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BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that childcare workers, K-12 educators, and K-12 school staff will be eligible to schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments starting Thursday, March 11.

This group of workers will join the currently eligible groups, including age 65+ and individuals with two or more certain medical conditions.

Educators may book appointments at all 170 sites currently open to eligible residents in Massachusetts by visiting www.mass.gov/covidvaccinemap.

Additionally, the COVID-19 Command Center will work to designate specific days at the seven mass-vaccination sites for educators to get their shots. More details will be released soon.

There are approximately 400,000 childcare workers, K-12 educators, and K-12 school staff in Massachusetts. Due to a severely constrained federal supply and the existing population that is currently eligible for vaccines, it is estimated that it will take a month for all eligible individuals to secure a first appointment. This timeframe is subject to change if federal supply increases dramatically, including the recently authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

As more individuals have received a first vaccine dose across the Commonwealth, there is a greater need to book second appointments, so the mass-vaccination sites have fewer first-dose appointments available on a weekly basis.

Cover Story COVID-19

What We’ve Learned, What’s Changed, What’s Changed Forever

One year ago, the world, or at least our little corner of it, stopped. Completely.

Well, almost completely. Better to say that it paused — big time. The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the 413 and elsewhere, and life as we knew it had given way to something else. Something much different. Something the likes of which we had never seen or dealt with before.

The cover of the March 16, 2020 issue of BusinessWest captured it perfectly. Above a set of empty conference-room chairs was the headline “Life in Limbo.”

Almost exactly a year later … the chairs in the conference room are, for the most part, still empty. In some cases, they haven’t moved or been sat in since last March. They sit, waiting for people, and normalcy — whatever the heck that is — to return.

The fact is, we don’t know what ‘normal’ will be moving forward. In many respects, we don’t know exactly how COVID will reshape the landscape and the workplace, higher education, and the medical center down the street. We don’t know how it will impact the delicate work/life balance moving forward, and we don’t exactly know how it will permanently change how we work, network, gather, and interact with others.

But we can certainly talk about, and for the one-year anniversary of COVID (nothing to celebrate, that’s for sure), we did. BusinessWest gathered leaders with six area businesses and institutions to talk about the many ways COVID has changed our work and our lives, how it is impacting the workplace (and will for years to come), and even how it is has made them all different and, in their view, better managers.

 

They’re calling it the ‘Zen room.’

That’s an apt name for an area being set aside at Mercy Medical Center at which employees can decompress and, hopefully, remove some of the stress from their lives, at least for a while.

“We want to offer space that’s extremely tranquil — it will have massage chairs and soothing color schemes,” said Deborah Bitsoli, the hospital’s president, noting that it should be ready for use soon. “It will literally be Zen-like; it’s a best practice, and it can actually be brought across different industries.”

This Zen room wasn’t created because of the pandemic, necessarily, but rather because of the way it helped crystalize the large amounts of stress people are under even in normal times, and how they need rooms like this. And it is just one example of how the pandemic has brought about change in the workplace and change in society in general.

Other examples include that same hospital offering what it calls ‘resiliency training’; a local bank interviewing — and strongly considering — a job candidate living in Florida who has no intention of moving here; and employers spending considerable time and energy on the questions involving whether employees come back to the office, when, how, and under what circumstances.

These are some of things we learned during a lengthy virtual roundtable involving six area business leaders: Bitsoli; Mary-Beth Cooper, president of Springfield College; Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University; Jennifer Rymarski, a partner with the regional law firm Morrison Mahoney; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., a property-management firm that has many elder-care facilities in its portfolio.

This was a Q&A, but also a lively discussion, with the dialogue focused on not only what’s happening today, but what will happen moving forward because of what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, and what we’ve changed over the tumultuous and very difficult past 12 months. Here’s a somewhat condensed version of how it went.

 

BusinessWest: The phrase we’re hearing over and over and over again is that there is light at the end of the tunnel when it comes this pandemic and all that has come with it. Are you seeing that light, and, well, how much tunnel do we still have to go through? What are you seeing in your business?

 

Bitsoli: These are challenging and unprecedented times, and at Mercy, we’ve really tried to adapt to a new norm. We have many new processes and structures that, as someone who has dedicated their life to healthcare since the age of 16, I never thought I’d see. We’ve also opened our doors to give vaccines to the public based on the Department of Health criteria; to see tears in people’s eyes as they get a vaccine is something I’ll cherish for many, many years.

We’ve balancing the needs of the community and keeping people safe, but we’re also looking to the future and how we can more provide enhanced services to the community. We’re trying to balance the present and the future.

 

Cooper: This is our third semester in the pandemic, and we’re adapting. We are back on campus, we’re fully residential, and we had our first athletic contest recently — the men’s gymnastics team played Cal. So, yes, we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. When we thought about the pandemic and what we needed to do, we had to pivot, just like healthcare; we didn’t imagine going online as quickly as we did, but we made it happen. The biggest takeaway for me thus far, and moving forward, has been the resiliency our faculty and students, in particular, have demonstrated.

 

Johnson: We’re in good shape for the shape we’re in, and like others, we do see a light at the end of the tunnel. As for what’s changed for our organization, we’re future-focused; we’re looking at how we want to come out of this. We’ve been planning for the next five years at Western New England since last September. We have not taken the bunker mentality of waiting for the storm to pass and then figure out what we want to do. We’ve created a vision; we want to be a ‘new traditional university,’ a phrase we’ve coined here and that we’ll define in the upcoming weeks and months to come, and imagine the possibilities.

That’s because higher education, like healthcare, has been turned upside-down; we’re reimagining ourselves, and we think the best is yet to come. It’s tough, though … we’re in a very tough environment.

 

Rymarski: We all have our own struggles, and the law is not immune to it. The biggest impact has been access to the courts and how the courts have adjusted — a lot of litigation is driven by the court schedule, and having the courts shut down for a period of time has had an impact. Also, we’ve gotten a lot of calls on the employment aspects of this pandemic — small businesses, and all businesses, for that matter, are struggling to deal with smaller staffs, how a PPP loan impacts them, what they’re going to do under the Family First or CARES Act, how they’re going to get employees back, and how they implement policies and procedures across the board that are going to be fair but also abide by all of the regulations.

 

Senecal: When this whole thing started right around March 9 — I remember that date vividly — I think I stopped breathing sometime in the middle of March, and I was resuscitated sometime in June, because it looked really bad from my perspective. June came around, summer came along, and things started to look a lot better. Then fall came around, and as cases picked up, that started to have an economic impact on a lot of our customers.

To put things in perspective, we had probably $300 million in loan balances involving customers in that first month asking, ‘can we not pay you?’ And we responded like most community banks and said, ‘yes, no problem; let’s revisit in 90 days.’ I think we’re down to $70 million, which allows me to start breathing again, and most of that $70 million is in the hospitality industry — transportation, restaurants — which is still struggling. I’m not sure where the light is at the end of the tunnel for those industries, because they’re hanging by a thread, and I’m not sure how they’re going to come back. From our banking perspective, we’re operating in a different world; we had to pivot, we had to send 180 people home, and that’s hard to do in retail banking. And if any of you have done your banking, I apologize for us — and I know our competitors are the same way — that the drive-ups are ridiculously backed up. Overall, things are going OK, but it doesn’t feel very good.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location.”

 

Stelzer: At Appleton, we’ve morphed from emergency-response protocols in March to highly organized COVID-19 protocols in our elderly/senior/multi-family apartment communities and in our commercial portfolio that we manage, which is about 2 million square feet. In short, we’re operating at high levels; we’re able to do that even with a chunk of the workforce being remote. All of our employees have had to learn a new COVID language and new COVID protocols amid all the important tasks they already do.

Overall, there’s a lot of good news coming out, but how we’re doing is still a daily question; while the vaccine rollout is encouraging, it’s still going to take some time. But, yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

BusinessWest: During the pandemic, people have worked remotely, and successfully. As we all look toward the day when something approaching normal returns, how will, or should, companies approach work and the question of bringing people back to the office?

 

Senecal: We have 350 employees, and about half of them are working from home. I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location. Beyond that, there’s the human connection — staying home is not good for mental health. But I’m for some sort of balance; if your job allows it, you can work from home — we’ve proven that. I do think the outcome of this is that there will be a balance. From a workforce perspective, we’ve had a hard time recruiting people for some key positions, and we’ve re-evaluated to say, ‘no, you don’t have to be in the office.’ We’re interviewing someone today who lives in Florida who may be able to work from home for us; we’ve never, ever considered that before, and we are.

