related distribution is allowed by a qualified individual from an eligible retirement plan made from Jan. 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020, up to an aggregate amount of $100,000. A qualified individual must meet one of these criteria:

• Diagnosed with the virus SARS-CoV-2 or with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) by a test approved by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);

• Spouse or dependent is diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 by a test approved by the CDC;

• Experienced adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed, laid off, having work hours reduced, or being unable to work due to lack of childcare due to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19; or

• Experienced adverse financial consequences as a result of closing or reducing hours of a business that is owned or operated by the individual due to the SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19.

An ‘eligible retirement plan’ is defined as the type of plan that is eligible to accept tax-free rollovers. It includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, governmental 457 plans, and IRAs (including SEP-IRAs and SIMPLE-IRAs). It does not include non-governmental 457(b) plans. The $100,000 withdrawal limit applies in aggregate to all plans maintained by the taxpayers.

For individuals who are under age 59½, the act waives the 10% early-withdrawal penalty tax. Although the 10% penalty will be waived, any potential income taxes associated with the retirement plan or IRA withdrawal will still be assessed. The act also suspends the 20% tax-withholding requirements that may apply to an early distribution from a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan.

“Your tax liability owed to the IRS at the end of the year may be higher than expected if you choose not to withhold the suggested 20%.”

Just keep in mind, your tax liability owed to the IRS at the end of the year may be higher than expected if you choose not to withhold the suggested 20%.

When it comes to paying the resulting tax liability incurred due to the coronavirus-related distributions, the CARES Act allows you a couple of options: spread the taxes owed over three years, or pay the taxes owed on your 2020 tax return if your income (and, thus, your tax rate) is much lower in that year.

Taxpayers may also repay the coronavirus-related distributions to an eligible retirement plan as long as the repayment is done within three years after the date the distribution was received. If the taxpayer does repay the coronavirus-related distribution in the three-year time period, it will be treated as a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer so there will be no federal tax on the distribution. This may mean an amended return will have to be filed to claim a refund attributable to the tax that was paid on the distribution amount that was included in income for those tax years.

Retirement-plan Loans

Loans from eligible retirement plans up to $100,000 to a qualified individual are available for any loans taken out during the six-month period from March 27, 2020 to Sept. 23, 2020. This is up from the previously allowed amount of $50,000.

Participants must repay standard retirement-account loans within five years. The CARES Act allows borrowers to forgo repayment during 2020. The five-year repayment clock begins in 2021. The loan will, however, continue to accrue interest during 2020.

If you have an existing loan outstanding from a qualified individual plan on or after March 27, 2020, and any repayment on the loan is due from March 27, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020, the due date for any loan repayments are delayed for up to one year.

Employers may amend their plans for the above hardship provisions to apply no later than the last day of the plan year that begins on or after Jan. 1, 2022 (Dec. 31, 2022 for a calendar-year-end plan). An additional two-year window is allowed for governmental plans; however, IRS Notice 2020-51 clarifies that employers can choose whether to implement these coronavirus-related distribution and loan rules, and notes that qualified individuals can claim the tax benefits of coronavirus-related distribution rules even if plan provisions are not yet amended.

Administrators can rely on an individual’s certification that the individual is a qualified individual (and provides a sample certification), but also notes that an individual must actually be a qualified individual in order to obtain favorable tax treatment. IRS Notice 2020-50 provides employers a safe-harbor procedure for implementing the suspension of loan repayments otherwise due through the end of 2020, but notes there may be other reasonable ways to administer these rules.

Please note that the loan provisions apply only to qualified plans such as 401(k), 403(b), and governmental 457 plans; loans may not be taken from IRAs.

Each retirement plan’s rules and requirements supersede the CARES Act. In addition, it is important to remember that not all retirement-plan sponsors allow loans. Before taking out any loan, it is important to check that your employer’s plan adopts these provisions.

Suspension of RMDs

The CARES Act has suspended required minimum distributions (RMDs) for 2020. Individuals over age 70½ (for those born prior to July 1, 1949) or 72 (for those born after July 1, 1949) were required to take a minimum distribution from their tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Most non-spousal heirs who inherited tax-deferred accounts were also required to take an annual RMD. Under the CARES Act, RMDs from qualified employer retirement plans such as 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans, will be waived. Even those individuals not affected by the coronavirus can waive the RMDs.

For individuals who have already taken their 2020 RMD, the CARES Act allows you to put it back into your retirement account. IRS Notice 2020-51 qualifies the distribution as an eligible rollover distribution if repaid in full by Aug. 31, 2020.

Jim Moran is a tax manager at Melanson, advising clients on individual and corporate tax matters; [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Cameron

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

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

Pros and Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 15: Aug. 3, 2020

George Interviews John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

George Interviews John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and Chairman of The Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and they discuss how the pandemic has impacted the tourism industry and Springfield’s long-term strategic plan moving forward.

Sponsored by:

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Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

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

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

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

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

MASS MoCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

Critical Condition

Guy DiStefano

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

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

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

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

All area hospitals have taken a financial blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distance Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Solid Proof

Mike Quinlan

Mike Quinlan says the pandemic has ratcheted up online orders and curbside pickup, while generating an increase in overall consumption of alcohol.

Some are calling it the ‘drinking at home’ phenomenon — a reference to how people who can’t go to bars, nightclubs, or (until recently) casinos have been doing all or most of their imbibing at their residence instead.

Others are calling it the ‘drinking while working at home’ phenomenon, and that’s another story, one that has a number of employers understandably concerned.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a fact that people are not going out to drink nearly as much as they did BC — before COVID. And they’re drinking more, by most all accounts — according to a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in the spring, 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with higher rates among younger adults — and for reasons ranging from coping with all the additional stress from the pandemic to not being in the office for eight or nine hours a day, to being able to stay up later on ‘school nights’ because they don’t have to dress for or commute to work in the morning.

All this has created opportunities for some area business owners, especially liquor-store owners — always deemed essential by the governor — who have seen sales volumes rise (in some cases dramatically) and a number of trends emerge.

That list includes everything from more bulk purchases to buying less-expensive items to keep overall spending down; from ordering online to getting items delivered or picking them up at curbside.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy,” recalled Sean Barry, owner of Four Seasons Package Store in Hadley. “It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

Mike Quinlan, fine wines manager at Table & Vine in West Springfield, agreed. He said overall business volume has increased, as have visits to the store, but what has really ratcheted up has been online ordering and curbside pickup. The company has always featured the former — it’s been especially popular with wine buyers — but not the latter until the pandemic created a huge need for it.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy. It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

“The impact on our business for online orders went up dramatically — it was a huge increase in the number of orders we were getting,” he said last week, noting that, while it has tapered off lately as restaurants have reopened, recent holidays, such as the Fourth of July, saw huge volume, and orders continue to flow in. “There’s a stack of orders for us to pick today, and then we keep up with it throughout the day.”

For others, this trend, which would appear to have some staying power — because, in this state, bars won’t open until there’s a vaccine, and in others where they’ve opened, they’re closing down again — is simply shifting business from one type of client to another.

Indeed, Paul Kozub, founder of Hadley-based V-One Vodka, said that, while his sales to liquor stores are certainly up — 30% to 40% over last year, by his estimation — sales to restaurants and bars are way down. And the scale is not exactly balanced because the latter has traditionally been the source of more business than the former, especially at certain times of the year, like spring, when COVID-19 shut most everything down.

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub says that, while the pandemic has certainly increased sales of his vodka in liquor stores, that hasn’t made up for the losses he’s incurred at bars, restaurants, and events.

“In March and April, I lost 50% of my business because I do so much in bars and restaurants during those months, while I do a lot more in liquor stores in November in December, so that was quite a shock,” Kozub said. “The package stores are up, but that certainly doesn’t make up for what we’ve lost in those bars and restaurants.”

Overall, as with most sectors of the economy, the pandemic has created some opportunities for those making and selling spirits, and also eliminated others. For this issue, we take a look at how the numbers provide some hard proof — yes, that’s an industry term — of how buying and consumption habits have changed.

