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Law

A Matter of Policy

By Michael Roundy

 

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses small and large have been seeking insurance coverage for business losses incurred when the virus or governmental orders forced them to close their doors. Although policyholders have enjoyed mixed results, the outcome of insurance coverage lawsuits ultimately turns on the particular language of the policy at issue.

Two common provisions have become the primary focus of many of these suits: The physical damage requirement, and the virus exclusion. Cases continue to turn on the precise language used in these provisions, or on the absence of the provisions from the policy at issue. As more cases work their way through the state and federal courts, certain outcomes have become more predictable.

“Two common provisions have become the primary focus of many of these suits: The physical damage requirement, and the virus exclusion. Cases continue to turn on the precise language used in these provisions, or on the absence of the provisions from the policy at issue.”

Many cases have turned on the requirement, included in most but not all policies, that the coverage-triggering event must have caused “direct physical loss of or damage to” the property. Policyholders have argued that the physical harm or loss requirement is met in the COVID context because the virus itself is in the air at the business and physically changes the air, airspaces, property, and property surfaces, that require cleaning to remediate the harm, which has directly led to the loss of use of the property for its intended business purposes.

Insurers, on the other hand, have repeatedly argued that physical loss or damage must include some form of tangible damage or physical alteration to the property itself, rendering the property damaged or unusable such that it must be either discarded, replaced, or repaired.

For the most part, courts have agreed with the insurers on the interpretation of physical damage provisions, and have dismissed COVID coverage suits on the grounds that while the virus may contaminate surfaces, it does not damage them and therefore does not trigger the business interruption coverage that policyholders are seeking. Courts have held that even if the virus has contaminated certain surfaces, the contamination can easily be eliminated by ordinary cleaning and disinfection and the need for cleaning does not constitute a “direct physical loss.”

Even so, not all policies include the same “direct physical loss” language.

Courts, in their analyses, have placed emphasis on the immediacy of the word “direct” such that the absence of the term — a policy requiring only “physical loss” — may provide an opening for insured parties to argue for coverage despite the ever-expanding string of losses on the issue.

Other policies, less commonly, may lack the “physical loss” or “physical damage” requirement altogether. Careful and thorough analysis of policy language may reveal the availability of claims typically dismissed, depending on the specific language used.

However, even those cases that survive the physical-loss inquiry may often be dismissed by courts because of a so-called virus exclusion. In the wake of the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, many insurers added specific virus exclusions to their policies, adopting language developed by industry groups.

Although SARS infected only a few thousand people, it led to millions of dollars of successful claims against commercial insurance policies for business-interruption coverage. Having been, in effect, forewarned, insurers were better prepared for the litigation arising from the COVID pandemic. Thus, even if a policyholder can demonstrate physical loss or circumvent the physical damage requirement, if there is one, many suits are also being dismissed on the basis of the virus exclusions that are now present in many policies.

Virus coverage cases have faced a particularly difficult time in federal courts, with almost half of them being dismissed on the basis of a lack of physical damage, the presence of a virus exclusion, or similar grounds. Roughly a third of the federal cases continue to work their way through the litigation process, and most of the remainder have been voluntarily dismissed. State courts have generally been more forgiving and provided policyholders with occasional victories.

For example, several state courts in Pennsylvania have either permitted claims to survive motions to dismiss or even granted plaintiffs summary judgment on the issue of the physical damage requirement, one finding that the loss of use was enough to satisfy the requirement. An Oklahoma court found that “direct physical loss” was satisfied where the property was rendered unusable for its intended purpose by the presence of the virus, without requiring any physical alteration of the property. Plaintiffs’ claims have survived dismissal in several California cases as well, where the courts concluded that the phrase “any physical loss” includes the loss of the ability to access or use the property.

Thus, it remains clear that the issues have not been definitively decided in all cases or all jurisdictions. Cases will still turn on the language used in the specific policy before the court and the court’s receptiveness to broader readings of the meaning of “loss.” Prosecuting and defending COVID coverage suits requires counsel adept at reviewing and interpreting policy contract language and conversant in the broader landscape of coverage suits playing out in multiple jurisdictions across the country. u

 

Michael Roundy is a partner in Bulkley Richardson’s litigation department; (413) 272-6200.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD Baystate Health is announcing major changes to its hospital visitation (also referred to now as care partner) guidelines as the number of COVID-19 cases have begun to climb once again in the region. 

The changes went into effect Monday. 

The health and safety of patients, families and staff members is Baystate’s top priority. Care partner visitation guidelines balance preventing the spread of COVID-19 with the needs of our patients and their loved ones. A care partner may be a relative, partner, friend, or anyone the patient chooses to have at their side during care. The number of care partners welcomed will depend on the area of the hospital and patient circumstances. 

Red, yellow, green and gray tiers (also called zones) still remain in effect for visitation based on the CDC, DPH and state guidelines, but the policy details within the tiers change over time. All Baystate hospitals — Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer and Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield — have now moved back into the yellow tier as cases climb. 

 

Hospital changes include: 

 

  • Inpatients (Non-COVID): One visitor/care partner at a time for patients who are not in the ICU, unless a designated exception applies. (previously, two care partners allowed)

 

  • Inpatient Obstetrics (Non-COVID): Two designated care partners in room during delivery and up to two hours immediately after delivery. One care partner may stay for duration of hospital stay and come and go throughout the day. One additional care partner may visit following the general visitation guidelines with both at the bedside at any given time during visitation hours. (previously one designated care partner plus two additional support people during labor; previously two additional visitors during postpartum period)

 

  • End of Life/Hospice (Non-Covid): Two visitors/care partners at a time; patient may also have a clergy present. (previously no restrictions on the number of people in the room)

 

There are no changes for non-COVID ICU patients where two visitors/care partners are allowed at a time. 

 

Children ages 5-18 must be accompanied by an adult. Children under 5 may only visit if a designated exception applies.  

 

Visiting hours remain from noon to 8 p.m. 

