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Coronavirus Cover Story

A Time to Collaborate

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of virtual roundtable discussions with area business leaders concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on virtually every aspect of life and business. For this installment, we talked with five area bank presidents — Steve Lowell at Monson Savings Bank, Chuck Leach at Lee Bank, Tom Senecal at PeoplesBank, Jeff Sullivan at New Valley Bank & Trust, and Michael Tucker at Greenfield Cooperative Bank — about how this crisis is impacting this important sector and in what ways the region’s banks will be assisting those businesses impacted by the pandemic.

By George O’Brien

Chuck Leach

Steve Lowell

Tom Senecal

Jeff Sullivan

Michael Tucker

Steve Lowell called it a “fireside chat.”

That’s how he chose to describe his efforts to reach out to customers during this time of crisis and communicate a number of key points.

“With my wife holding my phone in front of me and me speaking onto the camera … we put it on our YouTube channel and sent out an e-mail blast with a link to it for our customers to get an update,” said Lowell, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, adding that, like the creator of the original fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt, he used his to talk with people directly and work to calm fears at a time when many are afraid. “We wanted to assure our customers that we’re here, we’re operating, and we intend to remain here and continue operating.”

The need for a fireside chat and the method of delivering it show just how different these times are for banks and their customers, commercial and consumer alike. Most of those in both categories are in some form of distress, and they’re looking to their bank, especially if it’s a smaller community bank, for help.

And the banks are providing it, in the form of everything from deferments on mortgage payments and commercial loans to interest-only payment options if customers prefer that option, to refinancing large numbers of mortgages to enable consumers to take advantage of lower interest rates.

And, for commercial customers, these banks are expected to be key players in the process of funneling federal stimulus money to impacted businesses — just as soon as they figure out what that role is and how it will be carried out.

Right now, for the most part, they just don’t know. What they do know is it will be a different — and, in many ways, more important — role than they play now.

“In many ways, it’s analogous to what some of the manufacturers are doing now: a company that was making clothing for a baseball team a few months ago is now making masks and gowns,” said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “We’re going to go through a version of that and have to retool and pivot and think about the new SBA loans that are part of the relief package as different than how we usually do business.

“There are some opportunities,” he went on. “But there’s a whole ton of risks that we don’t understand yet because we haven’t done it yet and haven’t thought about all the downside risks such as fraud — there’s a lot of work to be done.”

While they read the legislation and try to understand it, the banks themselves are coping with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — and there are many. Most have closed their lobbies or reduced hours to a large degree, with business conducted by appointment only. This means more customers are using online banking and automated tellers, technology that is new to many, and that brings its own set of challenges — and opportunities. Meanwhile, employers are working remotely and finding new ways to work as well.

“For some who didn’t bank digitally, they’re beginning to be forced to use it, and at our institution, for the most part, we’re getting extremely positive feedback on this,” said Tom Senecal, PeoplesBank president and CEO. “Surprisingly, many people who were afraid to use it are liking it now, and I do think this will change the behavior of people in the future to adapt to it more quickly.”

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, agreed that both customers and employers are adapting to new ways of doing things.

“We’re getting everybody — customers, clients, and employees — more on board with a different way of working through electronic channels,” he told BusinessWest. “As for employees, we were thinking more about working from home before this; we were having conversations already, and we knew we could do it technology-wise, but this just triggered an acceleration of that, which has been healthy for us.”

Overall, these are different and somewhat complex times for banks in that they and their customers are relying more heavily on technology to do business. And yet, it’s a time when many customers need a close banking relationship perhaps more than they ever have.

“Whether it’s in traditional retail or banking, there’s been this drumbeat of ‘everything’s going digital,’” Leach said. “But what this crisis has also illuminated is the need for human contact, albeit by phone or e-mail. When you’re trying to go back and forth with a bank on deferment or interest-only — when you’re solving problems — you still want to talk with someone. Those are not transactional exercises.”

