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COVID-19 Special Coverage

Survival Mode

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’ that have generated excitement for the Big E — but also raised money at a time revenue is badly needed.

When the Big E recently announced the sale of 100 ‘golden tickets’ — lifetime passes for the holder and a guest, plus parking and other perks — for $1,000 each, it was an exciting promotion for fans of the annual fair and a way to keep the event top of mind during a year when it was called off because of the pandemic.

But it was also a way to raise money — just like other recent efforts at the Eastern States Exposition (ESE), from drive-up concession events to the opening of a cream-puff bakery over the summer.

“We’ve been busy trying to survive,” ESE President and CEO Gene Cassidy told BusinessWest. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to generate resources and pay some bills. When you’re in this business, you need people, and at this particular moment, society has had to pivot in such a way that you can’t have gatherings.”

That $100,000 infusion from the golden-ticket promotion won’t come close to making up for this year’s loss of the actual fair, but it’s not insignificant, either.

“Large fairs, by and large, are supported by taxpayers. We’re not. We have to pay our own way,” Cassidy said, citing what he calls “toxic positivity” — basically a false sense of security — by many in the fair business. “Folks have this positive outlook; they know their doors are not going to close because the state government is going to support them. Here at Eastern States, if we don’t bring people to our events, there’s no income, and there’s no Eastern States.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, the Delaney House, and D. Hotel & Suites in Holyoke, has a hand in several types of hospitality businesses — and he’s optimistic about all of them for 2021. The challenge is getting through 2020.

“I’m not worried about the restaurant business — for restaurants that survive this,” he said, adding a sobering caveat to that first thought, and citing oft-repeated projections that one in five restaurants in the U.S. might not survive COVID-19.

“I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level,” he went on. “People will go out and eat. The trick is to survive.”

Rosskothen has been creative in his operations, offering getaway packages at the adjoining Delaney House and D. Hotel where hotel guests can have a fancy dinner set up in their room, with tables, chairs, candles, and menus, and end their stay with a spa treatment. “It’s a nice, safe, romantic getaway.”

The way tourism and hospitality businesses rely on each other in Western Mass. has also come into starker relief, he added.

“ I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level.”

“A lot of my peers are working hard to develop a vacation concept and attracting people from nearby, meaning Boston, Worcester, and Vermont,” he noted, adding that a family might drive in for Bright Nights and stay overnight at a hotel, eat at restaurants, and do some shopping. “Even stopping at a gas station is an economic multiplier.”

That said, Rosskothen’s hotel occupancy is running between 45% and 50% — not quite the 60% level needed to turn a profit, but a strong number during the pandemic. In fact, Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), said the region’s hotel-occupancy rate closely tracks what D. Hotel is seeing.

“We’ve had a beautiful autumn, people have come to explore, and the hotel occupancy reflects that,” she noted. “Last September, we ran about 70%, but we also had a Big E. Taking that out, this year was still 44%. Boston was in the teens. They’re nowhere near climbing out of this. We’ve been hit, but not as hard as some metropolitan areas.”

Rosskothen said he’s encouraged by the numbers, but part of that success is due to the efforts hotels are making to keep guests safe — in his case, fogging rooms, changing every sheet and towel, and disinfecting every surface between guests — and to let visitors know that. “Staying in a hotel is, for me, a very safe thing as long as it’s a responsible hotel. If people want a break in their routine, there it is.”

 

Keeping the Lights On

In a typical year, Greater Springfield’s hotel-occupancy rate is around 64%, just a tick or two below the national average, but well below a city like Boston, which hovers around 79% occupancy. This year’s reversal represents one welcome trend this year — a perception, by families from metro areas, of Western Mass. as, well, a nice place to get away.

That phenomenon also happened when tourism and hospitality were badly dented following 9/11, Wydra said. “We’re more of a rural location, and we kind of pulled up a little sooner.”

That said, the region relies on its tourist attractions, which are “demand drivers,” she told BusinessWest. “How the hotels and restaurants do is a byproduct of those attractions — it’s the whole package. We’re trying to build on what we can and give people a reason to come to Western Mass.”

That’s why the announcement that Bright Nights would take place at Forest Park in Springfield this holiday season “is the best news we’ve had in the last 30 to 60 days.”

Other winter attractions will be open as well, albeit altered in some ways by the pandemic. At Yankee Candle Village in South Deerfield, families can still walk through the facility’s classic winter wonderland, but the visit with Santa at the end will be a video chat, followed by a photo with St. Nick taken using green-screen technology. Reservations will be required, and no walk-ins will be accepted.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield will also require reservations for anyone who doesn’t have a season ski pass. The lodge will primarily be used for operational staging and employee use, and the resort will add outdoor features such as firepits and seating areas while offering outdoor food and beverage service via hot-beverage huts, a walk-up bar, and a pavilion area.

As winter gives way to spring — a time when everyone is hoping a widespread vaccine program begins to put the pandemic in the rear view — “I think there will be pent-up demand” for things to do, Wydra said. “We have quarantine fatigue right now; people want to gather, they want to be with people, and that’s our business. I’m encouraged by news of a vaccine and the progress made on that front. And people are still looking for safety protocols. We’ve got to lead with the fact that they can have a safe visit in our region.”

In the meantime, virtually everyone in the tourism and hospitality world has had to pivot, sometimes dramatically. “I’m proud of our attractions and hotels and restaurants, all of whom had to break from traditional business models and alter the way they do business during the pandemic,” she said. “We really pivoted from being destination marketers in the region to destination managers.”

Explaining that thought, she said communication was ramped up among the region’s businesses and attractions, with a lot of give and take and learning from each other’s experiences.

“For a period of time, we pulled back on the marketing because it made no sense — people weren’t traveling, and they didn’t know where they could go or what to do during the summer,” Wydra went on. “All things considered, we are holding our own. We’re nowhere near where we were in previous years, but when you look around the rest of the state and the rest of the country, we don’t look as bad as many regions. We’re coping.”

John Doleva was certainly hoping for a different sort of 2020 than the one he experienced as president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Hall unveiled a $23 million renovation this year, and the class of 2020 was one of the most star-studded in memory, headlined by the late Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. The pandemic certainly cut into the crowds that might be expected after such a renovation, and the 2020 induction was moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

The class of 2021 induction ceremony will be back in Springfield, he noted. But, perhaps more notably, after the Hall reopened on July 8 following a forced closure due to the state’s economic shutdown, visitorship has been about 55% of the prior year’s rate — a decent number, all things considered.

“Moms and dads who are at home want something to do with the kids on an afternoon when it’s raining,” he said. “And the NBA season going through the summer kept basketball top of mind.”

Despite the dueling travel advisories between the two states, the Hall has actually seen more visitors from Connecticut than Massachusetts this year. “People know they can come for a few hours, be safe, and go home,” Doleva said. “I thought 35% to 40% of the prior year would be a good year, so we are pleased with where we are right now.”

It helps that the Hall, whose revenues were nearly 100% admissions-driven when its current building first opened in 2002, operates under a much different model today, with visitorship accounting for about 16% of revenue. That’s good, Doleva added, because visitor numbers can fluctuate with something as minor as a jump in gas prices, let alone a global pandemic.

“We have forecasted we can survive in COVID mode all the way through 2021. I call that a glide path in terms of cash flow,” he told BusinessWest. “But we expect we’ll be out of this by April or May, which positions us for a great summer season.”

 

Measurable Impact

The Big E, on the other hand, can’t sustain its current level of business — meaning, if the fair gets called off next fall … well, it’s not a scenario anyone wants to think about, for myriad reasons, starting with the Big E’s annual economic impact on the region, estimated at close to three-quarters of a billion dollars, all on an operating budget just over $20 million.

“That’s what makes Eastern States so important to so many people, whether you’re somebody who loves the exposition or a neighbor providing parking or a local business providing laundry services or printing services, or a hotel,” Cassidy said. “The breadth of the impact of the fair is very profound, and when it’s been compromised, like it was in 2020 … well, it really can’t sustain much more than what it’s experienced to date.”

News on a vaccine is welcome in the fair world, he added — “it can’t get here soon enough” — but he wonders how quickly people will want to gather en masse, even after a vaccine is widely distributed.

“People’s sensibilities are clearly going to be influenced by COVID. They say if you do something for two weeks, you can create a habit. Now, add up the number of weeks we’ve been sequestered or people haven’t gone out to dinner. There will clearly be changes in people’s sensibilities. But humans are social animals, and we like being with each other. I take some comfort in that.”

Rosskothen, who hosted a Big E event at the Delaney House recently, featuring fair food and craft vendors, has pivoted in other ways as well, from letting people reserve entire small rooms at that restaurant to planning to keep the outdoor tent up — with heaters running, of course — well into the cold months.

His restaurant business is around 75% to 80% of a normal year, in fact, with the biggest change coming in the volume of takeout and delivery, which currently account for about one-third of sales. He’s also bullish on next year’s events slate at the Log Cabin, assuming crowds are able to gather once again.

“Next year could be the best year we’ve ever had, if we can do all those events. They’re social events — weddings, showers,” he said. “I feel like the social-event business will boom next year.

He’s more reserved about corporate events, feeling that companies will be more timid and want to stick with remote and hybrid events for a while. “But I feel like, when social events are allowed, people will do it. I’m optimistic that the event business will be very good next year.”

Wydra is similarly optimistic, although the region is entering a winter season bereft of large-scale events like the AHL All-Star Classic in 2019 and Red Sox Winter Weekend at the start of 2020.

Even so, she said, “we have tried to be mindful of the phases that our state is going through, and I think our attractions and hotels and restaurants have done everything they can to keep guests top of mind, in terms of offering a safe environment for them.”

Those tourist attractions have come to rely on the GSCVB more than ever for regional destination marketing, she added, because their own budgets have been stretched to the limit this year, and marketing efforts are easily cut when a business is struggling just to cover the mortgage and payroll.

“So many attractions are working so hard to make sure we’re in good shape,” said Doleva, who serves as the bureau’s board chair. “We have an aggressive plan to market and promote the region.”

Wydra agreed. “We’re trying to get the message out there, what these attractions have to offer. Our role as been heightened,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot throughout this pandemic. We’re a resilient industry, and we will come back.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning

Review, Refocus, and Reset

By Julie Quink, CPA, CFE

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

This year has been riddled with a series of unexpected and unanticipated events for business owners and organizations, the height of which continues to be the pandemic and its continued significant impact.

With the uptick in positive cases continuing, business owners and management continue to face difficult business decisions and worries surrounding the financial and safety impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus. With much on their minds running a business day to day, it becomes difficult for business owners, management, and even accounting professionals to ‘see the forest for the trees,’ as they say, and, as a result, they often set aside the opportunity to plan.

Using the lessons learned in 2020, there is no better time to review, refocus, and reset.

Review

Countless impacts, some quantifiable and some undocumented or unknown, exist within organizations resulting from the events thus far in 2020. Among them:

• An unprecedented amount of fraud has occurred, impacting unemployment claims, accounting systems, and data breaches, to name a few areas of concern;

• Key accounting standards that were intended to be implemented in 2019 and 2020, including the lease-accounting and revenue-recognition standards, were deferred by the standard setters to ease the strain on companies in this high-pressure economic atmosphere;

• Significant stimulus funds have been made available to the business community through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program, the Provider Relief Fund for hospitals and healthcare providers, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program;

• Businesses that have been severely impacted by the pandemic may qualify for the Credit for Sick and Family Leave and the Employee Retention Credits;

• Remote working has become the norm out of necessity rather than convenience as businesses try to keep employees safe, while maintaining the desired level of production;

• Not-for-profit organizations are feeling the pinch of decreased donation levels at a time when their services are needed the most; and

• Interruption of business globally due to the closure of various countries, limited travel, and availability of resources has contributed to the economic challenges for businesses.

Typically, reviewing the results and events of a previous year or period is instrumental in planning for an upcoming year. For many organizations, pivoting and reframing have partially replaced planning in 2020, sometimes just to survive.

Refocus

If there is any bright spot in the current environment, it is the ability to step back and refocus. Bringing the lessons learned from 2020 thus far into clear view, organizations can’t necessarily do what they have always done and survive. Some key areas that may need a refocus include:

• Technology and security of accounting systems and sensitive data;

• The review and planning for changing accounting standards. We know there is potential for new standards or revisions of existing standards to assist in evaluating the impacts of the pandemic on financial reporting. In addition, the timeline for implementation of standards that have already been deferred may be moved even further down the road.

• The use of PPP and other stimulus funds, including employer credits, requires additional consideration from a financial-reporting and a tax-compliance perspective. Will additional stimulus funds be made available in 2021?

• Long-term remote working may encourage the movement from traditional brick-and-mortar locations going forward.

• Fundraising efforts of not-for-profit organizations may need to continue to shift and adapt to our current virtual environment, with gathering restrictions for physical events still in place. The balance of budgeting between mission and funding will seemingly continue for the next few years. Will this spur mergers of not-for-profits to allow for continued mission?

• A shift of international business perspective, including supply chain, will need to continue to occur, perhaps to source more products and services locally.

A common thread weaved in among the suggested areas of refocus is the impact they have on the financial health and well-being of an organization. Taking the time to strategize and refocus in key areas opens new opportunities to shift and reset. With many demands on business owners and management to manage day-to-day operations, this process can be easily lost but remains critical.

Reset

The resetting process is the opportunity to remove the 2020 eyeglasses and pick up a prescription with new, improved lenses for 2021. This ‘new normal’ that organizations are facing encourages outside-the-box thinking, as the original box may not exist anymore or may look entirely different than before. Resetting may continue to be critical to an organization’s success and survival. Resetting in some key areas will help the organization be agile and adaptable to change.

It is clear that business owners and management may not be able to embark on the resetting process all on their own. The reliance on IT, accounting, legal counsel, investment advisors, and business consultants, included in an organization’s team of professionals, will become increasingly important. These spokes in your professional team’s wheel are critical to maneuver through the upcoming year.

Traditionally, strategic planning has encompassed perhaps a three, five-, and 10-year plan. Internal planning — and planning externally with your accounting professionals — have moved to a shorter-term focus, including many transactional and situational planning opportunities, as a result of the continuously changing environment, additional stimulus-fund opportunities, and compliance requirements.

Business owners and management do not need to hold all the information necessary to reset and reframe, but they do need to know the appropriate people to whom they can reach out.

Takeaways

As business owners and management think about the year ahead using the 2020 rearview mirror, one thing is for sure: they should have their team of professionals on speed dial.

If they do not have the right professionals in place, now is the time to make changes. The guidance provided by the spokes on the professional wheel should not be underestimated because one thing is clear: no one of us has all the answers to navigate the new normal, but collectively the team can help provide the input needed to move the organization to the next levels.

Remember: review, refocus, and reset.

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE is the managing principal of West Springfield-based Burkhart, Pizzanelli, P.C., certified public accountants; (413) 781-5609.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced a series of targeted measures to disrupt the increasing trend of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Gov. Charlie Baker announced these changes at a time where public-health data has indicated that cases are rising, with cases up by 278% and hospitalizations up by 145% since Labor Day. These measures are meant to disrupt rising trends now, so the Commonwealth can keep the economy and schools open for residents and prevent the need to roll back to an earlier phase of the state’s reopening plan.

All orders and advisories will be effective starting Friday, Nov. 6.

The revised stay-at-home advisory instructs residents to stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., except for activities such as going to work, running critical errands to get groceries and address health needs, and taking a walk.

Baker also issued a new executive order that requires the early closure of certain businesses and activities each night at 9:30 p.m. Effective Nov. 6, the following businesses and activities must close to the public each day between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.:

• Restaurants (in-person dining must cease at 9:30 p.m., but takeout and delivery may continue for food and non-alcoholic beverages, but not alcohol);

• Liquor stores and other retail establishments that sell alcohol must cease alcohol sales at 9:30 p.m., but may continue to sell other products;

• Adult-use marijuana sales (not including medical marijuana);

• Live theaters and movie theaters (including drive-in), and performance venues (indoor and outdoor);

• Youth and adult amateur sports activities, including golf facilities;

• Recreational boating and boating businesses;

• Outdoor recreational experiences;

• Casinos and horse tracks;

• Driving and flight schools;

• Zoos, botanical gardens, wildlife reserves, and nature centers;

• Close-contact personal services (such as hair and nail salons);

• Gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs;

• Indoor and outdoor pools; and

• Museums, cultural and historical facilities, and guided tours.

Baker also signed an updated order related to face coveringsrequiring all people to wear face coverings in all public places, even where they are able to maintain six feet of distance from others. The revised order still allows for an exception for residents who cannot wear a face covering due to a medical or disabling condition, but it allows employers to require employees to provide proof of such a condition. It also allows schools to require that students participating in in-person learning provide proof of such a medical or disabling condition.

Baker also signed an updated order restricting gatherings. The new order  limits indoor gatherings at private residences to 10 people, and outdoor gatherings at private residences to 25 people. The limit on gatherings held in public spaces and at event venues (such as wedding venues) remains the same. The new order also requires that all gatherings (regardless of size or location) must end and disperse by 9:30 p.m.