 

Cooper: When it comes to students … there were some questions pre-pandemic about the value of higher education. And I would say to you that our students are saying loud and clear that they want to be in person, face to face, they want to play sports, they want to interact with mentors like faculty members and staff members. We’re studying this … we’re looking at what the future will look like and how we bring people back safely. Some people never wanted to work at home, and now some of those same people want to stay where they are. That’s a risk to our business model; we need to have the interaction between students and mentors that shape them moving forward to be strong employees in the fields we have represented on this panel. The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom.

Mary-Beth Cooper

Mary-Beth Cooper

“The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom .”

Johnson: One of the things I’ve been big on over the past decade is preparing students for the future of work and making sure they had the essential skills that could not be replicated by robots. This pandemic has put us in a place where we, as employers, with our employees, have to do the same thing. I don’t think it’s an either/or when it comes to Zoom or face to face. The question is, ‘how do we use that technology to complement our ability be more efficient in the workplace?’ On college and university campuses, we need to be face to face and on the ground, but I can now give my employees some flexibility; it’s not 8 to 5. If they have a soccer game or child care doesn’t show up that day, we’ve shown that that we can get work done with people working from home. As managers, we have to teach people how to work with their teams and their staffs to give them that work-life balance. Overall, I think the pandemic has merely accelerated what was inevitable anyhow.

 

Rymarski: I agree with the others when they say that synergy, flow, and the social and cultural aspects are missing when people don’t come to the office. I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them. At the same time, this pandemic has, indeed, accelerated a process that was inevitable. I think the challenge is handling all this; we’ve basically condensed down what we need to do to a very short time, and employers are struggling to manage the expectations of every person.

 

BusinessWest: From what’s been said so far, it seems that the pandemic has brought the issue of work/life balance into the forefront as perhaps never before. Talk about if and how this crisis has provided more impetus for employers to help their employees with this challenge and cope in general.

 

Cooper: The need to be compassionate and caring for your employees has never been higher. These employees are dealing with losses — children that they haven’t seen, aging parents that they can’t see … the human toll is very high.

 

Johnson: I would agree with that wholeheartedly. We talk about work/life balance, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. One of the things we’ve learned is that, before, managers would have said, ‘you can’t have that work/life balance; you have to be here all the time when you’re supposed to be here.’ But when we had to flip on a dime and make this thing work, it’s amazing how resilient we really are. The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done. I know eight people who have died since last March. When I said that on a Zoom call, people started tearing up, because they’ve had those same kinds of experiences and no way to grieve. Part of this equation is that we have to figure out in our organization what that grieving process looks like, and what is the path forward.

 

Stelzer: What I think is really important going forward in the work/life balance issue is not only their own personal situations, but how do you get people to understand that they don’t need to work 14 hours a day at home? A lot of people dove into their work because they could. I’ve talked with a lot of tenant companies, service providers, attorneys, CPAs, whatever, and they’re all working longer hours than they ever were before. This is something we have to keep on the radar moving forward; if you’re going to remain in a quasi-remote-work environment, how do you find balance and work 9 to 5? (Or 9 to 7 — no one really works 9 to 5.) How do you shut it off?

Jennifer Rymarski

Jennifer Rymarski

“I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them.”

Bitsoli: The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now. Last Friday, I came in early in the morning and was rounding in the ICU; there was a nurse who had just lost a COVID patient. She was relatively young, and she was weeping. We need to allow people to grieve in these unprecedented times because we haven’t seen this in our lifetime. People need the ability to express themselves. On the mental side, we need to allow them to talk, and we need to listen. And we need to support our management team and train them on how to do that.

The other thing that’s very unique about this is that many people have aging parents who are in nursing homes, and there’s social isolation — they can’t visit their parents. So not only do they have child-care issues, they are so concerned about their aging parents, and yet they can’t get in to to see them. But beyond the mental, there’s also the physical, and that’s why we’re opening the Zen room, where people can go for 15 minutes and just decompress.

 

BusinessWest: You’re probably all very tired of hearing that phrase ‘new normal’ by now. But please try to project what the new normal will be in your industry and in business in general.

 

Johnson: The new normal in higher education is that we have to rethink and reimagine our business model so that we are financially viable while also meeting the needs of our students. Also, before, we used to be able to operate with 80% or 90% of certainty and 10% or 20% of ambiguity. The new normal is … we’re going to be in a world of ambiguity where it’s more like 50-50 for years to come. The new normal for us also in our industry will be, how do we address and deal with the mental-health challenges of our current students, our future students, and our employees?

And let me really focus on future students — students who will be enrolling in our institution two or three years from now will have spent their freshman and sophomore years [of high school] basically learning remotely, and that B+ or A- in Calculus in their junior and senior year won’t be the same B+ or A- it was four or five years ago. So students will be coming to us with academic deficits, emotional deficits, anxiety deficits, and we’re going to have to think about how to retool and restructure ourselves to meet their needs on our campuses. And we all have to be focused on the future of work in terms of educating this next generation of students for jobs that don’t exist, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created, to solve problems that haven’t been identified.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

“The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done.”

Cooper: Moving forward, we have to focus on the 4 Vs of higher education, and any not-for-profit, caring organization. Value — you need courageous leaders who are thinking not only about work-life balance, but the human element. Virtual — we’re going to have a hybrid mix. We’ve seen that in all the trends, and that’s good; there’s demand for it, some students really like it, and some faculty like it. Virtuous — we’re going to need to continue to be people-centered. For us to move forward, the colleges and the universities that will survive are the ones that are student-centered, that continue to be students at the forefront. And we have to go Viral — we have to find a way to tell our story, whether it’s through discussions like this, through social media, or through our students and faculty.

From my perspective, it’s all about leadership, virtual presence, telling the story, and staying close to your mission.

 

Senecal: The new norm in the banking business? I don’t want to get too granular, but the future of our business is very different. There are a little under 5,000 banks in this country — I project that in five to seven years, there will be fewer than 2,500 banks. It will be a digital world. I think you’ll see far fewer branches — you’ll see more and more branches closing.

And from a workforce-development perspective, technology is going to be a huge piece of what we do, and certainly on the mental-health side, I see employers having to be more flexible and understanding with their workforce. PeoplesBank has done that very well over the years; we’re just going to have to adapt a lot more quickly. Workforce skills are going to have to adapt tremendously for all our industries; we’re moving toward a more technology-driven world. It’s already changed for us — we’ve seen a huge change in the last nine months. Our numbers in the digital perspective and how people utilize their banking services has shifted 20% to 30% utilization that is totally digital. If you weren’t there before the crisis, you’re going to fall behind from an industry perspective. My perspective is that things are going to change; things are going to be very different than they are now.

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now.”

Stelzer: ‘New normal’ is an interesting phrase, but there’s nothing normal about this. As we stabilize, as more vaccine gets out, I agree with the panel — resiliency is huge. In our industry, specifically our senior/elderly portfolio, you’re going to see a lot more ‘healthy housing’ initiatives, as we’re calling them, which is a combination of telehealth for seniors and more on-site clinics for seniors. You’re going to see a whole difference in the way legacy elderly/senior property providers handle their air flow, their air circulation, and keep any inflection to a low level.

Also, on the digital side … think about how we stood the country up on the backs of broadband — it’s nothing short of amazing in all of our industries, from higher ed to telehealth to property management and banking. And we couldn’t have done that 20 years ago. My one concern there is the digital divide. What happens next with broadband becomes a very important discussion; there’s already discussion in the State House about making broadband a normal utility and not a private service.

 

Bitsoli: On the healthcare front, we need to continue to have a laser focus on the resiliency and well-being of our colleagues and our employees — they’re the most valuable asset that any of us has. And as this virus evolves, as there are variants, and as there are future viruses, there is a daily drive here around clinical excellence and patient safety and quality where we may have to continue to adapt that clinical model.

I never thought I’d see the day when 100% of the patients are being swabbed for a virus … so, for me, looking at the clinical excellence and keeping the public safe with high-quality care, and how this virus evolves, we’re going to have to be able to adapt to whatever the future holds for us to keep the community safe.”

 

BusinessWest: Much has been made about how to manage, and manage effectively, in a time of crisis. How has the crisis tested you? What have you learned about yourself, as a person and a manager? And has this made you a better manager?