What banks won’t be focusing on this year, said Senecal and others, is earnings. That’s because the bottom line clearly will not be as attractive as it has been in recent years — not with interest rates down to zero, residential customers refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of these lower rates, and other revenue streams being heavily impacted by the pandemic (more on that later).

A New Norm

As noted earlier, while banks are still conducting business, it is certainly not business as usual. Most all establishments have either closed their lobbies or established ‘by-appointment-only’ policies, in efforts to safeguard both customers and employees.

Drive-through windows are open, as are ATMs, and institutions with ITMs (interactive teller machines) report a dramatic increase in usage — out of necessity. Overall, those we spoke with reported a few bumps and a slowing of the pace of activity as customers began using new technology, but, overall, a relatively smooth transition, if it can be called that.

“It’s been surprisingly smooth,” Lowell said. “And I say surprisingly because I wasn’t sure how customers would respond. But they have been great. We’ve had people getting documents notarized, opening accounts, and more right through the drive-up. And while it was very busy initially, it has slowed down; we extended hours originally because we didn’t know what to expect, but we’re thinking of reducing things and going back to our normal hours to give our staff a break.”

Returning to the subject of digital banking, Senecal, speaking for all the others at the ‘table,’ said his bank has been gently pushing its customers to embrace new technology like ITMs. The pandemic has provided a great assist in these efforts, and most customers are enjoying the ride, if you will.

“Whenever a customer has done it, you get this reaction like, ‘oh, my God, this is unbelievably easy,’” he said of ITM use. “Like all of us, you need to be pushed toward new technology — it can be intimidating — and the more we push or force people, and they understand the environment we’re in, they’re learning that it’s not so bad.”

But the pandemic has also brought some staffing challenges, said many on the panel, noting that, as they try to keep employees safe, they are limiting the number of people working at one time. And there are other constraints as well.

“We have people in some critical positions who are in the National Guard,” Senecal said. “So we’ve had to readjust some of some our staffing. But otherwise, we have not diminished our services at all; we’re doing everything through the drive-up.”

Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, said one of his branches actually had to be closed for a short period because the spouse of one of his workers, a first responder, had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

“We had split our staff into Team A and Team B at each location,” he explained, noting that the employee in question is on Team A. After deep cleaning and sanitizing the office, it reopened with Team B, with Team A on self-quarantine.

Such developments could not have been imagined even three weeks ago, but they are now part of a new norm for banks.

As for the types of business conducted, the bank presidents we spoke with said that, by and large, people understand that their money is safe, and there has been an inflow when it comes to deposits, rather than anything approach a rush to withdraw money. Meanwhile, commercial activity has slowed tremendously, as might be expected. But on the residential-mortgage side, business has been booming.

‘Crazy’ was the word used by most all them.

Meanwhile, another word uttered over and over by those around this virtual roundtable was ‘outreach.’ Indeed, while taking calls from commercial clients with questions and issues, area banks have been making them as well.

“We’ve been doing a ton of customer outreach, particularly in the hospitality area, and there is a large concentration of those types of businesses in Berkshire County,” Leach said. “We’ve done a lot of proactive outreach with that sector, and there has been a significant number of loan modifications, including more than 80 interest-only and three full deferments on the commercial side.”

All methods of communication have been used, from snail mail — although not much of that anymore — to e-mail, to that fireside chat Lowell gave with the assist from his wife.

“We’ve been trying to be creative as to how we get the word out,” Lowell said. “I recently recorded several commercials that are going to be on radio stations, as well as a brief TV spot using my phone; we’re trying to be creative and take advantage of technology.”

Tucker agreed, noting that his bank has used videos on its Facebook page and other vehicles for communicating a simple but direct message: “we’re here, and we’re going to try to help.”

Lending a Hand

BusinessWest talked with these bankers just a few days after the sweeping $2.2 trillion stimulus package was passed, and all of them were still digesting its hundreds of pages and dozens of provisions. The homework is intense and the need is great, and these factors will contribute to a very busy and exceedingly challenging time for banks.

For now, as noted, they’re trying to get both hands around it.