Case in Point

Barry, like many liquor-store owners, reduced his hours early in the spring and closed earlier at night. There were many reasons for this, he said, listing fewer people being on the roads, the fact that almost all surrounding stores were closed, and a desire to limit the risk of exposure to customers and employees alike.

But there was also what he called simply the “fatigue factor.”

“My staff was just overworked, so we needed to cut back,” he explained, noting that, while things have settled down somewhat since then, with restaurants now open, many people are still wary about going to such eateries, and in the meantime, large numbers of people continue to entertain and, yes, work from home.

Which means they’re buying more at the liquor stores. And their buying habits are changing in all kinds of ways, said Barry and Quinlan, noting that in-person visits are still popular, but curbside is flourishing as an option, and delivery, offered by some but not all, has certainly gained significant traction as well.

And while business is up generally, there have been periods of especially heavy volume, including some holidays that have historically been dine-out occasions but are now, like most things, stay-at-home affairs.

“When Mother’s Day came, and Father’s Day … those are occasions where a lot of people go out to a brunch or something like that — but not this year,” Quinlan said. “And so we saw our business jump significantly during those weeks when people would be having meals at home instead.”

Barry noted that, while it’s logical to assume that the closing of the five colleges located near his store in the middle of the spring semester would certainly have impacted his bottom line, he said that’s not really the case.

That’s because the vast majority of students are underage, he noted, and also because his store, unlike some in that area, does not directly market to the college crowd.

But the crowd it does cater to is definitely buying more these days, adding that he’s seen several trends develop. One is that many people — meaning those who can — are buying in bulk, on the theory being that, as with trips to the supermarket, many are trying to make as few as possible.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit. People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles.”

So they’re coming less often, and they’re also buying in larger quantities, which is better for them than it is for the liquor-store owner.

“Sales are up, customer counts are pretty flat, and overall, net profit is slightly down,” Barry said. “That’s because everyone is buying bulk items and taking advantage of case discounts and all that stuff.”

Quinlan concurred, to a point. He noted that, while buying the large, economy sizes, or full cases of products, is less profitable for the store, Table & Vine — and other stores, he presumes — have been able to sell more in fewer hours, thus yielding greater overall productivity and profitability.

But while consumption of alcohol is increasing — statistics nationally confirm that — overall spending in individual households may not be. People are buying in bulk, as noted, but they’re also buying less-expensive items in some cases.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit,” Quinlan said. “People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles; the number of bottles we’re moving has increased significantly.”

Mixed Results

As for what people are buying … it’s generally across the board, said Barry, noting that wine and vodka probably represent the biggest increases.

Speaking of vodka, Kozub, while referencing the shifts in consumption and buying and some changes at his company as it expands nationally, said the pandemic has certainly helped his business in some ways — but definitely hurt it in others.

Indeed, while he’s done much better with liquor-store sales — in large part because the company is now working with a distributor, which has opened a number of new doors — he’s suffered greatly from not having bars, restaurants, and other gathering spots — from the Hadley American Legion to the South Deerfield Polish Club; from MGM Springfield to the Big E — open for business.

And there are other missed opportunities as well.

“We were going to be the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Kozub, noting the company’s current push into Ohio, where that shrine is located (in Canton). “And we were going to sell a lot at the induction ceremony and Hall of Fame Game, but that just got called off.”

As for his liquor-store business, he’s been helped by the work-from-home and stay-at-home trends, and also by ‘Zoom mixology’ sessions, as he called them, Zoom happy hours, and other vehicles to educate the public, bring them together (online, at least), and share experiences somewhat like being in their favorite bar.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distributor he’s hired has certainly reduced the profitability of each bottle he sells in his liquor store, but it has greatly increased volume.

“Without the change to a distributor, we would be down 40% overall for the year,” Kozub said, emphasizing, again, just how much he’s lost through restrictions on people gathering in large numbers or confined spaces.

And this ongoing trend — and even taking steps backward in some states, including Florida, Texas, and others — is slowing V-One’s efforts to go national.

“We’re going to do Ohio and Michigan next, but we’re going to wait a little bit for Florida, Texas, and California,” he said, adding that those states, among the current hot spots, are closing many of the bars and restaurants that were open just a few weeks ago. “The timing of us going national is good in some ways, but tough in others.”

Meanwhile, in the current climate, getting into new liquor stores and expanding that footprint, which is among Kozub’s many goals, is somewhat of a challenge.

“The liquor stores are so busy that they’re not necessarily excited about bringing in new products right now,” he explained. “Because they’re selling everything they have, they’re selling a lot of the staples — the brands people know.”

Beer with Us

This is yet another emerging trend at a time when there have been many changes when it comes to what people are buying, when, where, how, and in what quantities.

The pandemic has certainly changed the landscape in so many business sectors and aspects of society — and alcohol is just one of them.

For some businesses, this will be a vintage year — another industry term — while for others, like Kozub, it will be a mix of new opportunities and lost opportunities, with the former hopefully outweighing the latter.

And, as with those other sectors, it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Coping with a Lost Year

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Eastern States Exposition is much like the farmers it helps promote; one lost season can spell disaster.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the cancellation of this year’s Big E and how the Eastern States Exposition (ESE) will respond to that huge loss of revenue, Gene Cassidy stopped and pointed to a picture at the opposite end of the company’s large conference room.

“That’s J. Loring Brooks, son of Joshua L. Brooks, founder of the Eastern States Exposition,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of ESE. “He was the Big E’s chief development officer. When the Eastern States had rainy fairs or fairs where, for one reason or another, we didn’t make any money, he would get on the phone and fundraise; when we had difficult times, he would find the funding to make ends meet.”

J. Loring Brooks died in 1984, Cassidy went on, and it’s been a long time since the fair has needed to try to raise money in that fashion — and it would be difficult do it that way now. “That’s not an aircraft carrier you can turn on a dime,” he noted, adding quickly that he did hire a development officer last year, and is looking into various strategies to perhaps do some fundraising.

Action of various kinds — from a development campaign to borrowing to discovering new revenue streams — is needed because 2020 has been the rainiest of years — figuratively, if not literally — in the fair’s 102-year history, and the assignment of making ends meet, as he put, is going to be a very stern challenge.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke,” said Cassidy, who quickly went from that analogy to another one. “I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?”

The Big E, he noted — originally known as the Eastern States Industrial and Agricultural Exposition — was created to be that church bazaar, the method for raising money needed to support a mission of promoting agriculture.

Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has done more than close the fair for the first time since World War II. It has put the Eastern States Exposition on precarious financial ground; put plans for rehabbing and modernizing some of the buildings on the grounds, especially the obsolete Coliseum, on ice; left large questions marks about how the ESE is going to respond to the agricultural community’s ongoing need for a platform; and even raised some doubts about the fate of the fair in 2021.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke. I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?’”

But while those at the Big E are certainly moving full steam ahead with planning for next year’s fair, they must also contend with a massive hole in the budget — the Big E accounts for 85% of the yearly revenue, and much of the remaining 15% (all the many types of shows on the books after mid-March) has been wiped off the calendar as well.

Grounds for Change

That makes this year decidedly different, said Cassidy, noting that, in a typical year, his staff would be on what amounts to cruise control as it enters the final six or seven weeks of lead-up to the Big E. This year, these employees are searching imaginatively for ways to generate revenue and close the budget gap.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season,” he explained, noting that the fair, despite its wealth of space, buildings, parking, and amenities, is still limited in what it can do. Put another way, it’s limited by what it can’t do, according the governor’s reopening plan — bring large numbers of people together in close proximity to one another.

J. Loring Brooks

When he was the Big E’s chief development officer, J. Loring Brooks would get on the phone and raise money when the fair had bad years, usually as a result of weather.