 

For Baystate Medical Practices: 

 

  • Life-changing diagnosis: One care partner is allowed for regular patients (previously 2)

 

  • Patients with disabilities: One care partner or support person is allowed (previously both were allowed)

 

There are no changes to one visitor/support person allowed and two parents/guardians at a time for patients who are children. (Previously 1 parent/guardian) 

 

All visitors must adhere to Baystate Health infection control practices that are in effect throughout the health system: wearing facemasks at all times whether in the patient’s room or other areas of the hospital, and frequent handwashing. Visitors with a fever, cough, or other COVID-19 symptoms, will not be able to visit. 

 

Baystate Health regularly evaluates its visitation policy in accordance with the governor, CDC, and DPH who are monitoring the constant evolution in our region which guides our updates. Visitation is at the discretion of Baystate Health. Baystate Health will continue to review the county data and CDC/DPH/State guidelines weekly to determine which tier each county will be in. To stay up to date and see exceptions for each tier, including obstetrics, go to baystatehealth.org/patients/visiting.   

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Reimagine the Possibilities

 

In many respects, the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference that will unfold on April 1 at the MassMutual Center is the same one that was put together for early spring 2020 and then canceled by COVID-19 — and then canceled again amid a surge in early 2021.

Indeed, most all the speakers, including keynoter Tyra Banks, the model and media maven, are the same as those originally scheduled probably 30 months ago.

But the day-long event, expected to bring more than 1,300 people to downtown Springfield, simply can’t be the same as the one blueprinted back in 2019, said Sandra Doran, the school’s sixth president, who took the helm just a few months after the 2020 event was canceled.

And that’s because the world has changed so much in the interim, she told BusinessWest, and the conference needs to reflect that.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things,” said Doran, adding that the changed landscape, and the response to it, is reflected in the new theme for the conference: Reimagine. “What was considered adaptive two years ago is now considered routine today. This concept of really being prepared, with a plan A and a plan B … in the past, we might have had a couple of different strategies; now we have 10 different strategies because we know people’s needs are changing, the needs of employers are changing.”

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

Karen Woods, assistant vice president of Brand Strategy, Marketing, and Integrated Communications at Bay Path, agreed.

The original theme was ‘Own Your Now,’ she explained. “The idea was, ‘wherever you are in your life … own it, move forward, make decisions, and decide what’s next.’ But the pandemic changed a lot for people, so to ask people to ‘own their now’ seemed trite; the past two years not only affected the Women’s Leadership Conference, they affected women.

“And so this year, we have the theme of ‘Reimagine,’ and reimagine is really a gift,” she went on. “Because no matter where you are and what you’ve been through, you have this opportunity to come together, to network, to connect, to be with other women, and really start to think about what is the future, not just for you as an individual, but for our community.”

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

That theme, ‘Reimagine,’ will be threaded through a full day of programming that will include Banks’s keynote address at 3:15 p.m.; a luncheon talk featuring Patrice Banks, founder of Girls Auto Clinic; and the morning keynote, featuring Suzy Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural (more on them later). And it will also be incorporated into a series of break-in sessions, with titles ranging from “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work” to “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace.”

 

Face to Face

The return of the Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), especially in its in-person format, is an important development for the region, said Doran, noting that, during its 25-year history, it has not only brought provocative speakers and historic figures to Springfield — a list that includes Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Rita Moreno, and many others — it has given attendees invaluable insight to bring back to their homes and offices.

Doran told BusinessWest that, while some thought had been given over the past two years to staging a WLC remotely, it was quickly determined that such a presentation would simply not be in keeping with the many goals — and expectations — for this conference, which has become a tradition in Western Mass.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow,” she explained. “And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

As organizers of the event saw COVID easing, with cases declining across the country, the decision was made to move forward with a live event, one that will have some restrictions, including proof of vaccine or a negative test to enter the MassMutual Center, as well as masking up when not eating or drinking.

Woods said ticket sales have been brisk, and a turnout similar to what has been the norm over the past several years is expected.

“We’ve been following the trends and the local, state, and federal guidelines,” she said. “Normally, we would start our advertising in the fall, and we were really looking at this spring. In speaking with our sponsors, exhibitors, and those buying tickets, we sense that people are feeling comfortable and ready to come back out for a gathering like this.”

As noted earlier, the overall lineup of speakers for the 25th WLC hasn’t changed since that event was originally blueprinted in 2019. But what has changed are the times, and some of the challenges being faced by women — and all those in the workforce.

And the speakers have been asked to reflect on what has transpired and incorporate these changes and mounting challenges into their presentations, said Doran, noting that the 25th WLC, like those before it, will leave attendees with plenty to think about as they consider how to reimagine their own lives and careers.

Indeed, the three keynoters are all successful entrepreneurs and innovators, who took decidedly different paths to success.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

The day will start with what promises to be an inspirational, and entertaining talk by Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural, brands she has transformed into a more than $500 million business empire.

Featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur, Batiz has been named one of Forbes’s “Richest Self Made Women in America” (2019) and EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2017). But to get there, she had to overcome some of life’s lowest lows — poverty, sexual abuse, depression, two bankruptcies, and a suicide attempt — which led to what she calls “the luxury of losing everything.”

The luncheon keynote speaker, Patrice Banks, is credited with opening up the male-dominated automotive industry and bringing a fresh perspective to that business. Girls Auto Clinic offers automotive buying and repair resources, services, and products by women to women. Prior to establishing GAC, she worked for more than 12 years as an engineer, manager, and leader at DuPont, a science and technology company.

Karen Woods

Karen Woods says the conference was rethemed from the one canceled two years ago to better reflect pandemic realities.

Frustrated with the lack of resources educating women on car care and her inability to find a female mechanic in the Philadelphia area, Banks enrolled in automotive- technology school to learn how to work on cars. Her mission with Girls Auto Clinic was to create a place she wanted to bring her car for repair and maintenance. She has since made it her mission to educate and empower women through their cars.

By telling her story, she continues to make history, through engaging talks, interactive workshops, authoring an informative car-care guide, and the successful running of a repair garage with female mechanics and a nail salon.