The new gatherings order also requires that organizers of gatherings report known positive COVID-19 cases to the local health department in that community and requires organizers to cooperate with contact tracing. The gatherings order authorizes continued enforcement by local health and police departments and specifies that fines for violating the gathering order will be $500 for each person above the limit at a particular gathering.

Daily News

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut updated its travel advisory this week to include Massachusetts among the states triggering travel restrictions.

Massachusetts residents spending more than 24 hours in Connecticut are required to complete the Connecticut Travel Form prior to arrival. Massachusetts residents are also required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival — or for the duration of their stay, if shorter — or receive a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours prior to arrival in the state and provide that documentation by e-mail to the commissioner of Public Health. Connecticut residents spending more than 24 hours in Massachusetts within 14 days prior to returning home are also required to complete the form and quarantine or provide a negative COVID-19 test result upon their return.

This travel advisory does not apply to workers who commute back and forth between Massachusetts and Connecticut as long as they spend no more than 24 hours within Massachusetts. It also does not apply to Connecticut residents who travel to Massachusetts for work-related travel and who qualify as essential workers as designated by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency. However, it does apply to students returning home to Connecticut from Massachusetts if their stay in Massachusetts was more than 24 hours.

Connecticut updates its list of restricted states each Tuesday.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

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

COVID-19

A Second Wave?

Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols

Dr. Robert Roose says Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols — and hopes the public does so as well.

Dr. Robert Roose knows we’re all sick of this — the mask wearing, the working and learning from home, the lack of fun places to visit … all of it. He gets it. Really.

But here’s the thing.

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself,” said Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center. “And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months. Our practices need to be just as vigilant as they were in the spring and summer in order to be effective. And we need to continue to be clear, consistent, and fact-based in our messaging.”

We spoke to a few local medical leaders who all cautioned against letting ‘pandemic fatigue’ change behaviors, especially when a vaccine is still not available, infections are rising in many states (the positive-test rate has crept up in Massachusetts, too), and no one knows how the looming flu season will intersect with a still-prevalent coronavirus.

“We aren’t seeing an influx of hospitalized patients like we saw here in the Northeast in March, April, and into May, but we see the data, and it gives all of us some reason for caution, if not broader concern regarding what the colder season might bring. There’s a lot for us still to be cautious about,” Roose told BusinessWest.

That said, local hospitals have learned a lot since the spring as well, he added. “We gained a lot of knowledge we can use to directly improve the health and safety of patients and our colleagues in the community. We have also implemented ways to ensure that care can remain accessible, timely, and safer throughout the pandemic.”

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself. And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months.”

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis, chief medical officer at Holyoke Medical Center, said shortages of key supplies in the spring — not just personal protective equipment (PPE), but reagent and transport medium for test kits — led to reviews of processes that will leave hospitals more prepared if a second wave does ensue.

“This virus is unpredictable, and a lot of our early conclusions didn’t bear out,” he said. “We didn’t have lot of experience with this particular virus — how it behaves, how it’s contracted. There was a lot of back and forth in the scientific community on how to best handle it.”

While the medical community saw a great deal of variability in protocols, the goal was always to keep patients — and the community at large — safe. That’s still the case, Ahtaridis said, but part of the challenge is encouraging them to do their part.

Dr. Estevan Garcia

Dr. Estevan Garcia

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions. Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down.”

“In terms of thinking about a second wave, a lot of it will depend on the behavior of the public and that virus fatigue. We thought it would be a few weeks, and we’ve seen it drag on and on,” he noted. “The risk is the public starts to lose that caution they’ve been displaying, where they’re not wearing masks, they start to let their guard down. That can lead to a second wave in and of itself.”

Mercy is certainly not letting its guard down, Roose said.

“It’s important to recognize we will continue to maintain the safety protocols in our care that have managed to keep infections much lower than they otherwise would have,” he said. “We’ve managed to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate clusters of infection in hospitals and other settings.”

Local medical leaders hope that trend continues — and they’re doing much more than hoping.

 

Virus, Meet Virus

That’s because there’s always a new wrinkle — the latest being flu season, which is right around the corner.

“There’s concern about the cooler weather driving everyone indoors, and concern with the flu as well,” said Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer for Cooley Dickinson Health Care. “We’re beginning to see upper respiratory infections, which are concerns as we move into the fall and winter timeframe. But is it COVID? Is it a cold? Is it the flu? We treat them differently, and we need to make sure we’re isolating the COVID cases.”

Garcia said area hospitals have engaged in a remarkable show of cooperation over the past eight months, communicating with each other on a regular basis and making sure sufficient testing is available. With testing more widely available than it was in the spring, he encouraged not only symptomatic people to be tested, but healthy individuals planning on visiting a grandparent.

He and Ahtaridis both noted that some countries — Australia being the most-cited example — saw much less severe flu seasons than usual earlier this year, and experts credit the widespread use of masks and social-distancing protocols.

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season,” Ahtaridis said. “But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

Garcia agreed. “Because of the protections they’ve been taking for COVID, some countries have seen a less severe flu season. But that shouldn’t give people a false sense of security; you should still get a flu shot, use physical distancing, mask wearing, hand washing … all those things are good against the flu.”

He worries, however, that not everyone will recognize the value in continuing COVID protocols.

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season. But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions,” he said. “Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down. That’s how we have clusters and multiple people getting infected. If we want to get kids back to school and open up businesses again, we’ve got to get through the next wave of late fall and winter and into spring, when, hopefully, there may be some availability of a vaccine.”

The colder weather will pose a challenge, he added, driving people into enclosed spaces for longer periods.

“The fatigue factor is real, but we’ve got to double our efforts to protect ourselves, so masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing are all super important as we move forward,” Garcia said. “One challenge, as we move indoors, will be social distancing at restaurants — these are places we want to continue to stay open, but let’s make sure we’re on top of it and people don’t let their guard down. We need to hold on for the next probably four to six months.”

Roose agreed that pandemic fatigue is a real phenomenon and tough to combat, especially heading into a time of the year usually packed with holiday gatherings. Where people must gather, he said, they need to remember what’s been working in Massachusetts so far.

“We can appeal to people’s sense of generosity and responsibility, their care and love for others — this is something we can do that ultimately can help protect the safety and health of others,” he said. “When you can connect it to something personal or to somebody’s values, that can be a much more effective way to understand the why behind what we’re doing.”

 

Taking the Long View

These protocols contributed to Massachusetts seeing a relaxation of its infection numbers throughout the summer, but Ahtaridis noted that the positive test rate rose from 2% to 4% recently. “It’s not a huge number, but it’s a doubling of cases, and that probably does reflect changes in behavior and risk tolerance.”

The solution? Do your part.

“Until we have a vaccine, I suspect we’re going to continue with some level of precautions and attention to safety,” he said — and perhaps some of those precautions will never go completely away. He suggested people will look at photos of crowds years from now and be able to tell, by the presence or absence of masks, whether a picture was taken before 2020 or not.

“Even if COVID goes away, even with a vaccine and the advent of better treatments for COVID, I think the public has become more aware of personal space, shared air, and hygiene,” he added. “We’ll probably see some long-term changes.”

With infection numbers still low when compared to some other states, it’s a good time to get vaccinated against the flu, Garcia said — or to get that procedure that was put off in the spring.

“During the spring, people were putting off needed care,” he said, due to both their own concerns and hospitals and other medical facilities shutting down certain treatments to make room for COVID patients. “We’re doing our best to get the message out, make sure people know it’s safe to get care. You shouldn’t put off your care. You don’t want to shut everything down moving forward.”

Roose agreed. “We have processes and procedures in place where we can continue to provide routine, elective, and necessary care while also handling people with COVID,” he said, noting that hospitals, including Mercy, have done a good job of creating separation between patients possibly exposed to coronavirus and those haven’t been exposed. “That’s an important message for the community to hear — that this system has the ability to treat you, even if there’s a second wave of infections.”

While some procedures fall into the cosmetic category, Ahtaridis added, most medical care is not purely elective, which is why hospitals, Holyoke included, have put plenty of thought and resources into making sure they’re safe spaces.

“While the risk never goes down to zero, from a risk-benefit perspective, if you have a medical need, getting it addressed is very important because unmet needs can cause bigger problems down the road,” he said.

“Hospitals tend not to be where people are getting COVID — it tends to be out in the community,” he added. “While not everything is an emergency, most of the things we do are time-sensitive, and if we let medical issues go unaddressed, the consequences can be somewhat dire. We encourage everyone to seek care as appropriate, and do it with confidence.”

And, of course, keep wearing a mask.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19

Glass Half Full

By Mark Morris

many people with a history of alcohol abuse have relapsed

Edna Rodriguez says many people with a history of alcohol abuse have relapsed during the pandemic due partly to boredom and disconnection.

Each October, as the weather becomes colder and the days get shorter, it’s not unusual to see an increase in demand for substance-abuse services due to seasonal depression. This fall, however, counselors are expecting an even larger spike in the need for their services because of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, treatment centers in Massachusetts have seen an increase in opioid-related overdoses in the patients they treat — a problem exacerbated by the fact that the drugs have become more dangerous, said Steve Winn, president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network (BHN).

Health professionals believe the problem stems from interruptions in the worldwide supply chain of illegal drugs, making it harder to get heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. As a result, what is being sold as pure heroin is often mixed with a more lethal type of fentanyl, causing the increase in overdoses and deaths.

“We don’t know if use is up, but we know the repercussions of use are more serious now than they were a year ago,” Winn told BusinessWest. “In 2018 and 2019, Massachusetts had begun to flatten the curve on opioid overdoses, but now that curve has accelerated up.”

It’s not a regional problem, he added, as the most recent data shows opioid deaths up in every county in the state.

People with substance-use disorders often have a co-occurring mental-health diagnosis, a situation that may increase their COVID-19 risk, said Millie Rivas, clinical supervisor for Outpatient Behavioral Health at Center for Human Development (CHD), adding that several factors can make people with substance-use disorders more vulnerable to coronavirus.

“Patients with a co-occurring diagnosis usually have a history of poor healthcare and poor nutrition,” she noted. “Add substance use to that, and they become a magnet for COVID-19.”

In short, the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic — and the economic turmoil that has followed in its wake — aren’t the only COVID-related factors making things tougher for those struggling with substance abuse and those striving to help them. Not by a longshot.

 

From a Distance

Even treating people with substance-use issues became more complicated when the pandemic first hit. By following CDC guidelines to keep everyone safe, one-on-one support was severely reduced, resulting in more isolation for vulnerable people who needed help.

While support has largely shifted to virtual appointments, Rivas and her staff have had to provide technical guidance, as well as their normal counsel to their clients.

“We’re doing things we aren’t accustomed to, such as training people how to use Zoom platforms and how to use their phone beyond Facebook so they can reach services and telehealth,” she said.

Working on virtual platforms allows CHD staff to interact in a more normal way with clients and observe their behavior. Rivas noted that meeting one-on-one would require clients to wear masks, making it more difficult to hear them or see their facial expressions. When clients use virtual platforms, they are also able to increase their engagement in the world.

Steven Winn

“We don’t know if use is up, but we know the repercussions of use are more serious now than they were a year ago. In 2018 and 2019, Massachusetts had begun to flatten the curve on opioid overdoses, but now that curve has accelerated up.”

“At times, going virtual has been frustrating for the client, but overall, it’s nice to have them experience an achievement like that,” Rivas said, adding that clients can now more easily connect with healthcare providers as well as family and friends, and hopefully become more engaged and feel less isolated.

While it’s not surprising that those with a history of substance abuse would be more vulnerable during a pandemic, Rivas has observed an increase in substance use among people with no diagnosed substance-use disorders. The myriad factors include health concerns, increased isolation from not going out and socializing, and anxiety about finances. “It’s not unusual for people to manage stress with one too many beers or one too many glasses of wine.”

Winn noted that clinicians at BHN have observed an increase in people coming in to talk about alcohol use and overuse. “They are self-medicating because they feel more stressed, more unhappy, and more isolated.”

Edna Rodriguez, director of Clinical Assessment and Clinical Ambulatory Programs at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, has noticed a trend during the pandemic of people having relapses and abusing alcohol after years of being clean and sober. She cited one example of a person who relapsed after five years of sobriety. Clients tell her they start drinking again out of boredom and being stuck at home.

“In my opinion, since COVID hit, we’ve seen an increase in the glorifying of alcohol use,” Rodriguez said, noting social-media memes about people day drinking and taking Zoom calls with a drink in hand. While meant to be humorous, she explained, these messages are dangerous for people with substance-use disorders, especially when so many are feeling less connected to the community.

“Distractions that were healthy, like going to the gym, going to church, or programs that encourage people to live healthy lifestyles, have all been reduced or eliminated,” she said. “We’re in a moment of depleted connections.”

Because the pandemic creates uncertainty for everyone, Winn encourages anyone who has a question about their substance use to reach out to BHN or one of the other local agencies.

“If you’re struggling with something, reach out and ask for help. We’re all doing telehealth, so it’s safe in terms of social distancing.”

 

Heal Thyself

Providers face a dilemma of trying to help people while at the same time feeling their own stress and uncertainty about the coronavirus. Rodriguez said many of her colleagues are experiencing ‘pandemic fatigue.’

“I wish there was a book on my shelf titled ‘How to Treat Substance Use Disorders During a Pandemic,’ but we don’t have that book; we’re all new to this, and we’re still learning.”

Rodriguez and her colleagues are supporting each other by having conversations about how to stay grounded. She mentioned a ‘comfort cart’ that goes around to staff with bottles of water, soda, and treats like chocolate and candy.

“It’s a way of recognizing that everyone is stressed and needs something to comfort themselves,” she said. “The more we take care of each other, the better resource we’re going to be for our patients.”

Rivas said she often reminds her staff about the importance of self-care.

“It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re trying to take care of someone else,” she noted, adding that, among other changes since COVID-19, staff can no longer use their offices for one-on-one meetings because they are too small to accommodate proper social distancing.

As everyone is still trying to figure out how to stay safe from a virus that just won’t fade away, Rodriguez said her normal work process now includes thinking about how to take care of herself as a provider.

Yet, she remains hopeful the scientific and therapeutic communities will use their creativity to develop new ways for everyone to deal with coronavirus. “These times are calling for an honest and humble review of how we administer treatment, how we approach our patients, and how we approach ourselves as providers.”

COVID-19

PPP Loan Forgiveness 101

By Jeff Laboe, CPA

Please realize that the information available today is different than it was a four months ago, and will most likely look different two months from now, so keep that in mind while reading this article.

With all the uncertainty these days, the last thing taxpayers should be worrying about is how to complete the application for your Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness. The intent of this article is to give taxpayers an idea of the application process and forms that need to be submitted for forgiveness of the PPP loan the business received.

Jeff Laboe

Jeff Laboe

A business of any type (LLC, S-corp, sole proprietor, etc.) that received funds via a PPP loan in 2020 may apply for the forgiveness of repayment of this loan. Taxpayers who received a loan, maintained proper records, followed the Small Business Administration rules and guidelines with respect as to how the loan proceeds were spent, and performed all necessary calculations should qualify for forgiveness on the repayment of the loan or the portion of the loan that qualifies.

There are three different application forms that may have to be completed based upon your individual PPP loan program. You have 10 months from the completion of your loan period to file one of these forgiveness applications. The three forms to be used are Form 3508S, 3508EZ, and Form 3508, or the equivalent forms offered by your bank.

The first is Form 3508S, which can be used only by those who received $50,000 or less in PPP loan proceeds. The application asks taxpayers to provide the forgiveness amount requested and to certify with signatures that all the conditions were met. There are no calculations required on the application and no reductions in forgiveness due to reduced head count or salaries or wages. This form is the most straightforward.

Form 3508EZ may be used by self-employed individuals, independent contractors, or sole proprietors that have no employees and/or wages at the time of the loan-application process.

A business also qualifies to use this form if it received more than $50,000 but less than $150,000 in PPP funds, and met one of two additional scenarios:

• Salary and wages were not reduced by more than 25% during the loan period, and the employee head count was restored by the end of the chosen loan period — essentially, the net head count wasn’t affected; or

• Salary and wages were not reduced by more than 25% during the loan period and you were unable to operate the same level of business due to compliance with requirements to any work or customer safety requirements related to COVID-19. Similar to the 3508S application, there are no calculations required. Taxpayers instead need to confirm and provide support that the loan proceeds were used for eligible costs.

The last form is the standard Form 3508. This application is for all taxpayers who do not meet the thresholds to file one of the previously discussed forms. This standard application is much more detailed and complex, and may require some additional time and supporting documents. Taxpayers might want to seek assistance from their professional advisors.

“With all the uncertainty these days, the last thing taxpayers should be worrying about is how to complete the application for your Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness.”

Additionally, if your business also obtained an EIDL advance, that amount needs to be subtracted from the amount of loan proceeds that would otherwise be eligible for forgiveness. This applies for all three loan-forgiveness forms. Legislation has also been introduced (U.S. Senate Bill 4321) that details potential automatic forgiveness for any PPP loan under $150,000 if the debtee “signs and submits to the lender an attestation that the eligible recipient made a good-faith effort to comply with the requirements under section 7(a)(36) of the Small Business Act.” The status of the bill is uncertain at this time.

