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Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — By order of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Board of Health, the city of Springfield will implement a citywide mask-mandate policy, regardless of vaccination status, effective Monday, Sept. 13, which will remain in effect until Nov. 1, unless otherwise amended or rescinded.

Mayor Domenic Sarno and Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris joined with Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack, Mercy Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Roose, and City Council President Marcus Williams on Thursday for a press conference to announce the mask-mandate policy.

The mask mandate is for all public places, including municipal buildings, private businesses, and public gatherings and events to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Before the press conference and prior meetings with Sarno and Caulton-Harris, Keroack and Roose met with members of the business community and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council to discuss the mandate.

Also, Sarno and Caulton-Harris met with the Springfield Thunderbirds hockey ownership group. Sarno appreciates their cooperation and understanding, and he looks forward to attending the upcoming season opener as a season-ticket holder. “At this time, we are only mandating that people wear a mask or face covering. We are not imposing any capacity limitations,” he noted.

The city of Springfield continues to see a significant increase in positive COVID-19 cases, especially in its younger population, and an increase in the Delta variant. For the week of Aug. 29, the city reported 547 cases, with 55%, or 300, of the 547 cases being under age 30.

Daily News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, President Biden ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans — private-sector employees as well as healthcare workers and federal contractors — in an effort to curb the surging COVID-19 Delta variant, the Associated Press reported.

Biden sharply criticized the tens of millions of Americans who are not yet vaccinated. “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” he said, adding that the unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”

The expansive rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. The roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.

Biden is also requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government, with no option to test out, which affects several million more workers.

Biden announced the new requirements as part of a new “action plan” to address the latest rise in coronavirus cases and the stagnating pace of COVID-19 shots.

Just two months ago, Biden prematurely declared the nation’s “independence” from the virus. Now, despite more than 208 million Americans having at least one dose of the vaccines, the U.S. is seeing about 300% more new COVID-19 infections a day, about two and a half times more hospitalizations, and nearly twice the number of deaths compared to the same time last year. Some 80 million people remain unvaccinated.

“We are in the tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” he added.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Way back in mid-March of 2020, as the state was shutting down due to COVID-19, we wrote about the great resiliency of this region’s business community and how it would be sternly tested because this was the greatest challenge anyone in business had ever faced.

Little did we know then just how stern this test was going to be and how long it would last. But 18 months later, not only do the challenges remain, but they have in many ways multiplied. Thus, a time that many thought would be normal — meaning what we knew in the fall of 2019, or at least something approximating it — is nothing like we imagined.

Indeed, this was expected by many to be a time when most of the hard decisions would be behind us. Decisions about whether to lay off or furlough people. Decisions about whether to forge ahead with programs and events that would bring people together in large numbers. Even decisions about whether to stay in business — or certain kinds of business.

As summer comes to a close and a fall shrouded by question marks looms, we’re facing some of those decisions again (or still) — and some new ones as well.

Some businesses may be forced to look again at mask mandates or at requiring proof of vaccination before one can enter an establishment or even a college campus. Others have already made vaccination a requirement for employment, and many others are contemplating whether to go this same route.

These are hard decisions that often put employers at odds with their customers and employees at a time when they simply don’t need to be alienating either constituency.

All of this makes it clear that the fight against this pandemic is far — as in far — from over.

Indeed, just as those who went home in March 2020 thinking it would be for just a few weeks soon learned how wrong those projections were, we’re all now forced to recalibrate, again, just how long we’ll be battling this pandemic and how heavy the fight will get.

What is clear is that the victory celebrations, if we can call them that, from just before Memorial Day, when the governor removed all remaining restrictions on businesses, were certainly premature.

Meanwhile, there are new challenges, from shortages of needed goods and raw materials to escalating prices and hard choices about if and how to pass them on to customers who are finally coming back in large numbers. Then, there’s a workforce crisis that has impacted almost every business sector and forced several types of businesses to reduce hours of operation, curtail services, or both.

There is hope that, with the end this month of the federal bonus being paid to those receiving unemployment benefits, things will improve on this front. But those hopes are countered by the reality that this problem is deep-rooted, and it may be some time before there is real relief.

And there are still more hard choices about whether, when, and how to bring workers back to the office, decisions now made even more difficult by the Delta variant and the great uncertainty about what this fall will be like.

Going back to what we wrote in March 2020 … this region’s business community is, indeed, resilient. And it needs to be. Because, contrary to what we were all hoping, it isn’t any easier being in business now than it was then. And in many ways, it’s even harder.

 

Cover Story

Fair Amount of Intrigue

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.

 

In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.

Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.

This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.

Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”

As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.

The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.

People like Sharon Berthiaume.

The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.

“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”

But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E, but because of the pandemic and fears among some people about being in crowds, he’s not expecting to set any attendance records this year.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.

Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.

“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”

And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.

 

The Ride Stuff

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.

“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.

It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”

And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.

“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”

Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E, and they are among the many people happy to have the 17-day fair back on the slate.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”

At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.

“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.

But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.

“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”

Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.

“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.

“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”

While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.

Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.

However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.

“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”

 

Impact Statement

While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.

As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.

“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E, which is seeing record numbers of advance ticket sales for the 2021 fair.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.

Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”

Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.

“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.

She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”

Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.

“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.

“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”

 

Fair Weathered Friends

Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.

He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.

The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.

Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Doing the Math

 

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession to “trying to sail a ship while you’re building that ship.”

For accountants, the past 18 months have been a time of change, challenge, and adapting to everything from new ways of doing business to new responsibilities with clients to ever-changing tax laws. Looking forward, they note that many of these changes are permanent in nature.

It’s been called the ‘never-ending tax season.’

That’s just one of the many colorful ways those in the accounting sector have chosen to describe the past 18 months or so, a time of change, challenge, learning, and adapting — for them and for their clients.

Indeed, this time of COVID-19 has been marked by everything from changing tax laws to fluid filing deadlines; from new responsibilities, such as helping clients handle PPP and SBA loan paperwork, to changes when it comes to where and how work gets done; from a greater reliance on technology to the acceleration of a shift in accounting toward a more advisory role as opposed to merely adding up numbers.

Summing it all up, Joseph Bova, CPA, CVA, CGMA, a partner with Northampton-based Bova Harrington & Associates, said navigating all this has been “like trying to sail a ship while you’re building the ship.”

Nick Lapier, CPA, a partner with West Springfield-based LaPier Dillon, used phraseology from sports (sort of), but more from politics.

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts.”

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts,” he said, referring to the many changes in tax laws — some coming in the middle of tax season — and moving of filing deadlines. “For some people who filed their tax returns early, we then found ourselves amending those returns because they changed some of the rules. And some we didn’t file because we hoped they would change the rules.

“The end zone kept moving,” he went on. “We’d be on the 10-yard line, work really hard, and still be on the 10-yard line. There are 50 sovereign states that have the right to tax, so if you have clients filing tax returns in multiple states, each state was also possibly changing their laws and moving the goalposts.”

As the calendar turns to August, those we spoke with said this has been a time for many at area firms to catch their breath and take some of the vacation days they didn’t take last year or earlier this year. It’s also a time to reflect on what has transpired and what likely lies ahead in terms of the lessons learned and which of the changes seen over the past year and half are more permanent than temporary in nature.

Nick Lapier

Nick Lapier says a taxing period for all accountants was exacerbated by the federal and state governments constantly “moving the goalposts.”

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE, managing partner of West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., said her firm, like most others, is not simply turning back the clock to late 2019 when it comes to returning to something approaching normal, especially when it comes to how and where business is conducted. She said most employees have returned to the office, but moving forward, there will be even more flexibility when it comes to schedules and working remotely because of what’s been learned over the past 18 months.

“We’re not going to dial back to everyone needing to be here those static hours of 8:30 to 5,” she noted. “I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

Meanwhile, Lapier told BusinessWest that many accountants, himself included, spent far less time meeting face-to-face with clients in 2020 and early 2021, and he expects that trend to continue.

“This current generation lives in the digital world; they don’t need to see people — they transact their personal and their business life electronically,” he explained. “What has changed because of COVID is that all the prior generations have adopted that same mentality — not 100%, but a heck of a lot more than before the pandemic.”

Howard Cheney, CPA, MST, a partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. and director of the firm’s Audit and Accounting Services, agreed, while noting, as others did, that the pandemic in many ways accelerated a trend within the industry toward accountants shifting to roles that are more advisory in nature, with a greater focus on the future than the numbers from the past quarter or two.

“I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

“Accounting has for many years been an historical-look-back kind of thing,” said Cheney, part of an executive committee now managing the firm. “With the speed that people can now get data, they don’t need us to tell them about what happened six months ago; they need us to tell them what’s going to happen six months from now and help them interpret that.”

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest talked with several CPAs about the never-ending tax season, which still hasn’t ended — many are still dealing with a large number of extensions, many of them resulting from changing tax laws — and what will come next in a sector that has been taxed (yes, that’s an industry term) by this pandemic, and in all kinds of ways.

 

A Taxing Time

Chris Nadeau, CMA, CPA, CVA said he spent most of the past April — the height of tax season — in Florida. And hardly any of his clients knew he was working and handling their needs from more than 1,000 miles away.

Julie Quink

Among the many lessons learned from COVID, Julie Quink says, is the need for more flexibility in when and where people work.

“No one would have known unless I told them,” said Nadeau, a director with Hartford-based Whittlesey, which has offices locally in Holyoke, adding that he would never have considered such a working arrangement prior to the pandemic, but COVID provided ample proof that a CPA doesn’t have to share an area with a client to get the work done.