The day’s programing will conclude with a keynote talk by Tyra Banks, the supermodel who has become a serial entrepreneur as well. She created and executive produces America’s Next Top Model, has an Emmy Award-winning talk show (The Tyra Banks Show), hosted America’s Got Talent, and is consistently ranked by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.

Banks is CEO of the Tyra Banks Company, a multi-faceted corporation focused on beauty and entertainment. In 2012, she graduated from the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School, from which she created her one-of-a-kind cosmetics experience, TYRA Beauty. She recently developed Fierce Capital, the investment arm of the Tyra Banks Company, which invests in early-stage companies, including firms that are female-led or female-focused.

Her passion is the TZONE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in young women to help them realize their ambitions and approach life’s challenges with fierce determination. The TZONE now takes residence at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community in New York City and focuses on five core pillars: entrepreneurship; financial literacy; elocution and self-presentation; health and wellness; and self-esteem, beauty, and body image.

 

Breaking Out

As noted earlier, the conference will also feature a number of breakout sessions designed to both inform and inspire.

Session 1 takes the title “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work,” and will be led by Jennifer Romolini, a writer, speaker, senior digital-media strategist, and author of the book Weird in a World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits.”

She will essentially debunk the theory that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. The session will help attendees understand, among other things, how to stop feeling like a freak at work, how to start using one’s misfit nature as a strength in the workplace, and how one’s sensitivity and empathy can make her a boss who not only succeeds, but effects real change.

Session 2 is called “The Power of Meaning: Making Your Life, Work, and Relationships Matter,” and will be led by Emily Esfahani-Smith, author of the book The Power of Meaning, which outlines four pillars essential to living a life that matters: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.

In this breakout session, Smith will present the latest in psychology and neuroscience (as well as the wisdom of great philosophers) to help attendees live more satisfying lives, and focus in on those four pillars.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow. And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

Session 3, titled “The Real Role of Gut Instinct in Managing Complexity and Extreme Risk,” will be led by Laura Huang, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book EDGE.

In her talk, Huang will discuss her research on decision-making in organizations and why the question shouldn’t be about data-driven decisions versus gut-feel-based decisions. Instead, effective organizational outcomes are the result of understanding the set of rules that are inherent in any complex decision, which dictates whether more data actually helps us make better decisions. Bringing her diverse work and research background (having conducted dozens of interviews with investors and observing pitch meetings with entrepreneurs) to analyzing the role of gut instinct in making choices, Huang developed an in-depth understanding vital role that gut feel plays in managing complexity and risk — and the difference between big wins and playing it safe.

Session 4 is titled “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace,” and will be presented by Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. In 2019, her book, titled Don’t You Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in the Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, was released. She is also the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.

Session objectives include understanding what a disruptive personality style looks like and how it may affect oneself; learning how to manage disruptive personalities in the workplace, and what works (and doesn’t work); understanding how systems and people enable disruptive personalities in the workplace, and becoming familiar with a 10-step plan designed to provide the tools to manage disruptive personalities.

For more information on the conference, visit www.baypath.edu/events-calendar/womens-leadership-conference.

 

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

Features

New Year, Same Virus

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

As we enter a new year, our lives remain subject to COVID-19 and its variants. With cases surging across the country, vaccination has become a thing of the past as booster shots have become all the rage. Tired, worn out, and frustrated with this seemingly never-ending pandemic, it is important that employers remain vigilant of important COVID-related updates which may impact their workforce and, ultimately, their bottom line.

 

OSHA/CMS Litigation

At the end of 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued vaccine mandates that would have impacted nearly 100 million American workers. The OSHA mandate required employers with 100 or more employees to implement a written policy requiring vaccination or weekly testing. The CMS mandate would have generally required vaccination of employees that work in healthcare facilities which receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Alexander J. Cerbo

Alexander J. Cerbo

“It may be advantageous for employers who wish to mandate vaccination to require booster shots.”

In a major win for businesses across the country, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the OSHA mandate, concluding that the agency overstepped its authority as COVID-19 is not strictly an occupational hazard.

The Supreme Court’s stay is not a final ruling on the topic. The OSHA mandate continues to proceed in the lower courts, and the court left the door open for narrower regulations. Also, the court did allow the CMS mandate to proceed. The agency, in a recent memo, advised employers that their healthcare workers must be “fully vaccinated” (either two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) by Feb. 28.

 

Vaccine Mandates

Besides OSHA and CMS, private employers can implement their own vaccine mandates if they wish. They may want to consider whether they want their employees to be ‘fully vaccinated’ as currently defined, or if they want their employees to be boosted as well. It may be advantageous for employers who wish to mandate vaccination to require booster shots. Early research suggests booster shots decrease the severity of symptoms, allowing those who contract the virus to recover more quickly. This, in turn, will allow employees to return to work sooner. Some exemptions do apply, including religious objections or a disability accommodation.

In addition, employers should continue to stay abreast of any updates relating to state and federal employee/contractor mandates. Gov. Charlie Baker’s executive order issued last August, requiring all state employees to be fully vaccinated, remains in effect, as does the executive order issued by the Biden administration in September requiring vaccination for all federal contractors and subcontractors.

 

At-home COVID Tests and Healthcare Coverage

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just authorized use of over-the-counter, at home COVID-19 tests. The departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury collectively released FAQ guidance expanding upon existing requirements for group health plans to cover the cost of these tests, so long as they are taken for diagnostic purposes.

This will impose a major financial burden on self-insured employers, as they must now cover the cost of these tests either directly or through subsequent reimbursement. To incentivize direct coverage, group health plans may limit reimbursement from non-preferred pharmacies, or other retailers, to the lesser of $12 per test or the actual cost of the test if the plan provides direct coverage both through its pharmacy network and a direct-to-consumer shipping program.

Further, a group health plan may limit the number of at home COVID tests covered for each participant to no less than eight tests per 30-day period (no limit if the healthcare provider orders or administers the test following a clinical assessment).

As the pandemic evolves, employers need to carefully consider these and other COVID-related updates in order to adapt and operate accordingly.