Once you have submitted your application, the loan provider has 60 days from the date the application was received to issue a decision to the SBA. The SBA then has 90 days to review the application and remit the forgiveness amount to the lender.

When it comes to PPP loan-forgiveness applications, remember the three different levels: less than $50,000, between $50,000 and $150,000, and above $150,000. As of now, taxpayers have to apply for forgiveness within 10 months of the end of the loan period. Be sure you complied with all the rules and guidelines on what the qualified expenses are and kept accurate and complete records. And don’t be overwhelmed by the applications. If you need assistance, there are resources for you.

 

Jeff Laboe is a senior tax associate with MP CPAs; www.thempgroupcpa.com

Law

Planning for PFML

By John Gannon, Esq. and Meaghan Murphy, Esq.

 

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

Meaghan Murphy

Meaghan Murphy

COVID-19 has created an extraordinary level of uncertainty and anxiety for businesses across the world. Since March, countless employers have been forced to dedicate just about all their energy and resources to sustaining a viable business in the face of mandatory closures, layoffs and furloughs, and ever-changing reopening regulations and guidelines.

In the midst of this chaos, it is easy to forget that the most generous paid-leave law in the country is coming to Massachusetts on Jan. 1, 2021. The Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law provides all employees up to a total of 26 weeks of paid, job-protected family and/or medical leave to each year (up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave). The PFML obligations extend to all employers in Massachusetts, regardless of size. As we approach the Jan. 1 PFML kickoff date, here are five things all businesses should be thinking about as they prepare to implement this complex new law.

 

Private-plan Exemption

The Massachusetts PFML program is a state-offered paid-leave benefit available to anyone who works in the Commonwealth. PFML is funded through a Massachusetts payroll tax paid by employees and employers with 25 or more employees. Interestingly, there is an avenue for employers to receive an exemption from collecting and paying PFML contributions. If a business offers company-provided paid-leave benefits that are greater than or equal to the benefits provided by the PFML law — typically through a private insurance carrier — it may be granted an exemption from the state PFML program.

Employers seeking an exemption need to submit an application with the state, which usually can be facilitated by the private carrier that is administrating the paid family and medical leave benefit.

Importantly, businesses that opt out of the state PFML program still need to abide by the job-protection and anti-retaliation provisions in the PFML law. Generally, employees who take family or medical leave under the law must be restored to their previous position or to an equivalent position when they return from leave, with the same status, pay, employment benefits, and seniority as of the date of leave. In addition, it is unlawful for any employer to discriminate or retaliate against an employee for exercising PFML rights (more on this below).

 

Employer-notice Obligations

Businesses are required to notify their workforce about the Massachusetts PFML program, including the new benefits and protections that apply to them. This notification includes displaying the PFML workplace poster in a highly visible location; providing written notice of contributions, benefits, and workforce protections to your eligible employees; and collecting acknowledgments of receipt of such written notice signed by all eligible employees.

Both the workplace poster and model employer-notice forms can be found on the state’s PFML website: www.mass.gov/info-details/informing-your-workforce-about-paid-family-and-medical-leave. Failure to provide the notice can lead to in a fine of $50 per employee for first violations, increasing to $300 per worker for subsequent violations.

Handbook Policies

In addition to meeting their PFML poster and written-notice requirements, employers should review and update other workplace policies that will be impacted by the new law. For example, other leave policies (e.g., sick, PTO) should be updated to note that PFML leave runs concurrently with those other leaves. Employers may also want to update attendance and related discipline policies, including procedures for requesting time off and/or call-out procedures.

It goes without saying — but we’ll say it anyway — that employers should establish and enforce their PFML policy and all other workplace policies consistently.

 

Performance Management

Employers should examine and recommit to their performance-management, discipline, and documentation policies and procedures. This is because employees who are let go or disciplined after taking PFML may have a lawsuit for retaliation if a business cannot prove the employment decision was related to poor performance or misbehavior. In fact, any adverse action taken against an employee during or within six months of PFML leave is presumed to be unlawful interference or retaliation.

As a result, employers’ expectations for performance and workplace conduct, and the consequences for failing to meet those expectations, should be clearly defined, and employers should document all such failures in a timely manner. This is critical to defending against a potential claim by an employee that his termination constitutes unlawful retaliation for his PFML leave use.

 

Training

Employers should make sure all managers receive training on performance-management and discipline policies and procedures, as well as how to properly document such issues. Managers should be disciplining employees consistently and holding them accountable for performance and discipline issues. If an employee who has used PFML leave is terminated for performance-related or disciplinary reasons, employers want to be in a position to support their lawful reasons for termination with proper documentation.

A manager turning a blind eye to performance or discipline issues, or failing to properly document them, can cost employers significantly down the road in the face of a lawsuit filed by a disgruntled employee. Well-trained managers are worth their weight in gold.

 

Bottom Line

Jan. 1 is fast approaching. Massachusetts employers need to be prepared to meet their PFML compliance obligations, which not only involves understanding how PFML benefits work, but also planning for increased frequency of employee time-off requests and longer leaves of absence. Employers with questions about how the new PFML law will impact their business should seek advice from legal counsel. u

 

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling 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. Meaghan Murphy is an associate with the firm and specializes in labor and employment law; (413) 737-4753.

Law

Taxing Decisions

By Hyman G. Darling, Esq.

As this article is being written, the election is pending, and many people are trying to consider the options relative to tax issues for the end of 2020 and going into 2021. Since no one can predict with 100% accuracy what the tax laws will be in the future, even beyond 2021, it is important to consider the options available. Taking action now will allow you (or your heirs) to save funds.

Hyman Darling

Hyman Darling

Before proceeding, a refresher on federal estate and gift taxes may be needed. The federal estate-tax and gift-tax exemption is what is known as a unified credit, which means the amount may be used to make gifts during one’s lifetime or at death, or a combination of both.

The amount currently is set at $11.58 million for 2020. If the law does not change, this amount is due to reduce to $5 million in 2026 (indexed for inflation as of 2010, so this amount will probably be $6 million). This means a person may gift up to $11.58 million during his or her lifetime or at death before any tax is due. If this amount is exceeded, a tax rate of 40% applies to the excess. Since the unified credit may be reduced, larger gifts may be considered prior to year-end before a new law is enacted next year that could be effective as of Jan. 1, 2021.

Many misconceptions apply to gifts, the most popular being the annual exclusion of $15,000 per recipient. Most people believe that, if the $15,000 amount is exceeded, the donor or the recipient must pay a tax. The law states that a person may gift up to $15,000 each year without reporting any gifts. If this amount is exceeded, then a gift-tax return is required to be filed by April 15 of the year following the gift.

But, again, no tax is due until the $11.58 million is exceeded. For example, if a person gifts to their child, there is a requirement to file a return, but the first $15,000 is ‘free,’ and the next $100,000 merely reduces the credit from $11.58 million to $11.48 million, which is still available to gift during the lifetime or at death. Thus, a person does not have to limit a gift to $15,000 as, in most cases, they will not be paying a tax. (Note that this rule is a tax rule, and does not have a relation to Medicaid planning, which treats all gifts as disqualifying for the five-year look-back period.)

If the estate credit is reduced after 2020, it is anticipated that the credit utilized this year will not adversely affect the amount a person will have available under a new law when he or she dies. So, if a person wishes to make significant gifts, they should make them before the end of the year to utilize as much of the credit as they may want.

For income-tax purposes, there are several options to consider. One easy one is the ‘above-the-line’ charitable deduction for up to $300 if given to a qualified charity. This is not for donations of clothing, as it must be a gift of cash, and it qualifies for everyone, even if a person is not itemizing.

Another significant option is that, in 2020, a minimum deduction is not required to be made from an IRA or other qualified plan. However, some people who have little to no other taxable income may still want to take a distribution as their tax bracket may be low enough to eliminate taxes this year.

“If the estate credit is reduced after 2020, it is anticipated that the credit utilized this year will not adversely affect the amount a person will have available under a new law when he or she dies. So, if a person wishes to make significant gifts, they should make them before the end of the year to utilize as much of the credit as they may want.”

In addition to this option, there is also the benefit for those age 70½ and older who may wish to make a donation to charity. Funds may be paid directly to a charity (or multiple charities) from the retirement account, and this donation will not be taxable income. The annual limit is $100,000, but the distribution does satisfy the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the taxpayer is going to make donations in any event, the IRA should be used to fund the donations.

The amount does not get added to taxable income, so the taxable amount will be less, Social Security payments may then not be taxable, and the Medicare premium will not be higher as the RMD does not get factored into the calculation.

If a taxpayer has losses to report, they may be taken and either reduce income up to $3,000 or perhaps offset gains of other assets. If a person has gains, they may wish to take the gain in 2020 with the anticipation that capital-gains rates could increase and/or income-tax rates may increase.

As with all tax and estate-planning considerations, there are many general rules with specific exceptions, so a qualified professional should be consulted prior to making any decisions. But be sure to get started soon, as decisions should be made and implemented prior the end of 2020.

 

Attorney Hyman G. Darling is a shareholder and the head of the probate/estates team at Bacon Wilson, P.C. He is a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and has been a frequent presenter for the Massachusetts Bar Assoc., MCLE, and many Springfield civic and professional groups. He is a member of the Special Needs Alliance and many local planned-giving committees, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the LLM Program at Western New England University School of Law and Bay Path University; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Daily News

BOSTON — Due to rising cases of COVID-19 connected to indoor ice hockey, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a new public-health order prohibiting indoor ice rinks and ice-skating facilities from operating from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7.

This order is in response to multiple COVID-19 clusters occurring at rinks throughout the state following games, practices, and tournaments. Neighboring states, including New Hampshire, have enacted similar temporary restrictions regarding indoor ice hockey.

There have been at least 30 clusters of COVID-19 associated with organized ice-hockey activities involving residents from more than 60 municipalities in Massachusetts. Each of these included two or more confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases, totaling 108 confirmed cases.

This pause will allow for the development of stronger COVID-19 protocols to further protect players, families, coaches, arena staff, and other participants, as well as communities surrounding hockey rinks.

Current protocols include limitations on the number of people allowed in an arena, social distancing, and other precautions. College and professional programs are exempt from this order.

Opinion

Editorial 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that, effective Monday, Oct. 5, lower-risk communities (based on COVID-19 case numbers) will be permitted to move into the second step of phase 3 of the Commonwealth’s economic reopening plan. All other communities will remain in the first step of phase 3. Gov. Charlie Baker also issued a revised gatherings order. Industry-specific guidance and protocols for a range of phase 1, 2, and 3 businesses will also be updated.

Among the Oct. 5 changes for lower-risk communities only:

• Indoor performance venues will be permitted to open with 50% capacity, with a maximum of 250 people;

• Outdoor performance venue capacity will increase to 50%, with a maximum of 250 people;

• For arcades and indoor and outdoor recreation businesses, additional activities like trampolines, obstacle courses, roller rinks, and laser tag will also be permitted to open, and capacity will increase to 50%;

• Fitting rooms will be permitted to open in all types of retail stores; and

• Gyms, museums, libraries, and driving and flight schools will also be permitted to increase their capacity to 50%.

The limit for indoor gatherings remains at a maximum of 25 people for all communities. Outdoor gatherings at private residences and in private backyards will remain at a maximum of 50 people for all communities.

Outdoor gatherings at event venues and in public settings will have a limit of 50 people in first-step communities and a limit of 100 people in lower-risk, second-step communities.

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Safe at Home

By Mark Morris

Cheryl Moran

Cheryl Moran says she increased staffers’ hours and pay to make sure they worked only at the Atrium during the pandemic.

Beth Cardillo said the arrival of COVID-19 caused a “wildfire effect.”

As executive director of Armbrook Village, a senior-living community in Westfield that offers independent and assisted living, as well as memory care, Cardillo said the first days of the pandemic created huge challenges for healthcare professionals who faced major decisions while working with limited information.

For example, hospitals were only admitting COVID-positive patients if they had a fever and showed respiratory symptoms. Some seniors at Armbrook, however, were testing positive but manifesting different symptoms.

“We had someone who tested COVID-positive, but he didn’t have a fever or a respiratory problem,” she said. “He felt weak, fatigued, and he almost passed out.”

Cardillo’s call for an EMT to transport the positive-testing resident to the hospital was met with disappointment when she was told the hospital would not admit anyone for the coronavirus unless they had a fever or respiratory symptoms.

“At that time, no one knew there were a host of other symptoms,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault because nobody knew.”

Cardillo informed Baystate Medical Center about residents who showed different symptoms for the coronavirus, and the hospital quickly sent a team of specialists in infectious disease and emergency medicine to Armbrook to further examine these cases.

“Incidents like this were happening all over the country,” Cardillo said. “It’s how we learned that people can manifest other symptoms but still have the coronavirus.”

Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, health officials were not encouraging everyone to wear masks; later, with better information, they shifted course. As information on all aspects of COVID-19 improved and safety guidelines were implemented across the U.S., senior-living facilities that already had sanitizing and infection protocols in place increased their efforts to battle the spread of coronavirus.

Emily Tamilio, Corporate Marketing director for Rockridge Retirement Community in Northampton, said her complex revamped its already-strong infection-control policies before the state went into lockdown. “We’ve redoubled our protocols and to make sure all our staff is up to date on proper infection control, hand washing, and strict sanitization procedures.”

Beth Cardillo

“We had someone who tested COVID-positive, but he didn’t have a fever or a respiratory problem. He felt weak, fatigued, and he almost passed out.”

Meanwhile, at Atrium at Cardinal Drive in Agawam — an assisted-living facility exclusively for people with memory loss — Executive Director Cheryl Moran imposed strict screening procedures to keep residents and staff safe, such as requiring all outside agencies to get her approval before they could enter the facility.

In the caregiving community, it’s not unusual for workers at one assisted-living facility to take a second part-time job at a similar site or earn additional income by providing care at a person’s home. Moran knew she had to address this vulnerability to keep the virus away. “I met with all our associates and offered more money, more hours, and different hours to encourage them to work only for the Atrium.”

Tamilio said Rockridge also offered additional pay and hours to keep staff working only at that facility. “Having our people just work for Rockridge was key to preventing transmission.”

Both Moran and Tamilio said encouraging staff to work only at one community is one of the main reasons neither campus has had any COVID-19 cases to date. It’s an example of how senior-living communities across Western Mass. had to be creative and aggressive — and continue to do so — to protect the most vulnerable population from a pandemic that’s far from over.

Visitation Consternation

In mid-March, the state issued guidelines for senior-living facilities to allow visitors only after they’ve had a health screening prior to their entry. When the pandemic first hit, all three communities BusinessWest spoke with said they restricted all outsiders except health providers and other essential personnel. Unfortunately, that meant families were not able to visit their loved ones in assisted living.

“As disappointing as that was, we had a solid communication process in place, and we were transparent about any changes, so it was much easier to get the families, residents, and staff on board,” Tamilio said.

Cardillo also stressed that communication was key, and personally checked in with every family member. “We were honest with people and let them know what was going on, and they appreciated that.”

As a further precaution for those in assisted living, the Executive Office of Elder Affairs mandated that everyone be quarantined in their apartments. No communal dining or walking around the halls was allowed.

Emily Tamilio

Emily Tamilio

“We’ve redoubled our protocols and to make sure all our staff is up to date on proper infection control, hand washing, and strict sanitization procedures.”

Cardillo noted that many residents in assisted living have cognitive impairments that make processing and retaining information difficult, so structure and constant communication are very important. Still, cognitively impaired residents who had been making progress before the quarantine began to backslide.

“They were confused again, depression was setting in, and their anxiety increased,” she recalled. “In some ways, the social isolation was almost worse than the virus.”

Staff dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) began meeting one-on-one with each resident in their apartment. Cardillo said reaching out and having conversations with the residents began to make them feel better.

Moran said the configuration of the Atrium made it possible to allow residents out of their apartments and still keep them safe. “Because we have the space, we were able to socially distance our residents while still allowing them to take part in modified programs and activities.”

As late spring arrived and the weather improved, residents in most communities were able to go outside more often and socialize with others. Cardillo said positive changes began to happen the minute residents were able to enjoy some fresh air. “Whether it was having a conversation or taking a walk or simply looking at the birds, we saw their depression and anxiety lessen once they could spend time outside.”

The warmer weather also enabled the facilities to resume family visits. Moran said the Atrium has a designated area for outdoor visits where families can schedule time with their loved ones either after breakfast or after lunch.

“We can only allow two family members at a time, and they have to wear masks,” she explained. “Unfortunately, they can’t hug or kiss their loved ones, so they do air hugs and things like that.”

Videoconferencing through platforms like Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime have been effective ways for families to stay connected — and send air hugs to their loved ones — when a physical visit is not possible. Tamilio said Rockridge staff will often work with families to coordinate a videoconference or even a phone call to help them feel connected during the pandemic.

“There are many times when our staff are the eyes and ears for the families of our residents, so we work very hard to stay in contact with them,” she told BusinessWest.

Using videoconferencing tools is one more way to be reassuring and transparent with families and staff, Moran added. “It’s important for families to know about the place where their mom and dad are living.”