 

Cooper: Let me say, my patience has been tested, certainly, since last March, and I’m working hard at meeting people where they’re at and listening and trying to slow down. And I’m also trying to be a good role model — not having Zooms on Sunday and carving out time for family. To lead during this turbulent time, you have to be self-aware, and you have to take care of yourself. Whether it’s morning exercise or carving out parameters for when you will or will not be available — people are looking for you to role-model that.

Paul Stelzer

Paul Stelzer

“People recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is.”

Stelzer: The key word for me is empathy. All of us have had to really dig deep for the non-traditional ways of providing support — all kinds of support — to our people and managing and being empathetic to the extent that you can and still run your business. It’s critically important — people recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is. And I agree with Mary-Beth — you have to take care of yourself. We’ve all walked the halls of our houses and condos from 2 in the morning to 4 in the morning trying to figure out the next move. We’ve all been there.

 

Senecal: I agree with Paul; empathy is a great word to describe the difference between managing now and managing pre-COVID. We’re all living this horror, so to speak, and realizing that we all have different issues in our lives, between family members getting sick, or trying to work at home with kids at home trying to do schoolwork, with technology issues … pre-pandemic, we glossed over these things. During the pandemic, this home life is hugely important in people’s lives. I’ve come to listen more, but empathy is the word that comes to light; I’m trying to understand how to manage people.

 

Johnson: I would add another word in there, and that’s humanity. I’ve come to realize the importance of helping us all understand that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Mary-Beth spoke earlier about how, among the college and university presidents, it has been the most collaborative environment that she’s ever seen; I’ve been in the Commonwealth for 11 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, either. As CEOs, we tend to think that we’re at the center of the universe, but we’re not; we’re only as good as the people around us. And I understand what Mary-Beth means when she talks about patience. I generally don’t have much of an impacting gene, but it has developed since March of last year in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

 

Bitsoli: I’ve recognized just how precious life is, and I’m really stopping and forcing myself to be in the moment, to listen and engage, and slow down. But just as important is demonstrating that to my management team so that I’m also walking the talk in terms of saying to them, ‘life is precious; let’s have a better way of approaching our work life and recognize that life is very, very short and we have to respect and really take care of each other as colleagues.’

 

Rymarski: Patience, empathy, and flexibility are all words that come to mind. But also fairness. From the legal perspective, one of things that’s important as employers and managers is that we want to have a fair playing field, or as fair a playing field as we can. What you may have to do for one might be different than what you have to do for another, but there needs to some semblance of not only empathy, but also fairness and some structure to keep the organization together so that employees don’t become disgruntled with one another.

 

Bitsoli: Not only has this made me a better manager, it has made me a better person, and I think others on this panel would agree. I think I learned a lot about myself and about society, and, again, about the value of life. As a society, there are quite a few of us who have reflected in this way, and we’re better people overall.

 

Special Coverage

Taking Shots

By Joseph Bednar

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar at businesswest.com

Daily News

BOSTON — With public-health metrics continuing to trend in a positive direction, the Baker-Polito administration announced that Massachusetts would advance to step 2 of phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan on Monday, March 1, and also announced its plan to transition to step 1 of phase 4 on Monday, March 22.

On May 18, 2020, the administration released a four-phased plan to reopen the economy conditioned on sustained improvements in public health data. As of October, the reopening had proceeded to step 2 of phase 3 of the plan. On Dec. 13, in response to an increase in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations following the Thanksgiving holiday, the Commonwealth returned to step 1 of phase 3, reducing capacities across a broad range of sectors and tightening several other workplace restrictions.

Since the beginning of this year, key public-health data, such as new cases and hospitalizations, have been closely monitored, and a significant decline has been documented, allowing for a return to step 2 of phase 3, effective March 1 for all cities and towns. This includes the following updates to businesses, activities, and capacities:

• Indoor performance venues, such as concert halls, theaters, and other indoor performance spaces, will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity with no more than 500 in attendance;

• Indoor recreational activities with greater potential for contact (laser tag, roller skating, trampolines, obstacle courses) will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity;

• Capacity limits across all sectors with capacity limits will be raised to 50%, excluding employees;

• Restaurants will no longer have a percent capacity limit and will be permitted to host musical performances; six-foot social distancing, limits of six people per table, and 90-minute limits remain in place; and

• Residents must continue to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and are encouraged to avoid contact outside of their immediate households, and the travel advisory and other public-health orders remain in effect.

Provided public-health metrics continue to improve, effective on March 22, all communities in Massachusetts will move into step 1 of phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan. This will open a range of previously closed business sectors under tight capacity restrictions that are expected to be adjusted over time if favorable trends in the public-health data continue. Effective on the planned advancement to step 1 of phase IV, indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas, and ballparks will be permitted to operate at a strict 12% capacity limit after submitting a plan to the Department of Public Health (DPH).

Also effective on March 22, gathering limits for event venues and in public settings will increase to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. Outdoor gatherings at private residences and in private backyards will remain at a maximum of 25 people, with indoor house gatherings remaining at 10 people.

Additionally, dance floors will be permitted at weddings and other events only, and overnight summer camps will be allowed to operate this coming summer. Exhibition and convention halls may also begin to operate, following gatherings limits and event protocols. Other phase 4 sectors must continue to remain closed.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that individuals age 65 and over and those with two or more certain medical conditions, including asthma, can visit www.mass.gov/covidvaccine to start booking an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine. With this announcement, almost 1 million individuals are newly eligible for the vaccine.

Due to extremely high demand for appointments and limited vaccine supply, it could take more than a month for all eligible individuals to secure an available appointment, unless federal supply significantly increases. Recently, Massachusetts has been receiving approximately 110,000 first doses per week from the federal government. Residents are encouraged to keep checking the website as appointments are added on a rolling basis.

Newly eligible groups include individuals 65 and over, including residents and staff of low-income and affordable public and private senior housing, and individuals age 16 and older with two or more of the following medical conditions: asthma (moderate to severe), cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Down syndrome, heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies), immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, obesity and severe obesity (body mass index of 30 or higher), pregnancy, sickle-cell disease, smoking, and type-2 diabetes mellitus.

Details for booking appointments can be found via the COVID-19 Vaccine Finder, which enables residents to search for a vaccination location and view appointment availability before scheduling. The tool can be accessed via the state’s vaccination website at www.mass.gov/covidvaccine or directly at vaxfinder.mass.gov.

Individuals who are unable to access appointments via the internet can call 211 and follow the prompts for vaccine appointments.

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Entering a Partnership?

 By Brenden Cawley and Gabriel Jacobson 

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused several partnerships local to Western Mass. to either consider or actually effect a change in ownership. When navigating the complexities of these changes in ownership, partnership basis is a vital component.

For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.

 

Understanding the Basics of Basis

It stands to reason that the cash spent or provided to acquire an asset would be the cost (basis) of that asset. However, when analyzing partnerships, understand the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ basis. The difference is a shift in perspective. The outside basis is established when the partner joins or forms the partnership through the contribution of cash (or property, which adds additional complexity). The partnership then uses that cash to purchase assets.

The cash outlay to acquire those assets establishes the total inside basis of the partnership. Based on each partner’s ownership, a share of the inside basis of the individual assets is assigned accordingly. This inside basis does not fluctuate with changes in market value of the assets. When a tax year closes, the partners each receive a Schedule K-1 and adjust their outside basis by the income, expense, gain, or loss disclosed on the Schedule K-1.

Brenden Cawley

Brenden Cawley

“For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.”

Over the life of the partnership, cash or property will be distributed to the partners, which will decrease their outside basis. The inside basis of the partnership will similarly be reduced as the cost of assets is removed from the books through sale or distribution. When the partnership is in need, the partners may contribute additional cash or property. Additional contributions have the same positive impact on outside basis as the initial contribution that formed the partnership or acquired an interest.

As time goes by, differences can arise between the inside and outside basis of the partner(s). As the inside and outside basis of the partnership fall out of alignment, the partners can experience negative tax consequences. Each taxpayer is responsible for maintaining their own outside basis, so consult your tax advisor if questions arise. Through a Section 754 election, the partnership has an opportunity to avoid these consequences.