“It’s a vital piece for all of us bankers to understand,” Senecal said, “because we’re going to get bombarded with phone calls; Congress and everyone else says ‘call your local banker,’ but they haven’t really communicated too much to us yet other than, ‘if you go try to find the bill yourself, you’ll understand what it’s saying.’”

Leach said his bank has already received a number of phone calls regarding the relief bill, and he acknowledged that the “onslaught,” as he called it, has only begun.

While the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will ultimately be the conduit for much of the funding to be released from the payroll-protection program and other initiatives within the bill, he noted, area banks will be providing what amount to bridge loans, and this role brings with it a good deal of risk.

“That’s an intense amount of pressure on community banks to participate in this way, and that’s the really the untold story here,” he explained. “A significant portion of these programs that will enable more liquidity, or relief, are enabled by banks, and especially community banks.”

And while they’re still digesting the massive measure, the bankers we spoke with said they have a basic understanding of how the payroll-protection program, one of the key components of the package, will work. Sullivan explained by using the example of a small landscaping company.

“They’re trying to figure out if there’s going to be work and if they should lay off people or keep them on,” he explained. “As I understand these new loans, for employees they’ve kept on the payroll or brought back, they’ll get eight to 10 weeks of payroll covered as a forgivable loan. So this will basically take their payroll and their costs out till the end of June, and the employer isn’t going to have to worry about sinking the ship because they’re not going to have revenue on the other side to offset those costs; these are forgivable loans.

“This basically keeps people from going to the unemployment line, and it allows business owners to keep their staff as a core unit,” he went on, adding — and lamenting, as others did — that it will probably be at least 30 days before any relief trickles down.

This seems like an eternity to the small-business owners devastated by the crisis, many of them forced to close their doors entirely, they said with one voice, but this is the pace the federal government moves at.

All those sitting at the ‘table’ expressed the hope that the process of accessing relief will be relatively simple and user-friendly, but many had their doubts.

“SBA lending has always been pretty paper-intensive and tedious, and you have to make the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted,” Lowell said. “The challenge for us is that we’re going to be be the intermediaries — they want us to be the ones dealing with the customer. And in order for us to do that, they need to make it simple, and they need to make it easy for us to work with our customers.

“My hope is that this is what will happen,” he went on. “The skeptic in me is concerned, but hopefully I’ll be wrong.”

Senecal agreed completely, but said that, based upon his reading of the legislation, there is some reason to be optimistic that relief can be accessed in a simple, effective manner.

“If you pay payroll and you have employees, you are eligible for an SBA loan that does not need to have collateral and is 100% guaranteed by the government and will be administered by the banks,” he told BusinessWest. “And the application process seems pretty simplified. What is not clear on the bank side is what happens to us and how we fund this. What risks are we taking? The government guarantees the loan, the borrower doesn’t have to guarantee the loan, and the borrower doesn’t have to put up collateral; the interest rate cannot exceed 4%, but it’s still unclear who pays that 4%.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he continued. “But it does feel good that there is relief for employers, and they can use those funds for pretty much anything to operate their business.”

Earnings Statements

While the banks will play a large role in helping businesses stay afloat during this crisis, they will have to be mindful of their own bottom lines as well. Those we spoke with are projecting that this will be a very challenging year in that regard for all those reasons mentioned above.

“Margins were shrinking before this,” Tucker said. “And now, with no interest coming in for a while, that’s going to put even more pressure on banks. The good news is that the banks here are well-capitalized and have the ability to weather this, but 2020 will be a very difficult year at the end of the year when you see the numbers.”

The banks we spoke with are all mutual banks, meaning there are no stockholders. And their presidents said their respective boards understand the unusual circumstances as well as the need for these institutions to step up and help the community get to the other side of the pandemic.

“Most of us, if not all of us, are sitting on a good amount of liquidity, so we’re in a position to take these steps, suffer through a few months of losses, and still fund things that need to be funded,” Lowell said. “And on the regulatory front, everything that we’ve heard from the FDIC, federal examiners, and others is that they are encouraging us to keep this economy running and help people — and they won’t hold it against us, as long as we do it within reason and do it within the confines of safety and soundness and don’t take on excessive risk.