Cardillo talked about a recent Zoom conference conducted like a town-hall meeting that included 80 resident family members, as well as Armbrook department heads. The purpose was to let everyone know what’s been done so far to keep residents healthy and engaged, and their plans going forward.

“Many family members had no idea about everything we’d gone through to keep their loved ones safe,” she said. “They want to do this type of meeting again.”

Meeting with potential new residents and their families is an important part of any senior-living community. The arrival of COVID-19 has moved much of that activity from in-person meetings to videoconferences. For families who want a tour of the facilities, Tamilio said virtual tours have been an effective alternative to an actual visit.

“We can connect them to our community and help them feel engaged,” she said. “Videoconferencing also allows us to bring together multiple family members from different locations to answer all their questions in one meeting.”

Cardillo is still able to meet with families in-person in Armbrook’s private dining area by using social distancing and requiring masks for everyone. Before the meeting, she will have a phone conversation and send information so that, when a family arrives for the meeting, they have some idea about the community.

“I will show them apartments, but we can’t wander around the building anymore,” she noted. “That’s the only thing that’s really changed.”

While Moran is not yet meeting in person, she depends on virtual tours and has identified a number of families willing to serve in an ambassador-type role.

“There are several family members of current and past residents who are willing to speak with new families about their experience here,” she said. “They are able to give their perspective on how things have been going for their loved ones.”

Winter Is Coming

Seven months into the pandemic, and with fall and winter coming, the Executive Office of Elder Affairs is allowing senior-living facilities to permit indoor visitation to specific areas of the building.

Moran said the Atrium will use office space in its main building to screen visitors and supply full PPE. She plans to limit visits to 30 minutes and restrict visitors to meeting in the front areas of the building.

A similar visitor policy will be in effect at Rockridge, which is about to install an air-purification system to use in common areas. The idea is to monitor air quality to make sure those areas are safe, especially as they begin to open the dining area and allow more visitors

“We are trying to find the right balance between mitigating risk and enhancing the quality of life for everyone here,” Tamilio said.

As the weather gets cooler, Cardillo is looking forward to bringing activities such as exercise classes indoors. There will be limits on the number of people who can participate at any one time, but that’s just part of life in these times.

She reflected on the challenges facilities like hers faced with the sudden arrival of the pandemic back in March, and how far they’ve come. “At the beginning, we were all learning together at the same time. With all that we’ve learned since then, we have a much better handle on things now.”

She said residents are in a much better frame of mind these days, with no COVID-19 cases reported in months.

All the administrators we spoke with said a spirit of cooperation — with everyone pitching in and constantly doing more than expected — has been a true highlight of these last six months. To acknowledge that spirit, Cardillo is planning a series of recognition ceremonies for her staff in the coming weeks.

“We had people who got very sick, and our staff did some beautiful things,” she said. “Sometimes it was just sitting with a resident and holding their hand. Their families were really touched by it.”

With the pandemic still a daily reality, Cardillo said she and her colleagues are better prepared if there is another flare-up of the virus.

“We hope it doesn’t happen, but we’re ready if it does.”

Insurance

Covering All the Bases

By Mark Morris

When COVID-19 became a daily reality in March and working from home became the default for many businesses, Trish Vassallo had to scramble. Of the 26 employees at Encharter Insurance, where Vassallo is director of Operations, only three were set up to work from home.

“Thanks to our tech provider, we were all up and running within a week,” Vassallo said, noting that the system at her office is advanced to the point where calls to the Encharter switchboard are fed through to employee laptops. “When customers call us, they have no idea whether we are in the office or at home. It’s seamless.”

Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England, recalled that, when workimg from home became the norm, his business was about 95% ready to serve clients remotely.

“While our people certainly didn’t plan for a pandemic,” he said, “we were fortunate that our business was designed for our staff to effectively serve clients remotely from home.”

Both Encharter and HUB International have since limited interactions in their offices to only necessary functions and are not yet open to the public. It’s a different situation at Axia Insurance, which offers Registry of Motor Vehicles services in its office.

Michael Long, president and CEO of Axia, explained that, to safely accommodate people using the registry services, a dedicated area at the building entrance was set up to screen people before they come in. While Axia has offered RMV services for several years, it’s seeing an increase in the number of people using it since the pandemic.

“The RMV requires everyone to make an appointment, which can often be scheduled up to two weeks out,” Long said. “At our location, we can take care of people the same day.” Before COVID-19, he added, 30 to 40 people a month would use Axia’s registry service. Long said it now serves that many every week.

Trish Vassallo

Trish Vassallo

“Thanks to our tech provider, we were all up and running within a week. When customers call us, they have no idea whether we are in the office or at home. It’s seamless.”

Because of the registry service, most of Axia’s staff are working in the office. Long said shifts are staggered so that a typical five-day work week means working from home two or three days and in the office for the balance of the week.

For years, staff have been able to work from home when necessary, but Long admits the pandemic adds a layer of difficulty. “Working out schedules that will adapt to everyone’s needs at home and taking care of their families has been a harder challenge than actually maintaining business.”

For this issue’s focus on insurance, BusinessWest spoke with area agencies about how they’re managing to keep the customer experience consistent even as they change how they do business, thanks to a pandemic that continues to challenge all sectors of the economy.

Adjusting Expectations

The agencies BusinessWest spoke with all said their business was steady — if, some cases, only slightly lower due to the pandemic, which has hurt a number of their commercial insurance clients.

For example, several of Encharter’s restaurant customers reduced their insurance coverage because so many of them closed in the early days of the pandemic. With most offering only limited service even now, Vassallo said her agency tried to help its restaurant clients in their time of need.

“When stay-at-home first happened, we went to all of our local restaurateurs and purchased a large amount of gift certificates to try to help them keep going,” she recalled. To get the gift certificates out into the community, Vassallo used them as prizes in weekly and monthly contests Encharter ran on its social-media platforms.

Long said insurance companies are offering deferred billing and special payment plans to help companies that have lost business during the pandemic. One creative approach involves companies that need to take a vehicle off the road. They can now temporarily suspend the vehicle’s insurance coverage instead of ending it.

“In the past, insurance companies would not have agreed to do that,” Long said. “The business would have had to turn in the license plate, and if they suddenly needed the vehicle, they’d have to go through the insurance and registry process all over again.”

Trudeau added that, while some of his clients have been under pressure to reduce staff and sales estimates, others are doing more business. “We have a few businesses that are growing because of changing demands during the pandemic and people shifting their buying habits.”

Not surprisingly, all three agency managers said videoconferencing on Zoom, Skype, and other popular platforms has allowed them to keep in touch with staff and customers.

Because HUB International has 28 locations in New England, Trudeau and his counterparts have been using conference calls and videochats in ways they hadn’t before — a trend he predicts could have a lasting impact.

“Instead of asking people to travel to a central New England location every quarter, they might choose to do that only once a year and have the other three quarterly meetings by videoconference,” he said.

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says the increased adoption of videoconferencing platforms in his industry could have a lasting impact.

When the pandemic ended the walk-in traffic at Encharter, Vassallo and her staff started to make wellness calls to keep in touch with clients.

“The calls had nothing to do with insurance,” she said. “They were simply a way to contact our customers during the early months of the pandemic to say, ‘we’re just checking in; how are you doing?’” So far, she and her staff have made more than 2,000 calls, and the effort has been well-received. They’ve continued the calls to check in and to remind clients about policy renewals.

As valuable as modern tools are to keeping in touch, certain personal dynamics get lost during a pandemic. In the past, Long would often get together with other managers in Axia’s offices across Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and he has missed doing so since the pandemic.

“We have a culture of being a close-knit organization, and when you are not in contact with people on a regular basis, some of that culture seems to dissipate,” he said. “We use videoconferencing, but it’s not quite the same.”

Trudeau cited another culture challenge resulting from the pandemic: bringing a new employee on board.

“You want to invite someone into the culture of your company, but they can’t be there to experience it,” he said. “Part of a new job is the work, and part of it is walking around, meeting people, and creating the feeling of a social connection with your co-workers.”

Gradual Return

Calling it a “soft approach,” Vassallo is talking with her staff about re-entry to the office. She acknowledges some families need at least one parent at home for schooling reasons, but her greatest concern is that everyone becomes too comfortable staying home.

“Right now we have a re-entry date of mid-November, so we are not rushing this,” she said. “When the time comes, we need to get back because we still need to have a presence in our office.”

As staff from all three agencies return to their respective offices, the spaces are all being reconfigured to follow the current pandemic safety guidelines. Temperature checks, hand sanitizer, and other precautions are all part of the new normal.

Still, according to Long, one thing that doesn’t change is the role of the insurance agent.

“Our job is to protect your potential financial loss as best as we can,” he said, while cautioning against looking at insurance protection as a commodity. “It’s not about getting the cheapest insurance; it’s about getting the most value out of your insurance.”

Helping customers achieve that goal hasn’t been easy this year, but it’s a task that continues at all area insurance agencies — if sometimes a bit differently than before.

Daily News

BOSTON — Starting today, Sept. 28, restaurants in Massachusetts will be allowed to expand seating from six to 10 people at a table, as well as open bar seating.

The new guidelines apply to both indoor and outdoor seating, and tables must remain at least six feet apart. Customers must wear a face covering when not seated at a table.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance also stressed that patrons at restaurants’ bars must sit and not stand in the bar area, and bars and nightclubs that are not also restaurants must stay closed until phase 4 of the state’s reopening, which may not be announced until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

Click here for the state’s full current guidance on restaurants, including social-distancing, staffing, hygiene, cleaning, and disinfecting protocols.

Daily News

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced an extension of administrative tax-relief measures for local businesses that have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, especially in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

This includes the extension of the deferral of regular sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes for small businesses due from March 2020 through April 2021, so they will instead be due in May 2021. Businesses that collected less than $150,000 in regular sales plus meals taxes in the 12-month period ending Feb. 29, 2020 will be eligible for relief for sales and meals taxes, and businesses that collected less than $150,000 in room-occupancy taxes in the same 12-month period will be eligible for relief with respect to room-occupancy taxes. For these small businesses, no penalties or interest will accrue during this extension period.

“Our administration is committed to supporting local businesses and Main Street economies recovering from the impact of COVID-19, and we’re glad to work with our legislative colleagues on this additional measure to provide administrative tax relief,” Baker said. “Extending the tax-relief measures we put into place earlier this year will help support companies across Massachusetts, including small businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industries.”

For businesses with meals tax and room-occupancy tax obligations that do not otherwise qualify for this relief, late-file and late-pay penalties will be waived during this period.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Education

The Experiment Begins

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School will repurpose for class time this fall — weather permitting.

Brian Easler learned a saying during his time in the Army: “two is one, and one is none.”

It’s a way of stressing the importance of having a backup plan — and he certainly put that concept into action this summer.

“The idea is, anything can fail at any time. You have to have a backup,” said Easler, head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA). “We did everything we could think of to make the campus as safe as possible. We have layers of filters where, even if one preventive measure seems duplicative of something else we’ve done, we did both anyway.”

For instance, all HVAC systems on campus were updated and fitted with ionizers to filter air. But the school also bought 287 Honeywell HEPA air purifiers, similar to what hospitals use, and placed one in every room on campus. And when public-health officials said students at school could stay three feet apart while wearing masks, WMA kept a six-foot standard.

“Again,” he told BusinessWest, “we’re layering precautions on top of precautions.”

The reason is simple: parents want to send their kids to school to learn in person — despite its widespread use, no one believes remote learning is the best option from an academic and social perspective — and they also want to feel their kids will be safe.

Melissa Earls is a believer in in-person learning, which is why, as head of school at Academy Hill School in Springfield, she has spent the last several months making sure the campus is safe.

And not only because younger students — unlike WMA, Academy Hill is a pre-K to grade 8 school — have a tougher time handling remote education without the physical presence of parents, who often simultaneously hold jobs.

“It’s not just the autonomy factor, but what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen. For them, it’s an abstract concept to wrap their heads around. Developmentally, we much prefer having them here with us.”

That’s not to say classes don’t look a little different these days.

“We’re a small private school, and we typically have a lot of collaborative tables, reflective of our instructional model. We’ve replaced them with rows and columns of desks, which was not our style,” Earls explained. “We also purchased tents to create outdoor spaces, sheltered from the sun, and even the rain, to respond to the space challenge.”

John Austin, head of school at Deerfield Academy, in a letter to parents last month, outlined the many precautions and protocols unfolding to make the campus safe (more on that later). But he also stressed that students have to buy in to make it work.

“We know from experience — and science tells us with near-certainty — that wearing masks, physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene can help mitigate the spread of this virus. And that is what, together, we will endeavor to accomplish. We begin the year knowing that our students will arrive ready to express their care for others by following these simple expectations,” he wrote.

Noting that students must sign a ‘community health pledge,’ he called the document “an attempt to clearly and explicitly capture that ethos of care, citizenship, and sacrifice that will allow us to return to school safely and be together as a campus community.”

In other words, if students want to be on campus — and private schools throughout the region are definitely emphasizing that model — they know they’re all in it together. It’s an intriguing experiment in the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era, one that follows a summer that was also unlike any other.

Team Effort

The first question at Academy Hill, Earls said, was whether the campus had the space and ability to pull off on-campus learning.

“Once we knew we could do this, it became a priority to get them back,” she said. “Getting here was a team effort. What impressed us was the selflessness of everyone who worked all summer long. Actually, they didn’t have a summer. The plan was constantly evolving, and everyone was so generous with their time and their thoughts.”

While students are expected to be on campus if they’re not sick, a blended learning option is available for those who have to quarantine because they or a family member have been exposed to coronavirus. At the same time, if a faculty member is exposed, but is able to teach from home, students will attend classes on campus while the teacher instructs from a remote location, with the assistance of technology.

Melissa Earls

Melissa Earls

“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen.”

And, of course, in an echo of the spring, when schools and colleges across the U.S. shut down and switched to online learning, Academy Hill will be able to do so if a viral spike forces such a move — but it won’t be so on the fly this time, as teachers engaged in professional development over the summer to prepare for the possibility of remote learning.

“Our plan is a living document,” Earls said. “We looked at CDC and state guidelines, and our goal was to exceed them. When they shortened the physical distance to three feet, we still do six feet apart. We made sure we were meeting or exceeding all the guidelines, and we shared every iteration of the plan with families. I sent notes home weekly over the summer, if not moreso.”

Easler said prepping WMA for an influx of students included renovating a former school meeting space into a second dining hall, installing new bathrooms in a boys’ dorm, and, perhaps most dramatically, instituting an aggressive testing program. The school engaged with a lab at MIT to implement twice-weekly testing for all students, faculty, and staff, with no more than four days between tests.

“The rationale is, the only way to prevent widespread transmission on campus is to know where the virus is, especially with a population that’s often asymptomatic. And the only way to know where the virus is, is to test. The testing program is our first defense.”

Easler spoke with BusinessWest the second day students were on campus, and said students were adapting well to the new protocols, which include mandatory masks, although there are outdoor mask-free zones that offer some relief. Among close to 400 students at WMA, only 64 have opted for remote learning this fall.

“The kids seem pretty happy; it’s encouraging to see how quickly they adapted to everything. Kids are adaptable in general, but we’re still really proud of them.”

He added that WMA isn’t among the wealthiest private schools, but he’s pleased with the investments that have been made, from campus renovations to the testing plan. “Testing is expensive, but it’s worth every penny.”

Testing, Testing

To a similar end, Deerfield Academy has partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo, a program that provides COVID-19 testing in support of schools and businesses. Students were tested before they arrived on campus, as soon as they arrived, and again several days after. Weekly testing will continue for students, faculty, and staff throughout the fall term.

The school will also employ daily reporting and symptom screening and has prepared guidelines for contact tracing in order to quickly isolate any positive cases and quarantine all close contacts. In addition, all boarding students have single rooms, and weekend off-campus travel is being limited, as are family visits.

Meanwhile, a new, modular academic schedule will reduce the number of classes students take over the course of the day and gather them in smaller classes, and all HVAC systems have been fitted with advanced air filters, and are circulating fresh, filtered air at an increased rate.

“In my 35 years in education, never before have I seen such effort, sacrifice, and commitment to mission,” Austin wrote. “Every member of our community has generously given their time and effort over these summer months to prepare the campus and its buildings to safely welcome students.”

Easler agreed. “We did lot of work over the summer, meaning we really didn’t get much of a summer,” he said, adding that part of the process was training faculty on the Canvas learning-management platform, allowing them to teach face-to-face and remotely at the same time.

“The rest of the staff spent the summer planning logistics around campus,” he added. “It was so much work because we literally did everything we could think of.”

While enrollment projections dipped slightly early in the summer, Easler said it picked up again once word got out into the community of what WMA was doing to make the campus a safe environment. “Families want a little more predictability than they get out of the local public systems, which don’t have the kind of flexibility and resources we do.”

With such resources come a responsibility, Earls said, to understand what students are going through during this unprecedented year.