 

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

Daily News

BOSTON — The Massachusetts state Senate passed a $76 million plan to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and its variants by providing residents with greater access to tests, vaccines, and masks, prioritizing communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as frontline workers. The plan also provides increased flexibility for unemployment-insurance recipients to address overpayments of pandemic unemployment benefits and funds an expanded multi-lingual campaign to notify unemployment claimants of their legal rights. Much of the funding of the bill is expected to be eligible for reimbursement by the federal government.

“Today’s investments reflect the Senate’s commitment to center equity in the state’s ongoing pandemic response,” Senate President Karen Spilka said. “In addition to maintaining public health, key aspects of this bill, like the distribution of masks, will ensure that our COVID mitigation strategy is fair. Teachers, hospital staff, other frontline professionals, artists, and cultural institutions should not be expected to pay out of their own pockets for masks. Such basic protections are essential to doing one’s job, and providing them will give a small but vital relief.”

The legislation includes a $50 million investment to further increase the availability and encourage usage of both testing and vaccination throughout the state. This allocation includes $7 million to assist community organizations promoting vaccine awareness and education in disproportionately impacted communities and $5 million to expand the capacity of community health centers to test and vaccinate, including funding to hire additional staff.

Notably, $5 million is specifically allocated for increasing vaccination rates among 5- through 11-year-olds, an age group now eligible to be vaccinated but whose vaccination rates remain low in comparison to older residents. The bill also establishes a grant program, in consultation with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, for cultural institutions to help promote vaccine awareness and education.

The bill also allocates $25 million for the state to purchase and distribute high-quality masks in Massachusetts, with priority given to education and healthcare workers.

In response to reports that the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) is seeking to collect overpayments in pandemic unemployment benefits that were paid to some Massachusetts residents through no fault of their own, the bill provides funding for the DUA to conduct a multi-lingual, easy-to-understand public-information campaign to notify claimants of their legal rights. The bill also extends the period during which DUA can reconsider a determination of overpayment and requires that the department produce a comprehensive report detailing the status of overpayments.

The bill also extends the authorization for several COVID-19 emergency measures adopted earlier in the pandemic, such as those related to health services in assisted-living facilities, liability protections for healthcare providers, remote notaries, flexibility for local governments and nonprofits to hold meetings virtually, outdoor dining, and beer, wine, and cocktails to go. The bill also requires the secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a vaccine-equity plan and directs the Department of Public Health to publicly post guidance on effective mask usage and recommended testing, quarantine, and isolation periods. Finally, the bill sets the date for this year’s state primary election for Tuesday, Sept. 6.

With a version of this legislation having previously passed the House of Representatives, both the House and Senate will now work to reconcile the bill.

“Our families and frontline workers have done everything asked of them to stay safe and make best use of limited resources during the pandemic,” state Sen. Eric Lesser said. “This $76 million in state funds will provide the tools and additional support to expand our testing and vaccination infrastructure, address staffing shortages, improve vaccination-education efforts, and provide high-quality masks with priority to education and healthcare professionals.”

Law

A Development of Note

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

 

As COVID-19 continues to grow, mutate, and spread like a California wildfire, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released guidance which outlines, in detail, just how COVID-19 may qualify as a ‘disability’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Alexander J. Cerbo

Alexander J. Cerbo

In its recent report, the EEOC clarifies that employees who are either asymptomatic or have mild COVID symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks are not considered disabled under the ADA. These cases are not found to substantially limit a major life activity as they do not restrict an employee’s bodily functions for a prolonged period.

However, ‘long COVID,’ or cases that persist for several weeks or even months after the initial infection, may qualify as an ADA-recognized disability. Symptoms include ongoing fatigue, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath. In addition, other health conditions caused by COVID, or pre-existing health conditions exacerbated by COVID (such as heart inflammation), are considered a disability if they limit a major life activity.

The EEOC cautions that a determination as to whether an employee’s COVID-19 case constitutes a disability should always be made on a case-by-case basis.

While employers should be mindful as to how they handle employees with COVID, the ADA does provide employers with a ‘direct-threat’ defense by which an employer may require an employee with COVID, or its symptoms, to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation. An employer will risk violating the ADA if they exclude an employee from the workplace based upon “myths, fears, or stereotypes,” particularly if the individual is no longer infectious.

EEOC guidance is clear that an employer does not automatically violate the ADA in taking adverse action against an employee if they have COVID-19. Employees must meet the criteria of an ‘actual’ or ‘record of’ disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. An actual disability is a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity.” Record of a disability is when the person has a history of that disability.

Eligible employees are not automatically granted a reasonable accommodation — their disability must require it, and the accommodation requested must not pose an undue hardship on the employer. Employers may also request supporting medical documentation in determining whether to grant an employee’s accommodation request.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise once again, and the inception of the new, highly contagious Omicron variant, employers should continue to remain alert for future guidance from the federal government in this ever-evolving pandemic.

 

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

 

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration’s new measures to address a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and to ensure acute-care hospitals have sufficient capacity to care for both COVID and non-COVID patients take effect today, Dec. 27.

Gov. Charlie Baker is activating up to 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals and transport systems. Up to 300 of these Guard members will support 55 acute-care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the Commonwealth.

Department of Public Health (DPH) surveyed all hospitals and ambulance service providers and, in concert with the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc., has identified five key roles that non-clinical Guard personnel can serve in support hospital operations for up to 90 days: driving ambulances used to transfer patients between two healthcare locations, such as when patients are discharged from a hospital and transferred to a long-term-care facility; providing continuous or frequent observation of a patient who is at risk for harm to themselves; helping to maintain a safe workplace; bringing patients via wheelchair or, if needed, stretcher, from their patient room to tests such as X-ray or CT scan, or from the emergency department to their inpatient floor; and delivering patient meals to their rooms.

DPH also released updated guidance to hospitals concerning non-essential, elective, invasive procedures. To preserve healthcare personnel resources, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity. Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.

DPH also released an updated mask advisory last week, recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask or face covering in indoor, public spaces.