“I think we’re going to be prudent, and the last thing we want is to see any of our customers not get through this,” he went on. “We’re going to be looking to our existing customers first, and then, if we can help other people, we’ll try to do that, whether it’s through the SBA or direct lending, or some of the other programs.”

Sullivan agreed, saying this will be a unique opportunity for the banking community to collaborate, as perhaps never before, and work collectively to steer the economy out of extremely dangerous whitewater.

“I don’t see this as competition or anyone trying to be opportunistic about this,” he told BusinessWest. “The size and scope of this problem is huge, and part of what we want to message to the community is that the industry is collaborating to get through it.”

Senecal agreed. “The focus is to get through this year and be there in support of the community,” he said. “As mutual banks, we’re here for the community, and all of us have enough capital to sustain a really bad year. None of us are focused on earning this year; we’re doing everything to make sure our communities get through this and economically come out of this in a great position.”

Lowell might have summed up the situation, and the sentiments of everyone at the ‘table,’ by saying in conclusion: “it will be an interesting year; I don’t anticipate any of us are going to make a lot of money, but we’re all in good shape at the start of this, and I see us all coming through it the end while helping people stay in business.”

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

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — On Tuesday, the Baker-Polito administration announced several updates related to the COVID-19 outbreak, including extending the non-essential business emergency order until May 4. The Department of Public Health’s (DPH) stay-at-home advisory remains in effect.

Businesses and organizations not on the list of ‘COVID-19 essential services’ are encouraged to continue operations through remote means that do not require workers, customers, or the public to enter or appear at the brick-and-mortar premises closed by the order. This order also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people until May 4.

The administration also updated the essential-services list, which is based on federal guidance updated earlier this week. While these businesses are designated as essential, they are urged to follow social-distancing protocols for workers in accordance with guidance from DPH. The updates to the essential-services list include clarity around the supply chain that supports other essential services, adds healthcare providers like chiropractors and optometrists, and expands the types of workers providing disinfectant and sanitation services.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker directed DPH to issue a stay-at-home advisory, and the governor announced Tuesday that the advisory will remain in effect. Residents are advised to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel and other unnecessary person-to-person contact during this time period. Residents who are considered at high risk when exposed to COVID-19 should limit social interactions with other people as much as possible.

In other news, the Commonwealth, through MEMA, has requested and received approval for a field nedical station that will provide additional medical-care capacity as the state plans for a surge in cases. The federal Strategic National Stockpile has approved a 250-bed field medical station that will be deployed to the DCU Center in Worcester this week. This temporary facility will be managed by UMass Memorial Medical Center and staffed by a partnership including the city of Worcester and others. The temporary field medical center will be used to treat lower-acuity patients who still need monitoring.

The Commonwealth is also implementing a pilot project that allows for safe, on-site testing of symptomatic residents of nursing and rest homes with a quick turnaround. The pilot will operate under the auspices of the Massachusetts National Guard in partnership with DPH and Broad Institute of Cambridge, and samples will be collected by trained personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard. Prior to this launch, the only way for nursing-home residents to be tested would be to be transported to a hospital or physician’s office.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

A New Reality

The massive federal stimulus that took shape last week brought some clarity to how the government would address troubling impact of COVID-19 and the large-scale economic shutdown that has emerged in response to this public-health crisis. Other efforts on the state and local levels aim to help businesses and families struggling with job loss and the suspension of livelihoods. Of course, the true relief will come when this viral threat subsides and businesses ramp back up. But no one knows exactly when that will be.

The news came in quickly — and landed hard.

Last Thursday morning, the Department of Labor issued its first unemployment-claims report since much of the country began implementing, in various ways and at various speeds, some form of economic shutdown to slow the spread of coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, known as COVID-19.