“I told the teachers, ‘always remember that hundreds of kids will pass through here during the course of your career, but to John or Jameel or Suzy, you are their only second-grade teacher, their only math teacher, their only Spanish teacher. You need to respect that.’ This year more than ever, we need to pay attention to their anxiety levels, their social and emotional well-being. We’re going to make sure they feel safe and normalize the situation for them.”

That normalization, she believes, begins with in-person learning, and getting to that point took a lot of work. Now, she and other area heads of school can only hope it’s enough.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

Travelers at Bradley (and there are fewer of them) will find a number of new protocols, from mandatory face coverings to more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Bradley International Airport has a contract with a medical laboratory willing to conduct COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which manages the airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., thinks that would be an ideal way for healthy travelers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont in July.

But state leaders turned that option down.

“We have a lab that’s willing to start testing here, yet we can’t convince the Department of Public Health to allow that to occur. It makes no sense,” Dillon said. “Because what’s impacting us now is the travel advisory that’s been put in place here in Connecticut.”

According to the policy, both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out a travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Failure to do so incurs a $1,000 fine.

“Unfortunately, the airlines are reacting to the travel advisory by pulling flights out of the airport,” Dillon explained. “As you can imagine, it’s very, very difficult for someone to take a week vacation and then, when they come back, have to take a two-week quarantine. The same goes for business travel — people aren’t going away for two days when they have to quarantine for 14. That’s had a pretty chilling effect on our level of recovery.”

It’s a recovery — if one can call it that — from the most dramatic loss of business airports across the country have ever experienced, the post-9/11 period included. In April, passenger volume at Bradley was down 98% compared to the same period last year. The airport has recovered some of its volume, but a typical day is still some 70% to 75% below 2019 numbers. And the state of Connecticut is doing the airport no favors with one of the most rigid travelers’ advisories in the nation.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable. This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region.”

“I’m not questioning the medical necessity of a travel advisory — I’m not qualified to question that, and I take folks at their word that it’s is a necessary thing,” Dillon told BusinessWest. “What we have asked for here is a testing option. If you get a negative COVID test, you should be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine period. Massachusetts is doing that.”

He has other questions — including why it’s OK to cross the border for a funeral, but not a business meeting — and they all come, he said, from a place of common sense. “We’re not questioning the travel advisory, but I do think testing here at Bradley would make all the sense in the world.”

If the impact of discouraging interstate travel was a short-term thing, it would be less frustrating, but Dillon is looking far beyond 2020, when airlines will emerge from the pandemic as much smaller companies, with fewer planes to spread around the nation’s airports, and some tough decisions to make about where to put them.

“They’re really having a struggle,” he said, with some airlines saying they don’t expect to return to normal operations until 2023 or 2024. “There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this.”

This is true, he said, not only of airlines, but of airports.

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable,” Dillon explained. “This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region. It’s a concern of ours not only for today but as we look to the future — what damage we’re doing to our relationships to airlines as well as their view of this market.”

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is easier when terminals are less crowded, as they are now.

For this issue’s focus on transportation, BusinessWest spoke with Dillon about how Bradley is navigating an unprecedented business challenge, and why it’s important to keep investing in the future, because the future is where this story really gets interesting.

Shifting on the Fly

Even before COVID-19 was a thing, Dillon often spoke about how Bradley was constantly competing on two levels: with Logan and the New York airports for passengers, and with every airport in the country for those precious aircraft assets. On thar front, Connecticut’s mandatory quarantine isn’t helping.

“Airlines have to be in locations like Boston and New York simply because of the population and business volume. But airlines have alternatives in terms of not having to serve Bradley and still serving a good portion of this market area,” he explained. “I don’t think it would serve the area really well without us, but an airline trying to skinny down as a result of cost-cutting measures could very well look at it that way.”

The more pressing issue in 2020 has been plummeting demand, of course. “If we don’t have passengers coming through the airport, airlines cut back, we don’t get airline fees, and no one’s here utilizing concessions, parking, renting cars, all the businesses here. When your business is off 75% to 80%, you have a corresponding drop in revenue. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Dillon said Bradley was fortunate to receive some financial assistance from the CARES Act, which allocated $10 billion to airports across the country. Based on the allocation formula, Bradley received $28 million, which sounds like a lot of money, he went on, but to put it in perspective, that covers about three months of operating expenses and debt service. And the pandemic-related travel slowdown is now well into its sixth month.

“We are fortunate that, as an airport authority, we did create what I consider some healthy reserves, and we will rely on those reserves to some extent, but it wouldn’t be prudent to exhaust our reserves,” he said, noting that they impact bond ratings, among other things.

Bradley did institute a hiring freeze, not replacing most employees who chose to retire this year, and has cut department budgets by 10% to 20%. The CAA is also looking at further measures, including a voluntary severance program.

“It is a goal of ours to try to prevent involuntary severances,” Dillon said. “We don’t want to get to a place where we’re talking about layoffs. For now, that’s off the table. We tried to make a commitment to the employee base — first and foremost, to protect their health, and second, to protect their paycheck. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge.”

About $20 million in capital projects are on hold as well, but some are moving on, including an airport-wide restroom-renovation project that should be complete by October, and features a largely touchless experience with sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and more. These features were planned well in advance of the pandemic, but Dillon said travelers will appreciate them more now.

“People want a safe, healthy, clean environment, and we try to deliver that the best we can,” he noted. “Folks think differently about hygiene in public places now; they have different expectations.”

Other protocols in place at Bradley include the expected: mandatory face coverings, more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts at high-touchpoint areas, plenty of hand-sanitizer stations, signage detailing physical distancing rules, and plexiglass shields in high-passenger-interaction areas.

Some airlines have committed to limited capacity on planes as well, Dillon said, citing Southwest and Delta as two examples. And the airport is developing touchless kiosks where travelers don’t have to interact with an agent or touch the screen to activate the ticketing process.

Bradley’s restrooms

A major renovation of Bradley’s restrooms, including many touchless features to discourage the spread of germs, began well before the pandemic.

“The key for us is to keep differentiating ourselves from our larger competitors,” he told BusinessWest. “We want people to understand that Bradley is going above and beyond in terms of sanitizing and cleaning the facilities. And Bradley might represent a better option because it’s less congested. We’re going to keep highlighting to the traveling public why Bradley is a better alternative.”

View from the Ground

Again, however, all these efforts are blunted by the fact that considerably fewer people are traveling, and Connecticut is making it difficult to do so.

Airlines are struggling too, Dillon said, sending 135-passenger planes into the sky with only 25. And, like airports, they’re all having internal discussions about the future. Bradley’s five-year contract with carriers expired in June, and with no airlines in a position to sign another five-year deal, they opted for one-year extensions.

But even had longer-term contracts been in place, he explained, “I think a lot of people don’t understand how an airline agreement works. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee you full revenue coming in, because airlines pay revenue in large measure based on landing fees. Airlines can have a presence and pay rent for space, but they’re not required to operate a certain number of flights. If you have carriers cut operations in half, the landing fees we get are then cut in half from that carrier.”

As a difficult, uncertain year continues to unspool, there are a few bright spots, especially progress on a $210 million ground transportation center — expected to be fully operational in late 2021 — that will house car-rental services, expand public parking, and incorporate public-transit connections.

“All that money had been bonded prior to the pandemic, so we’re committed to the project,” Dillon said. “It will really transform the look of the airport and our operations. People who haven’t been to the airport recently will be surprised by the magnitude of the project and how it’s transforming the space out there.”

In addition, cargo business at Bradley has remained consistently strong. “I believe one factor is that people are staying home and doing a lot of online ordering, so we’re seeing small-package delivery — UPS, Fedex, and Amazon — all increase at the airport,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the revenue profile of cargo is much different than passenger traffic, as the bulk of the revenue at any airport comes from the passenger side of the house. But I appreciate that cargo is doing well right now.”

After all, in a year of startling setbacks, any good news is welcome. But what airports need now is clarity — and for people to get back on planes.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I’m convinced that, by working smart and having employees work smart, we’ll be able to get through this. But it will be a balancing act for a while.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus

Volume Business

By Mark Morris

When COVID-19 made its arrival in Western Mass., it was mid-March, just weeks before the start of the traditional home-selling season. Area mortgage professionals didn’t know what to expect when the pandemic hit, but they certainly weren’t projecting a solid year.

Soon, though, they had to adjust those expectations and projections.

Indeed, a combination of factors, from historically low interest rates to high demand and low inventories, have made this a much busier, much better year than most residential lenders and home sellers could have hoped for back in the dark days of March.

Indeed, instead of completely canceling the spring home-buying market, the pandemic merely postponed it, said James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending with Holyoke-based PeoplesBank.

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August,” he told BusinessWest.

Jeffrey Smith, vice president and chief Lending officer with Freedom Credit Union, concurred, noting that any debilitating effects on the housing market from the pandemic have been more than offset by lower interest rates. The rates were already fairly low — in the 3.25% to 3.5% range — before the pandemic, he said, but now consumers can now get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for well under 3%.

James Sherbo

James Sherbo

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August.”

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years,” Smith said. “When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

Meanwhile, many mortgage holders are taking advantage of these lower rates to refinance, and this high volume of refis, as they’re called, is keeping most all lending institutions busy.

“It’s crazy … we’ve seen an 80% volume increase in our overall business compared to last year,” Smith noted. “And we certainly did not expect that.”

Tami Gunsch, senior executive vice president and director of Relationship Banking at Berkshire Bank, agreed. She said the bank is pleased with the Mortgage Division’s performance, “especially during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the housing market and the various, and powerful, forces that are driving it.

Rooms for Improvement

Flashing back to mid-March, Sherbo said his department was mostly focused on where (and how) team members would work, and keeping employees and customers safe.

“We just tried to prepare as best as we could to keep our team safe and our customers safe,” Sherbo said. “When COVID-19 first hit, everybody wondered what would happen; nobody had a crystal ball.”

Indeed, no one could have foreseen how the drop in interest rates — one of many steps taken to stimulate the economy — and other factors would collaborate to stimulate virtually all aspects of the housing market and create a unique set of circumstances.

Home sales are strong, again, because of low interest rates even though fewer homes are for sale, said Sherbo, adding that he can’t recall a time when both conditions have happened at the same time.

Jeffrey Smith

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years. When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

“I’ve seen rates this low before, but I’m not sure we’ve seen this lack of supply in quite a while,” he said, adding that it’s no surprise that many people do not want to move or sell during the pandemic, so the supply of homes for sale is limited. That creates an environment where many purchase offers are coming in higher than the asking price.

“New listings are selling very quickly,” noted Smith, adding that nearly all the houses offered for sale in early July were sold by early August.

In addition to people moving out of the city and into the suburbs to take advantage of low interest rates, Smith said the demand for second homes is exploding.

“In the last three to six months, prices have increased by 20% or more in areas like Cape Cod or Maine,” he noted. “Second homes are a hot market right now, and because there is a limited supply, properties are on the market for only a short time before they are sold.”

Then, there’s the refi market.

Gunsch said that, in addition to strong new-mortgage activity, Berkshire Bank is doing a high-volume business in refinances.

“Refis account for 52% of our closed-loan production through July,” she said, “while in the prior year, during the same period, they accounted for 35% of the closed loan volume.”

Smith added that, thanks to the robust business Freedom is doing with loan refinancing, he does not anticipate the lack of housing supply to limit the institution’s growth potential this year.

Strong housing-sales activity is even more impressive considering how the entire home-buying process had to quickly change when COVID-19 hit.

The notion of a real-estate agent walking potential buyers through a house for sale sounds almost quaint these days, as virtual tours have replaced showings, and drive-by looks at a house have become the norm.

“People are buying homes based on what they see online,” said Smith. “Many people are not even going out to the house to see it. In some cases, particularly for second homes, they are buying them sight unseen.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Smith said Freedom had limited online mortgage-application capabilities, but the virus forced the institution to quickly go all in.

“Luckily, we had the technology to be able to make a fast adjustment to online only, so we were kind of ready for it,” he told BusinessWest.

PeoplesBank launched its paperless mortgage-application system in October 2019 after two years of refining it. When COVID-19 arrived and disrupted so much of daily life, Sherbo said having a touchless system already up and running made it easier to maintain business levels.

“Our customers don’t have to meet or sign anything in person,” Sherbo explained. “The entire application process can be done online or over the phone. We were ready for this, which was great.”

Gunsch said Berkshire also uses an online application process. When an appraisal of the property is needed, only the exterior is appraised to reduce physical contact.

“Loan closings are still done in-person with everyone wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines,” she added.

Critical Deferrals

A serious concern at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential for mortgage delinquencies to spike due to homeowners affected by financial and health issues. In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on consumers through March 2021.

Meanwhile, those who are struggling with COVID-related issues are encouraged to contact their mortgage holder to defer payments. The law makes it clear that, by deferring, consumers merely extend the length of the mortgage without taking a hit on their credit rating.

All the mortgage professionals BusinessWest spoke with said the deferral program has worked to keep delinquencies down and allow people to stay in their homes.

“We have a strong team in place to assist our borrowers with loan deferrals and ensure they understand their options to defer payment during this time,” said Gunsch.

Smith said that roughly 5% of Freedom mortgage holders have taken advantage of the deferral program. “We’re actually seeing our delinquencies at very low levels, lower than they’ve been in years.”

Smith added that most of the deferral requests occurred in April and May. With each passing month, the number of new deferrals continues to decline.

“The deferral program is working the way it was intended,” Sherbo added. “It’s giving people the chance to maintain their own stability and credit.”

As for inventories, even that picture may improve soon. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed new housing construction starts are up more than 23.4% in July 2020 compared to July 2019. The national figure closely mirrors the Northeast, which saw a similar increase of 23.3%.

Locally, Sherbo said new home starts are relatively flat, but if interest rates continue at record lows, that would encourage more new construction in Western Mass.

Just as no one had a crystal ball back in March, none of the mortgage professionals we spoke with can really say what will happen six months or a year from now. That’s the nature of this pandemic — a high level of unpredictability.

For now, the housing market is booming at a time when few thought it would. This is good news for banks and credit unions — and for the customers they serve.

And it’s certainly one of the more intriguing stories in a year with seemingly no end of them.

Daily News

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke Community College Foundation has received a second grant in as many months to help students facing financial emergencies because of COVID-19.

In its latest round of grants, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts awarded $40,000 to HCC from its COVID-19 Relief Fund. In July, the Community Foundation awarded the HCC Foundation $35,000. All $75,000 went into the President’s Student Emergency Fund, which is managed by the HCC Foundation.

“Every week, we are seeing more and more applications from students in need of emergency support,” said Amanda Sbriscia, vice president of Institutional Advancement and executive director of the HCC Foundation. “Each student applicant hopes to begin the fall semester on the right foot, and it’s our job to keep them focused on their academic success.”

Thanks to CFWM’s first grant to HCC, 67 HCC students received emergency funding with an average disbursement of $522. Already, in the past two weeks 15 additional students have received emergency aid.

“We anticipate disbursing the full $40,000 to students in need before the end of September,” Sbriscia said.

Typically, students request help paying for basic needs, such as food, rent, utilities, childcare and transportation.

“Relief Fund dollars are making it possible for HCC students throughout our region to achieve their educational goals,” Sbriscia said. “I’m so grateful to the Community Foundation for enabling us to respond to our students with good news. This funding tells them, your community is here for you, and we’re committed to your success.”

Daily News

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield Business Association announced the award of funding for its ‘COVID-19 Business Re-opening Outdoor Equipment Micro-Grant’ program through MassDevelopment’s Commonwealth Places: Resurgent Places grant program.

Through this program, MassDevelopment has granted the GBA an immediate $10,000, and potentially, an additional matched $5,000 to be re-granted to Greenfield businesses toward outdoor equipment needed for re-opening under COVID-19 restrictions.

MassDevelopment’s ‘Commonwealth Places’ is a competitive granting opportunity to advance locally driven placemaking in downtown and neighborhood commercial districts in eligible communities throughout Massachusetts. Placemaking is a collaborative process through which people in communities work together to improve public spaces and maximize their shared value. The aim of Commonwealth Places COVID-19 Response Round: Resurgent Places is to help community partners prepare public space and commercial districts to best serve their population during COVID-19 social distancing and the phased reopening of the economy.

The Resurgent Places funding round complements the Mass. Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) recently announced Shared Streets & Spaces, a grant program that will provide small and large grants for municipalities to quickly launch or expand improvements to sidewalks, curbs, streets, on-street parking spaces and off-street parking lots in support of public health, safe mobility and renewed commerce in their communities. The city of Greenfield has applied and has already been working with city businesses to provide barriers to delineate new usable outside spaces near their businesses.

Greenfield’s Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams and the GBA Coordinator Rachel Roberts have been working to bring these two grant opportunities to Greenfield to facilitate the fastest and most effective ways to help our business community safely re-open after the Covid-19 closures. The city is working toward supplying needed barriers and opening up municipal property while the GBA’s grant provides equipment assistance for businesses expanding outside.