DPH particularly urges this recommendation for individuals who have a weakened immune system or are at increased risk for severe disease because of age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in their household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.

All people in Massachusetts (regardless of vaccination status) are required to continue wearing face coverings in certain settings, including transportation and healthcare facilities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s current mask requirement is not impacted by this advisory.

The Commonwealth’s healthcare system is facing a critical staffing shortage which has contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of the year. Hospitals are also seeing a high level of patients, many due to non-COVID related reasons.

Residents are reminded that getting a vaccine and booster remain the best way to protect against serious illness or hospitalization from COVID. DPH released updated COVID breakthrough data last week showing that 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death. Unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster.

Massachusetts is a national leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, with more than 94% of eligible residents having received at least one dose. More than 89% of the entire Massachusetts population has at least one dose, and 74% of the entire population is fully vaccinated. Massachusetts also leads the nation in vaccinating communities of color, with 68% of all black residents and 67% of all Hispanic residents receiving at least one dose, compared to 42% of black residents and 52% of Hispanic residents nationally.

Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

It was certainly something different than 2020, when COVID-19 took everyone by surprise, not only launching a serious health crisis, but disrupting the economy in ways both immediate — many businesses were shut down for weeks and even months — and in the longer term (the broken supply chain).

Everyone learned to pivot — yes, the word everyone got sick of in 2020 — and that made us all more resilient during 2021, a year when business began getting back to normal in some ways, while in other ways, we wondered if we’d ever see normal again.

Take remote work, which may prove to have the longest legs when it comes to trends that emerged from COVID. By the fall of 2020, employers were crafting plans to bring homebound workers back to the office. Plenty of those workers didn’t want to return, and made it clear they were perfectly productive without a commute or face-to-face contact with co-workers. More than a year later, many of those employers have backed off and have made remote work, or at least a hybrid schedule, a more or less standard model.

We certainly hope supply-chain and inflation challenges don’t prove to have the longest legs, because those are problems no one can afford to live with forever. We’ll see what the federal response is in 2022 — rising interest rates seem inevitable — and how these issues continue to depress the ability of businesses to invest and grow.

The other factor suppressing business growth, of course, is an ongoing workforce crunch — a combination of older workers retiring early and younger ones wielding newfound leverage in surprising ways. Whatever the factors, the Great Resignation is real, and will continue to reverberate into 2022.

That said, all that pivoting created a more resilient business culture in Western Mass. this year, one that has become more nimble, more adaptable, and more entrepreneurial. Sectors like tourism rebounded nicely, while cannabis continued its unimpeded progress. .

But back to that hard-earned sense of resilience. Whatever industry we covered this year — construction, auto sales, manufacturing, nonprofits, you name it — when we spoke with business leaders, no one shied away from the lingering pandemic and its global side effects, and how those factors continue to make it difficult to do business.

But there’s a sense of optimism in the air, too. Many feel like, if they’ve made it this far, 2022 can only get better, even if no one can be sure when the pandemic and its ill effects will recede. They’ve survived, they’ve rebounded, they’ve learned — and they know their customers want to get back to normal, to buy and invest and experience as they used to.

In some ways, it’s frustrating to think we’d be in better shape than we are now, on many levels. But for most, things did get a little better in 2021 — and we’re sensing plenty of optimism for 2022. And we’ll stay on top of it, as always. Happy holidays from BusinessWest.

Daily News

BOSTON — Today, the Baker-Polito administration announced additional measures to address a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and to ensure acute-care hospitals have sufficient capacity to care for both COVID and non-COVID patients.

The Commonwealth’s healthcare system is facing a critical staffing shortage which has contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of the year. Hospitals are also seeing a high level of patients, many due to non-COVID related reasons.

Residents are reminded that getting a vaccine and booster remain the best way to protect against serious illness or hospitalization from COVID. The Department of Public Health (DPH) released updated COVID breakthrough data this week showing that 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death. Unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster.

Massachusetts is a national leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, with more than 94% of eligible residents having received at least one dose. More than 89% of the entire Massachusetts population has at least one dose, and 74% of the entire population is fully vaccinated. Massachusetts also leads the nation in vaccinating communities of color, with 68% of all black residents and 67% of all Hispanic residents receiving at least one dose, compared to 42% of black residents and 52% of Hispanic residents nationally.

DPH released an updated mask advisory today, recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask or face covering in indoor, public spaces.

DPH particularly urges this recommendation for individuals who have a weakened immune system or are at increased risk for severe disease because of age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in their household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.

All people in Massachusetts (regardless of vaccination status) are required to continue wearing face coverings in certain settings, including transportation and healthcare facilities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s current mask requirement is not impacted by this advisory.

Gov. Charlie Baker is activating up to 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals and transport systems. Up to 300 of these Guard members will begin training this week and will support 55 acute-care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the Commonwealth.

DPH surveyed all hospitals and ambulance service providers and, in concert with the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc., has identified five key roles that non-clinical Guard personnel can serve in support hospital operations for up to 90 days: driving ambulances used to transfer patients between two healthcare locations, such as when patients are discharged from a hospital and transferred to a long-term-care facility; providing continuous or frequent observation of a patient who is at risk for harm to themselves; helping to maintain a safe workplace; bringing patients via wheelchair or, if needed, stretcher, from their patient room to tests such as X-ray or CT scan, or from the emergency department to their inpatient floor; and delivering patient meals to their rooms. Guard personnel will be deployed to the field beginning Dec. 27.

DPH also released updated guidance to hospitals concerning non-essential, elective, invasive procedures. To preserve healthcare personnel resources, effective Dec. 27, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity.

Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.

Health Care

Shot in the Arm

Following updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Baker-Polito administration has outlined how families in Massachusetts can access Pfizer COVID-19 pediatric vaccines for children ages 5 to 11.

Children will be able to receive the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine from more than 500 locations, including retail pharmacies, primary-care practices, regional collaboratives, local boards of health, community health centers, hospital systems, state-supported vaccination sites, and mobile clinics. Some appointments are available now for booking, with additional locations and appointments expected to come online in the coming days.