The news was not good. The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed to a record-breaking 3.28 million for the week ended March 21 — nearly doubling expectations of 1.64 million claims. The previous record was 695,000 claims filed during October 1982.

It’s a big problem — and sometimes, big problems require big solutions. Which is why lawmakers in Washington spent much of last week hammering out a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at helping families facing sudden job loss, small-business owners trying to survive, and entire battered industries ride out what is increasingly looking like a severe disruption to America’s economic way of life.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth,” Scott Foster, a partner with Bulkley Richardson, said the morning after details of the stimulus became known.

Among its many provisions, the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act appears to apply to every for-profit business with fewer than 500 employees, including sole proprietors, Foster noted. The act would allow these businesses to obtain a loan — at 4% interest with a 10-year repayment term — to cover payroll costs, including healthcare premiums and paid time off, rent, utilities, mortgage payments (interest, not principal), and interest on other pre-existing loans for any eight-week period falling between Feb. 15 and June 30.

“To summarize, if you are a business and are willing to keep your employees on the payroll, pay your rent or mortgage, and stay in business, the federal government is prepared to pay your rent, your utilities, and your payroll — for employees making under $100,000 annually — for eight weeks, and the payment is tax-free,” Foster said. “It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

Unlike most other loans, this one will be forgiven in an amount equal to the sum of payroll costs, payments of interest on any covered mortgage, payments on any covered rent obligations, and covered utility payments. And to encourage businesses to retain their employees, the amount to be forgiven would be reduced if the business reduces its workforce.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth.”

Families will receive a simpler but shorter-term fix — a tax rebate totaling $1,200 for most adults and $500 for each child — which will be distributed as checks in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, states will get help in the form of a $150 billion grant fund, to be distributed proportional to population size, with a minimum of $1.25 billion for states with the smallest populations.

For many of the impacted, it’s a start, at a time of unprecedented anxiety — after all, the country has never voluntarily shut down activity on a massive scale due to a health threat, or for any other reason. This issue of BusinessWest details many of the ways businesses and families are coping, and plenty of advice from local professionals on the best ways to do so. It’s a story that changes by the day, but read on for a snapshot of where we are now.

Targeted Assistance

For many, the COVID-19 threat really hit home the morning — March 23, to be exact — when Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public at least until April 7, while continuing to operate remotely when possible.

Those ‘essential’ businesses include healthcare and public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; critical manufacturing; transportation; energy; water and wastewater; public works; communications and information technology; financial services; defense industry base; chemical manufacturing and hazardous materials; and news media.

Everyone else is being asked to work at home, and most area companies were already moving in that direction before Baker’s mandate. The Springfield Regional Chamber polled its members last week about how the order impacted their operations. Almost two-thirds — 62% — said their employees were already working remotely, 27% said they began remote work after March 23, and 11% said they temporarily closed all operations because they cannot work remotely.

The threat of a longer shutdown looms, and may be foreshadowed by the governor’s order last week to keep all schools and most childcare programs closed at least until May 4, while requesting that educators gear up for the long haul by developing and enhancing online-learning capabilities.

“It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

In the meantime, a number of relief efforts have popped up at the federal, state, and local levels. For example, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will offer low-interest federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans for working capital to Massachusetts small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. Applicants may apply online at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

This week, the Baker-Polito administration also announced economic support for Massachusetts small businesses with the Small Business Recovery Loan Fund, a $10 million fund that will provide emergency capital up to $75,000 to Massachusetts-based businesses impacted by COVID-19 with under 50 full- and part-time employees, including nonprofits. The application is at empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Meanwhile, Common Capital offers a Fast Track Loan Program to address the needs of local businesses that need quick access to capital. Applicants seeking funding from the program to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can contact Kim Gaughan, loan fund manager, at (413) 233-1684 or [email protected] for more information.

The Baker-Polito administration also announced steps last week to keep vulnerable families in their homes, preserve the health and safety of low-income renters and homeowners, and prevent homelessness due to reduced or lost income. Specifically, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will temporarily suspend terminations of federal and state rental vouchers under its purview, while MassHousing is transferring $5 million to the DHCD for a COVID-19 Rental Assistance for Families in Transition fund to assist families facing rent insecurity.