Options, most of which involve keeping visitors in their cars and taking full advantage of the Big E’s sprawling, 59-acre main parking lot, include everything from a drive-in theater — a cost-benefit analysis is currently underway — to concerts to events like the recent ‘Taste of the Big E,’ a gathering that was eye-opening in a number of ways.
Indeed, the Taste, which involved visitors driving onto the Big E property and then staying in their cars to sample some of the food that would have been offered at this year’s fair, drew far more people than organizers were expecting, said Cassidy, adding that traffic was backed up the full length of Memorial Avenue. “People drove for hours to get here, and then they spent hours waiting in line to get in.”

Ultimately, the Taste helped convince Big E organizers that they simply couldn’t control the turnout for this year’s fair, said Cassidy, adding that the event showed that, if you open for the doors for something people want, they will come.

“When we saw the response to the food show, we knew there was no way to control the number of people on the fairgrounds for the Big E,” he explained. “And knowing that really helped make the decision that staging the fair would not in the best interests of the people who came.”

But the Taste also provided ample evidence that different types of revenue-generating events can possibly be staged at the fairgrounds during the pandemic. These won’t generate anything approaching the income the fair did, but they may help limit the flow of red ink in a year no one could have comprehended just five months ago.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season.”

A drive-in theater is among them, said Cassidy, noting that, decades ago, there was one just a half-mile or so down Memorial Avenue, and other one on Riverdale Street. Drive-ins have staged something approaching a comeback during the pandemic, but the startup costs are considerable — $90,000 to buy the camera to project the movies, for example.

“We’ve done a lot of due diligence to discover if there’s a way we could actually turn a profit,” he noted. “That’s one of many things that are on the table.”

Another is the possibility of bringing carnival rides — which are not discussed anywhere in the reopening plan, according to Cassidy — to the fairgrounds. Others include finding new uses for the state buildings (or the grounds outside them), and staging concerts where attendees stay in their cars.

“There are some challenges to putting these on, and some limitations, but they’re a viable option for us,” he noted. “People want to get out to events like this, and a lot of entertainers are dying to work; they’ve lost a lot of opportunities, and they need to work.”

Daunting Challenge

While optimistic that some revenue streams can be created in the midst of the pandemic, Cassidy is also realistic and knows that, collectively, these efforts will generate only a fraction of what a solid Big E would.

“My goal is to get this organization through this very difficult time and run a Big E in 2021 that brings people together again,” said Cassidy, adding, again, that this will be a stern challenge not unlike that faced by a farmer who loses a year’s worth of crops.

Or a small fundraiser that loses its annual bazaar.

Those analogies might not seem appropriate for an organization, and an event, that brings 1.5 million people to the region every year. But for Cassidy, they work, and they illustrate just what he and his staff are up against.

—George O’Brien

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 11: July 20, 2020

George Interviews Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

George interviews Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and they discuss how the City of Springfield is coping with the pandemic as it relates to its residents, businesses, school system, and its senior and homeless population, and how the city will regain its momentum.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, Business Talk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 10: July 15, 2020

Thom Fox interviews Westfield Starfires Co-Founder/Owner Christopher Thompson

Thom Fox interviews Westfield Starfires Co-Founder/Owner Christopher Thompson. Thom and Chris discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the 2020 Futures Collegiate Baseball League, fan safety measures for home games, and how Westfield is ready to ‘play ball’!

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Sections Special Coverage

Reopen for Business

Cindy Olivio recalls the day in mid-March she and her colleagues left MGM Springfield after the governor announced that the state’s casinos would have to close as part of a general shutdown of non-essential businesses. At the time, she really thought it would be for just two weeks.

“That’s how people were talking — that’s what we all thought,” she recalled, noting that, by April, she was taking things week to week. And when the governor’s phased reopening plan was finally announced in mid-May, she fully understood that it would be early summer at the earliest before she was back at the casino — specifically, its South End Market, which she serves as assistant general manager.

“It was a long time to be out, and it’s good to be back,” she told BusinessWest Monday, as the casino reopened to the general public following a soft opening a few nights earlier.

With that, she spoke for most everyone on the floor that day, guests and employees alike.

It was a long time to be out, and while the casino looks very much the same as it did when it went dark back in March, there have been a number of significant changes, from plexiglass partitions on some of the games to signs on the floors and walls alerting people to stay six feet apart.

And they were on full display Monday as the media was given the opportunity to talk with some employees, and also some guests.

People like Darlene Lajeuneffe of Chicopee, who was there with her husband and other family members celebrating the couple’s 46th wedding anniversary. She was marking the occasion with a glass of champagne and some time on one her favorite slot machines.

“It was hard — we love it here,” she said of the nearly four-month shutdown of MGM Springfield, which she frequents maybe once a month, along with Mohegan Sun; she’s never been fond of Foxwoods. She told BusinessWest she was getting used to some of the new rules and protocols, especially distancing guidelines that generally prohibit people from sitting next to one another, which presented a dilemma.

Indeed, Lajeuneffe learned there was an area where family members could in fact sit together, but it did not include her favorite slot machine. So, faced with a choice, she was leaning strongly toward that machine and keeping family as least close by.

Such adjustments are part of the reopening, said Seth Stratton, MGM Springfield’s vice president and general counsel, who told BusinessWest on Monday that, so far, guests are noting the new rules, and adhering to them.

“We’re pleased with how willing customers are to understand and comply with the new measures,” he said. “There was some concern initially around the enforcement of mandatory facemasks when the discussion first came up several weeks ago. But things have evolved since, and customers are very willing to wear them. We’ve had virtually no enforcement issues with mask wearing.”

Stratton told BusinessWest that the company’s management team put a thoughtful plan in place for the reopening. First, there would be a soft opening, the weekend of July 11 and 12, to help ready staff for the full reopening on the 13th. And by staging that reopening on a Monday, this gave the staff several days to ramp up for the weekend, which has historically been the casino’s busiest time.

“The strategy we followed was to have a staggered opening so that, over the weekend, which might otherwise be a busy period, we had our invited guests so we could ramp up from Friday through Sunday, gradually increasing the capacity, and then open to the public on a Monday,” he explained. “That gave us the ability to stagger the opening and get folks back and employees back and get them comfortable in the new environment so that, by Friday or Saturday, our busiest period, everyone will have a week under their belt of the new policies and procedures.”

The casino reopened at one-third capacity, one of the stipulations set by the Masachusetts Gaming Commission, and while that number is limiting in many respects when it comes to revenue, it will help ensure the safety of guests and employees, which is the top priority at the moment, Stratton explained.

“It’s all about showing we can do this safely and responsibly,” he said. “We don’t want huge crowds right now; as we ramp up and as we get these protocols into place, we feel that, if the customers see it’s not that crowded, they will feel more comfortable and be more willing to return.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Improved State

By George O’Brien

In many respects, Dr. Andrew Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Dr. Robert Roose

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if nt shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

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

Sections Special Coverage

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 today, it’s easy to see 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 chief operating officer, told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities last week. “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 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; and 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, we give 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.

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 around 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, and 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 been dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it — show they can operate safely while eventually building their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 9: July 13, 2020

George Interviews Peter Rosskothen, Owner of The Log Cabin, Delaney House, D. Hotel & Suites and Delaney’s Market

George O’Brien interviews serial entrepreneur, Peter Rosskothen, Owner of The Log Cabin, Delanry House, D. Hotel Suites & Spa, and Delaney’s Market. George and Peter discuss the effects the pandemic has had on a local business owner in an industry focused on bringing people together, and how the current situation has compelled the companies to be more hands-on in their approach and think outside the “event” box. 

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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pandemic Lessons

Rich Kump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed.

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

And gaining momentum in these shuttered times.

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

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

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

Staying Connected

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day recalls a similar experience.

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

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

Kevin Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branch of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

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

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

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

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

Getting Through the Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

For every business in Western Mass., there is a story about coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one, as we’ve noted before, is different. But there are many common themes, especially the need to deal effectively — somehow — with those things that one can control, and cope — again, somehow — with the things one can’t control. And that latter list is, unfortunately, long and complicated. It includes everything from navigating the state’s rules (and short timelines) for reopening to losing large and important clients, like MGM Springfield, to not knowing what the future holds. Here are six more COVID stories.