This anecdote speaks volumes about just how profoundly the landscape has changed in the accounting and tax-planning world over the past year and a half. There have been a number of seismic shifts, and where people work is just one of them, said Nadeau, who has come to his office on Bobala Road in Holyoke only a few times since St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 and was in on this day only to meet with BusinessWest.

Others we spoke with told of similar learning experiences during what has been a year and a half of acting and reacting to everything that has been thrown at them since those days in mid-March of last year when everyone — well, almost everyone — packed up and went home for what they thought would be a few weeks.

As everyone knows, that certainly wasn’t the case, and thus accountants, like all those in business, had to adjust to a new playing field, finding new and sometimes better ways to do things and communicate with clients and fellow team members alike.

“We had to reinvent our processes — how we communicated with the team and how we shared information back and forth, especially when working remotely,” said Lapier of those early days, noting that a three-month extension of the traditional April 15 filing deadline helped spread the work out and was a saving grace.

Bova agreed, noting that his firm of nine employees adjusted to the new landscape out of necessity, with investments in technology, a move to a paperless work process, Zoom meetings between employees and with clients, visits by appointment only, and other steps.

Moving forward, many of these new ways of doing things will continue, with perhaps the biggest being where people work. Indeed, most of the firms we spoke with said some variation of hybrid schedules will become the norm for at least some employees .

“In the future, there will be more hybrid work models, where people work in the office, but they do some work at home — I can see some real potential for that,” said Bova, adding that not all workers have returned to the office, and he’s not sure when they will. “We’re going to explore our options with this; there’s no need to deal with it in the summer — it will be more of a fall issue.”

Howard Cheney says the pandemic

Howard Cheney says the pandemic may have accelerated, or amplified, a shift within accounting to an advisory role, with more emphasis on the future than the past.

Cheney agreed. “We’ve been really flexible as a business with not requiring people to come back just yet,” he said, adding that most at the company have returned to their offices in the PeoplesBank building, but some are still working remotely. “The likelihood is that some kind of hybrid work schedule will be the future for our business.”

Whittlesey recently adopted a hybrid work policy, one that enables people to work “from wherever they will be most efficient,” said Nadeau, adding that most are finding it more efficient to work remotely, and they will continue to do so in the future.

“Some people are not coming in at all, and some are coming in a day or two a week,” he explained. “It’s ‘work where you need to for that day.’ Some employees have actually moved away to another state during COVID, so you could definitely call them ‘remote.’ And it’s been pretty seamless — and flawless.”

And this shift brings a number of benefits for the company, including a possible reduction of its physical footprint, he said, adding that it is likely that the firm will be able to downsize in Holyoke. “At some point down the road, we’ll see what kind of space we’ll need.”

It also means more and better opportunities to recruit top talent to the company because such employees will be able to work from anywhere, including another state, as Nadeau did earlier this year.

“It’s incredibly challenging to recruit people — I think there are fewer accounting students graduating now, and a lot of the people who do graduate end up going to Boston or New York to work for the Big Four firms,” he explained. “So having a remote-work or hybrid-work policy is an added benefit that we can offer, and one that firms are probably going to have to offer if they want to attract top talent.”

As for interaction and communication with clients, while all those we spoke with said face-to-face is still the preferred option, COVID has shown that Zoom and even the telephone work well — and, as with working arrangements, when it comes to interacting with clients, flexibility is the new watchword.

“As we’re talking with our clients, we’re seeing a combination of the two, in-person meetings and those by Zoom and phone — some want meetings in person, and other times, a Zoom meeting or phone call is sufficient,” said Nadeau, noting, as others did, a significant time savings from not physically traveling to see clients, so those at the firm are able to do more with the hours in the day.

Cheney agreed, to some extent, but noted there will always be plenty of room for, and need for, in-person service to clients.

“You don’t want to lose sight of that personal-touch aspect,” he told BusinessWest. “You don’t want to do everything remotely — I don’t think clients want to do everything remotely. But they’re OK with some level [of remote interaction] because we’ve gotten used to it, and they see the efficiency, too.”

 

Crunching the Numbers

As he tried to put all the changes to tax laws — and changes to the changes — into perspective, Joe Bova recalled the communication he received from the U.S. Small Business Administration concerning PPP loans that came with the header “Interim Final Rules.”

This oxymoron was just one of many challenging measures and changes that CPAs had to make sense of over the past 18 months, a time that Bova described as “a shooting gallery.”

“What’s been different during these past two seasons is that tax-law changes have been happening during tax season,” he told BusinessWest. “And when the PPP loans first came out … the SBA and the Treasury were updating their websites almost daily, and there was a lot of ambiguity in the definitions. We [accountants] were kind of on the front lines because people were calling us, even the banks.

“We all had the same information, which wasn’t clear, so people were calling us to help them interpret these changes,” he went on. “You were in the water on the boat, but you were still building the boat.”

In addition to coping with new legislation and changing rules, there was simply more work to do, said those we spoke with.

“Our workload has gone up probably a good 20% without adding a single client,” said Lapier, listing PPP applications, forgiveness, and audit work, as well as helping companies with SBA loans and the unemployment-tax credit as just some of the additional assignments.

Indeed, on top of all that, there was simply more consulting work to do as companies, especially smaller ones, leaned on their accountants as perhaps never before to help them make what were often very difficult decisions during truly unprecedented times.

Now, with the pandemic easing in some respects, the nature of some of this advisory work is changing, said Quink, noting that many business owners are now able to focus more on the future instead of being consumed by the present.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients that are buying and selling businesses, which is a good sign,” she noted. “And overall, people are starting to think forward now; they were in survival mode for a period of time, and now they’re starting to think forward from a business perspective.”

And there is a lot to think about, she went on, noting that what she and others at her firm are advising clients on is how to adapt to change and navigate challenge — such as a global pandemic.

“We’re talking to our clients that we see as potentially at risk because they don’t have the ability to adapt or they’re not identifying how to adapt,” she explained. “We know that things can change in the blink of an eye; we’ve seen a client, a third-generation business, close because it wasn’t able to look forward and move in a way that still made them competitive. You can’t rest on what you have — you have to be always looking forward, and that’s a hard thing for some of our more mature clients and businesses who have done things they’ve always done, and it’s worked.”

This additional advisory work, as Cheney noted earlier, is merely an acceleration of a trend that has been ongoing for many years now when it comes to clients and what they want and need from their accounting firm, with the accent on the future and how to be prepared for it.

Quink agreed that this shift, if that’s the proper term, has been ongoing for some time now as technology has enabled clients of all kinds to access data more quickly and more easily than ever before.

“We see robots in all aspects of life, and our profession is going to go that way as well,” she explained. “We’re using technology to do the things we’ve always done by hand; we’re now going to have programs that run that data for us. What we’re seeing and what we’re preparing people in our profession for is a shift to more of an advisory-slash-consulting role.”

 

Bottom Line

For several years now, Quink told BusinessWest, Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its doors on Fridays. Historically, those Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day have served as comp time for those who logged considerable overtime during tax time, and it’s been a time to recharge the batteries.

This year, staff members have needed those Fridays off more than ever, she said, adding that, for many reasons — from all the additional work detailed above to the vacations that haven’t been taken over the past 18 months — there have been many signs of fatigue.

It’s certainly understandable. Indeed, while every business sector has been impacted by COVID, those in accounting were affected in different ways, with more work to do, different work to take on, and learning curves when it came to new and different ways of doing business.

They don’t call it the ‘never-ending tax season’ for nothing. It’s far from over, but in many ways, things are … well, less taxing.

 

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

Employment

Get the Vaccine or Get Fired?

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

 

To mandate the COVID vaccine, or not to mandate?

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq.

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

That is the question on the minds of employers across the globe. As employment lawyers, we have been asked that question countless times by clients (and friends). Until about a month ago, all we could do was provide our best guess based on guidance and legal decisions related to other vaccines, like the flu shot. However, on May 28, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided some comprehensive COVID-19 guidance that addresses this topic head-on.

The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws applicable to workplaces. The news is good for Massachusetts employers considering a mandatory vaccine program. Some of the key takeaways for employers are described below.

 

Mandatory Vaccinations

The EEOC guidance declares in no uncertain terms that an employer can lawfully require employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Such a practice would not run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA). There is one big catch: an employer mandating vaccines must reasonably accommodate employees who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief.

These employees might need to be excepted from the vaccine mandate if other safety measures can keep them and others safe. The EEOC provided examples of such accommodations, including requiring an employee to continue to wear a mask and socially distance while in the workplace, limiting contact with other employees and non-employees, providing a modified shift, permitting continued telework if feasible, conducting periodic COVID testing, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workplace.

Notably, employers should not assume that an employee does not require an accommodation relating to COVID simply because the employee is fully vaccinated. The guidance provides that an employer may need to accommodate an employee who is fully vaccinated for COVID if there is a continuing concern for heightened risk of severe illness from a COVID infection.

For an employee who is unwilling to obtain the vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief under Title VII, employers should presume that the request is legitimate. The EEOC does make clear, however, that if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

Employers presented with this issue should proceed with caution, as the EEOC will take a narrow view of such circumstances. Employers are required to engage in a similar ‘interactive process’ with employees who have sincere religious objections to vaccination and provide an accommodation that allows the employee to return to work where doing so does not present an undue hardship.

 

Vaccination Incentives

An employer may lawfully provide an incentive to its employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccination outside the workplace so long as the incentive is not so substantial as to be coercive. Unfortunately, the EEOC did not give any examples of what incentives would be considered ‘so substantial as to be coercive’ and also failed to clarify whether and to what extent an employer must provide a vaccine incentive to employees who are unable to obtain a vaccination due to a medical or religious-based reason.