As struggling businesses attempt to modify or expand their previous business models to support social distancing and safety in COVID-19 times, the GBA proposes to re-grant funding for procurement of equipment needed for outdoor expansion including but not limited to any combination of dining, display or point of sale furnishings, shade/weather coverings, signage, or lighting. The micro-grants will require a short application from any Greenfield business for up to $1,200. If a business not located in the downtown corridor is in need of assistance to expand outside as part of compliance to COVID-19 reopening requirements, the request will be considered as funding allows. The application can be found on the Greenfield Business Association’s webpage at https://greenfieldbusiness.org/x/12/COVID-19-Resurgent-Places-Micro-Grant.

Daily News

HOLYOKE — To assist the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the city of Holyoke in reducing the spread of COVID-19, Holyoke Community College will serve as a “Stop the Spread” drive-through testing site offering free tests to the public.

Tests will be conducted outside HCC’s Bartley Center for Athletics and Recreation and administered by Fallon Ambulance in partnership with the Holyoke Board of Health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Testing will be available August 26 through Sept. 12, during the following hours:

Monday 7-11 a.m.

Tuesday 2-7 p.m.

Wednesday. 7-11 a.m.

Thursday 2-7 p.m.

Friday 7-11 a.m.

Saturday 7-11 a.m.

 

Testing will be conducted on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are no appointments. There is no cost for the tests and no referral is required.

Signs and HCC and Holyoke city Police officers will direct drivers from Homestead Ave down to M Lot (adjacent the Bartley Center), where in-car tests will be administered. Cars will leave M Lot, pass through N Lot, and exit onto the campus road and out onto Homestead Avenue.

Turnaround time for test results is typically four days or fewer.

For more information, please go to: www.mass.gov/info-details/stop-the-spread 

Cover Story

The Plot Thickens

Even in a normal year, Feb. 29 is an odd date to open a business.

“We really won’t have an anniversary for another four years,” Thomas Winstanley, director of Marketing at Theory Wellness, joked about his company’s third cannabis dispensary, which opened in Chicopee on that leap-year date almost six months ago.

Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and a couple weeks after opening, Theory closed its doors as part of a statewide shutdown of ‘non-essential’ businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least,” Winstanley told BusinessWest. “We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

When dispensaries were eventually allowed to open, it was only for medical marijuana at first, while the vast majority of business — recreational sales — remained shut down.

And now?

“It’s dynamite,” he said. “A lot of money is coming back to the market, and our team hasn’t missed a step since coming back — and we’ve seen the team continue to grow. We’ve come back a lot stronger.”

The line that forms outside the shop each morning testifies to demand that certainly didn’t go away during the weeks when product was unavailable.

It’s a story taking shape across the state, with cannabis businesses continuing to launch and grow even as the pandemic still rages and the economy nowhere near returning to its 2019 condition. Take Holyoke, for example — a city whose leaders fully embraced the cannabis trade from the start, and where two more businesses opened in recent weeks, Canna Provisions on Dwight Street and Boston Bud Co. on Sargeant Street.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least. We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

“I’m not going to lie — I was very nervous as the economy took a downturn,” said Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, about the cannabis hub city leaders have worked to cultivate, one that now includes a handful of cultivation, production, and retail businesses, with more on the way. “Oddly enough, we haven’t seen a significant stoppage in stores’ actions at this point. I can only speculate why that is.”

One reason, quite simply, is that some sectors do better than others during recessions. Marrero compared it to when prohibition was lifted during the Great Depression, and smart entrepreneurs immediately saw the long-term (and pent-up) demand for alcohol, even during tough economic times.

Theory Wellness in Chicopee

Theory Wellness in Chicopee closed in March just a few weeks after it opened, but customer traffic has been solid this summer.

“Today, we have a very robust alcoholic-beverage industry,” he said, reflecting demand that has never subsided over the decades. “So I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about cannabis in that regard.”

Another apt comparison is the financial crisis of 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy were coming apart — a different story than in 2020. “Now, the economy is tanking because there’s no consumption, and the labor force is contracting.”

Those investing in the cannabis sector, however, are looking beyond that; they know demand for these products is likely to remain high — no pun intended — in the long term.

“This may be as good an investment as anything,” Marrero said. “We’re still seeing investments going forward at the local level; it’s a very positive outlook, even during the pandemic.”

Creating a Pipeline

The proliferation of cannabis businesses across the region, with the promise of more to come, means jobs, and that potential isn’t lost on area colleges and universities.

First, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) announced the creation of the Cannabis Education Center last fall, to provide education, training, and other business resources to individuals in the region who want to work in the cannabis industry.

HCC and C3RN are designated training partners through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s (CCC) Social Equity Vendor Training program, which was designed to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to populations and communities that, traditionally, have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

Soon after that, American International College (AIC) dipped a toe into the sector by launching a three-course certificate program called Micro-Emerging Markets: Cannabis, offering an overview of cannabis entrepreneurship, business operations, and law and ethics.

This fall, AIC is launching a master’s program in Cannabis Science and Commerce — with a one-year online program or a two-year hybrid model — that takes a deeper dive into preparing students to work in this field, said Jennifer Barry, AIC’s director of Continuing Studies and Special Projects.

She cited some striking statistics — 15% job growth in the legal cannabis industry in 2019, $404 million in legal cannabis sales in Massachusetts that same year, and 245,000 full-time-equivalent jobs created nationally by early 2020 — to explain why the program is necessary.

JENNIFER BARRY

Jennifer Barry

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth. The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth,” Barry told BusinessWest. “The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

To that end, the program will be taught collaboratively by faculty members, cannabis-industry professionals, and occasionally guest lecturers, either in person or by video.

“We’re taking the academic rigor of an AIC course normally taught by faculty members and keeping it current and relevant by pulling in industry experts,” she explained, noting that classes cover topics from law and policy to the chemistry of cannabis.

“It’s hard for people who work full-time in the cannabis industry, which is such a demanding field, to make time,” she added, but quickly noted that they recognize the need to create a pipeline of talent in the region so the sector can continue to grow and avoid a skills gap. In that way, she noted, this master’s program is a win-win — helping graduates access a solid career while helping area businesses grow.

“That’s the real benefit of our program,” Barry continued, noting that it’s the first program in the U.S. that blends business, science, and the legal aspects of the trade. “What we’ve found, speaking with cannabis professionals, is you have to understand the chemical components of the plant to be prepared to sell it, package it, speak about it intelligently in the field.

“That’s why we have a chemistry course, and one that talks about cannabis from seed to sale, how it makes it through the pipeline, giving students a broad understanding of the process. Then, through individual courses, they can dig through each individual element.”

The goal, again, is to support both opportunities for job seekers and business growth, and Marrero sees elements of both in Holyoke’s enthusiastic adoption of the cannabis sector. He said Holyoke officials don’t “game the system” with host-community agreements, trying to squeeze as much from license applicants as possible. Instead, it’s a standard template that can be approved in a day.

“The CCC does its due diligence on businesses; we regulate things like land use and how businesses are integrated into the community,” he said of the city’s approach to license approval. “For us, it’s been about how to create jobs, how to help businesses get into the cannabis industry.

“It’s about creating a cluster,” he went on. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make it smooth, to work with industries to create a cluster. What it gets us is more than the sum of its parts; it’s how many jobs are created by these companies — and we have a dozen already special-permitted.”

Those services run the gamut from plumbers and pipefitters to security, delivery services, cleaning services, lawyers, and more.

“Any new company produces opportunities for other types of other businesses, and those businesses have to employ people. It’s that economic contagion that’s also attractive,” Marrero explained — one of the few times one might hear the word ‘contagion’ these days in a positive light.

A Social Contract

Winstanley said Theory’s experience setting up shop in Chicopee went as smoothly as it could have, considering the built-in rigor of the process, especially at the state level.

“We’ve always known there were a lot of policies in place at the state level and the local level. It’s a long process,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want to make sure we get it right and operate in ways that are beneficial to the local population, and we want to make sure to set an example for what legal cannabis should look like in this day and age.”

One way Theory — which also has locations in Great Barrington and Bridgewater, and employs about 200 people in its cultivation, manufacturing, and retail divisions — does that is through the kind of social-equity program the CCC made a point of emphasizing.

It recently accepted applications from ‘economic-empowerment’ applicants as designated by the commission and will select a qualified applicant to partner with, guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur through the process of opening their doors, from financial assistance to professional services to zoning and regulatory hurdles.

That financial commitment will total up to $250,000, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of 0% interest debt financing, with $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment, providing a boost of capital to help get the operation off the ground. Theory will also connect the successful applicant with professional services like banking, legal, insurance, and HR.

“This is something we felt really strongly about,” Winstanley said. “We felt it’s the future of the industry, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get into it.”

Barry is well aware of the social-equity component as well, saying it aligns with AIC’s mission to provide access and opportunity to a diverse student population.

“Each course will have a social-equity component; students will get exposure to the business through the lens of social equity, and by the end of the program, they’ll be entrenched in how we can potentially undo some of the disproportionate harm done in the past, while creating a workforce that meets the needs of the industry.”

Because, again, the opportunities appear to be increasing.

“They’ll build a network of professionals they can use as resources as they create their careers, whether they start out working for someone else or start their own business,” she added. “They’ll know it’s not limited.”

That’s true in Holyoke right now, where the next site to open will likely be True Leaf, located near the Holyoke Dam, Marrero said. “They’re a pretty sizable operation — they would be the biggest in Holyoke by square footage, and they’re near completion of construction.”

Winstanley said Theory learned a lot from its original store, in Great Barrington, the first dispensary to open in the Berkshires. Now, competition is springing up across Western Mass., but he says the company still has plenty of room to grow.

“It’s not only the growth of our company, but the significant tax revenue that’s definitely needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re just really happy to see cannabis is back, and hopefully we can continue to contribute, and the industry will provide some much-needed life in these strange times.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

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

Coronavirus Manufacturing

Current Events

Tony Contrino

Tony Contrino says his utility’s extensive practice with preparing for weather events has certainly helped in its efforts to cope with the pandemic.

 

Tony Contrino says Westfield Gas & Electric, like all utilities, has considerable practice watching storms develop, getting ready for possible damage, and, as the old saying goes, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that — sort of, said Contrino, general manager of Westfield G&E. It could be seen coming, and there were certainly efforts to prepare for it. But the pandemic is, in most all ways, not like weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias, which barreled through Western Mass. earlier this month, leaving sometimes days-long power outages up and down the Valley and creating huge headaches for utilities — and the customers they serve.

Indeed, those storms come and go, the damage is repaired, and life goes — until the next storm. This crisis is different, not only in its duration, but in its far-reaching effects — everything from a significant drop in electricity use (7% to 10% are the most often-given estimates), and its impact on the bottom line, to an equally sharp rise in delinquent payments, which also affects the bottom line, to changes in how work is carried out — right down to putting one person in each truck, rather than two.

But as with those weather events, area energy providers are working their way through this crisis, adapting and pivoting, as businesses in all sectors have, and encountering challenges and opportunities — again, like most all other businesses have. But, unlike many businesses, they’re providing a vital service, and thus they’re being diligent about working with, and communicating with, those they serve.

“It’s certainly a different, and very challenging, time — for us, but also for all our customers,” said Contrino. “We’ve made a real effort to communicate through all this, not only with employees but customers as well. We’re trying to keep people aware of what’s going on and what our plans are, and try to give them some assurance that we want to work with them.”

Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of Regional Electric Operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, agreed. He said the investor-owned utility has been working to keep the power on — yes, Isaias has certainly impacted those efforts — while keeping employees and customers safe.

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities,” he told BusinessWest. “We have half our workforce working at home, and people have been very creative and able to adapt to their work at home. We’ve been able to work differently to do the things we need to get done. Everyone’s working differently — we’ve learned how to use videoconferencing very well — and, for the most part, we’re getting our work done.”

Craig Hallstrom

Craig Hallstrom

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities.”

While making adjustments within their own operations, the utilities we spoke with said they’re working with clients, both commercial and residential, to help during this time of crisis.

Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, observed that, while his utility is facing declines in revenue and sharp rises in delinquent payments — further impacting cash flow — these problems often pale in comparison to what customers are facing.

“If we were looking at our losses in isolation, we would be very alarmed, and we are concerned about the numbers,” he noted. “But when we look at the impact to the overall economy and what many of our customers are going through … we’ll figure out a way to manage and get through this.”

For this issue and our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, BusinessWest shines a light, pun intended, on how the pandemic has impacted those in the energy business — and how they are responding.

Hitting the Switch

As he talked with BusinessWest, Contrino was just returning from a vacation — only he didn’t get as much relaxation time as he planned, or hoped. Isaias saw to that.

“I was very involved in the storm activity — I just took care of it all remotely,” he said nearly a week after the storm came through, leaving tens of thousands across the region without power for long stretches and “hitting Westfield hard,” as he put it.

That phrase is appropriate for the pandemic as well, obviously, and it applies to every community across the region. Indeed, large numbers of businesses, including some large users of electricity, such as colleges and universities and some manufacturing facilities, but mostly smaller ventures in the hospitality and service sectors, have been shut down for long stretches. And some, like the colleges, are, for the most part, still closed.

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some facilities, but COVID-19 and a need to socially distance has prompted a re-evaluation of those plans.

Meanwhile, many businesses that are open are struggling and finding it difficult to pay all the bills, including the one from the utility company. And many individuals working for these businesses — or not, as the case may be — are in the same boat, with matters likely to get worse before they get any better (see related story on page 53).

All this has presented a number of challenges for utilities, who are responding, as all businesses are, with use of reserves, belt tightening, and sometimes delaying planned expenditures when possible.

While estimates on the decline in power usage vary — Lavelle also put it at roughly 10% — and the overall drop in demand has been mitigated to some degree by a very hot summer that has commanded more use of air conditioners, said Hallstrom, the bite is significant.

“Over the course of a year, a 10% reduction would mean an impact to us in the vicinity of $4 million to $5 million — and that’s a big number,” Contrino noted. “We’re cutting back, we’re not doing some of the work we would typically be doing, and we’re trying to control expenses as best we can and work our way through this.

“We anticipate that we’re going to be hit on the receivables side, and we’re planning for that,” he went on. “We’ve got funds in place to help us with that, and we’re thinking long-term — I don’t think this is going to end that quickly; I’m sure it’s going to extend into next year to some degree.”

Lavelle agreed, noting that, while Holyoke G&E is looking at a similar hit, it has been helped by some new businesses coming online, including a few involved in cannabis cultivation, which are typically large users of power.

“We’re seeing a few of those businesses start to ramp up, and that will offset some of the COVID impact,” he explained. “But the COVID impact is about 10% overall.”

And while that is, as Contrino said, a big number, it pales in comparison to what businesses across a number of sectors are facing, said Lavelle, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“We can’t compare to what some of the businesses and some of our residential customers are dealing with,” he went on. “Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

To help these businesses — and residential customers as well — Holyoke G&E, like other utilities, has been working with customers to help them through the crisis.

“Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

There is a moratorium on shutoffs for late payments — the governor put one in place for investor-owned utilities, and municipally owned operations have followed suit — and Holyoke G&E is working with individual customers to create payment plans, said Lavelle, adding that, overall, the utility has seen a 25% rise, roughly $1 million to date, in delinquent payments.

Like Contrino, Lavelle said his utility is handling the decline in revenue through reserves and some reductions in expenses, many of which are coming naturally as a result of the pandemic, such as those involving travel, training (some programs cannot be carried out remotely), and other areas.

Lines of Communication

While coping with the pandemic’s impact to their customers, and the bottom line, area utilities have, like other businesses, been forced to adjust and change how they do things.

This means everything from having some employees who can work remotely do just that, to putting one person in each service truck, instead of two; from closing offices, thereby compelling customers to pay online, to taking steps to make sure those in the pivotal control rooms are at minimal risk of exposure to the virus.

Overall, the goal, said those we spoke with, has been to keep people apart as much possible in order to keep operations moving as efficiently as possible. In fact, Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some of its operations prior to the pandemic, and now, it is certainly rethinking that strategy.

“For a fairly small utility, we have several different buildings, and we had been looking at a consolidation plan,” Lavelle said. “But the distance between facilities and the number of facilities has actually helped us comply with social distancing and other recommendations associated with good COVID hygiene. So we’re revising that whole consolidation plan at present.”

Contrino said his utility’s experience in preparing for weather events like Isaias has been beneficial as it continually adjusts to life during the pandemic.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience working through numerous storms and large-scale electric outages in the past, and have conducted various emergency-response drills over the years,” he explained. “So we were somewhat prepared to take action — although the duration of this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before.”

Elaborating, he recalled that, as it became clear the pandemic was coming and there would be a significant impact, the Westfield G&E implemented an emergency-management plan, designated a COVID-compliance officer, and formed an incident-response team of key management personnel — a team that continues to meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and what is likely to happen in the weeks and months to come, although looking far down the road is extremely difficult.

“During this pandemic, we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” Contrino told BusinessWest. “Although we have essential services to provide, we want to keep everyone safe; we have that balancing act going on — while we’re trying to provide our services, we’re also going to keep everyone healthy.”

Hallstrom concurred, also using the phrase ‘balancing act’ to describe how Eversource is working to keep the power flowing while keeping employees and customers safe.

He said roughly half the utility’s 8,000 employees‚ including those in finance, HR, accounting, and other business functions, have been working at home the past 20 weeks or so. Most of ‘his’ 2,800 employees, those who work to directly provide power and maintain service, have been coming to the office — in whatever shape it takes — every day.