Like anything worthwhile, this election takes work. It is perhaps especially laborious if the partner or partnership have not been actively tracking the inside and outside basis disparity. The partners’ Schedule K-1s could offer a lifeline. Prior to 2020, each partner’s capital account in item L could be prepared on a book, GAAP, Section 704(b), or tax basis. It is possible that the partner’s capital account prepared using book, GAAP, or Section 704(b) is a reasonable approximation for the inside basis of the partner.

This is a highly simplified approach that needs to be vetted with the partnership’s tax advisor. Starting in 2020, the IRS has mandated that Item L of Schedule K-1 must be prepared on a tax basis. The partner’s tax capital account is a good starting point for both outside and inside tax basis. Again, this simplified assumption needs to be discussed with a tax advisor. Please note that tax capital reported on the Schedule K-1 is not equivalent to outside tax basis. Instead, outside tax basis considers liabilities of the partnership for which the partner is individually responsible and partner-specific adjustments.

 

Everyday Example

In year one, Ann and Bob purchase a building for $200,000 and split the cost evenly, giving them each 50% ownership in ABC Partnership. Initially, they each had outside basis equal to their inside basis of $100,000. In year two, as a result of COVID-19, Bob wants to exit the partnership. The building has appreciated in value to $300,000, so he sells his interest in ABC Partnership to Carl for $150,000. Bob will recognize a $50,000 gain in year two as a result of the excess cash received compared to his cost basis.

First, let’s imagine the partnership does not make a 754 election at this point. Carl steps into Bob’s inside basis of $100,000. However, his outside basis equals the total amount he paid, or $150,000. In year three, Ann and Carl decide to sell the building (for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume no depreciation has been expensed), which is still valued at $300,000 and therefore results in a gain of $100,000. Both Ann and Carl receive Schedule K-1s with a $50,000 gain for the year because they both had an inside basis of $100,000 prior to the sale.

Gabriel Jacobson

Gabriel Jacobson

“Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex.”

After recording the gain, their inside basis increases to $150,000. Ann’s inside and outside basis remain aligned, but Carl’s basis disparity persists as the $50,000 of gain impacts his inside and outside basis in the same manner. In year four, Carl and Ann decide to dissolve the partnership. At this point, the $300,000 cash they received from the sale of the building is distributed to both partners evenly. Ann receives $150,000 in cash, which equals her outside basis. For this reason, she recognizes no gain or loss on the dissolution of the partnership.

Alternatively, Carl recognizes a $50,000 loss outside of the partnership since his total outside basis is $200,000. At this point Carl is kicking himself because he paid taxes on a $50,000 gain in year three only to recognize a loss of $50,000 one year later. If Carl does not have any capital gains in year four, he can only utilize $3,000 of the capital losses on his tax return. The remaining losses are carried forward indefinitely.

Now let’s imagine the partnership made the 754 election when Carl purchased his 50% interest in year two. At that time, his inside basis would have been increased by $50,000 to match his outside basis. The partnership would have adjusted Carl’s inside basis in the building to $150,000, matching his outside basis. Then in year three, when Ann and Carl sell the building, Carl would not recognize any gain because his inside basis matches his share of the sales proceeds ($150,0000).

In year four, when the partnership dissolved, Carl would not recognize a loss on the distribution of cash from the partnership because his portion of the partnership’s cash balance ($150,000) equals his outside basis ($150,000). Carl avoided the timing issue regarding any taxable gain on the building sale and any loss on dissolution by making the 754 election.

 

On an Income-tax Return

If Carl and Ann decided to hold onto the building instead of selling in year three, Carl could deduct from his Schedule K-1 the basis adjustments related to the Section 754 election. The total Section 754 adjustment of $50,000 is reduced to zero over time using the same mechanics as the depreciation on the building. The 754 adjustment reduces both Carl’s inside and outside basis equally. The benefit is that he will receive deductions on line 13 of his K-1 against income on his tax return each year until the $50,000 is fully deducted.

Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex. Section 754 is important for a partner purchasing an interest and for existing partners looking to secure a new partner to help their business. Accurate tracking of inside and outside basis is of the utmost importance to reduce negative tax consequences down the line.

 

Brenden Cawley is a senior associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka P.C., and Gabriel Jacobson is an associate with the firm; (413) 536-8510.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that, effective Monday, Feb. 8 at 5 a.m., businesses can operate at 40% capacity. This is an increase from an existing order limiting capacity to 25% for many businesses.

Affected businesses include arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail, offices, places of worship, lodging (common areas), golf (indoor areas), and movie theaters (no more than 50 people per theater).

In addition, restaurants and close-contact personal services will now be allowed to operate at a 40% capacity limit, which reflects an increase from the 25% limit imposed in December. Workers and staff will not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

The Commonwealth remains in phase 3, step 1 of the Baker-Polito administration’s reopening plan. Phase 3, step 2 businesses, including indoor performance venues and indoor recreation businesses like roller rinks and trampoline parks, remain closed.

Meanwhile, the current gathering limits, in place since Dec. 26, are being extended. Indoor gatherings and events will remain limited to 10 people. Outdoor gatherings and events will remain limited to 25 people. The gathering limits apply equally to private homes, event venues, and other public spaces.

Additionally, the administration announced that current restrictions limiting gathering sizes to 10 persons indoors and 25 persons outdoors will remain in place at the present time.

All other orders and safety guidance remain in place throughout the Commonwealth as the state continues to fight COVID-19 and vaccination ramps up in all regions.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Reading the Fine Print

By Julie Quink

 

The economic stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic compelled business owners and individuals to apply for the relief funds provided by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the form of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).

The rollout of these programs came at a time when the reality of the pandemic began to unfold, creating a frenzy for businesses and individuals to apply for the funding, in some cases, before the funding ran out.

Before the ink on the guidance and requirements for these stimulus funds was dry, applications for the funding were being processed, and funds were in the hands of businesses and individuals. To expedite getting funds to those who needed them, much of the clarification about the use of the funds, taxability of the funds, and criteria for forgiveness were ironed out after the funding was in hand and being spent by the recipients. What ensued was months of additions to the SBA’s frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) document clarifying the eligible uses of the funding to ensure forgiveness and further attempts by Congress and the SBA to adjust program requirements as the pandemic continued.

More than 50 FAQs were issued to clarify the PPP requirements, and 20 relating to the EIDL loans.

In the frenzy to obtain the funding for the PPP and EIDL loans, it became clear that not everyone read the fine print, or that the fine print changed as clarity was provided for these programs. The fine print provided recipients with additional requirements for the funding they may have been unaware of at the time of application or even during the spend-down period.

As trained professionals, accountants and business advisors spent months learning the requirements and pivoting as they changed. It would be unreasonable to assume that those who received the funding could keep up with the fast-paced changes that were occurring, including the fine print. For accountants, there have been times we could barely keep up with the changes.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“With the second round of PPP funding recently released and requirements more recently clarified, reading the fine print should hopefully not be such a daunting or surprising task.”

The result is that those receiving the funding need to be aware of those items in the fine print for the PPP funding and the EIDL loans that may impact them.

 

EIDL

Recipients of the EIDL loans, which could be up to $2 million in amount, were required to sign loan paperwork, outlining the terms of the funding. In the fine print of these loan documents are provisions that the borrower should look out for and be aware of. Some of the provisions are:

• For loans under $25,000, collateral is not required. For loans of more than $25,000, the SBA is provided collateral through business assets, current and future. Transfers or sales of collateral, except inventory, require prior SBA approval. In addition, prior approval is required by the SBA in the event these business assets will be used to secure other financing;

• Borrowers are required to keep itemized receipts, paid invoices, contracts, and all related paperwork for three years from the date of disbursement;

• Borrowers are encouraged to the extent feasible to purchase only American-made equipment and products with the proceeds of this loan;

• Borrowers must keep all accounting records five years before the loan and three years after in a manner satisfactory to the SBA;

• Borrowers must agree to audits and inspection of assets, if requested by the SBA, at the expense of the borrower;

• Borrowers have a duty to provide hazard insurance on collateral and may be asked to provide proof;

• Within 90 days of the borrower’s year end, financial statements, in the format specified by the SBA, are required to be furnished by the borrower;

• The SBA may require a review-level financial statement for a borrower upon written request by the SBA at the borrower’s expense;

• Prior approval from the SBA is required for distributions of the borrower’s assets to the owners or employees, including loans, gifts, or bonuses;

• Borrowers must submit, within 180 days of receiving a loan, an SBA certificate or resolution. For most borrowers, the SBA has followed up or is following up on this requirement now;

• Default under the provisions may result if a borrower merges, consolidates, reorganizes, or changes ownership without prior SBA approval; and

• The loans can be prepaid, without penalty, if the borrower does not need the funds or secures other financing.

