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Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

In some ways, it seems like it just yesterday. In other ways, it seems like years ago.

That’s what the last 12 months of COVID-19 — 12 months unlike anything any of us have experienced before — have been like. They’ve gone by fast, but it’s been a long, as in long, year.

As with the Kennedy assassination (for those of us old enough) and with the morning of 9/11 for those who are younger, everyone remembers where they were and what was happening when the governor put his stay-at-home order in effect. For many, it meant packing up (if they hadn’t already packed up) and leaving the office for what we all thought might be a few weeks, or a few months at most.

We soon learned that those projections were way off base and that we would be living with the pandemic and all the hardships that came with it for a long time.

In the months that followed, we would learn much more, as our roundtable discussion with six area business leaders (see story on page 6) reveals. We learned that we didn’t have to be in the office, necessarily, to get our jobs done. We learned new ways of doing things. We learned to embrace technology — well, because we didn’t have a choice. And we all wondered why we didn’t embrace it earlier.

We learned some other things, as well. We learned that life is hard, and not just during a pandemic. But COVID, by exacerbating things, made it clear that work/life balance isn’t just a buzz phrase; it is a serious, serious challenge and something that employers now understand better than they ever did before.

As our panelists indicated, we all learned to listen a little more than we used to, and we learned how to more empathic to the needs and challenges of employees. Many of us learned how to be better managers because, in short, that’s what had to happen. We learned that making sales quotas, hitting deadlines, and reaching quarterly goals are not the only things that keep people up at night.

We also learned how to pivot — again, because we had to — and look for new ways to carry out our missions, make payroll each week, keep people employed, and keep the doors open.

In short, we’ve learned a lot — about pandemics, business, life, and ourselves. This is not a silver lining to this horrible crisis — there are none of those. It’s simply reality.

What’s also reality is that the hard decisions and the myriad challenges are not over — not by a long shot. Now, we have to determine how we’re going to execute all these things we’ve learned when life and work go back to normal, or something approaching it.

We have to decide how our businesses will function when it’s safe for everyone to come back to the office or the classroom or the restaurant. We’ve learned that people can work from home, but is that the best place to work — for the company and the employee? And there are other questions, including those related to how we can continue to listen, understand, and be empathic when we’re no longer in crisis mode.

These are just some of the things we need to think about as we mark a dubious milestone — a year of coping with a global pandemic.

It’s been a year to learn, reflect, adapt, and change. And we’re far from being done with any of those things.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

Things Are Heating Up

Hot Oven Cookies Seizes Growth Opportunities During Pandemic


COVID Tails

Pandemic Has Forced This ‘Pet Resort’ to Consolidate and Pivot


Words to Live By

Greenfield Recorder Stays Locally Focused on Pandemic — and Everything Else


The Latest Word

At Hadley Printing, the Presses Have Started Rolling Again


Root Causes

For This Dental Practice, COVID Has Brought Myriad Challenges

 

Coronavirus

Words to Live By

Joan Livingston

Joan Livingston says reporters are working hard remotely, but she’s looking forward to the unique energy of a full newsroom.

Late last winter, Joan Livingston and her team at the Greenfield Recorder were planning a comprehensive, multi-part series of articles marking the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. But, as businesses of all kinds can attest, plans made in February had a way of shifting in March.

“We were planning a series on suffrage; it was going to run, and we stopped that immediately,” said Livingston, editor in chief of a daily publication that covers some 30 communities in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. But while the editorial focus may have changed — we at BusinessWest also remember, quite clearly, those early days of all COVID stories, all the time — the Recorder’s philosophy of hyper-local coverage did not change.

“That has remained our focus, how those communities have been impacted,” she said. “We had to shift gears pretty fast. We weren’t expecting this; no one was expecting this.”

Michael Moses, publisher of the Recorder and several other community newspapers in Western Mass. and New Hampshire, remembers closing all the buildings on March 16 and setting up reporters, designers, salespeople, and others at home.

“At that point, everyone wanted to work remotely, so we took steps to make sure they were able to work from home,” Moses said. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have a lot of time for planning for that, but everything came together pretty well. From an IT perspective, we were already teed up with our front-end system for the news to operate from anywhere, and that flexibility certainly helped us. So it was an essentially seamless transition.”

Since then, the newspaper offices have been open to employees who need to use them, from customer-service staff to the business offices, as well as some reporters, but in general, much of the work of producing these daily and weekly publications has continued remotely.

“A few people work only from home, some are hybrid and come in half the week, and then there are people like myself, who work in the newsroom all the time,” Livingston said of the environment at the Recorder, which is headquartered in downtown Greenfield. “We wear masks when we talk to each other, and we practice safe-distancing rules, but I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

That said, “I’m impressed with our hardworking staff,” Livingston went on. “They continue to generate coverage — that’s one good thing the pandemic did not stop. They’ve been great.”