 

Judy Puffer

Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa

Responding to COVID-19 has been hair-raising to say the least   Read More >>

 


 

White Lion Brewery

For this Springfield business, better times are on tap   Read More >>

 


 

Wilbraham Monson Academy

At this school, pandemic has been a real learning experience    Read More >>

 


 

Jerome’s Party Plus

Growing need for tents is helping company through a trying year   Read More >>

 


 

King Ward Bus Lines

Chicopee-based company is still trying to get out
of first gear   Read More >>

 


 

Park Cleaners

‘The place where COVID goes to die’ is still in recovery mode   Read More >>

 


 

Back on the Clock

COVID-19 era presents unique challenge for older workers   Read More >>

Community Spotlight Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

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

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

Safety First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Aflutter

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

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

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

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County Special Coverage

View from Main Street

Diana Szynal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Optimism

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

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

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

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

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Eyes on the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 7: July 6, 2020

George Interviews Mark Keroack, President & CEO of Baystate Health

George interviews Mark Keroack, President & CEO of Baystate Health and they discuss how COVID-19 has impaired the local healthcare economy, a potential “second wave” of the virus, and how the western Mass. community is boding well through the pandemic in comparison to other areas of the country. 

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Coronavirus Special Coverage

Opinion

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?

On Monday, we finally learned the answer: no.

In many ways, that verdict 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.

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.

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Destination Unknown

John Doleva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs at the Hall of Fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animal Attraction

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

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

The key word is ‘public.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kishore Parmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room for Improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Sticker Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Dowd Jr.

John Dowd Jr.

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

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

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

Impossible Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Plan?

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

This Tax-relief Provision of the CARES Act Brings Advantages to Employers

By Carolyn Bourgoin, CPA

Businesses that either repaid in a timely fashion or did not receive a loan pursuant to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) should explore their eligibility for the new Employee Retention Credit, one of the tax-relief provisions of the CARES Act passed on March 27.

Like the PPP loan program, the Employee Retention Credit (ERC) is aimed at encouraging eligible employers to continue to pay employees during these difficult times. Qualifying businesses are allowed a refundable tax credit against employment taxes equal to 50% of qualified wages (not to exceed $10,000 in wages per employee).

Let’s take a look at who is eligible and how to determine the credit.

Who Is an Eligible Employer?

All private-sector employers, regardless of size, that carry on a trade or business during calendar year 2020, including tax-exempt organizations, are eligible employers for purposes of claiming the ERC. This is the case as long as the employer did not receive, or repaid by the safe-harbor deadline, a PPP loan. The IRS has clarified that self-employed individuals are not eligible to claim the ERC against their own self-employment taxes, nor are household employers able to claim the credit with respect to their household employees.

Carolyn Bourgoin

Carolyn Bourgoin

First Step: Determine Eligible Quarters to Claim the Credit

Eligible businesses can claim a credit equal to 50% of qualified wages paid between March 12 and Dec. 31, 2020 for any calendar quarter of 2020 where:

• An eligible employer’s business was either fully or partially suspended due to orders from the federal government, or a state government having jurisdiction over the employer limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings due to COVID-19; or

• There is a significant decline in gross receipts. Such a decline occurs when an employer’s gross receipts fall below 50% of what they were for the same calendar quarter in 2019. An employer with gross receipts meeting the 50% drop will continue to qualify thereafter until its gross receipts exceed 80% of its gross receipts for the same quarter in 2019. Exceeding the 80% makes the employer ineligible for the credit for the following calendar quarter.

This is an either/or test, so if a business fails to meet one criteria, it can look to the other in order to qualify. An essential business that chooses to either partially or fully suspend its operations will not qualify for the ERC under the first test, as the government did not mandate the shutdown. It can, however, check to see if it meets the significant decline in gross receipts for any calendar quarter of 2020 that would allow it to potentially claim the ERC.

The gross-receipts test does not require that a business establish a cause for the drop in gross receipts, just that the percentage drop be met.

Second Step: How Many Employees?

Determining the wages that qualify for the ERC depends in part on whether an employer’s average number of full-time-equivalent employees (FTEs) exceeded 100 in 2019. An eligible employer with more than 100 FTEs in 2019 may only count the wages it paid to employees between March 12, 2020 and prior to Jan. 1, 2021 for the time an employee did not provide services during a calendar quarter due to the employer’s operations being shut down by government order or due to a significant decline in the employer’s gross receipts (as defined previously).

“All private-sector employers, regardless of size, that carry on a trade or business during calendar year 2020, including tax-exempt organizations, are eligible employers for purposes of claiming the ERC.”

In addition, an employer of more than 100 FTEs may not count as qualifying wages any increase in the amount of wages it may have opted to pay employees during the time that the employees are not providing services (there is a 30-day lookback period prior to commencement of the business suspension or significant decline in gross receipts to make this determination).

In contrast, qualified wages of an employer that averaged 100 or fewer FTEs in 2019 include wages paid to any employee during any period in the calendar quarter where the employer meets one of the tests in step one. So even wages paid to employees who worked during the economic downturn may qualify for the credit.

Due to the potential difference in qualifying wages, it is important to properly calculate an employer’s ‘full-time’ employees for 2019. For purposes of the ERC, an employee is considered a full-time employee equivalent if he or she worked an average of at least 30 hours per week for any calendar month or 130 hours of service for the month. Businesses that were in operation for all of 2019 then take the sum of the number of FTEs for each month and divide by 12 to determine the number of full-time employee equivalents. Guidance has been issued by the IRS on this calculation for new businesses as well as those that were only in business for a portion of 2019.

Third Step: Calculate the Credit Based on Qualifying Wages

As mentioned earlier, the Employee Retention Credit is equal to 50% of qualifying wages paid after March 12, 2020 and before Jan. 1, 2021, not to exceed $10,000 in total per employee for all calendar quarters. The maximum credit for any one employee is therefore $5,000.

Wages that qualify toward the $10,000-per-employee cap can include a reasonable allocation of qualified healthcare costs. This includes an allocation of the employer portion of health-plan costs as well as the cost paid by an employee with pre-tax salary-reduction contributions. Employer contributions to health savings accounts or Archer Medical Savings Accounts are not considered qualified health-plan expenses for purposes of the ERC.

Qualifying wages do not include:

• Wages paid for qualified family leave or sick leave under the Family First Coronavirus Relief Act due to the potential payroll tax credit;

• Severance payments to terminated employees;

• Accrued sick time, vacation time, or other personal-leave wages paid in 2020 by an employer with more than 100 FTEs;

• Amounts paid to an employee that are exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes (for example, wages paid to statutory non-employees such as licensed real-estate agents); or

• Wages paid to an employee who is related to the employer (definition of ‘related’ varies depending on whether the employer is a corporation, a non-corporate entity, or an estate or trust).

Eligible employers who averaged more than 100 FTEs in 2019 will then be potentially further limited to the qualifying wages paid to employees who were not providing services during an eligible calendar quarter.

How to Claim the ERC

An eligible business can claim the Employee Retention Credit by reducing its federal employment-tax deposit (without penalty) in any qualifying calendar quarter by the amount of its anticipated employee retention credit. By not having to remit the federal employment-tax deposits, an eligible business has the ability to use these funds to pay wages or other expenses. In its FAQs, the IRS clarified that an employer should factor in the deferral of its share of Social Security tax under the CARES Act prior to determining the amount of employment-tax deposits that it may retain in anticipation of the ERC. The retained employment taxes are accounted for when the Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, is later filed for the quarter.

If the ERC for a particular quarter exceeds the payroll-tax deposits for that period, a business can either wait to file Form 941 to claim the refund, or it can file the new Form 7200, Advance Payment of Employer Credits Due to COVID-19, prior to filing Form 941 to receive a quicker refund.