In addition, the state Division of Banks has issued new guidance to financial institutions and lenders urging them to provide relief for borrowers — several banks have already committed to do so — and will advocate for a 60-day stay on behalf of all homeowners facing imminent foreclosure on their homes. Finally, affordable-housing operators are being urged to suspend non-essential evictions for loss of income or employment circumstances resulting in a tenant’s inability to make rent.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts will delay the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes in the restaurant and hospitality sector for up to three months, while waiving all penalties and interest. And, of course, the IRS has informed all taxpayers that this year’s filing deadline has been moved forward three months to July 15.

Nonprofits are being squeezed by the crisis as well. In response, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) established the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with a lead gift of $1 million from MassMutual and contributions from a number of area businesses. The fund will provide resources to Pioneer Valley nonprofits serving populations most impacted by the crisis, such as the elderly, those without stable housing, families needing food, and those with health vulnerabilities. To make a gift, visit communityfoundation.org/coronavirus-donations or e-mail [email protected].

Meanwhile, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation have established the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County to rapidly deploy resources to community-based organizations as they respond to the impact of the coronavirus in Berkshire County. Numerous corporate funders have already emerged. To donate, visit berkshireunitedway.org/donate. Nonprofits can request funds at berkshireunitedway.org.

Finally, to help individuals in need, the United Way of Pioneer Valley established the COVID-19 Recovery and Relief Fund to provide aid and resources to those affected by the current public-health emergency. Funds collected will help families and individuals impacted by the pandemic to meet their basic, childcare, housing and financial needs. Visit www.uwpv.org for more information.

Hunkering Down

Resources such as these are critical because there’s really no telling when the region and country can return to some semblance of economic normalcy. Judging by what the medical community knows about how aggressively coronavirus spreads, the health costs of emerging from this collective cocoon too soon are too great — the healthcare system would simply be overrun. That’s why ‘flattening the curve; has become the watchword of the day.

Unfortunately, many businesses feel overrun in a different way. The Springfield Regional Chamber conducted a different poll recently, asking members what level of impact they expect the COVID-19 crisis have on their business.

More than four-fifths have major concerns; 34% say the crisis may put them out of business, while 47% say it will significantly impact their financials. Another 15% say they’ll be impacted financially but expect to weather the storm, while 4% say it’s too early to know.

In many ways, it’s too early to predict many things related to COVID-19 and its impact. Meanwhile, a nation increasingly shelters in place, seeking relief and solutions where they can find them, and hoping for the best.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

By George O’Brien

By most accounts, this region is still in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the experts are saying it will several months before things will return to something approaching ‘normal.’

But while we have a long way to go, it’s certainly not too early to begin speculating about what ‘normal’ will be, whenever we get there. And it’s fair to say that ‘normal’ won’t look like it does now. In fact, it could look much different because of what we’re all experiencing — and what we’re all learning — during these unprecedented times.

Some questions come to mind even as we’re only about a week into the state’s shutdown of non-essential businesses. In no particular order:

• Will men ever wear ties again?

• Will anyone ever print out a document again?

• Will anyone ever go into a bank branch again?

• Will anyone visit a car dealership again?

• Will companies ever again lease out all the space they’re leasing out now?

• Will we still need college campuses?

• Will we ever need to meet anyone in person again?

The answer to all these questions is ‘yes.’ But the more accurate answer, when we examine things closely, is probably ‘yes, but certainly not as much.’

OK, maybe guys will go back to wearing ties as much as they used to, but … then again, maybe not. Probably not. A good number of them had decided they no longer needed to long before this crisis, and now, this club, if that’s what you want to call it, is certain to get bigger. Maybe much bigger.

As for the rest of those questions, life with COVID-19 has certainly changed how we do things, and maybe for the rest of time, not just until we get that signal that it’s safe to go back in the water, whenever that might be.