 

Confidentiality

An employer’s request for self-disclosure of vaccination status, or for documentation or other confirmation that an employee has received a vaccination from a third party (such as a pharmacy or personal physician), is not a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry. As a result, employers may lawfully request this information without implicating the ADA or GINA.

With that said, employers should restrict access to vaccine-related information, apply safeguards similar to those applied to other types of sensitive personal information, and obtain appropriate consent from employees before disclosing vaccine-related information to third parties.

 

Legal Actions

To date, there has been one reported case dealing with mandatory vaccines in the workplace. Similar to the EEOC guidance, the case supports an employer’s right to mandate COVID vaccines.

In April, the Houston Methodist Hospital System in Texas issued a directive requiring that all employees be fully vaccinated by June 7 or they would be placed on a two-week suspension. Employees who were not vaccinated by the end of the suspension period would be terminated.

In late May 2021, more than 100 employees who were not vaccinated, and apparently did not qualify for a disability or religious exemption, filed a lawsuit against the hospital raising a number of claims, including wrongful termination. The judge dismissed the lawsuit entirely. In his written decision, the judge expressed his dismay with the plaintiffs for equating the threat of termination for refusing to get the COVID vaccination to the forced medical experimentation in concentration camps during the Holocaust, calling the comparison “reprehensible.”

Addressing an argument that the vaccine mandate was contrary to public policy, the judge wrote that the vaccine requirement “is consistent with public policy. The Supreme Court has held that (a) involuntary quarantine for contagious diseases and (b) state-imposed requirements of mandatory vaccination do not violate due process.”

 

Bottom Line

While this EEOC guidance and recent decision may seem like a big victory for mandatory COVID vaccines in the workplace, Massachusetts employers should be cautious in relying on them too heavily. The Commonwealth has its own anti-discrimination and public-policy laws, so it’s difficult to predict how this might play out in a state court or administrative proceeding.

In other words, while the decision is encouraging for Massachusetts employers who want to require vaccines, it is important to check in with experienced labor and employment counsel before implementing a mandatory vaccine program.

 

John Gannon and Meaghan Murphy are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Cover Story

The Next Stage

The governor calls the last phase of his reopening plan the ‘new normal.’ It’s a phrase people are already tired of, even if they use it themselves. Life in the new normal isn’t like it was during the pandemic, and it isn’t like it was in 2019, either. As the stories below reveal, it’s a different time — a time everyone has been waiting for since workers packed up their things and headed home to work in March 2020. It’s a time of opportunity and a chance to recover some of what’s been lost. But there are still a number of challenges and questions to be answered, involving everything from workforce issues to when business travel will resume, to just how much pent-up demand there is for products and services.

Hall of Fame

Shrine is poised to rebound from a season of hard losses

Bradley International Airport

Facility gains altitude after pandemic-induced declines

White Lion Brewing

After a year to forget, this Springfield label is ready to roar

The Starting Gate at GreatHorse

Reopening timeline prompts excitement, but also trepidation

The Sheraton Springfield

Downtown mainstay sees new signs of life, anticipates many more

The Clark Art Institute

This Berkshires staple has exhibited patience and flexibility

The Federal Restaurant Group

At these eateries, guests will determine pace of reopening

 

 

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Features

This Berkshires Staple Has Exhibited Patience and Flexibility

The Clark, which now features exhibits

The Clark, which now features exhibits indoors and outdoors at its Williamstown campus, will take it slow as the state enters the ‘new normal’ and gradually increase capacity. Photo by of Jeff Goldberg coutesy of Clark Art Institute

Victoria Tanner Salzman says it was a complete coincidence that the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s first-ever outdoor exhibition opened just a few months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

It takes years of planning to bring such an exhibit to fruition, she explained, and that was certainly the case with Ground/work, a collection of eight works created by six international artists that are found in varied locations across the Clark’s sprawling, 140-acre campus in Williamstown.

“These installations are embedded in a landscape that is ever-changing — both daily and seasonally,” according to a description on the institute’s website. “Ground/work highlights the balance between fragility and resilience that both nature and the passage of time reveal, while offering fresh experiences with every visit.”

Tanner Salzman, the Clark’s director of Communications, noted that “this exhibit has given our visitors the opportunity to see art outdoors, indoors, or both. And we’ve gotten tremendous response from our visitors about the experience; you can wander our trails and walk through our meadow and come upon these pieces and hopefully enjoy them.”

The phenomenal timing of Ground/work has been one of the many factors that has enabled the Clark to more than weather what has been a protracted and quite challenging storm, said Tanner Salzman, adding that others include a host of virtual initiatives and limited visitation marked by strict adherence to COVID policies and best practices to keep visitors and staff safe at all times.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will.”

“At certain points over the past year, the governor’s orders increased capacity, but we chose, at those points, to remain at a lower capacity just out of concern for the comfort of our visitors and the safety of everyone,” she explained. “We’ve either been at the capacity level prescribed by the state or below it.”

And as the state moves up its timetable for fully reopening the economy and removing restrictions on businesses of all kinds, the Clark will continue to be diligent and err, if that’s even the right word, on the side of caution, she told BusinessWest.

“We are taking it slowly, but we will increase our capacity; our current operating capacity is permitted to be 50%, but we’ve chosen to operate at a lower capacity,” she explained, adding that the facility planned to increase to that 50% level on May 29. And moving forward, it plans to increase the numbers as the conditions permit. “We will adjust upwards as we feel it’s best for everyone to do so.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will,” she went on. “We’ll take a look at it on a weekly basis, and certainly our hope is to be in a position in the summer where we’ll hopefully bump it back up. But we have not made that decision yet.”

While watching and adjusting as the conditions permit, the Clark will apply some of the lessons it learned during the pandemic, said Tanner Salzman, echoing the sentiments of business owners and managers across virtually every sector of the economy.

And many of these lessons involve using technology to broaden the Clark’s audience and bring its collections and programs to people who might not otherwise make it to Williamstown.

“We were learning lessons every day throughout this, and I’m sure that some of the practices that we adopted during this period will find a carry-over life as we move forward,” she explained. “We are certainly looking very hard at virtual events and continuing them; we found great success in doing such events, and we recognize that it allows us to open our doors to people who cannot necessarily be here to walk through them for an event. Instead of just having people at a live event at the Clark, we’ve had people tuning in from all around the world, people regularly coming onto live Zoom calls from California, Florida, all over, so we will want to continue that.

“I think there’s a hybrid model out there that we settle into as we move forward,” she went on, adding that there was a very limited amount of virtual programming before COVID. “We’ve done all sorts of things over the past year-plus, from gallery tours to lectures; Q&A conversations with curators to podcasts. We’re enthusiastic about finding ways to adapt these virtual programs into the menu we offer on a regular basis.”

Looking back on 2020, Tanner Salzman said the opening of Ground/work was certainly slowed by COVID. Pieces were arriving from the around the world, she explained, and as borders were closing and studios were closing as well, the process of bringing those works to Williamstown became more complicated and time-consuming, with the exhibit taking shape over time.

“We had to be more flexible and a little more patient,” she said, adding that these qualities have served the Clark well in very aspect of coping with the pandemic and effectively serving art lovers from across the country and around the world.

And flexibility and patience will continue to be the watchwords as this institution continues through that phase known as the ‘new normal.’

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

The Basketball Hall of Fame

 

John Doleva

John Doleva stands in the new Kobe Bryant exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is drawing considerable attention and is now one of many reasons for optimism at the shrine.

 

John Doleva says it was probably within minutes after Vanessa Bryant, widow of the NBA star and entrepreneur Kobe Bryant, posted an Instagram photo of her in the new exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame dedicated to Kobe — a photo that has garnered 17 million ‘likes’ — when the phone started ringing.

On the other end were people — from this region, but also across the country — who wanted to know more about the exhibit and how long it would be running.

“The phones been ringing off the hook,” said Doleva, the long-time president and CEO of the Hall. “We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post, followed soon thereafter by an article on her visit to the Hall in Us Weekly magazine and the response to both, is one of many things going right for the Hall of Fame a year and change after everything — as in everything — started going wrong.

Indeed, at the start of 2020, the year was shaping up as potentially the best in the Hall’s history. A star-studded class, headlined by Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, was going to be inducted that September. Meanwhile, a series of major additions and renovations to the Hall were being completed, prompting expectations for a surge in visitation. A commemorative coin was slated to be launched, one that was projected to become a major fundraiser for the shrine. And plans were being finalized for a massive three-on-three basketball tournament, with the Hall as a major player — and drawing card for participating teams.

And then … it all went away.

The induction ceremonies, a major source of funding for the Hall, were pushed back several times, and eventually to last month, and moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The commemorative coin was scrapped, and the three-on-three tournament, dubbed Hooplandia, was scrubbed as well.

“The phones been ringing off the hook. We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

As for the Hall’s renovation, COVID-19 actually provided an opportunity to slow down the pace of work and add two new attractions — the Kobe Bryant exhibit and another exhibit that allows visitors to virtually join the set with TNT’s NBA broadcast team, which includes Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and read a few highlights.

In recent weeks, visitation to this new, more modern, more immersive Hall has been steadily increasing, said Doleva, who expects that pattern to continue, and for a number of reasons, ranging from Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post to the fact that many people who might otherwise be heading to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard this summer will be coming to Western Mass. for day trips because they can’t book rooms or cottages at those destinations.