If an employer later determines in 2021 that they had a significant decline in receipts that occurred in a calendar quarter of 2020 where they would have been eligible for the ERC, the employer can claim the credit by filing a Form 941-X in 2021.

Additional Rules

For purposes of determining eligibility for the credit as well as calculating the credit, certain employers must be aggregated and treated as a single employer.

Also, as a result of claiming the Employee Retention Credit, a qualifying business must reduce its wage/health-insurance deduction on its federal income-tax return by the amount of the credit.

In summary, the Employee Retention Credit is one of several tax-relief options provided by the CARES Act. As it is a refundable credit against federal employment taxes, it is advantageous to all employers, even those who will not have taxable income in 2020. Employers who did not receive PPP funding should check to see if they meet the eligibility requirements and take advantage of this opportunity.

Please note that, at the time this article was written, Congress was considering additional relief provisions that may or may not have impact on the information provided here. u

Carolyn Bourgoin, CPA is a senior manager at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Breath of Fresh Air

Peter Picknelly, right, and Andy Yee

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

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

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

And then March happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyline Beer Co

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

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

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

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

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

Raring to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The front deck at Munich Haus

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

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

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

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

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

Next Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 5: June 29, 2020

George Interviews Bob Nakosteen of UMass Amherst, Isenberg School of Management 

George O’Brien interviews Bob Nakosteen, Department Chair & Professor of Operations & Information Management for UMass Amherst, Isenberg School of Management and discusses the economic, health, and political climate as it pertains to education, business, and consumer confidence.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 3: June 22, 2020

George Interviews Christina Royal, President of Holyoke Community College

Christina Royal

George O’Brien interviews Christina Royal. O’Brien and Royal discuss how the pandemic has disrupted and impacted higher education, its students, and the plans of adaptation for Fall 2020.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 4: June 24, 2020

Thom Interviews Rick Sullivan 

Thom Fox interviews Rick Sullivan, President & CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. Thom and Rick discuss the unique opportunities COVID presents for WesternMA’s future, local employer’s approach to the region’s unemployed, and resources to support small business owners.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Modern Office Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

Mark Proshan says predicting what’s coming next in his business — office furniture and design — has always been a difficult assignment.

But now … it’s even more of a complicated guessing game.

Indeed, in a sector where the landscape can change quickly and profoundly, and for a number of reasons — from a declining economy to changing tastes — the pandemic has produced an even greater sense of uncertainty about what lies around the bend, said Proshan, president of West Springfield-based Lexington Group.

“For the first time ever, I don’t even pretend to be smart enough to see what’s coming down the road,” he told BusinessWest, noting that this applies to both the short and long term. “We don’t know when bigger places of business will open back up, what their attitude is going to be toward spending money, and what things will look like down the road.”

Tyler Arnold, a principal with Holyoke-based Conklin Office, who spoke with BusinessWest from the company’s office in Northern New Jersey, agreed. He noted there are many variables that will affect decision making at individual companies when it comes to if and when employees return to work, how many return, and how much space they’ll take up when they do return.

“The number-one priority for people right now is to bring back fewer people, spread things out … and then see what happens,” he explained. “They might look at their footprint and say ‘we’ve got 1,000 employees, and we’re occupying 100,000 square feet.’ They may decide to only bring back 500 employees — but does that mean they need 50,000 square feet or 75,000 square feet? I think there will be a lot of that going on.”

But there are some things that are known. It seems certain that the collaborative, open spaces that companies have developed over the past several years will change — perhaps significantly.

Arnold said the old 10-by-10 private offices that dominated the business landscape years ago and are still favored by some banks and law firms won’t make an immediate comeback — they’re very expensive and still somewhat impractical. But there will certainly be a move to create more privacy and shield employees from one another and the public.

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider than models popular just a few months ago. He says these units are among the items now in demand as businesses work to increase privacy in the workplace.

This has been made apparent by the number of calls both companies are taking from business owners and managers looking to adjust their spaces for a pandemic.

That’s especially true in New York City, said Arnold, where many financial-services companies and corporate headquarters had moved to benching to place as many people in as small an area as possible. Now, many of those benches are being outfitted with dividers, or higher dividers, as the case may be.

“Right now, the immediate demand is for adding privacy screens, be that acrylic material or fabric,” Arnold told BusinessWest. “So much that has been built out over the past 10 years has an open plan, open feel to it. What’s the easiest, quickest, least costly way to give people a sense of detachment from the person sitting next to them? It’s some kind of privacy screen.”

“A lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case.”

Proshan agreed. “We do have inquiries from people as to how to modify their spaces to make them more private, making walls higher, making plexiglass partitions and glass partitions, where possible,” he noted. “Meanwhile, a lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case. If it is the case, the need for higher-end furniture will likely not go hand in hand with staying at home; it may well be the Staples of the world and the Costcos of the world that will be selling those items because people might be paying for it out of their own pocket.”

As for companies bringing people back, the plan of action for many companies is not to put anyone immediately next to or across from someone else, even if there is a screen, said Arnold, adding that many businesses are ramping up slowly and in waves. How big the waves will get remains to seen.

Actually, that’s just one of many things that remain to be seen, as we’ll see as BusinessWest talks with these experts about how the pandemic might reshape the modern office as we know it.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest about the physical changes that will come to the modern office in the wake of COVID-19, Proshan said it would probably be easier to do a little show and tell.

With that, he walked to the front lobby of the company’s spacious headquarters on Union Street. There, two workstations are outfitted with what would have to be called pandemic-era features.

Before discussing them, though, Proshan reached for his phone and scrolled to images of what used to be there, because this is where the discussion had to start (see photos, page 24). Before, there were fairly low structures that were wide open. They’ve been replaced by units of similar height topped by plexiglass panels on two sides, with narrow openings in front to keep those behind them safe.

“This is the kind of thing we’ll be seeing — this is the direction we’re going in,” said Proshan, adding that, for the foreseeable future, the focus will be on privacy and keeping people safe. Collaboration? Well, not so much.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

“People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

At least not as much face-to-face collaboration, he went on, as he took BusinessWest on a walk to the showroom, where he sat down at benching that sports those higher walls that can’t be seen over and are designed with privacy and protection in mind.

While orders for such products come in, the larger questions looming over the industry concern the longer term. But while contemplating the future, those we spoke with are also coping with the present, which is challenging on many levels.

Indeed, Proshan said a number of projects that were in the pipeline have been paused as companies and institutions try to absorb what has happened and what it all means moving forward. He mentioned a $1.2 million library project at one of the area colleges and several other initiatives that have been put on hold because the plans that were blueprinted months ago may no longer be viable in the COVID-19 world.

“When you think about what may change when people go into a public space like that, you can certainly understand how and why these institutions might want to pause,” he said. “We have lots of repurchased and paid-for inventory that, because the colleges and universities are shut down, we can’t even get in to deliver this product.

“And the policy for a lot of these places is that they can’t pay for product until it’s delivered and installed,” he went on. “But, unfortunately, my manufacturers insist on getting paid once the product is received by me — so you can see the dilemma when you’re talking about a large volume of merchandise.”

There are other challenges to contend with as well, such as reopening their own offices, which were ‘essential’ in some cases — Lexington earned that designation in West Springfield because it delivers to healthcare providers — and also dealing with various employment issues, and trying to serve customers in remote fashion, a somewhat difficult task when many consumers like to see, touch, and kick the tires on the products they’re contemplating.

Arnold, like Proshan, said the phones essentially stopped ringing during the month of March. Then commenced a period of speculation and webinars about when offices would reopen and how. And then, things got busy again as companies started gathering information and proposals for those protective shields and dividers for benches, with a decent percentage of those proposals turning into orders.

The new workstations

The new workstations in the lobby at Lexington Group contrast sharply with what existed before, and speak volumes about current efforts to keep workers and visitors safe and increase privacy.

What concerns Arnold at this point is what happens when this ‘bubble,’ as he called it, is over and companies, now getting comfortable as employees slowly return to the office, contemplate their future needs, and their footprint.