Like all community newspapers with a wide coverage area, the reporters tend to stick to specific geographic beats, getting to know their communities intimately. The pandemic has shuttered municipal offices to the public and canceled annual events, making a reporter’s traditional in-person contacts harder to come by.

“I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

However, “business hasn’t stopped in terms of what’s happening in town governments, which we cover pretty heavily,” she added. “Some of it’s done virtually, we’ve had annual town meetings in cars or a field, and people have been inventive about trying to be safe during this time. That has been nothing like being in person, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now.”

At the same time, readers’ reliance on locally generated news is more critical than ever, especially in a year when locals need to understand how COVID-19 affects them personally, yet messages from national media sources and (especially) the internet have ranged at times from sensationalized to misleading.

That reporters are delivering that news by communicating with team members remotely is all the more impressive, Livingston noted. “Our computer system allows us to work anywhere, and that’s really helpful.”

It’s a slightly smaller team these days, too, she added.

“We had some layoffs after a few months [of the pandemic], and the paper got smaller because businesses are struggling and advertising is not their priority. But I’m impressed by the work ethic of the staff because we are down a few people, and hopefully, when things change, we’ll be able to restock those positions. But they’ve picked up the slack, and I’m impressed.”

Moses sees a silver lining in this year’s shifts in the way people work, because the industry was already moving in some ways toward more remote work, or at least asking questions about the best use of physical space.

“This has allowed us to accelerate where we were going anyway, so there are some positives to all this,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’re always trying to find efficiencies, and I want to be able to draw on those efficiencies.”

That’s not to say publishing hasn’t been challenging this year; it certainly has. “No surprise there, but, thankfully, we’ve been able to manage through it, and as difficult as it’s been, everyone has stepped up pretty well, regardless of which part of the business they’re functioning in.”

The Recorder did eventually get to that series on suffrage over the summer, examining the issue over a period of weeks, not only from a national perspective, but also — and maybe more importantly — through the lens of local history, local organizations, and local viewpoints.

That’s how the newspaper has continued to handle COVID-19 as well.

“I’m reminded every day that, on a whole range of subjects, whether or not they’re health-related, we’re helping readers manage through this, giving them critical news they need, and trying to provide them the right local information they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” Moses said. “That’s even more critical now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

Things Are Heating Up

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand, not retrench, and set new and ambitious goals for the future.

For many small-business owners, 2020 has been a year to hunker down. To focus on survival. To put plans for expansion on hold and devote time and energy to simply getting to next month, or even next week.

Not so for Sheila and Dan Coon, owners of Hot Oven Cookies.

For them, 2020 has been a year to take their brand to places, and a level, it had never been before, and to foster plans to take it further still in the years to come. It’s been a time to establish themselves downtown and uptown, as they like to say (we’ll explain later), and expand not only the footprint, but also the product lines, including cookie dough by the pint — ‘dough to go,’ as they call it.

There has been some good fortune, or serendipity, if you will, along the way, and some strong evidence that cookies have become a comfort food in the midst of this global pandemic — there’s even talk of a possible cookie shortage for the holidays. But mostly, this has been about entrepreneurial spirit and seizing opportunities when they have come about — traits that have defined this venture from the start.

About a year or so ago, none of what has transpired since seemed likely or even possible. In fact, as Sheila recalls, the husband-and-wife team were thinking about packing it in and turning the oven off for good.

Indeed, by late 2019, the company, then located at 1597 Main St. in Springfield, had endured several months of turmoil with its landlord over conditions that had made it increasingly difficult to do business — no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, for example. By mid-November, matters had come to a head, and the company had essentially ceased activity in that location, operating for a time out of its Cookie Cart (a food truck of sorts) until its pipes froze in the winter.

The two partners eventually went back to their storefront at the behest of customers, but when they did, it was late February, just before the pandemic arrived and a wave of restrictions on small businesses like this one went into effect.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad,’” she recalled, adding that, instead of shutting down, they decided to hang in — mostly due to the strong loyalty displayed by long-time customers.

That decision to persevere became just the first of many watershed moments over the past nine months or so. The company has since opened two new locations — one in Sixteen Acres at the Bicentennial Plaza (that’s the ‘uptown’ location) and then another (a replacement for the old site) further south on Main Street in Springfield, in a location formerly, and briefly, occupied by a Delaney’s Market. Both opened just last month.

Sheila knew about the downtown location and had her eye on it — sort of. She had long thought it out of her reach price-wise, but then, there was some of that serendipity.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad.’”

“I remember saying to someone, ‘if I could open up where Delaney’s was, I would do it in a heartbeat,’” she told BusinessWest. “It was wishful thinking, but two days later I got a phone call, and someone said, ‘hey, we have the keys, would you like to go see it?’