“Our traffic right now is ahead of pre-pandemic, 2019 numbers, and our pre-bookings for upcoming weekends are excellent,” he noted. “On a normal Saturday in May, we would get 300 to 400 people; last Saturday (May 22), we had 660. School is not out yet, and yet we’re still seeing a few hundred on a weekday.

“Our projections are that this will be the best summer we’ve ever had; we’re going to be aggressive in our promotion of visitation — we didn’t invest $21 million to hope and pray people come,” he went on, adding that he’s expecting 100,000 visitors to visit this summer, a 30% to 40% increase over what has been typical over the years.

And the governor’s moving of the reopening date from Aug. 1 to May 29 will certainly help in this regard, he said, adding that June and especially July are key months for the shrine.

“We were anxiously awaiting the green flag — and now we’re ready to run,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while some businesses were not fully ready for May 29, the Hall was, and especially grateful for gaining nine critical weeks.

Overall, Doleva believes 2021 will, in many respects, be the year that 2020 wasn’t for the Hall. There will actually be two induction ceremonies, with the class of 2021, headlined by former Celtics Paul Pearce and Bill Russell (to be honored as the first black coach in the NBA), to be celebrated in September at the MassMutual Center, as well as a return of collegiate basketball tournaments that benefit the Hall. Meanwhile, Doleva is also projecting a strong surge in corporate events and outings at the Hall as the business world gradually returns to something approaching normal.

He said the Hall boasts a number of amenities, including a theater with seating for several hundred and Center Court, which can seat more than 400 for a sit-down dinner and now includes a 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We’re getting a lot of interest, a lot of calls,” he said, noting that a few banquet facilities closed due to COVID, and the Hall stands to benefit whenever the business community and other constituencies are ready and willing to gather in large numbers again.

Getting back to those calls from California and the Kobe Bryant exhibit, Doleva said the typical lifespan for such a display is at least three to five years, and perhaps longer. He joked that those at the Hall are telling those callers, ‘why don’t you buy your tickets today, and we’ll hold it until you come.’”

Enthusiasm for that exhibit is just one of many reasons why those at the Hall of Fame believe they can fully rebound from a year that saw a number of hard losses.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says his customers, and not the governor, will determine how quickly and how profoundly he increases capacity at the venues within the Federal Restaurant Group.

Ralph Santaniello says he’s read the language contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to bring the state into the final stage of his reopening plan at least a dozen times.

And each time, he came away with the conclusion that the phrase ‘no restrictions’ means … well, no restrictions.

“That means no more mask requirements, no more tables being six feet apart, no barriers, no restrictions on capacity,” said Santaniello, director of Operations for the Federal Restaurant Group, which includes the Federal in Agawam, Vinted in West Hartford, and Posto in Longmeadow.

But just because it’s there in black and white doesn’t mean this restaurant group has to go as far and especially as fast (the date for full reopening was moved from Aug. 1 to May 29, as everyone knows by now) as the governor says it can.

And it won’t.

Indeed, Santaniello — several times, in fact — said it will be customers, the buying public, and not the governor who ultimately determines the pace at which these restaurants work their way back to where they were in the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 reached Western Mass.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things,” he noted. “What we’ll probably do is eliminate the barriers and slowly introduce more seating so the guests get comfortable. We’ll start to ramp up and ease our way back and see how things go.”

For example, while the requirement that tables be six feet apart has been lifted, the three restaurants in the group won’t immediately turn back the clock on such spacing, and will likely start with tables four feet apart and gradually reduce that number, again, with the pace of change and distance set by the public and its perceived comfort level with the surroundings.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things.”

Overall, as his group ramps up in the wake of the reopening announcement, Santaniello is projecting a solid balance to 2021, although projecting numbers is somewhat difficult. He noted, for example, that last summer was very strong for the three restaurants, all of which had outdoor dining, and one reason was because far fewer people were able to vacation out of the area. This summer, more might be able to, but most spots on the Cape and elsewhere are sold out.

“If spring is any indication, our reservations are up — they’re up to even 2019 levels,” he said, adding that the calls for reservations and booking events started picking up several weeks ago as the number of COVID cases started declining and the number of people vaccinated kept increasing.

Santaniello is projecting a strong fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important three months for most restaurants, and especially the one he was sitting in while talking with BusinessWest, the Federal in Agawam, located in an historic home built just before the Civil War.

It has become a popular gathering spot year-round, he said, but business peaks during the holidays, and he is expecting a hard run on dates in December for holiday parties, especially after most companies, and families, went without last year.

But the next several months will feature a number of challenges, said Santaniello, noting rising food prices and especially the ongoing labor shortages as the two most pressing items on the list. The latter is the one keeping most restaurateurs up at night, he noted, adding quickly that he’s certainly in that group counting sheep.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees,” he said. “A good percentage of our employees have not come back yet, or some have left the industry; some are not ready to come to work for any of a number of reasons. Everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

He noted that the problem will actually limit the amount of business he can take on for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees.”

Indeed, while the Federal has historically been open six nights a week (Sundays are reserved for events), it will go down to five and possibly to four (Wednesday through Saturday, with events on Sunday), in large part due to the staffing situation.

Overall, though, the outlook for 2021 is obviously much better than 2020, he said, adding that he’s optimistic that the employment situation will eventually stabilize, probably by the fall, and overall business, by most projections, will continue to improve as customers feel more comfortable with being indoors and around other people.

“I think we’re going to have a great summer, and it’s going to be an even better fourth quarter,” Santaniello said. “The second quarter is shaping out great, the third quarter will be good, and the fourth quarter and the holiday season will be really, really good.”

 

—George O’Brien

Daily News

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation to extend certain emergency measures currently in place via executive orders that are set to expire on June 15 when the Commonwealth’s state of emergency will be rescinded. Most restrictions, including limitations placed on businesses, will be rescinded effective May 29 as Massachusetts nears the goal of vaccinating 4 million residents.

This legislation proposes to extend measures providing for a temporary suspension of certain open-meeting-law requirements, special permits for expanded outside dining at restaurants, and billing protections for COVID-19 patients. When the state of emergency ends, these orders will expire, and temporarily extending these measures will allow time to transition. Extending these measures, which were instituted by executive order, requires legislation.

To allow public bodies to safely meet during the pandemic and ensure public access to meetings, Baker issued an executive order in March 2020 allowing these bodies to meet quorum requirements even if meetings were held remotely through electronic means as long as measures were taken to ensure the public with electronic access to the proceedings. The bill filed by Baker this week will extend these provisions related to the Commonwealth’s open-meeting law until Sept. 1, which will allow additional time to consider possible permanent changes to the open-meeting law to provide for greater flexibility in conducting open meetings through reliance on electronic streaming and similar measures.

The bill will also grant municipalities authority to extend special permits for restaurants offering outdoor dining issued under the state of emergency through Nov. 29. Under an executive order issued in 2020, municipalities were permitted to use an expedited process to approve temporary permits for new or expanded outdoor dining and alcohol service. Without a legislative extension, special permits granted under the governor’s order will expire 60 days after the end of the state of emergency.

The legislation will also extend a protection adopted in an executive order that prohibits medical providers from billing patients who have received COVID-related emergency and inpatient services for charges in excess of costs paid by their insurers. As filed, the protection would extend until Jan. 1, 2022, at which time recently passed federal legislation that included protections for both emergency and non-emergency cases will become effective. Earlier this year, Baker signed legislation establishing surprise-billing protections for patients for non-emergency services.

“Massachusetts is leading the nation in the vaccination effort, and that progress is enabling the Commonwealth to return to normal,” Baker said. “These temporary measures will help businesses and residents in this transition period, and I look forward to working on these and other issues in the week ahead with our partners in the Legislature.”

Last week, Baker announced that all industries will be permitted to open on May 29. With the exception of remaining face-covering requirements for masks in public and private transportation systems, hospitals, and other facilities housing vulnerable populations, all industry restrictions will be lifted at that time, and capacity will increase to 100% for all industries. The gathering limit will also be rescinded.

Before June 15, the administration plans to take additional steps that will permit the continuation of targeted public-health measures beyond the end of the state of emergency, including the mask requirements announced last week.

Law

Policy Decisions

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to examine their balance sheets. One of the areas that could be looked at is how much benefit a business is getting from its current insurance portfolio, and whether downsizing coverage could be an option.

In today’s world, a common feature of a business-insurance portfolio is employment-practices liability insurance (EPLI), which is different than traditional liability insurance and provides coverage for discrimination, wrongful termination, and other workplace issues.

EPLI typically covers discrimination claims based upon sex, race, national origin, age, and all other characteristics prohibited by law. This includes claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, associated state discrimination statutes, and other federal laws. EPLI policies usually provide coverage to the company, management, supervisors, and employees from claims that arise under the policy. EPLI typically does not cover wage-and-hour law violations, unemployment issues, ERISA, or COBRA matters.

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

“COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.”

Perhaps your business has been fortunate enough to avoid employment litigation over the past few years. Therefore, the cost/benefit analysis to your business will be different than a business that has been tied up in employment litigation in the recent past. The first obvious cost is the cost of purchasing the policy. Higher insurance coverage costs more than a policy with a lower-policy limit. In addition to the cost of purchasing the policy, businesses will also need to factor in the cost of the ‘retention’ it is required to pay in the event of a claim.

Retention is similar to a deductible in other insurance policies, and is the amount of expenses for which the business is responsible before the insurer will begin paying for the cost of defense. Insurers use retention as a way to avoid incurring the expense of defending against nominal or frivolous claims by passing on that expense to the business. Conversely, the business will also want to evaluate the amount of their retention prior to obtaining EPLI.