Indeed, his company is currently working on projects involving leases that were signed months ago. The question is, will new leases be signed?

“I think that, when we get to the middle of the summer, there will be a pretty good slowdown at that point,” he said. “People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

There are already strong signs that some companies will not go back to their former offices, and if they do, they’ll probably do it gradually, with many seeking smaller footprints for fewer employees, which means less office furniture to be sold, said those we spoke with.

Arnold said he’s seeing a lot of this in New York, which is still very much in lockdown mode.

“Initially, people couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he noted. “But at this point, many corporations are taking their time and making decisions. The mentality is that, ‘we’re turning a profit, everyone’s working remotely, everybody’s safe; until we’re really comfortable that we can put them in an environment where we can minimize risk and people can focus on what they do, we’re in no rush to return to the office.’”

Mass transit certainly plays a big role in what’s happening — or not — with people returning to the workplace, he went on, adding quickly that, in many markets, and with businesses across many sectors, the question concerning such returns is increasingly ‘if,’ not ‘when,’ and also ‘how many will return?’

Whether this changes or not in the short or long term is yet another of those questions that are difficult to answer at this juncture.

Again, about the only thing that’s relatively certain is that the past will become prologue when it comes to privacy and how the office might look and feel moving forward.

“Ten years ago, everyone had tall walls, lots of privacy — people had their own space,” said Proshan. “‘Collaboration’ became the buzzword the last few years, and the walls came down, and shared space became the big thing. And while I think people will still have the need to collaborate, I think they’re going to be doing it in a much more enclosed environment.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the place where they started this discussion, Proshan and Arnold said that, while some things are known at this juncture, many more are not. And speculation might not be a fruitful exercise at this point.

“I don’t think there are whole lot of crystal-ball gazers who really know what’s going to shake out from all this,” Proshan said. “No one really knows.”

Arnold concurred. While the focus for now is on privacy and spreading people out, he noted, the landscape may be altered again. “All this can change on a dime if there’s good news about a vaccine or something like that. For now, everyone’s planning like this a year or so off.”

A year seems a long way off in a business where predicting the future is difficult — and has now become much more so.

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

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a New Way Forward

By Mark Morris

Essential.

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School is an $82 million project currently being built by Daniel O’Connell’s Sons.

That one word made all the difference for the construction industry as most sectors of the economy shut down, except for a handful deemed ‘essential’ by the state, construction among them, and thus able to continue working.

But to do that work, they had to quickly adjust to a new reality, as construction managers adopted new guidelines and procedures to prevent workers from catching the virus on the job site.

“At that time, building the project became secondary,” said Joe Imelio, project executive for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

On March 25, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order outlining COVID-19 guidelines and procedures for donstruction sites. In addition to reinforcing CDC guidelines on frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distancing, the guidelines detailed specific procedures for construction sites.

In addition to providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and face shields when social distancing is impossible, the mandate also imposed a “100% glove policy” while on the job site.

Another guideline emphasized zero tolerance for sick workers on the job. The guidelines stated in all caps: “IF YOU ARE SICK, STAY HOME!” Every day, each person reporting to work is expected to self-certify their health status by completing a brief questionnaire to confirm they are healthy enough to work for that day. If the construction work is inside, known as a “closed building envelope,” a medical professional must take everyone’s temperature before they can enter the building.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers about the adjustments they have made to maintain a safe environment for workers and keep their projects moving.

David Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said he began preparing pandemic protocols in February, before the guidelines were established, to make sure his company could continue to operate safely.

Joe Imelio

Joe Imelio

“At that time, building the project became secondary. The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others,” he noted.

In early February, Nate Clinard, vice president of safety for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, began purchasing more PPE than the normal stock, as well as hand sanitizer and disposable rags and towels. He also tried to buy hand-washing stations for outdoor job sites, which were selling fast.

“Because they were difficult to get from vendors and suppliers, we built our own portable wash stations,” he said.

But, despite the hurdles, at least firms were working, and continue to work, although the long-term economic impact from the pandemic and the shutdown — and what that means for the volume of projects contractors will compete for down the line — remains to be seen.

Starts and Stops

Within some niches, the pandemic offered opportunity. For example, in mid-March, as much of the state began shutting down, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) accelerated its scheduled projects for the roadwork season that was about to begin in a few weeks.

Janet Callahan, president of Palmer Paving, which has many DOT contracts, said her crews would normally work on large road projects at night when traffic is lighter. As stay-at-home orders resulted in empty roads across the state, the DOT allowed paving crews to switch to daytime construction.

“For the same number of hours, we are able to work safer and more efficiently,” Callahan said. “You just get more done in daylight.” She noted that daytime paving is a big reason DOT projects across the state are 25% ahead of schedule.

Other construction managers saw several projects delayed at the outset of the coronavirus. Stephen Killian, director of New England Operations for Barr and Barr, said a number of his company’s projects were pushed back by as much as 12 weeks.

“Our people worked on the jobs as best as they could remotely, but if you can’t put it in the ground, you’re not moving the project forward.”

Killian added that, even when projects begin again, it’s not as simple as bringing all the workers back and resuming the job. Among the governor’s guidelines is a mandate that construction managers devote one day as a “safety stand down” to make sure everyone understands the new protocols. Combined with CDC guidelines restricting meetings of no more than 10 people, restarting a job can become a logistical challenge.

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others.”

“If you have 130 people on a job site, the ramp-up is slow because everyone needs to have the stand-down meeting to understand their responsibilities,” Killian said. “Doing that for all 130 workers in one day isn’t possible now because you can’t meet in groups larger than 10 people.”

One concern cited by several managers involves the uncertainty and anxiety about a virus that everyone is still trying to understand.

“Everyone seems rattled, and tempers are shorter because people constantly feel under pressure,” said John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Construction Services.

Callahan agreed. “Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

To try to ease some of the anxiety, Clinard and his staff made themselves available at all the company’s job sites to answer questions and listen to concerns.

“Early on, a lot of people just needed to talk,” he said. “We were there to help educate and provide an ear for them.”

As the owner of his company, Rahkonen said he feels a real responsibility to his employees. He described the decision to continue working during the pandemic as a scary one.

“There were a lot of people who thought we should shut down, but I don’t think that would have been beneficial to the families of our workers,” he said. “So far, knock on wood, we’ve been right.”

Trial and Error

As might be expected, suddenly adapting to new protocols is a process of trial and error. Killian noted a problem with getting accurate temperature readings back in March when it was still cold outside. “People were running temperatures of about 86 to 90 degrees because they were walking to the site after they parked their cars.”

To get more accurate readings, Killian said they changed the protocol to a drive-up system where everyone’s temperature is taken while still in their vehicles.

On face masks, Killian said his safety director found a contradiction in the state regulations. Guidelines for the construction industry say masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible. The regulation that covers all businesses, however, says face coverings must be worn by all workers. While Killian supports wearing masks near other workers, requiring masks at all times may cause problems. He’s concerned about worker fatigue and potential health issues on those summer days when 90-degree temperatures are common.

“We have to be mindful that the average age of the tradesmen and construction workforce is over 45 years old,” he said, adding that he has reached out to state officials seeking clarification on the requirement.

Palmer Paving crews

As more people stayed home and off the roads, Palmer Paving crews switched to daytime work.

Clinard said his job sites are using technology to make the daily self-certifying questionnaire work better. By assigning a QR code to each project, workers simply hold their phone cameras to the code to launch the questionnaire. Once completed, the information is loaded to a master document for that project.

“This gives us a real-time read of who’s on site and that they are healthy,” Clinard said.
“If any responses to the questionnaire suggest issues with that person’s health, they are not allowed on the job site that day.”

Requiring people who aren’t feeling well to stay home contributes to what Imelio called a “culture change in the construction industry,” adding that, “for many of the workers, if they stay home when they’re sick, they don’t get paid.”