“Pediatricians and parents should be very excited about the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11,” said Dr. John O’Reilly, chief of General Pediatrics at Baystate Children’s Hospital. “Some parents may be reluctant to have their children in this age group vaccinated, but if a day of soreness can get your child safely back to playing with friends and visiting relatives, then the benefits clearly outweigh the discomfort.”

As a pediatrician, O’Reilly said he had been hoping for this approval for months.

“Some parents may be reluctant to have their children in this age group vaccinated, but if a day of soreness can get your child safely back to playing with friends and visiting relatives, then the benefits clearly outweigh the discomfort.”

“I was very glad that the FDA took the time to be sure that the vaccine was safe and effective for children in this age group before it was approved,” he added. “Clinical trials of over 3,000 children who received the vaccine found it produced protective levels of antibodies with only mild reactions to the shot, such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, and headache.”

He understands that some parents might have safety concerns, but noted that much misinformation has been spread about the development of the mRNA vaccines, especially considering how fast the COVID vaccines were rolled out. The truth, he noted, is that scientists have been working on the development of mRNA vaccines for decades. The basic scientific advances in gene sequencing and gene modeling allowed companies to quickly adapt mRNA technology to the COVID-19 virus.

“Vaccine development is very expensive, and companies developing other vaccines would be slower in developing them because of the cost,” he explained. “Operation Warp Speed gave companies billions of dollars in support and guaranteed purchases, allowing companies to use those funds to quickly ramp up clinical trials and manufacturing. The trials themselves followed the highest standards of research, and the FDA has reviewed all of the trial data to be sure that the COVID- 19 vaccines are safe and effective.”

O’Reilly noted that children infected with COVID-19 tend to experience mild symptoms, but for some, it can be more serious. Since the pandemic began, about 1.9 million children ages 5 to 11 have been infected, about 9% of all U.S. cases. More than 8,300 in this age group have been hospitalized, with about one-third requiring ICU care, and 94 have died, according to federal data. Children ages 5 to 11 who are black, Native American, or Hispanic are three times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than white children.

Also, several thousand children infected with the virus have developed severe cases of inflammation throughout their bodies known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome, while others are reporting long COVID symptoms similar to adults, such as headache, cough, fatigue, and more.

“Parents who vaccinate their children not only protect them, but they also protect everyone their children come in contact with,” O’Reilly said. “In school, it protects vulnerable classmates and adult staff whose medical conditions put them at risk for severe COVID-19. It also protects family members and makes visiting at-risk family members at the holidays safer for everyone. Vaccinating our kids also helps to protect our communities. The higher our community immunization rates, the lower the risk of COVID-19 rapidly spreading through our at-risk community members.”

Parents who prefer to have their child vaccinated by their primary-care provider should call their provider’s office directly. Others may visit the VaxFinder tool at vaxfinder.mass.gov for a full list of hundreds of available locations. Residents will be able to narrow results to search for locations that are offering the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, with some appointments available now for booking. Additional appointments will be available online in the coming days. Many locations will be booking appointments out weeks in advance.

“Parents who vaccinate their children not only protect them, but they also protect everyone their children come in contact with.”

For individuals who are unable to use VaxFinder, or have difficulty accessing the internet, the COVID-19 Vaccine Resource Line (Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is available by calling 211. The COVID-19 Vaccine Resource Line is available in English and Spanish and has translators available in approximately 100 additional languages.

All state-supported vaccination clinics will offer low-sensory vaccinations for children with disabilities.

Additionally, the administration has partnered with several non-traditional, youth-friendly locations for pediatric vaccination clinics, including the Discovery Museum in Acton, the Museum of Science in Boston, the Springfield Museums, and the EcoTarium in Worcester. Appointments for these clinics are available now on the VaxFinder tool. Visit www.mass.gov/covidvaccinekids for more information.

While infection rates have been trending down from an early-fall spike, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 1,586 new, confirmed COVID cases in the state on Nov. 4, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to more than 800,000. Health officials said the total number of confirmed cases in the state, as of that date, was 801,567.

The DPH also reported 23 additional COVID deaths in the state, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths since the start of the pandemic to 18,671. As of Nov. 4, there were 509 people hospitalized for a coronavirus-related illness, including 147 in intensive care.

State health officials say getting vaccinated remains the most important thing individuals can do to protect themselves, their families, and their community. Individuals do not need an ID or health insurance to access a vaccine and do not need to show a vaccine card when getting a vaccine.

Massachusetts leads the nation in vaccine administration, including adolescent vaccination, with more than 80% of youth ages 12-17 having received at least one dose. More than 4.7 million individuals in the Bay State are fully vaccinated, with more than 92% of all adults having at least one dose.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for parents to make the right decision to vaccinate their children,” O’Reilly said. “It can be life-saving for your child and further protect those in your household as well as the community from this terrible disease that spares no one. I am looking forward to a holiday season when kids are fully vaccinated and we can all gather with friends and family to celebrate being together without fear of COVID.” u

Veterans in Business

Labor Pains

 

The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 — a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans — rose to 7.3% in 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year. The jobless rate for all veterans increased to 6.5% in 2020. These increases reflect the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market.

In August 2020, 40% of Gulf War-era II veterans had a service-connected disability, compared with 26% of all veterans. Among other highlights from the 2020 data:

• Unemployment rates for both male and female veterans increased in 2020, reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic. The rate for male veterans was 6.5%, little different from the rate of 6.7% for female veterans.

• Unemployment rates for white, black, Asian, and Hispanic veterans were lower than for their non-veteran counterparts in 2020.

• Among the 581,000 unemployed veterans in 2020, 54% were ages 25 to 54, 41% were age 55 and over, and 5% were ages 18 to 24.

• The unemployment rate of veterans with a service-connected disability, at 6.2% in August 2020, did not have a statistically significant change over the year. The rate for veterans with no disability rose to 7.2%.

“In 2020, 18.5 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about 7% of the civilian non-institutional population age 18 and over.”