A business will need to evaluate its options if it is faced with a high retention and a small amount of discrimination claims that are usually resolved at the administrative level. Has your business had EPLI for several years and never exhausted its retention? Or does your business have a high volume of discrimination cases at the administrative level and also never exhausted its retention?

Another factor to consider in evaluating the cost of EPLI is your company’s approach to employment lawsuits. Businesses will need to have a consistent strategy when it comes to employment lawsuits. Is your company going to vigorously defend against all claims? If so, that may impact your decision on the cost of the EPLI policy you intend to purchase. How many claims are made against your company? The more claims are reported, the more the policy will cost, and the higher the retention amount will be. The increased retention will have an impact on the company’s budget for the next policy period.

COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.

 

Timothy M. Netkovick, 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 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]

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Sean Hogan

 

As COVID-19 winds down and we begin to go back to our normal lifestyle, I find myself asking what is next.

Let’s look back and see what has changed in the business world over the last year. The economy came to a halt, there was a major strain on the supply chain, restaurants and bars were closed, and business stopped. Certain industries, including IT, thrived, but COVID affected everyone; it missed no one.

We at Hogan Technology had to embrace meeting, selling, and collaborating over videoconferencing. This was a major shift in our protocol. We were hesitant at first, but there was not much of an option. We, like everyone else, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon. I quickly realized that Zoom had some security issues, and we moved all our collaboration to Microsoft Teams. Teams has been easy to use and efficient, and it had integration with our current voice platform. In the beginning, we were limited to viewing four participants; thankfully, MS made some changes and improved the capacity for our Teams meetings.

I have been managing and selling for more than 34 years, and shifting to video meetings with clients at first was clumsy. I was conditioned to prepping for my meetings, driving to the client site, waiting in the lobby, and then meeting face to face with my client. It took a few video calls to get into a process, but then I started to see how efficient and productive they could be. The ability to bring in my team to collaborate with my clients has worked exceptionally well.

Our sales and discovery process has completely changed, and this old dog has learned some new tricks. We now send out invites that allow our prospects and clients to log into our videoconference, and I can introduce my team and our vision. I then hand over the presentation of any software or applications to my tech team. Once the presentation is done, I can share or review any proposals or quotes though a screen share. This allows me to go line by line and make sure the client completely understands our solution.

This new style of sales has worked very well. We are printing far less, engaging the client more productively, and saving fuel and time by not driving to the site. We will still gladly meet on site, but if the client is open to meeting online, that will be our first step. Video collaboration and presentations are here it stay, and we welcome and embrace the cost-savings technology.

There were lots of new terms thrown about during the pandemic, but the two that made me think were ‘new normal’ and ‘pivot.’ The new normal, in my mind, is constant change. I like to think we all embraced the new normal, seeing that we are engaged in technology, which is constant change.

I think ‘pivot’ is what we have always internally termed ‘nimble.’ One of the advantages of being a small business is that it does not take much for us to turn our ship; we are not a large tanker, but more of a go-fast boat. We can turn on a dime, we can make changes without having to get board approval, and we can move fast when we need to get out of our own way. COVID taught us all how to be nimble and how to change the way we do business. I am amazed and proud to look at the business community and see how people have pulled together and toughed out a brutal year.

Yes, we all pivoted, and we all learned to deal with the new normal, but, most importantly, we all got up, went back to work, and supported each other.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that the Commonwealth is on track to meet the goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by the first week of June, and, as a result, all remaining COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted effective May 29.

All industry restrictions will be lifted, and capacity will increase to 100% for all industries. The gathering limit also will be rescinded. All industries will be encouraged to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for cleaning and hygiene protocols.

The Commonwealth’s face-covering order will also be rescinded on May 29. The Department of Public Health will issue a new face-covering advisory consistent with updated guidance from the CDC. Face coverings will still be mandatory for all individuals on public and private transportation systems (including rideshares, livery, taxi, ferries, MBTA, commuter rail, and transportation stations), in healthcare facilities, and in other settings hosting vulnerable populations, such as congregate-care settings. Face coverings will also remain required indoors for staff and students of K-12 schools and early-education providers.

The administration is able to take these steps to reopen the Commonwealth’s economy because Massachusetts is on track to meet the goal set in December to fully vaccinate more than 4 million individuals by the first week of June. The Commonwealth leads the nation in vaccinating residents, with 75% of adults receiving at least one dose. To date, more than 4 million residents have received a first dose, with 3.2 million fully vaccinated.

On May 18, 2020, the administration published the reopening phases, which called for ending restrictions when vaccines became widely available. New cases have dropped by 89% since Jan. 8. COVID hospitalizations are down 88% since Jan. 1, and the positive test rate is down by 88%, from 8.7% its peak on Jan. 1 to 1% today.

Non-vaccinated individuals are advised to continue wearing face masks and to continue distancing in most settings. The advisory will also recommend fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a face covering or socially distance indoors or outdoors except in certain situations.

“The update to the state’s mask guidelines is consistent with the administration’s thoughtful and data-guided approach to reopening, and the positive trend in key COVID-19 metrics which drove this action underscores the safety and efficacy of vaccines,” said Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Effective May 18, the youth and amateur sports guidance will be updated to no longer require face coverings for youth athletes 18 and under while playing outdoor sports. Effective May 29, all youth and amateur sports restrictions will be lifted.

Effective May 18, guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Early Education and Care will be updated to no longer require masks for outdoor activities like recess and to allow for the sharing of objects in classrooms, in both K-12 and childcare settings. This guidance will remain in effect beyond May 29.

The administration will release updated guidance for summer camps, effective May 29, which will include no longer requiring masks for outdoor activities.

Baker will end the state of emergency​ on June 15, and the administration will work with legislative and municipal partners during this period in order to manage an orderly transition from emergency measures adopted by executive order and special legislation during the period of the state of emergency.

Allen noted that, because of access challenges or hesitancy, many in the Commonwealth have yet to be vaccinated.

“That can be especially dangerous for those who live and work in locations where they have frequent close contact with others,” she said. “Importantly, despite improving public-health data, we cannot relent in our efforts to vaccinate those in underserved communities which have seen and continue to see a disproportionate level of transmission and severe illness.

“Those who have yet to be vaccinated should continue to wear masks outside of the home, especially in instances where physical distancing is not possible,” Allen went on. “We encourage all who are eligible to get a vaccine and those who have questions or concerns about the guideline changes to speak with their physician or healthcare provider.”

Daily News

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started more than 14 months ago, there have been a number of comparisons between this global conflict (yes, it can be called that) and the last one — World War II.

Indeed, the analogies have involved everything from how businesses rallied to produce items to fight the COVID war — reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s coining of the phrase ‘arsenal of Democracy’ — to the rationing of food and other products (remember those toilet-paper shortages?).

World War II, or the end of that conflict, must have been on some minds on Monday when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced he was eliminating virtually all COVID restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend.

There was no dancing in the streets, at least that we know of (maybe there will be some on May 29), but the announcement must have felt somewhat like the end of that great war, at least to the extent that this was the news everyone has been waiting and yearning for.

Finally — yes, 14 months deserves a ‘finally’ — there will be virtually no restrictions on any businesses in terms of the number of people they can serve, when, where, and how. This is certainly the news that those in the large and all-important hospitality sector have been waiting for. It’s the news the Big E has been waiting for. And the Basketball Hall of Fame. And MGM Springfield. And … the list goes on.

But while this is great news for all those in the business community who have suffered through those four phases of reopening (the governor dubbed them ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal’), there is room for one more, somewhat sobering analogy to World War II. When that conflict ended, there was great joy, but also some anxiety for many about what would come next. And things were not universally rosy.

Indeed, the war economy came to a screeching halt, and before it built itself back up again to make the homes, television sets, cars, and refrigerators that everyone was demanding, there was widespread unemployment and considerable labor unrest.

Now, as the COVID restrictions are lifted and we can all go back to normal, the question is — what will ‘normal’ look like? No one really knows the answer, but it’s almost certain it won’t look like December 2019 — at least not for a while.

It will take some time before people feel comfortable eating out in restaurants again. Likewise, many will still be hesitant to go the gym and work out on a treadmill next to someone not wearing a mask. And while we can expect Fenway Park to be full the first game after May 29, many will be hesitant about gathering in large numbers and close quarters. As for those hospitality-related businesses, especially those in downtown Springfield, most of them rely heavily on office workers, many of whom are still working remotely and may well be until September.

Meanwhile, the local economy faces challenges beyond COVID. Indeed, ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring; apply within’ signs are posted at virtually every business in the service and hospitality sectors. And there are still shortages of myriad products — from lumber to used cars — and prices are skyrocketing as a result.

There is reason to celebrate today, to be sure. Fourteen long months of restrictions, questions, and uncertainty about what next month will look like are seemingly over. But remember, after World War II, it took a while for things to be like they were before — and in many cases, they never were.

Restaurants

Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill, which has been transformed into a charming, colorful dining spot.

When COVID-19 arrived 14 months ago, restaurant owners everywhere went into survival mode. Bill Collins was no exception.

Fast-forward to, well, just last week, and the story is a different one.

“We just celebrated our seven-year anniversary,” said Collins, owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow, who marked the milestone by donating 10% of the day’s total sales to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield. “That’s something we would not have been able to do without outdoor seating.”

Reliance on al fresco dining — and gratitude for the return of warm spring weather — is a common theme for restaurants across Massachusetts, at least those that had outdoor dining space available, or the opportunity to create some.