Keeping these individuals safe has become a top priority.

“We’ve implanted many safety protocols — we promote face masks and washing hands, and instead of crews going out two per truck, we’ve had them going out one per truck,” he explained. “We’ve actually bought trucks and taken vehicles out of retirement to increase our fleet so that people can go out by themselves in a vehicle.”

Precautions also extend to service in individual homes and businesses — crews will go in only after ensuring there are no COVID-related issues at the address in question — and to the control centers, which are vital to managing the electric system.

“Day to day, we have a sufficient number of people to manage these facilities, but one of the fears from the pandemic is that if someone got sick and they passed it to fellow employees, that might quickly impact our people and make it so we couldn’t operate that system,” Hallstrom explained. “Those people are highly trained, and in the case of transmission, they’re certified, so that was a big concern.”

While some utilities had control-room personnel quarantine and stay in what amounts to a bubble, he noted, Eversource, which has several smaller control rooms, has been able to spread out its people so there are fewer individuals in a given control room, while some of these facilities were set aside as ‘sterile environments’ that employees not infected with the virus could be moved to in order to keep the system running properly.

Meanwhile, like banks, utilities have had to close their doors to their main offices, which have traditionally seen large amounts of traffic involving customers paying their bills or conducting other business. This business has now shifted online in many cases, said Lavelle, and for some customers, it’s been a big change.

“Being shut down has really impacted how we conduct business,” he explained. “We’ve had online services for some time, so a lot of it has been training customers how to pay online or sign up for a new account online; we’ve seen an uptick of more than 200% in online transactions.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he went on. “There’s been a little bit of hand holding with some customers, but other than that, it’s gone quite well.”

Watt’s Next

Drawing one more analogy to Isaias — and all the other storms his utility has confronted over the years — Contrino said that, when it came to the pandemic, Westfield G&E prepared for the worst.

And this is the mindset that will continue as the crisis plays itself out, with certainly more questions about what’s on the horizon than answers.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into working through this and moving forward in a disciplined and measured manner.”

With that, he spoke for all the utilities that have been working to keep the power on — tropical storms and all — during a crisis that is testing them in every way and on every level.

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

Coronavirus

Safe at Home

By Mark Morris

Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’

This before-and-after view of Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’ is just one of many jobs keeping crews busy recently.

When COVID-19 began spreading earlier this year, it forced everyone to make adjustments. Or, as Brian Rudd put it, “The pandemic lets you know how prepared you are for change.”

Rudd, owner of Vista Home Improvement, said his company handles around 700 projects every year, and keeps everything straight by following an organized process. Once the pandemic hit, those processes had to change on the fly.

“Thanks to our staff and our company culture, we were able to adapt quickly, especially in the way we interact with our customers,” Rudd said, adding that some of the changes, such as heavier reliance on technology to interact with customers and employees, will benefit the business long after coranavirus is under control.

Amid such changes, though, several home-improvement contractors who spoke with BusinessWest tell a similar story about 2020.

Specifically, they all experienced downtime in March and April; even though they were included among ‘essential’ workers, the home-improvement business suffered a severe slowdown, as most people were not comfortable with any outsiders in their home during the early months of the pandemic.

But as more precautions have been put in place, business has returned to most companies — and, in some cases, increased over last year.

Back in December, Ger Ronan, president of Yankee Home, organized what he calls a ‘mastermind’ group of 11 home-improvement companies from all over the U.S. The point of the group is to network and share ideas about what’s working and what’s not.

“In the early days of the pandemic, members of the group came together and wanted to help in any way they could,” he said. “I got lots of ideas and strategies from companies much larger than mine, and they really helped.”

Ronan expressed a common observation as to why home renovation work has picked up. With people spending so much time at home, they are looking at faded siding, worn-out roofs, and other needed repairs. On top of that, fewer people are going away on vacation this year, opting instead to invest money in their homes.

With everyone staying put, homes are simply getting more use — and attention — than in the past.

“There’s more wear and tear on rooms in the house, especially bathrooms,” he said. “Our bathroom-renovation sales are really strong.”

Scott Keiter, president of Keiter Homes, said his company is working on a wide range of home projects. From new additions to kitchens, bathrooms, and especially outdoor living spaces, he said people want to make their houses more user-friendly in this time of increased isolation.

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed,” Keiter said. “Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

Safety First

All three contractors follow state guidelines for COVID-19 in terms of masks, sanitizing worksites, and keeping a safe distance from clients. They also emphasized the importance of safety for their employees and clients.

“Every morning, we give all of our employees the option to not work that day if they do not feel safe,” Rudd said. “That’s become part of our daily routine, and it’s worked great.”

When working on exterior projects such as siding and roofs, Keiter said, it’s fairly easy to maintain a safe distance from the homeowner.

“It’s a little more complicated when we have to work inside the home,” he said. “A simple solution like a plastic partition wall allows us to segregate our work area from the client’s living space.”

Yankee Home uses red carpets to protect clients’ floors when working inside the home. In addition to having the carpets cleaned frequently, Ronan said, project managers from his company visit every job site to make sure all safety protocols are in place.

These contractors told BusinessWest that having people at home during renovation projects was definitely a help and not a hindrance to the job. They all pointed out how much easier it is to discuss changes to a project while the owner is on site, rather than trying to reach them at work and waiting for a reply.

Ger Ronan

Ger Ronan says people have been spending more time at home — and finding more reasons to invest in their home.

“We do a lot of customization, so it’s nice to have people there so they can tell us exactly what they want,” Ronan noted.

At a recent siding and window installation, Rudd added, the homeowner appreciated the details of the work and enjoyed seeing the job from start to finish. “We love people being home because they can see the craftsmanship and what goes into the investment they’ve made with us.”

One trend developing as a result of so many couples working from home involves ‘his and her’ home-office spaces. Keiter, who builds new homes as well as additions, said he has not worked on such projects, but expects he might get requests in the near future. Long before the work-at-home explosion, his clients have wanted home-office setups either for work or to stay in touch with distant family members online.

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed. Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

“Whether it’s a dedicated office space, flex space, or a study, many plans call for one room in the house that’s being dedicated for computer use,” he explained, noting that the next trend in home offices will likely involve upgraded wireless infrastructure. “From parents working at home to kids trying to go to school online, and all the other laptop and iPad use, I think we will be seeing more sophisticated wireless access points in the home.”

Security Blanket

Though business is booming now, Ronan predicts that the pent-up demand caused by COVID-19 will eventually dissipate, but won’t reduce business too much.

“You know the old adage of, no matter how bad the recession might be, you’ll always get your haircut,” he said. “Well, we’re not quite up there with hairdressers, but you’re always going to take care of your home.”

Rudd said 2020 reminds him of the period right after 9/11 when people saw the home as a security blanket. Similar to that time, his clients are focused on ‘nesting’ in the safety of their home — so it’s not surprising his business is up 32% over last year.

“Anything related to the home is booming,” he noted. “Friends of mine who are landscapers are having record years, too.”

Homeowners have long been advised to make renovations to their kitchens and bathrooms because money spent on those two rooms will provide the best return on investment if the house ever goes up for sale. While kitchen and bathroom renovations remain popular, Keiter said, he’s finding that people are investing in those spaces for a different reason: quality of life.

“We’re staying at home because the virus has made the world unpredictable in so many ways,” he told BusinessWest. “With all this uncertainty, putting money into our homes seems like a pretty safe bet.”

COVID-19

A Temporary Setback

Several weeks of good news about COVID-19 infections in Massachusetts were no reason to party. In fact, parties were probably a bad idea.

Citing a proliferation of large parties as one likely factor in Massachusetts’ recent uptick in infections, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a temporary pullback of the state’s reopening efforts.

On Aug. 7, the governor not only postponed the second stage of phase 3 — affecting a range of businesses that cater to groups of people — but called for increased enforcement efforts to crack down on violations of the state’s COVID-19 regulations.

Postponing the second stage of phase 3 means theaters and performance venues still can’t hold indoor shows, and activities like laser tag, roller skating, trampolining, and obstacle courses remain on hold as well. Businesses expecting to reopen in phase 4, such as bars, overnight camps, and arcades, will obviously remain closed as well.

Baker also signed an order reducing the limit on outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people, while the limit on indoor gatherings remains at 25 people. Face coverings are required at gatherings where more than 10 people from different households will interact.

On Aug. 7, the governor not only postponed the second stage of phase 3 — affecting a range of businesses that cater to groups of people — but called for increased enforcement efforts to crack down on violations of the state’s COVID-19 regulations.

The local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business called Baker’s decision to pause the state’s reopening “extremely disappointing,” adding that, “instead of delaying the opening of certain businesses, many taking every step imaginable to keep workers and customers safe, the administration should pursue the private gatherings that are causing the problems.”

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts rose nearly 25% between July 29 and Aug. 5, and new COVID-19 infections are once again outpacing recoveries. As of last week, there have been 8,519 deaths and 112,673 cases reported by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive, on average, is down slightly at 1.8%.

In other guidance, Baker reiterated that restaurants may serve alcoholic beverages only for on-site consumption if accompanied by orders for food prepared on site. The administration will take measures to ensure that bars masquerading as restaurants will be closed.

The administration also announced a targeted, cross-agency team responsible for ramping up enforcement statewide and coordinating local intervention efforts at the local level in higher-risk COVID-19 communities. Those supports will include:

• Targeted interventions and inspections by a range of member agencies;

• Cease-and-desist orders for businesses and organizations in violation of the COVID-19 orders;

• Support for local and state officials in exercising their authority to fine restaurants or suspend or cancel liquor licenses when restaurants do not comply with required safety measures;

• Targeted public messaging (like road signs and PSAs) to alert residents of higher-risk COVID communities;

• Technical support to local government officials to support enhanced local COVID-19 prevention efforts, such as assistance in accessing CARES Act funding;

• Potential restrictions or shutdowns for parks, playgrounds, businesses, or other entities believed to be contributing to COVID-19 spread in higher-risk communities; and

• Additional public-health support, such as testing, tracing, and quarantining.

Additionally, previously announced free COVID-19 testing in 17 communities, including Springfield and Agawam, has been extended through Sept. 12.

Finally, a travel order, which went into effect Aug. 1, stipulates that all visitors and residents returning to Massachusetts from high-risk areas must either quarantine for 14 days or produce negative COVID-19 test results upon return into the state.

Individuals who have not received test results prior to arrival are required to quarantine until they receive a negative test result. Violators may face a $500 fine per day.

States considered lower-risk, and thus exempt from the travel order, include Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Other exemptions to the travel rules include people passing through, people who commute across state lines for work or school, and people coming to the state for medical treatment or military purposes.

Rhode Island was initially exempt from the travel order, but is now considered a higher-risk state. Still, Baker said people on either side of the border may make trips back and forth for errands or work.

— Joseph Bednar

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration has released additional data on community-level spread of COVID-19 in order to target additional resources and implement community-specific strategies to stop the spread of the virus.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new set of initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, especially in higher-risk communities that have seen a recent uptick in cases. While Massachusetts has seen an overall decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since May, there has been a slight uptick in certain communities in recent days.

The administration has released data on the average daily cases per 100,000 residents, average percent positivity, and positive tests for all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns over the last two weeks. Based on the average daily cases per 100,000 residents, each city or town has been designated as a higher-risk, moderate-risk, or lower-risk community. Going forward, this information will be updated and included in the Department of Public Health’s weekly public-health dashboard, which is published each Wednesday. Click here to view a map with these designations by community.

Any city or town designated higher-risk is considered to have a high level of COVID-19 infection, and will receive additional support from the Commonwealth to address the spread of the virus.

Last week, Baker also announced a targeted cross-agency COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team that will be responsible for ramping up enforcement statewide and coordinating intervention efforts at the local level in these higher-risk COVID-19 communities. Those efforts will include:

• Targeted interventions and inspections by a range of member agencies;

• Cease-and-desist orders for businesses and organizations in violation of the COVID-19 orders;

• Support for local and state officials in exercising their authority to fine restaurants or suspend or cancel liquor licenses when restaurants do not comply with required safety measures;

• Targeted public messaging (like road signs and PSAs) to alert residents of higher-risk COVID communities;

• Technical support to local government officials to support enhanced local COVID-19 prevention efforts, such as assistance in accessing CARES Act funding;

• Potential restrictions or shutdowns for parks, playgrounds, businesses, or other entities believed to be contributing to COVID-19 spread in higher-risk communities; and

• Additional public-health support, such as testing, tracing, and quarantining.

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new set of initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, especially in higher-risk communities that have seen a recent uptick in cases. While Massachusetts has seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since May, there has been a slight uptick in certain communities in recent days.

The administration announced a set of initiatives, including stricter statewide rules for public and private gatherings and targeted community guidance. The administration also announced that, starting this week, additional reporting for town-by-town data will be published weekly to show the spread of COVID-19 at a community level. Additionally, previously announced free COVID-19 testing in 17 communities has been extended through Sept. 12.

Baker also signed an updated gatherings order, effective Tuesday, Aug. 11, which will reduce the limit on outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people (indoor gatherings limit will remain at 25 people); apply these limits to all types of gatherings, on both public and private property; and require face coverings where more than 10 people from different households will be mixing.

Due to the recent increase in positive cases, the second step of phase 3 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan has been postponed indefinitely.

Restaurant rules have been updated to state that alcoholic beverages may be served only for on-site consumption if accompanied by orders for food prepared on-site. The administration will be taking measures to ensure that bars masquerading as restaurants will be closed. Public-safety officials, including state and local law enforcement, have the jurisdiction to enforce these orders, and event hosts in violation of these orders will be subject to fines or cease-and-desist orders.

The administration also announced a targeted cross-agency COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team that will be responsible for ramping up enforcement statewide and coordinating local intervention efforts at the local level in higher-risk COVID-19 communities.

Communities will be designated as higher-risk COVID-19 communities based on public-health data, including but not limited to rising trends for new cases and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests.

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar 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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Technology

From a Distance

By Sean Hogan

Hogan

Sean Hogan

COVID-19 has changed the way we all do business. The remote workforce, which was embraced by a few, is now the new norm and embraced by almost all businesses. The question lingers, though: will this revert when there is a vaccine and we go back to the normal, non-pandemic lifestyle?

Many believe that remote workforce is here to stay, and these numbers seem to be growing with each week and month. But to do that, we need to understand how to manage our remote workforce and embrace technology to support our staff.

To do this effectively, managers need to manage the technology, the people, and the culture. Let’s take them in order.

Managing Technology

Our company, Hogan Technology, has sold and configured videoconferencing and collaboration systems for 25 years. We would set up conference rooms with audio and video so clients could establish videoconferences with employees and customers.

In the past, we saw most of this technology gather dust; at first, a client would embrace video collaboration, but it would quickly be disregarded. The older video and collaboration technology platforms were clumsy and difficult to navigate. Staff would quickly give up trying to learn how to use the tech.

Today’s collaboration tools are extremely easy to use, especially for the younger generation that grew up on smartphones. COVID-19 has promoted the skyrocking popularity of services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These tools can be used to enhance your company communications and productivity, but we need to know how to use these tools.

Hogan has had remote employees for more than seven years; the challenge has been including those employees in the day-to-day interaction at the office. Pre-COVID, we rarely had video meetings; now, we meet several times a day via video to collaborate and share data.

“Many of my clients have been quickly thrust into the remote workforce with little or no experience with online collaboration. They have quickly learned how to host and manage online collaboration.”

Meanwhile, many of my clients have been quickly thrust into the remote workforce with little or no experience with online collaboration. They have quickly learned how to host and manage online collaboration. Hogan has adopted a platform for the security and simplicity of the service. We host several Hogan Teams meetings per week. We have fixed meetings and ad hoc meetings. Our fixed meetings are administered by our staff; we create the team, invite the necessary personnel, and share all pertinent data to the Teams site for ease of retrieval. Teams has a smartphone app, desktop app, and browser login.

We have noticed that our video meetings are more focused than our traditional conference room meetings, our data is consolidated, and our agendas are clear.

I must admit that, at first, I was resistant to host sales and client meetings through video collaboration. It took some time and some failures — I completely failed on my first large Zoom conference, but eventually, I embraced the meetings. Throughout the pandemic, all introductory sales meetings have been on Teams, and to my shock they have gone well. We print fewer documents, we save on travel expense, and we can host more meetings per day than before. If we are looking for bright spots during this COVID-19 madness, then this would be one.

Oddly enough, because meetings are so easy, we tend to meet more and share more. We understand that the end game is improving communications; whenever we have a management meeting, we are stressing the need to communicate better, internally and externally. COVID has forced us to communicate better, faster, and more efficiently.

Managing People

We have had many clients request analytics or reports so they can better track the performance of remote employees. There are several ways to track productivity, such as call-volume reports, CRM usage reports, presence activity reports, internet-usage reports, and so on. Personally, I manage my staff to their individual goals; if I have an employee who is exceeding his or her goals, then I don’t need to be very granular with activity reporting. I will use their analytics to compare to other personnel; this helps me determine where I need to focus my attention.