For most borrowers, the requirements may be routine considerations, but for others, these may be new requirements.

 

PPP

In the fine print of the PPP loan documents are also provisions that the borrower should consider, as follows:

• For borrowers who received a PPP loan greater than $2 million, the SBA has indicated it will likely audit those borrowers for compliance with spending requirements;

• Although Congress has confirmed that the proceeds of the PPP loan are not taxable and the expenses paid with PPP are deductible, some states, such as Massachusetts, are not following the federal laws relative to forgiveness of the PPP loans as they have their own rules. For individuals in Massachusetts, the loan forgiveness is taxable income. This affects sole proprietors, S-corp shareholders, and partners of partnerships. A bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Eric Lesser, state Rep. Brian Ashe, and five other co-sponsors, has been proposed to allow for non-taxability of the forgiveness amounts in Massachusetts;

• Depending on when the PPP loan was funded, the borrower may have a repayment term of two or five years for the loan; and

• Although forgiveness may be granted, the borrower should retain the records used for forgiveness. Generally, most records should be retained for seven years.

 

Bottom Line

Navigating the fine print is key for those who received the PPP and EIDL loans. The navigation becomes increasingly more difficult when the requirements continue to change and the funds have already been received and used to operate the business.

With the second round of PPP funding recently released and requirements more recently clarified, reading the fine print should hopefully not be such a daunting or surprising task.

 

Julie Quink is managing partner with West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli; (413) 734-9040.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced an expansion of COVID-19 vaccination sites in all parts of the Commonwealth, including new mass-vaccination sites, pharmacy locations, and local sites. By mid-February, the administration expects there will be 165 vaccination sites in the Commonwealth.

The new mass-vaccinations sites are at Eastfield Mall in Springfield, opening Jan. 29; the Double Tree Hilton in Danvers, opening Feb. 3; and the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston, opening the first week of February. These are in addition to sites already announced at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park.

By mid-February, the Commonwealth’s mass-vaccination sites will have the capacity to vaccinate 76,000 people each week. The administration expects to open at least seven mass-vaccination sites as vaccine distribution continues. These sites have the ability to significantly and rapidly scale up operations if vaccine supply from the federal government increases.

In addition to the mass-vaccination sites, the administration is establishing public vaccination sites at a variety of locations in every region of the Commonwealth. These sites include pharmacies, community clinics, and other providers and organizations that have experience administering vaccines efficiently and safely. This week, 44 new public vaccination sites will open.

The administration also announced updates to plans for phase 2 of the Commonwealth’s distribution plan. Individuals 75 years or older will now be the first priority group in phase 2, and individuals 65 years and older have been moved into the second priority group, in addition to individuals with two co-morbidities. Starting on Feb. 1, individuals age 75 or older can be vaccinated.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced $37.4 million in awards to 638 additional small businesses in a fourth round of grants through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. Restaurants, bars, and retail stores, which have been especially impacted during the pandemic, are among the key industries to lead this round.

To date, the state has awarded more than $232 million in direct financial support to 4,757 small businesses. This funding has been made available through a $668 million business  relief fund  set up in December, as well as $50.8 million for small and diverse businesses included in the  economic-recovery package  announced in October.

Additional grants will be announced in the coming weeks for thousands of additional businesses.

The administration also announced an extension of the existing, across-the-board, 25% capacity limits for most businesses and current limitations on gatherings through 5 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 8.

However, the administration also announced that, effective Monday, Jan. 25 at 5 a.m., it would rescind an existing early-closing order requiring many businesses to close at 9:30 p.m. each evening, and that at the same time it would also withdraw its related stay-at-home advisory urging residents to remain at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

All other orders and safety guidance remain in place throughout the Commonwealth as the state continues to fight COVID-19 and vaccines ramp up in all regions.

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Construction

Something to Build On

By Joe Bousquin

The term ‘construction’ appears 636 times in the $908 billion pandemic relief package and $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump at the end of December.

In other words, while the relief package was less than half the size of last spring’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, there’s still plenty in the overall bill for contractors to be happy about.

“Lots of construction spending is always a good thing, as long as everyone has access to it,” said Kristen Swearingen, vice president of Legislative and Political Affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Her cautionary tone refers to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which many non-union contractors oppose, potentially being passed in the 117th Congress after Democrats regained control of the Senate earlier this month.

But in general, construction advocates said the new pandemic relief package should be viewed as a win.

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of Government Relations at Associated General Contractors of America. “I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall. I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

Nevertheless, one lament is that the package doesn’t include liability protection for employers against lawsuits from employees who were exposed to or became infected with COVID-19 at work.

Here’s a closer look at some of the provisions that should help contractors in 2021:

• Paycheck Protection Program. There are several wins for contractors in the the legislation’s renewed PPP funding, including a provision to ensure expenses paid for with forgiven PPP loans are tax-deductible, an issue many contractors were wringing their hands over last fall.

• Expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit. This gives qualifying employers a $5,000 credit per worker for employees not paid with PPP funds in 2020, as well as a $7,000 credit per worker per quarter in the first half of 2021.

“That’s a huge deal for construction companies and employees to help manage the continuing uncertainty that’s still happening,” Christianson said.

• State transportation funding. One of the headline numbers for contractors is the $10 billion earmarked for state DOTs, many of which saw their funding decline in 2020. That should provide relief for road and other civil builders who have increasingly felt the impacts of stalled projects.

“It will help mitigate the impact of bid-letting delays and project cancellations that we saw in 2020 throughout the country,” Christianson said. “And the fact that it’s dedicated funding means that states can’t use it for other things.”

• School construction. The package also includes $82 billion for education, at least some of which can be used for construction and renovations post-COVID-19, when students return en masse to classrooms.

 

Joe Bousquin reports on the construction industry for Construction Dive.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced the extension of further restrictions and new hospital guidance to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth.

Industry restrictions for capacity limits and reduced gathering limits went into effect on Dec. 26, and will now be extended for at least two more weeks to Sunday, Jan. 24.

Under the current restrictions that are being extended today, most industries in Massachusetts remain subject to a 25% capacity limit. They include restaurants (based on permitted seating capacity); close-contact personal services; theaters and performance venues; casinos; office spaces; places of worship; retail businesses; driving and flight schools; golf facilities (for indoor spaces); libraries; lodging (for common areas); arcades and indoor recreation businesses; fitness centers and health clubs; and museums, cultural facilities, and guided tours.

Workers and staff will not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants, places of worship, close-contact personal services, and retail businesses. All other rules and restrictions in existing sector-specific regulations will remain in effect.

Indoor gatherings remain limited to 10 people, while outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 people. The gathering limits apply to private homes, event venues, and public spaces.

The Department of Public Health’s hospital guidance, issued in early November, establishes a regional tiering system for hospitals to support continued collaboration among hospitals and sustain capacity. Since early December, all regions across the Commonwealth have been in tier-3 status. This week, in response to the continued rise in hospitalizations, all regions across the state have been escalated to tier-4 status. In tier 4, the hospitals in each region will meet at least daily, and will continue to collaborate across regions where necessary, to address growing capacity constraints and continue to load balance as needed.

To support the healthcare system’s continued response to the surge in cases and hospitalizations, the Commonwealth is allowing the deployment of acute nursing staffing under certain circumstances. Hospitals with severe capacity constraints may request a temporary exemption from the mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in the ICU. This option will be available only to hospitals with capacity of less than 20% which first attest to DPH that they have suspended all non-essential elective invasive procedures, including those conducted in an outpatient setting under the hospital’s license.

Additionally, hospitals must take every reasonable step to expand capacity prior to requesting a temporary exemption. If a hospital’s bed capacity increases, or if the hospital restarts non-essential elective invasive procedures, the hospital must resume compliance with the ICU staffing requirements.

Law Special Coverage

Ringing Out the Old

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

Most of us are happy to leave 2020 behind.

It was a year wrought with struggles both at home and in the workplace. Many companies faced closures, near-closures, reduced capacities, and reduced business all because of the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Companies were also hit with several new, COVID-related laws, such as paid emergency leaves of absence, furthering the burdens they were facing during an already-difficult time.