In Collins’ case, he didn’t even wait for spring to return.

“We’ve had outdoor seating since we opened, but we definitely expanded on that,” he said. “In fact, we spent nearly $20,000 ramping up for the fall, installing greenhouses with electric heat. All winter long, we offered single-use lap blankets for people who came in.”

In doing so, he was able to serve diners at something approaching normal capacity through the cold months, even though interior capacity was still limited by public-health mandates. “It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

Customers appreciate — and usually prefer — the outdoor option, too.

“When the phone rings, 90% of the time, it’s with inquiries to sit outside,” he said. “We took down the greenhouses for the summer but plan to bring them back. People are still talking about the greenhouses. They were a hit for us, and they’ll definitely be back in the fall.”

Munich Haus in Chicopee has long served patrons on a large patio known as the Biergarten, with seating for 150 — well, before physical-distancing rules, anyway — and a 24-seat bar area.

“It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

“It’s been great,” owner Patrick Gottschlicht said. “A lot of our customers already knew about it. We didn’t have to put a tent in the parking lot with concrete barriers or anything; we’ve got a fully set-up Biergarten, a true outdoor area. We’ve always said we’ve tried to emulate the experience of sitting in a biergarten in Germany, to make it as authentic as possible.”

At Eastside Grill in Northampton, owner Debra Flynn has taken several approaches to allowing customers to eat outdoors. She converted an alley behind the restaurant into a cozy, colorful space lined with potted plants, colorful murals, and lightbulbs strung above the tables for the evening hours.

This year, while adding even more plants and patio umbrellas to the alley, Eastside Grill is one of a handful of restaurants and retailers set to benefit from Summer on Strong, a city initiative to close a small portion of Strong Avenue to vehicle traffic from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Eastside will be able to seat 32 more customers in the road, almost doubling its outdoor capacity to 70. Live music outdoors will be a feature on many nights as well.

Like others we spoke with — and have been speaking with since restaurants were allowed to partially reopen last spring — Flynn said many folks want to dine out, but still worry about gathering indoors, so outdoor dining is critical for business.

“We get calls every single day about it,” she said, noting that she doesn’t take reservations specifically for outdoor seating, but customers can request it and wait for a spot. “I don’t blame them. We want them to be very comfortable, and if you’re not comfortable inside, we want to make sure we have a table outside.”

 

Taking to the Streets

The barriers between restaurants and roadways that were a mainstay in downtown Northampton last summer have been going up again in preparation for the outdoor dining season. Despite the loss of parking that results from this concession to restaurants, city leaders heard enough positive feedback last year to allow eateries to push out past the curb again along Main Street, Pleasant Street, Pearl Street, Masonic Street, and other spots — and, in cases like Strong Avenue, well beyond the curb.

“The city has been really wonderful to work with,” Flynn said. “Everyone from the City Hall to the DNA [Downtown Northampton Assoc.] to the chamber has been really helpful. I feel really good about the way things are going right now.”

Meanwhile, a recent order by Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle will allow restaurants and retailers on Main, Cottage, and Union streets to expand their seating options and retail spaces into parking spots and other public spaces. Businesses interested in the exemption must first submit detailed plans, including a review for ADA compliance, an exterior lighting plan, and a timeline for how long the outdoor seating will stay in place.

Easthampton allowed a similar outdoor-dining expansion last year from August to November in an effort to support local businesses struggling to navigate the economic impact of the pandemic. But with the accommodation being announced late in the summer season, only one restaurant, the Silver Spoon on Main Street, ended up using parking spaces for seating. The mayor expects interest from many more businesses this year.

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business at Munich Haus during the pandemic, and will continue to be well beyond it.

One reason is the still-prevalent sentiment, even after the majority of Massachusetts adults have been vaccinated against COVID, that dining outdoors just feels like a safer option.

“Anyone who’s concerned about coming in, we have the outdoor seating, and they can feel safe outdoors,” Gottschlicht said. “Or indoors, too — but, yeah, there’s plenty of fresh air and open space out there.”

Kiesha Fortin, longtime manager at the Munich Haus, said she looks forward to the day when distancing rules end and she can put more tables on the biergarten patio, due to how popular that option is. Most people are clamoring to eat out, she noted, but many prefer to do it outdoors.

The pent-up desire to eat out has posed another challenge to restaurants, Collins said — staffing up to meet rising demand.

“We’re seeing more and more people coming back to eat, but the biggest challenge for our business, and everyone I’ve talked to in my line of work, is the way unemployment benefits are being handled. We’re having problems getting entry-level employees in the door because everyone is making more staying at home. Typically we run around 95 employees, but we’ve been struggling to stay above 75.”

That said, “hopefully people starting to come back out will have a little patience and realize what things were like a year and a half ago is not the current scenario,” Collins added. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire people back; we just have no people coming through the door to work.”

They are coming to eat, though, especially to restaurants serving up meals outdoors — a development that, for this beleaguered industry, has certainly been a breath of fresh air. u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that Massachusetts will reopen some outdoor phase 4, step 2 industries effective May 10 and put plans in place for further reopening on May 29 and Aug. 1, while relaxing the face-coverings order in some settings on April 30.

The administration continues to take steps to reopen the Commonwealth’s economy with public-health metrics continuing to trend in a positive direction. This includes drops in average daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Massachusetts remains first in the nation for first vaccine doses and total doses administered per capita, among states with more than 5 million people.

Effective Monday, May 10:

• Large venues such as indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas, and ballparks currently open as part of phase 4, step 1 at 12% will be permitted to increase capacity to 25%.

• The Commonwealth will reopen some outdoor phase 4, step 2 industries, including amusement parks, theme parks, and outdoor water parks, that will be permitted to operate at a 50% capacity after submitting safety plans to the Department of Public Health (DPH).

• Road races and other large, outdoor organized amateur or professional group athletic events will be permitted to take place with staggered starts after submitting safety plans to a local board of health or the DPH.

• Youth and adult amateur sports tournaments will be allowed for moderate- and high-risk sports.

• Singing will also be permitted indoors, with strict distancing requirements at performance venues, restaurants, event venues, and other businesses.

Effective Saturday, May 29:

• Subject to public-health and vaccination data, gathering limits will increase to 200 people indoors and 250 people outdoors for event venues, public settings, and private settings.

• Subject to public-health and vaccination data, additional phase 4, step 2 industries will be permitted to open, including street festivals, parades, and agricultural festivals, at 50% of their previous capacity and after submitting safety plans to the local board of health.

• Bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries, and distilleries will be subject to restaurant rules with seated service only, a 90-minute limit, and no dance floors.

• Subject to public-health and vaccination data, the restaurant guidance will be updated to eliminate the requirement that food be served with alcohol and to increase the maximum table size to 10.

Effective Sunday, Aug. 1:

• Subject to public-health and vaccination data, remaining industries will be permitted to open, including dance clubs and nightclubs; saunas, hot tubs, and steam rooms at fitness centers, health clubs, and other facilities; indoor water parks; and ball pits.

• All industry restrictions will be lifted at that time, and capacity will increase to 100% for all industries, with businesses encouraged to continue following best practices. The gathering limit will be rescinded.

Depending on vaccine distribution and public-health data, the administration may consider re-evaluating the Aug. 1 date. The DPH will also continue to issue guidance as needed, including guidance to continue requiring masks indoors.

Also, on Friday, April 30, the face-coverings order will be relaxed for some outdoor settings. Face coverings will be required outside in public only when it is not possible to socially distance, and at other times required by sector-specific guidance.

Face coverings will still be required at all times in indoor public places. Face coverings will also continue to be required at all times at events, whether held indoors or outdoors, and whether held in a public space or private home, except for when eating or drinking.

At smaller gatherings in private homes, face coverings are recommended but not required. The $300 fine as an enforcement mechanism will be eliminated.

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Progress Report

Roughly 14 months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., the commercial real-estate market is showing some signs of life, especially with industrial properties, which are in considerable demand, with limited supply. But as companies start to return to their offices, questions remain concerning just how much space businesses will need long-term and how much demand there will be for the large inventories of space now, or soon to be, available.

Pat Goggins has been selling and leasing real estate in and around Northampton for almost a half-century now. It’s very safe to say that he knows that market better than anyone.

And he feels comfortable now, a full year and change after COVID-19 first arrived in this region, in saying that the Northampton market has “bottomed out, and is starting to work its way back to what it had become.”

He bases this assessment on a number of things — from new leases being signed for some vacated properties downtown to interest in some other buildings for sale and lease, to the lease rates themselves, which, he said, haven’t changed appreciably in 20 years now.

“We’re seeing some new activity that is creating some positive vibes,” said Goggins, president of Goggins Real Estate Inc., adding that, while challenges remain and COVID continues to take a toll on Northampton, there are many signs that a corner of sorts is being turned.

Using slightly different words and phrases, other commercial real-estate brokers and managers we spoke with said essentially the same as Goggins, that the market is moving back toward — here comes that phrase again — ‘something approaching normal, or a new normal.’ Meaning, they believe, that the worst is likely over.

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy,” said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, who is using, among other things, the parking-lot test when it comes to what’s happening within this market.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy.”

Indeed, he said the parking lots at the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke, 1441 Main St. in Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, just some of the properties managed by the company, are more populated than they were just a few months ago, and much more full than last fall. The cars in those lots are evidence that businesses are, in fact, returning to their offices and the buildings are moving closer to pre-COVID levels of occupancy and vibrancy.