On the flip side, Killian said many healthy workers who would normally be on the job are instead filing for unemployment out of a concern they may bring the virus home. “Unfortunately, that affects the daily number of men and women on site. Even the union halls are having a difficult time getting additional staff.”

Several managers addressed the real costs that come with COVID-19 mandates that didn’t exist a few months ago. Fontaine said his company’s staff is able to address many of the requirements but not all of them.

“There are definitely additional costs associated with COVID, such as the increase in labor to sanitize the site and bringing in medical professionals for temperature screening,” he noted.

Killian said building owners have agreed to pay for many of these extra costs, but they’re not happy about it because it’s an added expense they could not have anticipated when budgeting the project.

Factoring in all the added expense from the COVID-19 protocols creates another challenge when bidding on future projects as well. “If you bid on a job and put the cost of all the mandates in your bid, you may not be competitive,” Killian said.

In recent meetings on future projects, Imelio said he was asked about the impact of COVID-19 going forward. “It’s like asking, ‘what do you think interest rates will be in a year?’”

Fontaine’s company is currently building South High Community School, a $200 million project he described as the largest public project in the history of Worcester. He’s concerned that projects like these, which depend on tax revenue from state and federal sources, will be hit hard in the future. In the past, the company has adjusted by taking on more private construction when public projects slow down.

“The biggest question for us is how will COVID affect the 2021 and 2022 workload,” Fontaine said. “We may have to refocus our project mix for a couple years if we go through another significant downturn.”

Hit the Road

If nothing else, Callahan said, the pandemic is a reminder of the important role infrastructure plays in the region’s safety and economy. “Essential service providers such as hospital workers, firefighters, power-company crews, and delivery people all depend on our road system to get to their jobs and to help people.”

Despite the extra steps to start each day, all the managers said they are adapting to the new requirements. The trick now is to stay diligent.

“Our processes are in place, and they work well for the personal protection of all our employees,” Imelio said. “It’s different than the old way of doing business, but we’re making progress.”

“Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

Even though their work is outdoors, Callahan said it’s important for her crews to remain diligent. “It would take only one person to affect the jobs of 25 people, and that’s only one crew. We’ve made it clear to our staff, there is no relief from these guidelines.”

Strict compliance is worth it, she went on, because it gives her company the opportunity to repair roads for the DOT and municipalities around the state.

“We are so grateful to be working and employing people,” she said. “We are not part of the 41 million people who have suffered a job loss during the pandemic.”

Fontaine said his workers have had a great attitude during a time of difficult adjustments.

“Being in an essential industry, you know it’s important to be cognizant of your safety and the safety of those around you,” he told BusinessWest, “and you know it’s important to keep moving forward.”

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Risk and Reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viral Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Beaudry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vigilant Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Views from a Distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lives in the Balance

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

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

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

Susan Cicco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Both Worlds

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

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

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

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

So maybe there’s room for both models.

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 1: June 15, 2020

George interviews Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber

Nancy Creed

George O’Brien interviews Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce. O’Brien and Creed will discuss a wide range of issues, from the reopening of the economy to the impact of the pandemic on downtown Springfield, to the future of chambers of commerce.

 

 

Sponsored by:

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times

Episode 2: June 17, 2020

Thom Fox interviews Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Photo Credit: Henry Amistadi

Thom and Mayor LaChapelle discuss her service on Governor Baker’s COVID-19 Reopening Advisory Board, resources business owners can access to reopen successfully, and challenges some industries may face in a post-COVID economy. 

Sponsored by:

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Law Special Coverage

COVID Lawsuits

By John Gannon, Esq.

Businesses across the globe are in the midst of planning, preparing, and executing their reopening strategies. While this news is encouraging, employers face novel and complicated legal questions about their potential liability to employees who either get sick at work or cannot return due to medical or childcare-related reasons.

Searching for answers, businesses leaders are confronted with an array of local, state, federal, and industry-specific protocols for operating safely. Charting a course in the face of this uncertainty is no small task. Unfortunately, one thing remains clear: there will be a wave of lawsuits triggered by the difficult business decisions made during this challenging time.

The COVID-19 crisis will send shockwaves through the courts and fair-employment agencies (such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination) for years to come. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remarked that an “epidemic” of these lawsuits will lead to “a trial-lawyer bonanza.” While likely overstated, the concern for employers should be real. Numerous COVID-19-related lawsuits have been filed, with many more on the way. Here are a sampling of those legal theories, with prevention tips and tactics at the end.

Negligence and/or Wrongful Death

One of the scariest claims for businesses will be negligence and wrongful-death lawsuits. In short, these actions may be lodged by employees (and even customers) who are harmed by COVID-19 because the employer failed to keep the work environment safe.

How might this look? Imagine that employees in a manufacturing plant return to work as the business reopens (or perhaps they have been working all along if the workers are deemed ‘essential’). Joe, who works on the factory floor in close proximity with others, tests positive for COVID-19. Mike, who works near Joe, also tests positive. Mike in turn infects members of his household, including an aging, immune-compromised parent. Can any of them sue the business?

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“Our workers’ compensation system typically prevents employees from suing their employers for injuries that result from working. Instead of suing, employees with occupational injuries get paid through workers’ comp. But is a COVID-19 infection ‘occupational?’”

Our workers’ compensation system typically prevents employees from suing their employers for injuries that result from working. Instead of suing, employees with occupational injuries get paid through workers’ comp. But is a COVID-19 infection ‘occupational?’ Proving the root cause of a COVID infection is very difficult, as the virus spreads easily and can be contracted nearly anywhere.

In the above example, would Joe have a workers’ comp claim? Probably not, unless he can show others he was working in close proximity with someone who had the virus before him. What about Mike? He has a better claim, but still no sure thing. And certainly the family member would not be filing a comp claim. Instead, a negligence or wrongful-death suit might follow.

Recently, the relative of a retail-store employee in Illinois who died from COVID-19 sued the retailer for negligence and wrongful death. The lawsuit claims that the employee contracted COVID-19 in the store, and the business did not do enough to protect employees from the virus. All businesses that are open or reopening should have this case on their radar.

FFCRA Violations

By now, everyone should know that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) allows employees to take paid leave for a number of COVID-19-related reasons, including the need to care for children who are unable to go to school or daycare. Employees who are denied FFCRA rights or retaliated against for taking FFCRA leave can sue you in court. Successful employees may be entitled to reinstatement, lost wages, attorney’s fees, and double damages.

The first FFCRA-related lawsuit was filed last month. In the case, a female employee (and single mom) claimed she was fired because she requested FFCRA leave due to her son’s school closing. The employee allegedly discussed her need for leave to care for her son, and was told that the FFCRA was not meant to be “a hammer to force management into making decisions which may not be in the interest of the company or yourself.” She was fired a few days later and then filed what might be the first FFCRA lawsuit. Many more are certain to follow.

Discriminatory Layoffs

At the time of this article, the unemployment rate in the U.S. stands at almost 15%, and more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. Each layoff decision comes with the risk that someone will claim the reason they were selected was discriminatory.

Suppose Jane, who is 60, gets laid off, while many younger workers were retained for employment. Jane may claim that the reason was at least partially motivated by her age. If she was right, it would be would be textbook age discrimination.

Whistleblower/Retaliation Lawsuits

Employees who raise complaints or concerns about workplace safety are protected against retaliation by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Similarly, Massachusetts has a law that protects healthcare workers who complain about practices that pose a risk to public health. We expect an increase in these lawsuits during this pandemic.

Prevention Strategies

These novel COVID-19-related lawsuits generally fall into one of two buckets: claims related to worker health and safety, and discriminatory or retaliatory adverse employment actions.

To protect against the first batch, businesses need to rigorously follow federal, state, and local guidance on maintaining a safe workplace. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have issued guidance on topics like maintaining safe business operations, temperature checks for employees, and personal protective equipment. Check with your risk-management advisors to see if they have developed checklists or other tools you can use to aid in your business reopening.