“We came to see it a few days after we opened Allen Street, and we thought, ‘this is beyond our reach,’” she continued. “But our brand reputation preceded us, and the landlord was extremely willing to work with us because he wanted us here. And here we are.”

In addition to those two locations, the company still operates the Cookie Cart, which has been parked at a number of area colleges, businesses, and even private residences for birthday parties and anniversaries, and also has a kiosk at Bradley International Airport, which has been idled by the pandemic — the one aspect of the venture to be slowed by COVID-19.

As BusinessWest talked with Sheila at the downtown location on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, customers steadily filed into the store. At one point, the line became long enough that she hit pause to go help her employee behind the counter.

It has been like this pretty much since the location opened, she said, adding that the Hot Oven brand — featuring more than 100 flavors, including staples like Dark Chocolate + Seal Salt Chip, Boozy Cake Batter Sugar, and Coquito Snookerdoodle — has always been popular and sought out by those in this market and others residing well outside it.

And the pandemic has made it even more popular, she believes, theorizing that the cookies provide a measure of comfort, a measure of normal, at a time when people are craving both.

Indeed, when asked how the downtown was doing since opening, she started with “wow,” paused for a second, and put it in perspective.

“My husband and I had a logistical meeting before we opened both the shops,” she recalled. “And the conversation went something like this: ‘we’re moving two blocks over to a new location and new customer base, and we’re moving uptown to another location; it’s going to take a while for people to catch on that we’re here.’

“Nope … that hasn’t been the case,” she went on. “Business down here for us has been double or triple what we’re doing two blocks over. And uptown is a beast of a shop — we sell out every day.”

Looking ahead, Sheila said the company is looking forward to the day when the kiosk at Bradley can open and become a strong source of revenue that can finance future expansion — perhaps into Worcester, Boston, and other cities. And there has long been talk of franchising this brand and taking it well beyond its Western Mass. roots.

For the immediate future, though, the two have their hands full with the two new locations and the brisk business they are witnessing.

There have not been too many business-expansion stories during this pandemic, but this is certainly one of them.

Call it a feel-good story if you like, but this is also, and especially, a taste-good story. And a very intriguing one at that.

 

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

Coronavirus

Growing Need for Tents Is Helping Company Through a Trying Year

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents his company supplied to the High Street Clinic in Springfield, an example of how the pandemic has created some opportunities while robbing the company of many others.

Greg Jerome didn’t want to get into any specific revenue numbers, but he made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a year to forget for his business, Westfield-based Jerome’s Party Plus.

But he also made it clear that, if not for certain aspects of the pandemic, the numbers would be even worse.

Indeed, for this venture, and others like it, tent rentals are a big part of the portfolio. And while the pandemic has wiped all kinds of tent-worthy events off the calendar — from weddings to graduation parties to town gatherings like ‘taste of’ events — it has also driven considerable need for this item, especially over the past several weeks as sectors of the economy and specific types of businesses began to reopen.

That list includes restaurants, summer camps, and even churches, said Jerome, president of this family-run business that has 200 tents in its inventory, noting that his crews have been kept busy putting up tents in recent weeks, and not so much taking them down, because this year, when a tent goes up, it stays up for a while —perhaps the whole summer and beyond.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now.”

“And that’s just one of the things that makes this year very different,” he told BusinessWest, noting that going back to March, when he first installed a tent for Baystate Health for COVID-19 testing, the company has been involved with some unique undertakings.

However, he made it clear that, while he’s renting out tents, there is still a good supply available in the warehouse. Meanwhile, he’s not renting out much of anything else.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now,” said Jerome, adding that, while there is hope that some of these items may soon get back into circulation, the picture was further clouded by the cancelation of the Big E for 2020.

“The Big E cancellation will be our greatest loss of revenue this year,” said Jerome, noting that the Eastern States Exposition is his biggest customer and the fair is by far his biggest single event. “The cancellation of the fair certainly took the wind out of our sails; we always get excited during the push to install 150 tents and 3,500 chairs.”

For now, Jerome said his company is trying to make the most of the sudden, and still-surging, need for tents as businesses and institutions search for ways to carry on during the pandemic — often by moving activities and services outdoors. And his large inventory, especially when it comes to the bigger models, has certainly helped in this regard.

New and certainly non-traditional tent clients include several restaurants, including Shortstop Bar & Grill in Westfield, Tucker’s in Southwick, Captain Jimmy’s in Agawam, and Masse’s in Chicopee, among many others, as well as Blessed Sacrament Church in Westfield, which held services outdoors for several weeks and still uses a tent for those uncomfortable with going inside. The company has already supplied tents for several nonprofits with summer day programs, including the Greater Westfield YMCA and a few Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as the West Springfield Parks & Recreation Department.