Still, hard questions remain about just how many more cars will be returning to those lots — and when. And these questions — which are being asked in urban areas across the Northeast and, indeed, across the country — will likely determine to just what extent the market fully recovers. Indeed, as leases have expired over the past year, some companies have downsized, said Bolotin, a few have actually upsized to give employees more space in the wake of COVID, and others are essentially standing pat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to negotiating new leases, most tenants have been able to take advantage of a market that favors them and secure a number that certainly isn’t higher, and in many cases is lower.

Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which manages several office buildings in this region, including the Greenfield Corporate Center and Agawam Crossing, said that nearly 14 months after COVID forced many people to work remotely, questions linger about when and if businesses will summon employees back to the office, and how many will actually come back.

“I think people like to work at home,” he said. “Businesses want them to come back, but I’m not sure the employees will want to go back.”

Meanwhile, some segments of the commercial market, especially industrial properties, are vibrant, if not white-hot, said Vincunas, noting that there isn’t enough inventory to meet a growing need.

Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active

While COVID has slowed some segments of the commercial real-estate market, Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active, with inventories struggling to meet demand.

“The bulk of our portfolio is industrial, and that’s all pretty strong right now — inventory for that is very low, and prices are very high,” he said, adding that the market for medical real estate — and his company has some of it in the portfolio as well — remains strong.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening within the local market and what may happen as the region continues its pursuit of ‘normal’ — whatever that means.

 

Down on Main Street

As he talked about the Northampton market and what has happened within it over the past year or so, Goggins used the word ‘generational’ to describe the changes to the landscape.

By that, he meant many of the businesses that have become synonymous with Paradise City were started by people his age — Baby Boomers at or now approaching retirement.

“Downtown Northampton took off in the ’70s, and it was fueled by people who were contemporaries of mine who came into town or who were part of the community and decided to open restaurants and shops,” he said. “It was fueled by the Baby Boom generation.”

And what COVID did was push some of those entrepreneurs into retirement maybe a little sooner than they were planning, he said, adding that this led to some high-profile vacancies on Main Street, a phrase he uses to connote both that specific thoroughfare and the whole of the downtown. Those vacancies include the massive Silverscape Designs building, a former bank; 147 Main St., formerly Cathy Cross; 162 Main St., formerly Artisan Gallery; and others.

In recent weeks, though, new tenants have been secured for many of these properties, he said, noting that Rebekah Brooks Jewelry has moved into the Cathy Cross space, 25 Central has taken the Artisan Gallery space, and Cotton Gallery has moved into 153 Main St., formerly Thelo. This movement reflects his earlier-stated sentiments that the market has, in fact, bottomed out and is moving back up again, although there is still work to do.

“The vacancy rate is higher than what we would prefer, but we’re nipping away at it,” he said, adding that the emerging cannabis industry has played a factor in these efforts, and it could play a still-larger role moving forward, with nearly a dozen ventures at some stage of the permitting process.

As for the Silverscape property, he said there has been some interest expressed in it, but it is a large space with some accompanying challenges when it comes to a new use.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the former bank spaces, like teller windows, were imaginatively integrated into the jewelry store’s design, they may in some ways limit what can easily be done with the space now.

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton, now on the market, will present opportunities and challenges to its next owner, said Pat Goggins, adding “it’s not for the feint of heart.”

Assessing the office market, Goggins echoed others in noting that, while more businesses are returning to the spaces they completely or partially vacated last March, there are questions about whether businesses that had to rely on people working remotely will bring everyone — or anyone — back to the office.

Vincunas said he has a diverse list of tenants at the Greenfield Corporate Center, including some state agencies that he is not concerned about when it comes to downsizing or not renewing, but also some financial-services and technology-related tenants for which there are some questions moving forward.

“People have learned to work outside the office, so we can’t be sure what will happen long-term,” he said, adding quickly that, for the short term, the property has benefited from COVID in one respect — the regional jury-pool operation has moved into 25,000 square feet of space at the facility for at least a year.

“They couldn’t space people out for jury-pool selection at all the courthouses — there just wasn’t room — so they created an off-site central-clearinghouse type of space,” he told BusinessWest. “We had a big piece of space, so they took it.”

Boloton said he’s seeing some evidence that, while the experiences of the past year have shown that remote working can be effective, most businesses want their workers back together in one place.

“I’ve seen it with a number of businesses … they’ve said, ‘we’re working at home, we’ve figured it out, but there’s still a need to be in the office, and, over time, people want to be in the office,’” he said, adding that the parking-lot test, as unscientific as it is, provides some evidence that companies are working their way back to their office spaces. “It’s a matter of want to, and need to, and there’s a slow progression back. There’s a steady return toward coming back to the office; we’re not there, but we’re getting closer every day.”

For other evidence of progress, he cited the recent closing of a deal with a business to lease 27,000 square feet of office space in a property at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield. He could not disclose the new tenant, but said it was an existing Western Mass. business that is expanding.

“It’s a market that has some areas of slowdown reaction to the pandemic,” he said, listing retail in that category. “But there are other areas that are busy, and we can’t find inventory. Industrial is very strong, and we have a lot of transactions for users buying buildings, so we have a number of properties under contract.”

 

Bottom Line

Between the parking-lot test, some new leases being inked, and tight inventories in the industrial market, the commercial real-estate landscape seems to be changing in this region — and for the better.

That said, many questions remain about the market and especially the office buildings that are not only home to many types of companies, but also generate business at neighboring service- and hospitality-related enterprises.

It may be some time before all those questions are answered, but for now, it seems the worst may well be over and, as Goggins and others noted, this sector is moving steadily closer to something approximating normal.

 

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

Daily News

A new round of funding from the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County will help nonprofit organizations respond to the social and emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families, and communities in Berkshire County.

Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Northern Berkshire United Way, and Williamstown Community Chest have shifted their focus from emergency response to recovery. Through a new grant request process, funding will support innovative approaches to addressing emotional well-being for children, youth, and families.

The funding collaborative will award up to $5,000 to programs serving a minimum of 10 participants. Some awards may be higher depending on available funding and demonstrated need. Applications are due by May 15 and grantees will be notified on or before May 31. Funds must be used by Sept. 30. The grant proposal can be found on the Berkshire County COVID-19 Fund page.

“As we pivot to recovery, we see the toll this pandemic has taken on the well-being of our children, youth, and families. We heard from our community partners how tough the year has been and knew we needed to help,” said Candace Winkler, CEO and president of Berkshire United Way. “We want to help our children and youth get back on track with their social and emotional development, and hope to see some fun and innovative grant proposals.”

The new funding builds on the partnership established in March 2020 with the launch of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County. From March 19 to Aug. 3, 2020, the emergency fund awarded more than $2 million through 132 grants to 95 nonprofits supporting low-income families, communities of color and immigrants, and seniors through services such as food pantries, health care, and housing.

Contributions can still be made to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Daily News

BOSTON — Ten weeks after Senate President Karen Spilka promised swift action on COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a comprehensive bill that would guarantee five paid days off for every employee in the Commonwealth. The bill also seeks to stabilize the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) trust fund, provides tax relief to businesses and workers, and delays the state tax-filing deadline.

“In January, I declared that we must act quickly to provide our workers with COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave, and today the Senate has delivered on that promise,” Spilka said on Friday. “I am proud of the collaboration that brought about this agreement, which will provide needed relief for both businesses and workers.”

She added, “as we continue to recover from the COVID-19 emergency, these measures will provide stability to our economy and keep workers safe.”

To help protect employees on the front lines, and prevent the further spread of COVID-19, the bill ensures that all workers in Massachusetts have access to paid leave if they are unable to work as a result of a COVID infection or a quarantine order. Significantly, given the state’s push to increase vaccination rates, employees will be able to use this paid leave time to take time off to receive the vaccine. In addition, the legislation provides for leave if the worker needs time to care for a family member unable to work because of COVID.

To align state tax deadlines with federal tax deadlines, the bill also extends the Commonwealth’s tax-filing deadline from April 15, 2021, to May 17, 2021. This tax flexibility, similar to a delay authorized last year by the Legislature, will provide stability and ensure residents have time to prepare and file taxes as the state continues to weather the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have seen firsthand the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on businesses, families, and the economy in the Hampden District,” state Sen. Adam Gomez said. “This legislation will provide relief for business owners and individuals during tax-filing season. I hope that these provisions, as well as the extension of the tax-filing deadline, provide families in the state some breathing room so that they can get back on their feet.”

Under this legislation, employees are eligible for up to five days of paid leave, at their regular rate of pay, capped at $850 per week — which is the same maximum weekly benefit provided for in the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave law. Employers covered by federal legislation providing for paid leave will have the cost of providing such leave paid for through the federal tax credit. For all other employers, the bill creates a $75 million COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Fund to reimburse eligible employers for providing their employees with emergency paid sick leave. The state requirement for paid leave would extend until Sept. 30, 2021 or until the fund is exhausted.

The bill also provides UI-related relief to businesses and employees. For businesses, the bill prevents increases in the UI rate schedule for 2021 and 2022, providing employers with stability and relief as the Commonwealth continues to recover. For unemployed workers, some navigating the UI system for the first time, the bill waives tax penalties on UI benefits in 2020 and 2021. It also mirrors federal tax provisions included in the recent American Rescue Plan and excludes $10,200 of unemployment compensation received by an individual with a household income of less than 200% of the federal poverty level from gross income for tax purposes, putting up to $500 into the hands of lower-income unemployed individuals. This would apply to individuals making $25,760 or under, or a total income of $53,000 for a family of four.