It isn’t surprising that we are ready to ring in and embrace this new year. And, with the new year here, v is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practices. With that said, the new year provides an opportunity to proactively take a look at your company’s current employment-law practices to ensure compliance with the myriad evolving employment laws affecting your company.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave and Minimum Wage

Two noteworthy laws take effect in Massachusetts this January: the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law and the revised minimum-wage law.

PFML law takes effect in the Bay State this January. While employer obligations under PFML commenced on Oct. 1, 2019, as of Jan. 1, 2021, employees can begin to apply for and receive paid leave for most medical and family leaves of absence. The remaining leave provisions will take effect on July 1, 2021. Under PFML, employees can take paid leaves for their own serious health condition, to bond with a newborn child, to bond with a child after adoption or foster-care placement, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to manage family affairs when a family member is on active duty in the armed forces.

All private Massachusetts employers are covered under the law regardless of their size. Leave entitlements range from 12 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the type of leave needed, and employees can take leave intermittently, if medically necessary, for medical leave for an employee’s own serious health condition or take family leave to care for a covered service member or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Amy B. Royal

Amy B. Royal

“With the new year here, it is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practice.”

Intermittent leave cannot be used to bond with a child. PFML and federal FMLA run concurrently. The same is true for the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Employees can choose to use but may not be required to use other forms of paid time off. PFML provides job protection and restoration rights akin to the federal FMLA. Employers are required to restore employees who take leave to their previous position, or to an equivalent position, with the same status, pay, benefits, length-of-service credit, and seniority as of the date of leave.

On Jan. 1, 2021, the Massachusetts minimum wage increased from $12.75 to $13.50 per hour. The service rate also increased from $4.95 to $5.55 per hour. Premium pay for Sunday retailer workers decreased. The next step in our minimum-wage rise is to $15 per hou, slated to take effect in 2023.

 

Proactive Employment Steps

The new year can serve as a good reminder and placeholder for reviewing and auditing your employment practices. Doing so will enable you to be strategic about that piece of your business and move toward creating a detailed and updated personnel plan going forward.

A good plan starts with an annual review of employment policies and manuals, written job descriptions, and employee-training programs to ensure that your company is compliant with state and federal laws and that your employees are properly trained in your processes and procedures.

Well-crafted employment policies are important because they communicate expectations to employees and help insulate your company from certain legal liabilities. When crafting employment policies, know that certain ones are legally required, while others are good business practice. Depending on your company’s size, required employment policies may include anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, parental leave, paid family and medical leave, and sick time. The implementation of other policies may be a good idea, such as codes of conduct, discipline and termination, workplace safety, off-duty conduct and the use of social media, drug and alcohol use and testing, use of cell phones, and use of company computer equipment and other electronic resources.

Written job descriptions are also a good practice. While not legally mandated, they can be a good tool to assess and evaluate prospective and current employees and also can reduce your company’s exposure to certain lawsuits. Accurate job descriptions that set forth the essential functions of a position can minimize liability when your company is faced with either internal requests for accommodations or external disability claims. Providing an accurate job description to an employee’s medical provider can also help determine whether an employee can perform their job with or without an accommodation or qualify for a leave of absence.

Another good business practice is employee training. Training managers and supervisors is especially important. Indeed, such trainings can help them understand company policies and their roles and responsibilities under these policies. Particularly important trainings for managers include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, employee disabilities and recognizing requests for reasonable accommodations, and effective employee discipline and documentation.

Many employment issues that eventually evolve into litigation stem from actions or inactions of managers or supervisors. Employers should regularly conduct trainings to give these key employees the knowledge and skills required to enable them to properly handle situations as they arise.

The cost of defending expensive litigation far exceeds the investment in taking proactive, preventive steps to reduce the risk of litigation. Therefore, employers should consider conducting an internal audit at the beginning of each and every new year.

 

Amy B. Royal, Esq. is a litigation attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration launched a $668 million program on Wednesday to provide financial assistance to Massachusetts small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program relies in part on the pending federal COVID-19 relief bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress. Regardless of the developments at the federal level, the Baker-Polito administration will start releasing millions in new funding to restaurants, retailers, and other small businesses throughout the Commonwealth as soon as next week.

Earlier this week, the administration announced nearly $49 million in grants through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. (MGCC) COVID-19 Small Business Program to support more than 1,158 small businesses. More than 10,000 applicants had sought relief in this grant round.

Additional grants will be made available to eligible small businesses through MGCC. The Small Business Grant Program was established in the fall and currently has a pool of eligible applicants awaiting funding. This additional funding will allow the administration to award more of those pending applicants. Eligible businesses that already applied to the program, but were not funded due to limited funds available, will be prioritized for funding first and do not need to reapply.

The funds will also be used to stand up an additional grant program at MGCC. This program will target the industries most hard-hit during the pandemic. Eligible industries for the new program include restaurants, bars, and caterers; indoor recreation and entertainment establishments; gyms and fitness centers; event-support professionals (photographers, videographers, etc.); personal services; and retail.

The new business relief program would offer grants up to $75,000, but not more than three months’ operating expenses, to be used for employee wage and benefit costs, space-related costs, and debt-service obligations.

The online application portal for the new program will open on Thursday, Dec. 31, and will close on Friday, Jan. 15. Awards are expected to be announced in early February. More details on how to apply, as well as eligibility requirements, are available at www.empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced further restrictions to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth, including new capacity and gathering limits. These measures will go into effect on Saturday, Dec. 26 and will remain in effect until noon on Jan. 10, 2021.

Effective Dec. 26, most industries in Massachusetts will be subject to a 25% capacity limit, including:

Restaurants (based on permitted seating capacity); close-contact personal services; theaters and performance venues; casinos; office spaces; places of worship; retail businesses; driving and flight schools; golf facilities (for indoor spaces); libraries; lodging (for common areas); arcades and indoor recreation businesses; fitness centers and health clubs; and museums, cultural facilities, and guided tours.

Workers and staff will not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants, places of worship, close-contact personal services, and retail businesses. All other rules and restrictions in existing sector-specific regulations will remain in effect.

Effective Dec. 26, limits on gatherings will also be updated. Indoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people, while outdoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people. The gathering limits apply to private homes, event venues, and public spaces.

Finally, the Department of Public Health released updated guidance to hospitals around non-essential, elective invasive procedures. To preserve healthcare personnel resources, effective Dec. 26, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential inpatient, elective, invasive procedures in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity. Hospitals should make every effort to preserve their inpatient capacity by canceling non-essential electives and redeploying staff. Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Lending a Hand

By Mark Morris

Sometimes being thrown into a challenging situation leads to … well, a good idea or two. Or at least a new way of thinking.

Back in March, when COVID-19 first hit, banks and credit unions in Massachusetts were designated essential businesses by Gov. Charlie Baker. That meant making sure everyone had access to their accounts while, at the same time, limiting in-person banking to appointments only, complete with masks, social distancing, and frequent sanitizing protocols.

“It forced us to think outside the box and to figure out the best ways to serve our members during a time of reduced access,” said Kara Herman, vice president, Retail Administration with Freedom Credit Union, adding that her team set out to first communicate all the options members had available to them to get business done without going inside a branch.

BusinessWest spoke with several local bank and credit-union professionals about the challenge of making adjustments to their businesses in the middle of a pandemic. For Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president and chief banking officer for Westfield Bank, reducing foot traffic in the lobbies back in the spring was a chance to review how to make customer interactions with the bank easier in ways that were not face-to-face.

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch,” O’Connor said. “In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

During the summer months, mandates were relaxed, and banks and credit unions were allowed to reopen their lobbies to walk-in traffic. But this month, as COVID-19 infection rates spiked, lobby restrictions were reinstated at many institutions.

“Because we went through lobby closures back in the spring, we were able to refine the process of helping customers find different ways to accomplish what they need to do,” O’Connor said.

Mike Ostrowski

Mike Ostrowski says the pandemic has been a “disruptive innovation” that helped many customers appreciate the benefits of banking online.

For example, Westfield Bank makes video tutorials available online for those who are new to electronic banking. “We do this to encourage people to be comfortable in whatever way they interact with us.”

Michael Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, noted that, when lobby traffic was first curtailed and members would call to complete a basic transaction, his staff would take the the time to educate the caller on how to accomplish what they wanted to do electronically.

“In some ways, the pandemic was a disruptive innovation because it helped us to migrate so many people to the electronic world,” Ostrowski, said adding that online and mobile activity with Arrha has increased 30% in the last nine months.