It has also provided tents and other items for a number of drive-in COVID-testing sites operated by Baystate Health, including facilities in Westfield, Ware, Greenfield, and three locations in Springfield. This work goes back to mid-March when the company was hired by Baystate Health to create what Jerome called “cubicles” inside the new triage facility erected just outside the emergency room.

Elaborating, he said the company provided the piping, and another vendor supplied corrugated boards that were attached to the framework to create 33 private spaces.

For the drive-in sites, the company created a model that was eventually used at all six locations, facilities that also included a greeters’ tent and a heated tent-within-a-tent with clear sides that served as a type of nurses’ station.

These intriguing projects have certainly helped, but those thousands of items gathering dust and not seeing the light of day are the bigger story.

And they explain why this is certainly a different kind of year, when the pandemic has generated some business, but taken away so much more.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

‘The Place Where COVID Goes to Die’ Is Still in Recovery Mode

Rebecca Merigian

Rebecca Merigian says the pandemic, by canceling all kinds of events and shuttering businesses like MGM Springfield, put a huge dent in dry-cleaning volume.

Rebecca Merigian can’t find too many silver linings in this COVID-19 pandemic.

But at least people still need clean shirts for those Zoom meetings. Dress pants? Not so much.

“We’ve seen a lot of shirt business, and we’ve actually picked up quite a few new shirt customers,” said Merigian, owner of Springfield-based Park Cleaners, adding quickly that most of her other steady supplies of business have run dry or mostly dry over the past three and half months.

That includes MGM Springfield, which awarded her a lucrative contract just before it opened nearly two years ago — one that sends uniforms for all its employees her way — that effectively tripled her business volume. The casino closed in mid-March, as did a host of other businesses, and Park Cleaners was just one of many local vendors to take a huge hit when it did.

“We’ve heard from them … they’re starting to bring some employees back, so we’re on call,” she said, adding quickly that she’s not sure how many will be back and just how much work will be coming back in.

But the fallout goes well beyond the casino, said Merigian, second-generation owner of this family business. As large numbers of people continue to work at home she noted, there is far less need to get dress clothes cleaned and pressed. But beyond workplace clothes, the company has been hit by the almost complete stop to many types of events for which people needed clothes cleaned and pressed.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for,” she said, adding that overall, she projects that business if off a whopping 85% to 90% from a year ago, with MGM’s closure being easily the biggest hit.

She has been helped by the stay-at-home trend in a few respects, though; she reports that people are being more diligent about cleaning in general, and especially about cleaning linens, bedding, and other items. Meanwhile, some don’t want to spend their time doing the wash, so they’re sending it in to be cleaned and folded.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for.”

“Cleanliness has definitely been on people’s minds through all of this, and that’s helped keep us going,” she said, adding that she’s also noted an uptick in work cleaning uniforms for first responders, in part because there’s a nice discount forwarded to those frontline workers.

But even healthcare-related business is down, she noted, adding that many practices have only recently reopened and are seeing fewer patients. So if they dropped off items to be cleaned twice a week before the pandemic, now they’re down to once a week.

In the meantime, there are now a host of new protocols and safety precautions to follow at this business that has, informally, marketed itself as “the place where COVID goes to die,” Merigian said.

“It’s like starting over or starting a new business, with a very uncertain future — the risks are very high,” she said when asked to explain what the past several months have been like. “There are new rules, and we have to make sure that anyone who deals with contaminated laundry is fully prepared; we’ve had to change the way we do business, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

Like many business owners we spoke with, Merigian said that, while the focus has been on companies reopening — and that’s important — the issue isn’t whether they’re doing business, it’s whether they can make any money if they are. And for ventures in many sectors, the quick answers are either ‘no’ or ‘yes, but not enough.’

And there are obvious questions about when those answers will change.

Merigian says she’s heard from officials at MGM who tell her that some employees will be coming back ‘soon,’ and that some business will follow. But how much business remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, questions remain about when gatherings like weddings, business functions, and even funerals will return. And working from home may become a long-term proposition for many workers — if not something approaching permanent.

But, like most business we’ve spoken with in recent weeks, Merigian is looking optimistically toward fall and the possible return of something approaching ‘normal.’

“The fall definitely looks good, so long as COVID subsides or they find a vaccine,” she said. “I see a very good fall, but then I tend to be optimistic.

“It’s a waiting game,” she went on, referring specifically to MGM, but also to all those other events — and sources of business — she mentioned at the top. Until weddings and funerals resume and more workers return to the offices they left in early March, generating business will be a challenge.

In the meantime, at least people will need clean shirts for all those Zoom meetings.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

The New Math

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

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

Jim Barrett

Jim Barrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic has in some ways forced the issue.

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

Beyond the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forms and Function

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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