Further relief for businesses comes in the form of a change in state tax policy regarding PPP loans. In Massachusetts, corporate excise tax, but not personal income tax, is tied to the current federal Internal Revenue Code. As a result, Massachusetts’ tax law treats forgiven Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans differently depending on whether the recipient small business is organized as a pass-through entity or a C-corp. This bill conforms to federal law and ensures that all forgiven PPP loans, advance Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and payments made under the federal Small Business Debt Relief are excluded from gross income, regardless of how the business is organized.

“With the tax filing season upon us, the inclusion of language from my PPP loan-forgiveness bill will ensure that thousands of businesses won’t be hit hard with a significant, potentially insurmountable, tax burden amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. “Over 140,000 businesses across the Commonwealth have received Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration and have been asked to be patient, flexible, and resilient in order to keep their lights on. It’s unfair for our state to hit them with an unexpected tax. This is a critical measure for speedy economic recovery.”

The bill now goes to the House for further action.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that Massachusetts will advance to step 1 of phase 4 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan on Monday, March 22.

The administration continues to take steps to reopen the Commonwealth’s economy with public-health metrics continuing to trend in a positive direction. This includes drops in average daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The administration also replaced the Massachusetts travel order originally issued in July 2020 with a travel advisory, also effective March 22.

Step 1 of phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan 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. Indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas, and ballparks, as well as entertainment venues, will be permitted to operate at a strict 12% capacity limit after submitting a plan to the Department of Public Health.

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 certain other events, and overnight summer camps will be allowed to operate this summer. Exhibition and convention halls may also begin to operate, following gatherings limits and event protocols.

The new travel advisory will urge all people entering Massachusetts, including returning residents, to quarantine for 10 days upon their arrival if they have been out of the state for 24 hours or more.

The advisory does not apply to anyone in the following categories:

• Anyone who is returning to Massachusetts after an absence of fewer than 24 hours;

• Travelers who have a negative COVID-19 test result that has been administered up to 72 hours prior to their arrival in Massachusetts;

• Workers who enter Massachusetts to perform critical infrastructure functions (as specified by the Federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) while they are commuting to or from or while at work; and

• Travelers who are fully vaccinated (having received two doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least 14 days or more ago and who do not have symptoms).

Travelers are additionally encouraged to consult and follow the CDC’s guidelines and requirements for travel.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced the timeline for all remaining residents to be eligible for a vaccine. The administration also announced the weekly distribution of vaccine doses statewide for providers and a new $24.7 million investment in the administration’s Vaccine Equity Initiative.

On March 22, all residents age 60 and older, and certain workers, will be eligible. On April 5, residents age 55 and up, and residents with one among a list of certain medical conditions, will be eligible. On April 19, vaccines will be available to the general public age 16 and older.

The Commonwealth’s timeline adheres to the original timeline for the three phases announced in December. All residents can pre-register to book an appointment at a mass-vaccination site at mass.gov/covidvaccine.

Appointments will be offered based on eligibility and available appointments nearby. It is expected that more sites will come online as part of the preregistration process in April.

The administration has received assurances from the federal government that an increased vaccine supply will be available to states soon. Depending on supply, it could take weeks for people to be notified that an appointment is available at a mass-vaccination site.

This week, the state is receiving a modest increase in supply of first doses, approximately 170,000. This includes an unexpected 8,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In total, the Commonwealth will receive 316,000 first and second doses as part of the state allocation. These figures do not include doses provided to CVS Health sites through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program or to federally qualified health centers.

The administration also announced the release of $27.4 million in federal funds to increase trust, vaccine acceptance, and administration rates as part of its Vaccine Equity Initiative and to meet the needs of priority populations. Recognizing equity as a critical component of the state’s vaccine-distribution plan, the Department of Public Health (DPH) is working closely with 20 of the hardest-hit communities in Massachusetts as they identify their specific community needs, further building on existing support.

These federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) build upon current and past efforts supporting vaccination in these communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and includes partnerships with municipalities, local boards of health, community- and faith-based organizations, community health centers, and others to reduce barriers to vaccination. These funds also will provide direct vaccine administration to populations that are not effectively reached through existing vaccine supply channels.

The Vaccine Equity Initiative focuses on 20 cities and towns with the greatest COVID-19 case burden, taking into account social determinants of health and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) populations. These communities are Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester.

Women in Businesss

Pink Slip

By Joanne Hilferty, Dan Kenary, and Brooke Thomson

In 2020, the same year a record number of women were elected to Congress and the first woman was elected vice president, COVID-19 had a devastating and potentially permanent impact on women in the workforce.

The percentage of women participating in the U.S. labor market in October 2020 was the lowest since 1988, and of the 9.8 million jobs that have not yet returned, 55% belong to women. In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.

Before the pandemic, women in Massachusetts were participating in the workforce at increasing rates, surpassing the national rate by 2019. COVID-19 brought them back to where they were at the end of the Great Recession in 2009.

More than 40% of female employees in Massachusetts work in education, healthcare, and social assistance, sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Add the lack of quality childcare options brought about by the closure of schools and early-education programs, and you have a perfect storm forcing women to face gut-wrenching choices.

“In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2020, when schools typically reopen, a staggering 69% of women said the pandemic was keeping them from returning to work for reasons other than downsizing or business closure. In a survey conducted by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) last fall, 67% of employers listed lack of childcare as a primary concern for their workforces.

Fortunately, organizations in Massachusetts are taking a leadership role in addressing the ongoing challenges facing women in the workforce. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, the Commonwealth Institute, and the newly formed Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education are focused on advancing important changes, such as pay and representation equity. Even before the pandemic, women on average made about 81 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Women and men should have the same options to pursue a career and raise a family, but the pandemic has laid bare the reality that women are expected to take greater responsibility for their families without sufficient support.

Ensuring that jobs traditionally filled by women have more extensive protections and finding a path toward more balanced representation of women in industries like information technology, transportation, and construction — fields where female representation is still limited — are also critical steps to achieve greater balance in the long term. However, immediate action is needed to ensure progress made by women does not erode further.

That is why AIM is calling on employers to make a commitment now to review their practices and policies and make immediate, substantive adjustments to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women and other caregivers in the workforce. Specific recommendations include:

• Committing to providing pay increases and advancement steps to women caregivers on schedule rather than penalizing those who have been on leave or working limited hours;

• Extending the time workers can be on leave to coincide with the duration of the pandemic;

• Giving hiring preference to former workers, if their experience and skills allow, who were required to leave the workplace due to family demands;

• Extending the time that returning workers can bridge tenure for benefits and other considerations to coincide with the full duration of the pandemic;

• Listening to individual employees about their specific needs and expectations and not making assumptions about what each woman or caregiver can or cannot do; and

• Instituting practices that reduce conflict with remote schooling, such as not holding meetings before 9 a.m. or at lunch, when children need assistance.

These steps alone will not fully offset the impact of the pandemic on women; they will, however, demonstrate the business community’s commitment to supporting the Commonwealth’s skilled female labor force. Massachusetts cannot afford to go back to business as usual as the light begins to shine at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, especially when it comes to how businesses and public policy treat working women.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented responsibility for the Commonwealth and the nation to see decreasing numbers of female workforce participation for what they are — gaps in the system allowing available and accessible talent to fall straight through. Failure to act on them now will have long-term, devastating impacts on the Massachusetts economy.

Joanne Hilferty is board chair at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and president and CEO of Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. Dan Kenary is immediate past chair of the AIM board and CEO and co-founder of Mass Bay Brewing Co. Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of Government Affairs at AIM. This article first appeared as an op-ed in the Boston Globe.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the state of emergency in Massachusetts, we continue to take steps on our path forward.

Last week, legislators reached agreement on a COVID-19 package to support our business community as it begins to recover from the pandemic. The package would include two items that the Springfield Regional Chamber has been aggressively advocating for: unemployment-insurance rate relief and tax relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan proceeds.

The agreement calls for a freeze in the unemployment insurance (UI) rate at the current Schedule E rate for 2021 and 2022, limiting the increases employers will see. Without passage, employers could see the unemployment insurance rates increase from an average of $539 to $866 per employee. This legislation would hold the average UI rates to $635 per employee in 2021 and $665 per employee in 2022.

The agreement would also exclude PPP loan amounts forgiven in 2020 from taxable gross income for those small businesses that are organized as pass-through entities. While Congress excluded these loans from federal taxation, without legislative action, these loans would have been taxed as income at the state level.

The agreement would also guarantee paid leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19, required to quarantine, or need to take time off to get the vaccine. As well, it will allow for state borrowing, through a temporary employer assessment, to ensure the solvency of the UI trust fund, which is projected to have a $5 billion deficit by the end of 2022, triggering higher increases in unemployment-insurance rates to remain solvent.

We applaud the Legislature for recognizing the long-term economic impact this pandemic has had on our employer community and to take these steps to support its recovery.

The federal government also recently took action, with the Senate approving a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. One item your chamber supports in this package is the state and local aid to help our region’s cities and towns as they deal with their own economic hardships resulting from the pandemic. As specific details around this aid remain to be seen, we will continue to watch this closely, as we believe this funding is critical to the fiscal health and stability of our communities.

The CDC has also issued much anticipated guidance for individuals who are fully vaccinated. As of last week, more than 715,000 people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, ranking Massachusetts first among states with 5 million people or more for total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered. Massachusetts is currently in phase 2 of its vaccination plan, with teachers becoming eligible last week.

We have been through the wringer, and we know we have a ways to go, but these are all significant steps on our road to recovery and, we hope, the first of many more to come.

Stay safe and stay well. We can — and will — get through this together.

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Daily News

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]