It is critical to protect your company’s endpoints no matter where they reside. If an employee uses a business machine at home, that machine needs to have updated anti-virus, malware protection, multi-factor authentication, and end-point detection and response.

Managing the Culture

Culture is a critical piece in all businesses. Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time. It can be a challenge to maintain your culture while working with a remote workforce.

We have found that we need to engage our employees through collaboration. Our meetings are not just management telling staff what needs to be done and how to do it. The meetings must engage all the personnel — they need to be part of the solution, and we as managers need to stop talking and start listening. This helps cement our team culture.

The key is that we listen to everyone, and other businesses should embrace this mindset. You need to sit back and ask, ‘what is our culture?’ ‘Who are we?’ ‘What matters to our clients?’ and ‘How do we support our community?’

It’s critical to know your culture and even more critical to defend your culture. Make sure your team knows what matters.

In this time when more and more people are working remotely, it’s important to manage the technology. But it’s equally important to manage people and culture.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology; (413) 585-9950.

Coronavirus

Driving Forces

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan says inventory has been an issue for many car dealers, but overall, the picture is much brighter than analysts were predicting in the spring.

Back in the earliest and darkest days of the pandemic (at least in this part of the country), analysts within the auto industry were predicting that overall sales for 2020 might be off perhaps as much as 80% from the year prior.

Those projections turned out to be well off the mark, as were some of the later estimates as well, said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, adding that a number of factors have made this year — and it’s a little more than half over, so a lot can still happen — much better than perhaps anyone could have imagined back in late March and early April.

These factors include stimulus checks that provided some disposable income for many people, as well as some extremely attractive incentives from the manufacturers, including 0% interest for as many as 84 months, job-loss protection, and no payments for six months.

“From an auto-dealer standpoint, I don’t think we were intended to be direct beneficiaries of any stimulus money,” Sullivan said. “But what the consumers are doing with the money has certainly offset what we expected to be a much steeper decline in the auto business than what we have actually experienced.”

But some of these same factors, coupled with pandemic-forced factory shutdowns, have created a slew of challenges for auto dealers as well. These include shortages of inventory for new cars, although there seems to be some improvement on that front, according to those we spoke with, and an even more pronounced shortage of used cars, which is spurring something almost historic when it comes to the prices offered to those willing to trade in vehicles or just sell them outright — something that’s happening with increasing frequency.

“There’s an unbelievable shortage of used cars,” said Sullivan. “There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up. And people are recognizing that and saying, ‘if there if was a time to trade in a car, now’s the time’ — and that’s helping the new-car market.”

As for overall inventory, a drive by any dealership in the area would reveal fewer cars in the lot, a clear reflection of what’s happening with both new and used vehicles, said Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes Benz of Springfield, noting that his store is typical in most respects. There’s a smaller supply of used cars (only about 12 days, as opposed to the 30-to 45 days that would be typical) and fewer new cars as well as the factories try to catch up for the time lost when they were closed or making other products, such as respirators, in the case of General Motors.

“There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up.”

The situation is improving, though, and by late August, most expect a return to something approaching normalcy.

“We’re starting to see inventories coming back, which is exciting for all of us,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, adding that, while the landscape may change and there remains a good deal of uncertainty, there is currently demand for those cars that will soon be filling the lots.

Which is good because, while sales of used cars (if dealers can get them) have been more than solid, new-car sales have been off — but, again, not as much as the experts thought they would be back when states were shut down and governors were rolling out phased reopenings.

“I’d say, on average, the sales pace for the new-vehicle industry in the Northeast is probably down 10% to maybe 15%,” said Sullivan, adding that these numbers could not have been imagined back in the spring, when it looked like the bottom might fall out of the market.

Looking ahead … well, looking ahead is something that’s difficult in any sector. But those we spoke with said that, overall, dealers are in decent position for quarters three and four. Inventories are improving, there is still some pent-up demand, there are still plenty of incentives, and new models are arriving on many lots.

But as they’ve seen already this year, things can change in a hurry, and projections — as those made way back in March can attest — are difficult to make.

Hitting the Accelerator

As he talked with BusinessWest at the Mercedes dealership on Burnett Road, just off turnpike exit 6, Wirth noted that, in many respects, a touch of normalcy has returned to this store, and the business of car selling in general.

Indeed, he noted there were several people sitting in the service waiting area, more than there would have been back in the spring, when ‘pickup and dropoff’ was the order of the day — and it’s still a popular option. Meanwhile, all employees are back at the dealership — many of those who could were working remotely in the earlier days of the pandemic — although there are now vacant workstations between those with people, and some sport plexiglass dividers between them. Perhaps most importantly, business is … well, perhaps not normal, but it’s certainly in the ballpark.

Peter Wirth

Peter Wirth says business is returning to something approaching normal at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, and the summer and fall look promising as new models roll in.

In many respects, the dealership is well-positioned for a solid year, despite the pandemic and various negative forces it has created, Wirth said, listing everything from those aforementioned factory incentives — Mercedes has them as well — to lingering, pent-up demand; from new models arriving regularly to the mix of vehicles consumers are demanding.

“This might be the second year that we’re producing more SUVs than cars on the new-car side, and we’re almost at 60-40 now,” he explained. “It took us a couple of years to get there, but that’s what the market wants. So, maybe for the first time in five years, we’re actually in sync with what the market wants, and I think that’s going to help us.”

But while there are some signs of normalcy and even progress when it comes to sales volume, there are reminders everywhere that these are very different times — from the masks on the customers and employees to the deep cleaning that accompanies every car that leaves the service bay, to the cars in the lot, or the lack thereof, to be more precise.

Sullivan told BusinessWest that inventory has been an issue across the broad portfolio of makers within the Balise stable. Closed factories were a big contributor to the problem, he said, but supply-chain issues were, and still are, a factor as well.

“Next to the tsunami that hit Japan, the pandemic and everything it has brought has had perhaps the most impact the auto industry has seen since World War II,” he explained. “The supply chains got interrupted, and this is a global industry; there’s parts from Scandinavia, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, the list goes on. And it really only takes one part to not be able to have a production line running.

“If you have a plant that goes down, and you’re missing that key component, you can’t build an F-150, or a Silverado, or a Camry,” he went on. “The industry has been absolutely disrupted from an availability standpoint. But the good news is that it’s a pretty resilient industry; they find other suppliers and ways to navigate through. But we are a low point of availability.”

Some makers were hit harder than others, he continued, noting that General Motors never fully recovered from the strike of last year before the pandemic hit, and the arrival of COVID-19 further complicated matters, especially when it comes to the production of trucks, one of the more popular items in recent years.

Unlocking Options

Overall, though, and especially as the summer has progressed, buyers have had a better time of trying to find the make, model, and color they want. Mercedes has a sister store in New York that effectively doubles the dealership’s chances of quickly supplying want the buyer wants, and Balise and TommyCar have similar relationships within the industry.

Some are settling for maybe their second-favorite color or a model with most but not all the options they were looking for, said those we spoke with, while others chooose to wait for exactly what they want. And the wait is getting slightly shorter.

“We’re lucky that we carried a good days’ supply of inventory before this happened, so we were in a good position as far as the number of units we were able to maintain through this, and now, we’re starting to see the manufacturers supplement the inventory back,” Cosenzi said. “But the biggest hurdle was being able to get the exact specifications a customer was looking for when it came to new cars.”

If the new-car market is getting somewhat back to normal, the same can’t really be said for used-car buying, which, as noted earlier, is in what would have to be called uncharted territory — or at least a place visited very infrequently.

Using words and numbers, those we spoke with said demand for used cars is through the roof — even for convertibles — and this is definitely a sellers’ market.

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says getting used cars has been a real issue for most car dealers, and that will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future.

Sullivan knows, because he recently was a seller — if you count trading in as selling.

“I traded my wife’s car in two weeks ago, but it really is the best time you could ever ask for,” he said, adding that prices are up, on average, almost $1,800 per car over the past few months. “With my car, I got $2,000 more than I would have two months previous — or two months from now. It just happens to be that timing in the market — the used-car market has defied every industry analyst’s predictions during COVID.”

Overall, a number of factors are contributing to the bustling used-car market in the 413, Wirth said. For starters, this is more of a used-car market than a new-car market, and from all he can gather — he’s been in it for four years — it always has been. What’s more, with the pandemic creating questions about the future and some economic uncertainty for many, used cars are being seen as an attractive, less risky option than buying new — even with all those incentives from the carmakers.

But supply, as it is with new cars, is perhaps the biggest driving force.

“I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan told BusinessWest that most all of the auction houses where so many used cars are acquired by the dealers were closed for a long stretch early this year, removing those supplies. Meanwhile, many leases were extended due to the pandemic, taking those cars out of circulation. And some consumers simply decided that, given the conditions, they would hang onto their car for at least another year.

All this forced dealers to look elsewhere and explore options ranging from buying some of the suddenly unneeded rental cars cluttering lots across the country to buying cars off the street, a tactic Balise deployed.

And that imagination has been needed, because demand — fueled by cautiousness in the era of COVID-19 and other factors — has certainly spiked.

Bottom Line

As for what happens next … it’s hard to say with any certainty, because there are so many unknowns when it comes to the virus, the economy, additional stimulus, and other factors.

“There’s so much uncertainty, but especially when it comes to where the customer demand will settle in,” said Cosenzi. “And we’re prepared to adjust our operations accordingly. We’re starting to see a lot of the manufacturing plants open up and trucks pulling into the dealerships with the cars we’ve been waiting for. I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan agreed.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “And we’re incredibly grateful for being in as good shape as we are. When we looked at what the analysts were saying, that can really put a lump in your stomach. I’d like to say that we’re wildly optimistic, but we can’t be because we know there’s some choppy waters ahead.”

With that, he spoke for everyone in a business that has fared much better than most could have dreamed, but is still staring at some rather large question marks.

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

Coronavirus

Developments of Note

SSO

The SSO hasn’t been able to perform live since the pandemic arrived, but it has found ways to keep the music coming.

Susan Beaudry called it a ‘stop the presses’ moment — quite literally.

Indeed, the program book for an adjusted, and truncated, 2020-21 season for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was at Hadley Printers back in April, and the presses were set to roll. But at the very last moment, the order was canceled.

“The tenor of our industry was … ‘I wouldn’t say anything, I wouldn’t announce a season,’” said Beaudry, adding that, back then, as the number of cases in this state and around the country were soaring, industry groups were advising that it didn’t make sense to put a schedule down in black and white. And it still doesn’t.

“When you’re selling, which is what we’re doing when we announce a season, it’s very difficult in this climate,” she told BusinessWest. “People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be. They’re not going to pre-buy for a concert that may be months away; we just felt it was an awful lot to ask our patrons and the community to make that kind of commitment.”

This episode captures, in poignant fashion, the state of limbo in which the SSO, and most all other institutions of its kind, now resides.

In short, the future is unknown, and when it comes to live performances before real audiences — the absolute lifeblood of these orchestras — it comes down to a waiting game. A wait for a vaccine, most probably, or perhaps an effective treatment for the virus. Something that will prompt the governor of the state to give the green light for phase 4 of his reopening plan.

“We’re listening and waiting,” Beaudry said. “We’re not planning based on our needs or our desires; we’re just listening. And when it’s the right time, we have a season ready to rock and roll. We may have to move some dates around, we may have to move some soloists around … but we know what we’re doing when the time comes.”

“People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be.”

Beaudry stressed that she and others at the SSO are not simply waiting. Far from it.

In fact, she said she’s probably working harder and longer than she would during a typical season, largely because of an even longer to-do list.

It includes providing music to an audience — not the typical audience and not in the typical way; the SSO is now offering the HomeGrown Series, a weekly (Wednesday) webcast featuring a performance, demonstration, or lecture. It also includes fundraising, creating a fund to pay musicians sidelined by the pandemic, planning — as much as that assignment can be carried out in the COVID era — and working ever harder to create ways to broaden the orchestra’s audience.

Indeed, those at the SSO were well aware, long before anyone had ever heard the term COVID-19, that it needed to expand its base of patrons and supporters, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has perhaps brought a greater sense of urgency to this work.

“What we’re not doing is waiting,” she explained. “We’re fully engaged, and we’re working very, very hard. We still have to raise money, we still have to market our brand, we have to keep our musicians in front of our patrons, we have budgetary issues, a strategic plan to undertake … I’m working harder and longer hours than ever, but it’s exciting, fun, and rewarding work.”

As BusinessWest continues its extensive coverage of the pandemic and its broad impact on the region and its business community, we take an in-depth look at the SSO and how it intends to not just weather the storm but use the time and this extreme challenge to examine how to change and become a stronger institution moving forward.

Working in Concert

As she and others at the SSO packed up their computers and whatever else they might need in mid-March and left the orchestra’s offices in downtown Springfield to work at home, the expectation was that it would be for just a few weeks, said Beaudry, adding that this was roughly the same mindset taken with regard to shelving events on the schedule.

Indeed, even before state and federal shutdown orders were put if effect, orchestras, knowing that their audiences are dominated by seniors, began postponing or canceling events — a few weeks or a month at a time.

“We were halfway through March, and we said, ‘let’s just cancel the rest of March,’” she explained, noting that there were several events impacted, from a show at Symphony Hall to a chamber-music performance at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow. “The board agreed — ‘it’s prudent, it’s the right thing to do … let’s not worry about April yet.’”

Soon, though, those at the SSO had a lot more to worry about than just April. As the full scope of the pandemic became clear, the rest of the season was canceled — and soon it also became apparent that the new season, which traditionally starts in September, was now a huge question mark.

Susan Beaudry

Susan Beaudry says that, while waiting for the green light to start its new season, the SSO is busy with everything from fundraising to building its brand to undertaking a strategic plan.

Which takes us back to that order to stop the presses. The program book that was set to roll detailed a truncated schedule that would start with the popular Holiday Pops performance and include four or five other events, said Beaudry.

Now, as noted, even that shorter, simpler schedule is very much in doubt — but ready to go when and if the word — in whatever form it takes — is given.

In the meantime, there is much more than waiting to do — starting with the HomeGrown series, which started back in April with Maestro Kevin Rhodes performing some Brahms on the piano. Over the ensuing weeks, the program has presented a variety of short programs featuring individual artists and even the entire oboe section.

“It’s been very successful, and we’ve received some very positive feedback,” Beaudry said. “It redirects people to a less stress-filled subject and a little levity, a little beauty. As we’ve always said, the healing power of music is very real, and the longer this pandemic lingers, the more that rings true.”

But to provide that healing power, the orchestra must survive what will almost certainly be its most difficult financial test — although it has weathered many over the years, including recessions and even world wars. This one is different, because there are so many unknowns, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has already forced the orchestra to furlough some staff and reduce hours for those who remain; she personally volunteered to take a 30% pay cut.

“We’ve basically lost a season,” she said, referring to the second half of the 2019-20 season and the first half of the upcoming season — at least. “We have no box-office sales right now, and we still have expenses.”

A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped keep staffers employed for several months, but those funds ran out, she went on, forcing the furloughs that were announced several weeks ago.

Moving forward, and with no program book for the upcoming season and no concerts to sponsor at the moment, the SSO is looking for different ways to provide value for its sponsors, and for those sponsors to provide the continued support needed to propel the orchestra to the proverbial other side of the pandemic.

“What we’re hoping is that we can turn sponsorship into a sustainability partnership,” she explained, “where these sponsors are going to philanthropically help us get over the hump so that we’re solvent on the other side and ready to take our place in the community and on stage when this whole thing is done. And the only way we do that successfully is with the full support of the community around us.”

While sustainability is now the most critical issue, a related need — to change and broaden the audience base — takes on even more importance in this era of COVID-19.

“We need to remind ourselves that not everyone is going to get dressed up on a Saturday night and drive to downtown Springfield from wherever and sit for two or three hours through a concert,” she explained. “It’s a commitment to come, so we need to figure out what people want to come to and how we can morph — not that we’re going to change our mission; we’re a classical music organization, and we intend to remain that.

“There are lots of considerations for us to make what we do a better product,” she went on, adding that, in some ways, the pandemic is amplifying the need for change and perhaps accelerating the process. Meanwhile, it is also helping to move the SSO in directions it knew it needed to move, such as virtual offerings, like HomeGrown.

“What COVID did was prompt us to ask, ‘what can we do virtually — how can we reach bigger audiences with a stronger reach electronically and virtually?’” she told BusinessWest. “That is a new wave of performances. We’re a live-performance organization; that’s really how we’ve focused — how do we get people to Symphony Hall? But if we can figure out how to best use livestreaming, who can we reach? What does that do for our education programs and our performances, or even the snowbirds who are gone for half our season?”

On a Final Note…

“This music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

That’s a quote from Mozart, and it now graces the SSO’s home page in large, bold type.

Not nearly as large and bold as the words “When the Orchestra Returns, Your Seat Will be Waiting.”

That’s a confident pronouncement in itself, with emphasis on the word ‘when.’

“We’ve been around for 76 years, and we’ve been through wars and other disasters, and we’ll get through this, too,” Beaudry said in conclusion. “We’re here to serve; we’re mission-driven. That’s the priority, and we’ll be ready.”

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