Avoiding the second type of lawsuit (discrimination, retaliation, etc.) involves the same tried and true principles that were critical before COVID-19. Make sure you have reasonable, business-based justifications for your decisions that are not motivated by characteristics like race, age, gender, or use of FFCRA leave. These business-based reasons should be well-documented and understandable to laypeople, who may be reviewing your justification in a jury room. Finally, when in doubt, consult with your labor and employment-law specialists.

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser. He specializes in employment law and regularly counsels employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. He is a frequent speaker on employment-related legal topics for a wide variety of associations and organizations; [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Q & A for the Reopening

By Ellen McKitterick and Mark Emrick

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

Ellen McKitterick

Ellen McKitterick

Mark Emrick

Mark Emrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law Special Coverage

Calling Back Workers

By Mary Jo Kennedy, Esq. and Sarah Willey, Esq.

Mary Jo Kennedy

Mary Jo Kennedy

Sarah Willey

Sarah Willey

As businesses prepare for reopening, many employers are summoning laid-off and furloughed employees and notifying employees who have been working remotely to return to the physical workplace.

Some employers are anticipating that their reopening may be a gradual process. Employers may do a ‘soft reopening’ in order to test workplace-safety measures such as social distancing. Some businesses may find, as a result of new safety procedures, that their workplace no longer requires certain positions. As a result, employers may not need the same number of employees or positions they had back in early March.

However, recalling only a portion of a workforce does have its own risks. Employers should carefully consider who and how many workers to recall and when to have them return.

Once notified, workers’ responses to the callback may vary. Some employees will welcome the return to work as a sign that things are returning to ‘normal,’ while others may have mixed feelings as they may want or need to stay home until the pandemic is over. Employers must consider how to best respond to workers’ requests.

How do you select which employees to call back when calling back fewer than all?

First, identify the types of positions and the number of employees needed for each position to be recalled. There may be certain skill sets or knowledge base needed in order to ramp up business after the shutdown.

“If they have medical concerns regarding returning to work, they should discuss those concerns with their supervisor or human-resources team and encourage them to stay home or arrange an alternate work assignment.”

Second, businesses should consider any policy or past practice regarding recalling employees as there may be a legitimate business reason for not following them. Employers should evaluate their business rationale for the selection process and document the criteria used for selecting one employee over another. Selection criteria may appear neutral on the surface, but the effect of its application may inadvertently result in the elimination of all or a majority of a group of employees in a class protected under discrimination laws. As a result, selection criteria may need to be reconsidered in order to avoid possible discrimination claims.

Can you decide not to recall employees because of a concern regarding their health?

Employers may have a genuine concern that a group of employees may be susceptible to greater harm if infected with COVID-19. For example, an employer may be concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 of an older employee, employees with known medical conditions, or a pregnant employee. Any selection decision based on a person’s age, perceived disability, or pregnancy will expose the employer to discrimination claims.

Employers should not take a paternalistic view of deciding what is best for its employees. Rather, an employer should let employees know that, if they have medical concerns regarding returning to work, they should discuss those concerns with their supervisor or human-resources team and encourage them to stay home or arrange an alternate work assignment.

What if you laid off some and furloughed other employees?

Employers should consider calling back furloughed employees before rehiring laid-off employees. Employers may have given furloughed employees written assurances that they would be called back and may have retained them on health insurance, indicators that the employer intended to have the furloughed employees return to work.

How do you communicate the call back?

Employers should communicate the offer to return to work in writing. The communication should detail the start date, full-time or part-time status, position, hours, work schedules, wages, location, and conditions of the job.

What if a business calls back laid-off or furloughed employees and the response is that an employee has found other employment?

If an employer is told that a laid-off or furloughed employee is not returning to work because the individual has found employment elsewhere, the employer should document the reason for not returning and then move to the next employee on the recall list. If your business participated in the Paycheck Protection Program, documenting the reason for the refusal is critical in order to meet the loan-forgiveness requirements.

Also, if accrued but unused vacation time has not previously been paid, it should be paid out to the employee immediately, and if the employee was on the employer’s health insurance, a COBRA notice should be sent to the employee.

What if a business calls back a laid-off or furloughed employee who is unable to return to work because of a lack of childcare?

With schools and daycare facilities currently closed, employees with school-aged children may not have childcare options. Under the CARES Act, individuals who are unable to work (including telework) and are the primary caregiver for a child whose school or childcare facility is closed or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19 can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

In addition, the employee may be eligible for paid extended family and medical leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), under which eligible employees who are unable to work at their normal worksite or by means of telework are entitled to 12 weeks of paid extended family and medical leave (at two-thirds of their regular rate of pay) to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or childcare provider is unavailable) due to COVID-19-related reasons.

The FFCRA provides eligibility for paid extended family and medical leave to an employee who was laid off or otherwise terminated by the employer on or after March 1, 2020 and rehired or otherwise re-employed by the employer on or before Dec. 31, 2020, provided that the employee had been on the employer’s payroll for 30 or more of the 60 calendar days prior to the date the employee was laid off or otherwise terminated.

What if an employee has been working remotely during the shutdown and is unable to physically return to the worksite because of a lack of childcare?

While many remote employees have been able to work effectively at home during the forced shutdown, other remote employees may have struggled due their type of work not being conducive to telework. An employer may have valid concerns about an employee’s telework performance, such as the quality and quantity of the work, and should address with remote employees any performance issues.

An employer should discuss with an employee the possibility of flexible or reduced hours in a physical workplace or a modified remote-work schedule. If these options are not viable, an employee unable to return to their normal worksite may be eligible for unemployment.

What if an employee who has a medical condition increasing their risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 wants to continue working remotely?

Addressing this issue requires consideration of federal and state reasonable-accommodation laws. If the medical diagnosis constitutes a disability under state or federal disability laws, the employee may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Given these unprecedented times, an employer may treat a medical condition that puts an individual at an increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 as a disability. The employer should also explore with the employee other possible accommodations in addition to working remotely.

What if an employee can work but has a medical condition, adding increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19, but the employee’s job duties cannot be done remotely?

Dealing with employees whose work cannot be done remotely but are at an increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 has unique concerns, and each situation should be considered on a case-by-case basis. If the employee was advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19 and the employer is subject to the FFCRA, the employee may be eligible for 80 hours of paid sick leave under FFCRA.

However, in this scenario, the FFCRA requires that the employee be “particularly vulnerable to COVID-19” and that following the advice of a healthcare provider to self-quarantine prevents the employee from being able to work, either at the employee’s workplace or by telework. Employers should obtain appropriate medical documentation substantiating the reasons for the self-quarantine.

In addition, if the medical diagnosis constitutes a serious medical condition or a disability, the employee may be entitled to either an unpaid leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (if the employer has 50 or more employees and as such is a FMLA-covered employer) or a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation for the disability.

What if an employee wants to continue to work remotely because the employee has an immediate family member who has a medical condition that puts that family member at increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19?

An eligible employee of a FMLA-covered employer can take a leave of absence to care for a family member with a serious medical condition. But if the family member does not need the employee’s care, the requirements for FMLA leave would not be met.

Under the American with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide qualified disabled employees with a reasonable accommodation. When leave and accommodation laws do not apply, employees may ask employers to apply common decency to the situation and let them return to the physical workplace at a later time.

These are challenging issues for employers, who must balance the need to protect employees from COVID-19 with the need to maintain a workforce to keep the business open.

Employers should be cautious when navigating the various leave and disability laws in order to avoid lawsuits. Before denying employees’ leaves or other reasonable-accommodation requests, employers should engage with employees in order to assess the validity and reasonableness of the requests and should document the steps taken.

Mary Jo Kennedy is a partner and chair of the employment group at Bulkley Richardson, and Sarah Willey is counsel and member of the employment group at Bulkley Richardson.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Climbing Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting Game

Paul DiGrigoli would like to reopen, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

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

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

Driving Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Some Good

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

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

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

Amy Benson

Amy Benson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]