• Gulf War-era II veterans who reported a service-connected disability rating of less than 30% were much more likely to be in the labor force than those with a rating of 60% or higher in August 2020 (91.5%, compared with 63.6%).

• In August 2020, 31% of employed veterans with a service-connected disability worked in the public sector, compared with 19% of veterans with no disability and 14% of non-veterans.

In 2020, 18.5 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about 7% of the civilian non-institutional population age 18 and over. Of all veterans, about 10% were women. In the survey, veterans are defined as men and women who have previously served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and who were civilians at the time these data were collected.

Veterans are much more likely to be men than are non-veterans, and they also tend to be older. In part, this reflects the characteristics of veterans who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam era, all of whom are now over 60 years old. Veterans who served during these wartime periods accounted for 37% (6.8 million) of the total veteran population in 2020. Forty-one percent of veterans (7.6 million) served during the Gulf War era I (August 1990 to August 2001) or Gulf War era II (September 2001 to present). Twenty-two percent (4.1 million) served outside the designated wartime periods.

In August 2020, 4.7 million veterans, or 26% of the total, had a service-connected disability. Veterans with a service-connected disability are assigned a disability rating by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. Department of Defense. Ratings range from 0 to 100%, in increments of 10 percentage points, depending on the severity of the condition.

The unemployment rate for veterans with a service-connected disability was 6.2% in August 2020, not statistically different from the rate for veterans with no disability (7.2%). The unemployment rates for male and female veterans with a service-connected disability were not statistically different (5.8% and 8.9%, respectively). The labor-force participation rate for veterans with a service-connected disability (48.6%) was also not statistically different from the rate for veterans with no disability (47.2%). Among veterans with a service-connected disability, 27% reported a disability rating of less than 30%, while 44% had a rating of 60% or higher.

Law Special Coverage

President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan

President Biden has issued a comprehensive plan that orders employers with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccination for their workers and requires other groups of employers to do the same. The clock is ticking on these orders, and there are many unanswered questions as well as lawsuits filed. Here’s what business owners and managers need to know.

By Marylou Fabbo, Esq. and John S. Gannon, Esq.

 

Last month, President Biden issued a bold new action plan aimed at attacking COVID-19 and fighting the dangerous Delta variant. The plan orders employers with 100 or more employees to mandate that their workers get vaccinated. Similarly, the president’s plan requires the following groups of employees to be vaccinated: those working on federal government contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Not surprisingly, many businesses and politicians are unhappy with these mandates, and one state has already filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration challenging the plan and asking the court to declare it unconstitutional. Here are some takeaways for businesses as they prepare for the novel vaccine mandate.

 

Biden Administration Mandates Vaccinations

On Sept. 9, the president announced steps that his administration is taking to boost the economy by reducing the spread of COVID-19. One step is called “Path Out of the Pandemic: President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan” (more information can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/covidplan).

Marylou Fabbo

Marylou Fabbo

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

The action plan directs the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

The Biden administration estimates this will impact more than 80 million workers in private-sector businesses. Employers that fail to comply with the ETS will face enforcement actions from OSHA, which may include fines up to $13,653 per violation. So, if a workforce with 100 or more employees has 10 unvaccinated workers who are not testing weekly for COVID-19, the business could be looking at a fine of well over $100,000. This is no slap on the wrist.

Additionally, the president signed two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of employee size. There is no weekly testing exception for these employees. Employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

Employees who cannot get vaccinated due to a sincerely held religious belief or disability may be entitled to an accommodation from these requirements. However, it is up to the employer to determine whether medical and/or religious exceptions are legally permissible.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unanswered questions out there. For instance, who will pay for the testing and vaccinations — the employer or the employee? And if an employee decides to opt for the weekly testing option, is the time spent traveling to and from the vaccination site considered hours worked for payroll purposes? What about the time taking the test? Under Massachusetts law, there appears to be an argument that this is, indeed, time worked for wage-and-hour purposes. Also, will employers who pay for testing be eligible for some sort of tax break if this needs to be paid time? Stay tuned, as we expect more guidance on these topics.

 

When Can Employers Expect the OSHA Standard to Be Issued?

Right now, this is anyone’s best guess. It has been about a month since President Biden announced his action plan. Assuming OSHA has been working on the ETS for a few weeks now, we anticipate it will be released sometime next month, and almost certainly before the end of 2021. Once the ETS is released, employers will likely have a short window (maybe 30 or 45 days) to get into compliance.

 

What Should Employers Do Now?

Business with employees working on federal contracts or subcontracts need to act right away if they have not started taking steps to ensure compliance. The Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors is not that far away, and anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots (i.e., a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine) needs to await several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

We suggest that businesses with 100 or more employees put their workforce on notice soon that the OSHA emergency standard will require everyone to get vaccinated. Businesses need to gauge how challenging compliance might be if and when the mandate goes into effect.

If your workforce population is around 80% or 90% (or higher) fully vaccinated, compliance might not be daunting. If your rates are closer to 50% or 60% (or lower), you need to start thinking about implementing the mandate soon, and planning for weekly testing options now. You also want to give employees a head start if they need to raise medical or religious objections to vaccination. Employers should have medical and religious exemption forms on file to provide to provide to employees who raise objections.

 

Legal Challenges

As mentioned above, one state has already challenged the Biden vaccination plan in a legal forum. The state of Arizona filed a lawsuit last month asking a federal court in Arizona to declare the vaccine mandates unconstitutional. The lawsuit contends that the Biden administration does not have authority under the U.S. Constitution to require vaccines.

Similar challenges to past emergency OSHA standards have had mixed results. The legal standard is high: OSHA must demonstrate that workers are in “grave danger” to justify issuing emergency temporary standards. With global COVID-19 deaths recently hitting 5 million, it seems to these authors that OSHA will be able to satisfy the ‘grave danger’ standard.

 

Marylou Fabbo and John Gannon are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, who both specialize in employment law and regularly counsel employers on compliance with state and federal law; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Pivoting … Again

By Mark Morris

David Ianacone says infection-control expertise

David Ianacone says infection-control expertise in the skilled-nursing world predates COVID by far.