Let’s start with paper. Most offices were at least trying to use less paper, but many weren’t exactly fully committed to the task. Now, as offices are relying on other forms of communication, and in many cases, they can’t hit the ‘print’ button, many are learning that it’s OK not to have a print copy of everything. And when the smaller bill comes in from the office-supply company, it’s a good bet that things won’t go back to the way they were.

As for leasing office space, some companies will go back to the same footprint. But it’s safe to say many will find that having employees work at home when they can isn’t just for snowstorms and pandemics. Not everyone wants to work at home, certainly, but if the spouse and the children are not at home at the same time as you are when you’re working — unlike now — it begins to look more doable and more attractive.

Yes, there are limitations, and some people have already found that working at home is like being retired in that you lose track of the day and date. Meanwhile, it can be lonely, and many are finding they need to be around others and just hear the sound of a human voice. But now that some are doing it, they find they can do it.

Bank branches? Some young people can boast that they’ve never been in one. And now, many who are not so young are joining those ranks. People who were intimidated by new banking technology found themselves without a choice — and many have now found themselves saying ‘that wasn’t so bad’ or even ‘that’s pretty cool.’ And, by that way, the same goes for office technology as well.

As for meeting people face to face, this will probably stage some kind of comeback. Skype, Zoom, and all those other platforms are fine, but there’s nothing like sitting across the desk or the coffee-shop table from someone. Although … many people are starting to think those aforementioned options are almost as effective, and they save time, gas, and money. They’ve been around for a while, but now that people have a need to use them, they are.

This doesn’t mean auto dealers, bankers, college presidents, and insurance agents won’t ever meet as a group or an association again. But technology is now showing us that there are other ways to meet collectively.

As noted, we’re still in the beginning stages of this crisis, but we’re already learning things. We’re learning that the technology we were afraid to use for some reason is nothing to be afraid of. We’re also learning new and different ways to do things, and it’s likely we’ll keep doing them that way when this crisis is over.

That’s why things on the other side will certainly look much different.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

Remember that classic scene in Young Frankenstein (even you Millennials have seen it, I’m sure) when Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced Frankensteeen), and Marty Feldman (Igor) are in the graveyard digging up the corpse that will become the monster. Wilder says, “what a filthy job!” Feldman says, “it could be worse.” Wilder asks, “how could it possibly be worse?” Feldman says, “could be raining.”

And then it starts pouring.

Life has felt like that these past few weeks. Someone will say, ‘how could it be worse?’ And it starts raining, in a proverbial sense. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have lost some, most, or all of their revenue streams. People are running out of toilet paper — or they’re really, really afraid that they will. We lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (The who?) People stuck at home are losing their patience, if not their minds, and we’re just really getting started with this pandemic. And then it snowed on Monday!

There are no sports! How many times can we watch the Patriots beat the Falcons in replays of Super Bowl LII? We know how it ends! The Masters has been postponed if not cancelled. Golf courses are apparently not on the ‘essential’ businesses list put out by the governor’s office. How can golf courses not be on the essential businesses list?

If anyone says ‘it could be worse,’ our immediate temptation is to say, ‘no, it can’t.’

To borrow from Dickens, these really are the worst of times. This is worse than any downturn in the economy, worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. It’s worse because there is so much uncertainty — about today, tomorrow, three months from now, and a year from now.

Not only that, but life is different now. Everything is weird. If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger. If we’re out at the store, we look at everyone as if they might have the virus, and the look isn’t a good one.

Everyone is on edge about their jobs, their life savings, their 401(k), their health, the health of their loved ones. You can see it in their faces, and if you’re talking to them on the phone (which we all are), you can hear in their voices. You can also hear them yawn, because people are not sleeping, by and large. Who could sleep with all this going on?

If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger.

And yet, there is something else, something far more powerful and positive going on, and it’s worth noting.