Educating members is also the approach Craig Boivin, vice president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, has taken. While the aim is to reduce traffic in the branch, there’s still one in-person appointment that he encourages.

“A member of our contact center staff will set up an in-branch appointment with folks who aren’t as tech-savvy and take them through a hands-on tutorial on how to use what’s available,” he explained. “We do this so the member can avoid going to the branch in the future for simple transactions.”

Customers who regularly use online banking and mobile apps barely noticed the limited lobby access, but there are others who rely on being able to walk into a branch and do business face-to-face.

“Some of our customers need to come in every day, such as small-business people who need coin and currency to run their shops,” said Kate Megraw, chief operating officer and chief information officer for New Valley Bank and Trust. This past summer, while adhering to all safety and cleaning protocols, New Valley’s lobbies stayed busy.

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch. In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

“As a new bank, we are in a growth mode right now, so we were trying to make it easy for customers to come in and open accounts,” she noted. With renewed limits on lobby access, she now encourages appointments as well as the drive-up location at the 16 Acres branch.

Drive-up banking has gone from a routine convenience to a vital service as customers bring more complex transactions to the drive-up window than in the past. It’s one way both bank customers and employees had to adjust to a new environment back in the spring — and may have to adjust again.

 

Striking a Balance

As branches reopened over the summer, loan activity related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) ramped up as as well, Megraw said, providing another opportunity.

“The PPP allowed us to touch a lot of local businesses in Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut,” she added, noting that, through the PPP, New Valley arranged more than 500 small-business loans totaling nearly $90 million.

With branches retreating to a less-accessible time, the challenge now is to strike the right balance between giving people the time they need and keeping the line of cars in the drive-thru moving. Along with placing experienced tellers at the window, O’Connor said, other branch staff speak with people as they approach the drive-up to make sure they have their materials at the ready to make their visit more efficient.

Kate MeGraw

Kate MeGraw

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

UMassFive recently converted a drive-up ATM machine at its Hadley branch to a video teller. As a complement to the two existing drive-up tellers, the video teller provides a third option that reduces long lines and still maintains the personal touch.

“It gives our members an additional way to talk to a live person without having to come into the branch or get out of their car,” Boivin said. Installed in two other branch foyers, he added, video tellers have really caught on as usage has tripled just this fall.

Herman said Freedom recently launched video chat as part of its online offerings and said it’s the next best thing to an in-person meeting. “It gives people a chance to see us and talk to us. It’s face-to-face communication even though they are not physically in front of us.”

Because so many people are more comfortable doing things from their home, opening accounts online has substantially increased. While this tool was lightly employed before the pandemic, O’Connor saw an opportunity to enhance it for customers who use it.

“We are supplementing the online account-opening process by having a branch person follow up with the customer to make sure they received the experience they wanted,” he said.

On the lending side of the business, Herman noted that online applications and electronic signatures have further streamlined the process of people conducting bank business from home.

Boivin reported that volume at the UMassFive contact center is up 43% for the year and has nearly doubled in the last two months as coronavirus has spiked. A number of employees moved out of their traditional retail positions to handle the increased activity in the contact center.

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done,” he added.

Ostrowski believes his staff were as vulnerable as essential retail workers who have been on the job throughout the pandemic. “Because we appreciate their hard work,” he said, “we recently rewarded our staff with a hazard-pay bonus for all their efforts during COVID-19.”

 

The People Part

As customers increasingly use online and mobile apps for banking, all the managers we spoke with agree that in-person branches still play a vital role. Ostrowski emphasized that technology doesn’t take the place of personal service, but just enhances it.

While acknowledging that digital services are an important and growing part of banking, Megraw also believes the “people part” is still essential.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done.”

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

Boivin hopes the changes that forced people out of the branches will result in more convenience for them and an elevated role for the branches.

“In the long run, we see branches being centers where people can sit down with someone face-to-face for those in-depth conversations about their finances, such as buying a house for the first time,” he said. “We still see a need for those interactions to continue at the branch level.”

Ostrowski predicts banking will move toward a hybrid approach that combines the latest technology innovations with an old-fashioned, hometown banking experience.

“I like the term ‘the big hug,’ meaning, even if you do all your regular business electronically, there are times when you want to come in for a mortgage, or you’re having trouble with a tax bill, and we’re there to give you that big hug of caring service when you need it.”

Herman believes the events of the last nine months have caused banks to re-evaluate the roles and responsibilities that branch staff will have in the future.

“I think the traditional job descriptions we had back in February no longer exist, and they are evolving as we speak,” she said, adding that, while people will remain an important part of branch banking, the industry has to figure out how to serve the new needs their customers will have going forward.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that all communities in Massachusetts will return to step 1 of phase 3 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan, effective Sunday, Dec. 13. This will reduce indoor capacities across a broad range of sectors of the economy and tighten several other workplace restrictions. The administration announced the rollback to respond to an increase in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations since the Thanksgiving holiday that is straining the healthcare system in Massachusetts.

The return to step 1 will also require the closure of certain businesses designated as step-2 industries. These include indoor performance venues and certain high-contact indoor recreational businesses. In addition, capacity limits will be reduced to 40% statewide for most industries, and the limit on outdoor gatherings will be reduced statewide from 100 people to 50. Additional safety measures will be applied to restaurant dining as well.

These new measures are designed to prevent infection and viral spread, especially in indoor settings. They will create stronger mask compliance, more social distancing, and limits to the time spent with people outside one’s immediate household.

Among the specific restrictions:

• Outdoor gatherings at event venues will be limited to no more than 50 people. Hosts of outdoor gatherings of greater than 25 people will be required to provide advance notice of the gathering to their local board of health.

• Indoor theaters and performance venues and higher-contact indoor recreation businesses will be required to close. Outdoor theaters and performance venues will be limited to 25% capacity and no more than 50 people.

• In all communities, capacity will be reduced from 50% to 40% for the following sectors: arcades, driving and flight schools, golf facilities, gyms and health clubs, indoor and outdoor recreational businesses, libraries, lodging (common areas), movie theaters (maximum 50 people per theater), museums, offices, places of worship, and retail.

This new capacity limit will not apply to sectors that do not currently have a percentage-based capacity limit, including restaurants, laboratories, and close-contact personal services.

The administration also announced new guidelines for restaurants and other venues with seated dining. Patrons must wear masks at all times except when eating and drinking, restaurants must seat no more than six patrons per table, restaurants must impose a 90-minute time limit on tables, musical performances at restaurants will no longer be permitted, food-court seating must be closed in malls, and customers are encouraged to dine only with members of the same household.

The administration also announced new guidelines for workplaces and gyms. In offices, employees must wear masks at their place of work when not in their own workspace and alone. Employers are encouraged to close or limit the use of break rooms, and patrons must wear masks at all times in gyms. The administration continues to encourage all employers to offer teleworking to their employees when possible.

Construction

It’s All in the Details

 

The pandemic has upended many activities; however, contractors are continuing to work to modernize homes across the country.

Professional remodelers are taking on extra safety precautions to help meet the needs of homeowners during the pandemic. If you’re interested in remodeling your home, consider the following advice from the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Massachusetts to help put your mind at ease, so you can comfortably start your next home-remodeling project.

 

Find a Remodeler That Prioritizes Safety

If you’re ready to start your remodeling project, you’ll want to work with a professional committed to keeping you and your family safe during a remodel. The best place to start is by utilizing a directory of professional remodelers. The National Association of Home Builders has a directory of professional remodelers dedicated to the highest professional and safety standards during the pandemic.

 

Ask About Safety Precautions

After you’ve narrowed down your list of potential professional remodelers, ask questions related to safety. A qualified remodeler will be forthright and answer any questions you may have about personal protective equipment, social distancing while in your home, and other concerns about sanitation or other potential hazards.

 

Establish an Online Communication Channel

When you’re working with a professional remodeler, you’ll have to discuss details about your project, from evaluating your design ideas to agreeing to the scope of work. Talk to your remodeler about what areas of the planning process can be discussed online instead of meeting in person. Some remodelers may even request a virtual tour of your home through a video call. Photos, design ideas, measurements, and estimates can also be shared electronically. If you must meet with your contractor in person, practice social distancing and wear a face covering.