Just when it seemed COVID-19 was getting under control, the Delta variant of the virus took hold — and has encouraged many communities in Western Mass. to once again mandate wearing masks indoors.

With the variant showing no signs of slowing, BusinessWest checked in with several companies that serve seniors in the area — through home care, assisted living, and skilled nursing — to ask how they are navigating this stubborn virus that won’t go away.

They all have different stories, but one constant stands out: all of them have kept safety protocols in place that exceed the requirements of state and local mandates.

For David Ianacone, administrator at the Center for Extended Care and Rehabilitation at Amherst, rigid protocols are in place at all times to prevent infection problems.

“In the nursing-home business, we’re experts in infection control,” he said. “Long before the virus, we’ve had protocols in place known as ‘universal precaution.’”

Indeed, everyone who enters the facility must get their temperature taken and fill out a health questionnaire. Masks are required for staff and visitors at all times. Ianacone said 99% of the patients are fully vaccinated, and he estimated that 92% of the staff have received the vaccine.

“We have around 15 unvaccinated staff, most of whom work in the office or dietary area and are not in direct contact with patients,” Ianacone said. “They are tested every day before their shift begins.” If the test comes up positive, they have to leave.

The protocols have certainly been working; since January, when one patient at the center contracted the coronavirus, no staff or patients have tested positive.

This clean bill of health has allowed visitors to once again see their loved ones in person, but Ianacone pointed out there are restrictions based on the visitor’s vaccination status.

“If they are vaccinated and their loved one is also, they can meet with them closely in their room,” he explained. “But if a visitor is not vaccinated, we have a special room where they can visit in private, but they must maintain social distancing.”

Visitors to Cedarbrook Village at Ware have also returned to restricted visits with residents due to the resurgence of the virus.

Before Delta, Executive Director Kelly Russell said, families could visit with loved ones in their apartments and take meals with them. Since the resurgence, only a few guests can meet with the resident in a designated area that is disinfected after each visit.

“We’re actually going above and beyond what the CDC is recommending for our community,” she noted.

Before the Delta variant, the assisted-living facility was starting to return to normal activities like outings and even a trip to MGM Springfield.

“The residents had a great time at the casino, but we had to stop all trips like that because of the variant,” she said. “We also had to cancel the one-year anniversary of our opening that we had planned for September.”

Russell said her focus is now on “out-of-community risks,” meaning staff and residents out in public, residents coming out of acute settings, and visitors. Protocols are in place to mitigate risk in all these areas.

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp says she requires her home-care staff to be vaccinated to protect senior clients.

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp says she requires her home-care staff to be vaccinated to protect senior clients.

With vaccination rates among Cedarbrook staff at nearly 80%, the next challenge will be a state mandate that takes effect on Oct. 31 requiring everyone who works with seniors to be vaccinated.

“We have a responsibility to keep the residents in our community safe,” Russell said. “If there are still some people who refuse to get vaccinated, there’s a good chance they will not be able to work here.”

 

Girding for Battle

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp isn’t waiting for the state to act. The owner of Caring Solutions, a home-care company based in West Springfield, will not hire anyone who is not vaccinated. And, while 98% of her current staff is vaccinated, home care is an industry with lots of turnover.

“It’s already hard to find candidates, and by requiring a vaccination, the pool becomes that much smaller,” Baskin-Scholpp said. “Despite that, I won’t put my seniors at risk.”

A nurse by training, she discussed the reason she is passionate about vaccinations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “When you hold someone’s hand who is dying of COVID, it changes something in you.”

Baskin-Scholpp also believes we are in a war against COVID, and that one battle strategy worth embracing is wearing a mask. “I have N95 masks in many colors so our staff can make them part of their wardrobe,” she said. “We have to wear a mask anyway, so let’s own it.”

After several months without them, residents at Cedarbrook are back to wearing masks when they leave their apartments. For most, Russell said, it’s simply retraining.

“We opened at the height of COVID when many of our residents moved in. At that time, they had their masks with them at all times. Now they just need occasional reminders.”

“We opened at the height of COVID when many of our residents moved in,” she recalled. “At that time, they had their masks with them at all times. Now they just need occasional reminders.”

Because the virus is prone to change, Ianacone said he and his peers at other long-term-care facilities have an open communication stream with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the state office of epidemiology. “From time to time, they will recommend new protocols for us to implement to keep everybody safe.”

State health officials had raised concerns when several nursing homes discovered cases of the Delta variant. Ianacone pointed out that the protocols to protect against the Delta variant are the same as protecting against the original coronavirus, so staying consistent in COVID-prevention practices works.

“Because our patients are vulnerable, we always go the extra mile in our safety measures,” he added.

Baskin-Scholpp and her staff of 70 caregivers routinely go the extra mile based on a simple principle.

“If you treat people the way they want to be treated, it works,” she said. “We believe people should be able to stay in their own home and shouldn’t have to pay a fortune to do so.”

She named her company Caring Solutions because she believes every challenge has a solution, even COVID.

“This virus isn’t going anywhere right now, so let’s do everything we can to keep everybody safe,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really less about individual rights and more about protecting each other.”

As a new facility, Cedarbrook still has apartments available for new residents. When the pandemic first hit, many seniors and their families were fearful of moving into a senior community.

Since that time, as everyone gains more knowledge about the virus, Russell and her staff have continued their diligence with cleaning and safety protocols, which have helped many of those fears to subside.

“People are still able to take tours, and we simply follow a cleaning schedule after the visit,” she said. “As a result, we’re seeing four to six move-ins a month, which is great.”

 

Life on the Front Line

Reflecting on the past 18 months, Ianacone said he appreciates how grateful the families of his patients have been during a time of constant adjustment.

“Hearing from the families is very warming to us staff members because they feel we are doing a good job taking care of their loved ones and keeping them safe.”

While these senior service professionals wage their fight against a stubborn virus, they continue to succeed in keeping seniors in our community safe. Baskin-Scholpp may have summed up the reason for everyone’s dedication.

Simply put, she said, “I am very passionate about our seniors.”

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.

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