 

Discuss Your Living Arrangements

If you’re working from home or if you have kids who are distance learning, tell your contractor. A professional will provide guidance on how to minimize significant disruptions, including those related to plumbing or electrical work. If you have small children, most professionals will be willing to remove tools at the end of each work day or place them out of reach as an extra safety precaution. A contractor can also erect temporary walls to minimize dust in your primary living areas.

 

Communicate Clearly

The most important thing to remember if you’re moving forward with a remodeling project during the pandemic is to keep an open line of communication with your contractor via videoconference or phone — and be flexible. Your remodeler may take extra time to ensure extensive cleaning while undergoing your project. Due to the nature of the pandemic, other unexpected delays may occur. A dose of extra patience may be required during this time, but a professional remodeler will remain committed to safety without jeopardizing quality workmanship.

 

Construction Special Coverage

Safety First

By Mark Morris

Carl Mercieri says the pandemic protocols have been challenging, but they’ve kept his company’s job sites totally free of COVID-19.

Call it a time of constant adjustments.

Since COVID-19 hit, area contractors have continued to work after adopting a number of state-mandated safety protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Construction managers have adjusted to the extra requirements to get the job done, but it has come with a learning curve.

After working with safety consultants, Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Group, said his company established a COVID-19 compliance plan and implemented it across all its job sites.

“It’s been helpful because it covers everything — daily sign-in sheets, temperature checks, self-reporting procedures, sanitation of the job site, and social distancing.”

Even with a solid plan, Perrier admits the additional protocols make it more challenging to bring projects to completion on time.

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

Tim Pelletier, president of Raymond R. Houle Construction, said it’s a common occurrence on a job site for a large number of people to work in close proximity to each other.

“There’s a point where you have lots of moving parts, where different trades are working together in order to meet a completion schedule,” he said. “Because of coronavirus mandates, we can no longer have large numbers of people in one spot.”

In the beginning, adopting the safety mandates proved cumbersome as Pelletier would allow only one trade at a time to work on a site. After a few adjustments, more crews were able to be on site and still follow the guidelines.

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other,” he noted.

Wearing a mask all day has also been met with grudging acceptance; Pelletier said crews typically look forward to the moment they can remove them. “In the 90-degree weather, wearing a mask is definitely a health concern, as well as a comfort concern, but they are required, so we wear them.”

In the early days of the pandemic, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) also affected construction projects, as each site needed certain quantities for workers, as well as extra devices such as thermometers and wash stations.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Marois Construction was overpaying for — and overbuying — things like thermometers because they didn’t know how many they would need, said Carl Mercieri, vice president and project manager. On one occasion, he recalled, the project owner stepped in and provided enough hand-washing stations for the entire construction site.

“That worked out well,” he said. “Everyone did what they had to do, and we got through it together.”

 

Pandemic Problems

Implementing safety protocols didn’t always go smoothly early in the pandemic. Mercieri noted a school building project where as many as 30 workers stood in line each morning for a temperature screening and sign-in before they could start their workday.

“Our biggest concern was the loss of labor caused by all the downtime in the beginning,” he said. “It’s hard to put a number on it, and you can never really recoup that cost.”

Building material costs also increased with the onset of the pandemic. Perrier’s construction portfolio includes retail buildings, which require substantial quantities of lumber. So far this year, lumber wholesalers are reporting price increases of 300%, and, to make matters worse, they won’t hold those inflated prices for more than 48 hours.

Kevin Perrier

Kevin Perrier

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

“The volatility of lumber prices makes it difficult to bid on a large, wood-framed project that we wouldn’t be framing until next summer,” he said. “It’s a big problem because you really have no idea where the pricing is going to be.”

Availability of building materials has also been an issue this year. Perrier said light fixtures and flooring materials are two items he’s had trouble procuring for the last several months, while Pelletier said doors and hardware have been in short supply. Rahkonen said finding certain parts for heavy equipment, such as excavators, has been difficult as well.

“We had a couple projects that needed vinyl fencing, and we just couldn’t get it because it just wasn’t out there,” Mercieri said. “We’ve since finished those jobs, but we were delayed by four to six weeks in getting the fencing.”

Much of the supply deficits are caused by overseas factories that experienced shutdowns early in the pandemic. These manufacturing delays from months ago are still being felt now as contractors need these supplies. “We just can’t meet the same deadlines because we can’t get our hands on the materials,” Pelletier said.

From the delays caused by socially distanced workers to not having materials when they’re needed, Pelletier said it’s difficult to take on fast-track jobs that need to hit a deadline. Mercieri echoed that point when discussing his company’s many jobs at hospitals.

“If you are renovating an operating room, for example, the hospital will need it back on line by a certain date, no matter what.”

Mercieri also mentioned a recent instance where he was offered a project that involved complicated construction and needed to be built on a tight schedule.

“When COVID hit, we were up front with the owners and advised them that, with the tight schedule and all the uncertainties of COVID causing delays, they might want to consider some alternate plans,” he told BusinessWest. “They rejected our suggestion and wanted to move forward at 100%, but ultimately they scrapped the project.”

Another concern early on was lost time due to COVID-19 infections. However, Mercieri said none of his workers have tested positive. The closest call was an exposed plumber who was not on site, but had worked with the plumber on Mercieri’s job site. Contact tracing revealed these two had not worked together in the previous six weeks. Perrier said a few of his employees and subcontractors on projects in Eastern Mass. weren’t so lucky and contracted coronavirus.

“We shut down the site for two or three weeks while contact tracing was completed,” he said, adding that the employees recovered, and everyone who had been affected tested negative. “Sites were sanitized, and then back to work.”

Tim Pelletier

Tim Pelletier

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other.”

John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Constructions Service, said four of his employees came down with minor cases of COVID-19, with one showing no symptoms at all. He was quick to point out that no one contracted the virus from the job site.

“Even though most of our crews work outside, we encourage people to stay in their own bubbles,” Rahkonen said. “If you stay within your bubble, you’ll be in pretty good shape.”

 

Widespread Impact

The economic impact of COVID-19 on a national level is often reflected at the local level, especially for construction companies. In the travel sector, Standard and Poor’s recently projected a 70% decline in airline-passenger traffic for 2020. The core business of Perrier’s company involves aviation construction, ranging from airline and rental-car facilities to restaurants and retail stores located at Logan International, Bradley International, and other airports.

“We had a considerable amount of work that, within a period of two weeks, was flat-out cancelled for the airlines,” he said. “A great deal of the other work was either temporarily postponed or put on an indefinite hold.” One large airline client told Perrier that its facility’s goal was to reach a “zero spend by November first.”

Two to three months into the pandemic, Mercieri began getting word of projects being canceled. His company had already bought materials to start construction for one of those projects.

“When they first shut us down, they told us it was temporary,” he said. “Then, six weeks later, they wrote us a letter to say they had canceled the project.”

Two natural-gas compression stations that Rahkonen’s company had planned to build in Pennsylvania this year have been put off until next year. While those still look viable for 2021, they represent $20 million less in projects for Northern Construction this year.

Perrier predicts the long-term impact of aviation construction will be felt by many for years to come. That’s why his company has diversified into other industries besides aviation.

Houle Construction

Houle Construction continues to take on work in the medical field, including this recent project at a local hospital.

“We are doing a decent amount of work in the cannabis industry. It’s booming right now, so that’s helped us out,” he said. One project nearing completion is Dreamer, a cannabis dispensary in Southampton scheduled to open in 2021.

The holiday season tends to be a time when activity begins to slow down in construction and many jobs approach their completion. It’s also a time for active bidding on projects for next year. Mercieri struck a positive tone and suggested a possible rebound in construction activity for 2021.

“Back in March, a lot of projects were delayed, and now they are getting put back on the table and going out for bid,” he said, adding that some of the projects getting approved involve bringing public buildings into compliance with COVID-19 mandates.

When Pelletier surveys the landscape, he senses both uncertainty and hopefulness.

“Clients have had projects on the docket to get done but were skittish for the last seven months, and with a rise in case count, there is still some uncertainty,” he said. “On the plus side, interest rates are extremely low, so borrowing the money for a project is less expensive now.”

Pelletier and the other managers we spoke with have all taken a one-day-at-a-time approach because they understand that coronavirus levels, and the government regulations aimed at lowering them, will most likely change again — and they will simply make the necessary adjustments.

“Because we’re wearing masks all day, everyone has a sore on their nose and a generally irritated demeanor,” Pelletier said. “But we’re navigating through it.”

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]