Yes, there are now security guards and even off-duty police in the toilet-paper aisle in many supermarkets. And yes, sales of guns and ammo are skyrocketing. And yes, we’re already starting to see a rise in reported instances of domestic violence. But despite all this, it’s abundantly clear to me that people are caring more about each other.

And it’s about time.

People don’t just put their initials at the end of an e-mail anymore. They say ‘be well,’ ‘stay well,’ or ‘take care of yourself.’ And they mean it. People are bringing food and coffee to those who are shut in (and that’s most people now). Co-workers are being nicer to each other. When I dropped off the golf cart at a club in Connecticut last Saturday, I walked over to the attendant who was parking it — someone who would likely be unemployed in about 27 hours — and said (from six feet away), “good luck to you — hope you get through this OK.” And I meant it.

You’re seeing a lot more of that these days, and this, more than anything else, will get us to the other side — whenever and whatever that happens to be.

Yes, it could be worse. It could be raining. It seems like it’s already raining — pouring, in fact. But there’s a little sunlight trickling in.

And it might be just enough.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration today announced a new request to the federal government for a major disaster declaration, in addition to other actions to sustain the Commonwealth’s response to COVID-19.

If approved, this declaration would provide the Commonwealth additional federal assistance beyond what was included in the emergency declaration declared by President Trump on March 13. The disaster declaration request includes a request for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program, which would make financial assistance available to cities and towns, state agencies, and certain nonprofits statewide. The disaster declaration request also requests FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program, including Disaster Unemployment Assistance and Crisis Counseling Assistance, to help support residents in need during this unprecedented incident.

In addition, the Department of Public health has issued three emergency orders to support the healthcare system’s response to COVID-19:

• Pharmacy Practice: To ensure pharmacists are able to fully support the healthcare system’s response to COVID-19, this emergency order makes several changes regarding pharmacy practice, including expedited approval for pharmacists licensed in other states to practice in Massachusetts, and allowing the remote processing of prescriptions by pharmacy technicians.

• Determination of Need: This emergency order exempts healthcare facilities from the requirement that they submit a notice of determination of need for certain activities that will support their response to COVID-19.

• Nurse Staffing: To ensure hospitals have the flexibility they need to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, this emergency order exempts hospitals from certain nurse-staffing requirements, while requiring that they must ensure that staffing levels remain adequate to meet patients’ needs, and that staff is trained and competent to meet the needs of their patients.

In other COVID-19-related actions, Baker is issuing an emergency order that provides that a permit will not expire or lapse during the state of emergency for most permits issued by agencies within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The order also pauses deadlines for these agencies to decide or hold hearings on permit applications. The clock on those deadlines will resume 45 days after the end of the emergency. It also ensures that no permit is automatically issued because an agency is unable to make a decision on a permit application during the emergency.

The administration also worked with the advocacy community and union partners to implement solutions to ensure access to personal-care attendant (PCA) services for individuals with disabilities and older adults during this public-health emergency. MassHealth created a hotline through MassOptions for MassHealth members to call if they are in need of services, and updated its policies to streamline the hiring process and allow more flexibility for PCAs to work more hours.

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced further action to support ratepayers during the COVID-19 outbreak, directing the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to issue an order prohibiting investor-owned utility companies from shutting off gas, electric, and water utility service to any customers for failure to pay a bill or a portion of a bill until the state of emergency is lifted or the DPU determines otherwise.

The announcement builds on the DPU’s March 13 moratorium requesting utility companies refrain from shutting off gas and electric service to residents across the Commonwealth. The new order will expand the moratorium to include any investor-owned utility customers, including industrial, commercial, and small-business customers, during the state of emergency.

“Protecting the health and safety of Massachusetts residents remains the Baker-Polito administration’s highest priority, and this order will ensure the continued availability of gas, electric, and water service to all ratepayers during the state of emergency,” DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson said. “Today’s action will also protect residents and businesses from added economic pressure during these difficult and uncertain times.”

The order also prohibits investor-owned utility companies from sending communications that threaten to shut off gas, electric, or water service to any of their customers for failure to pay a bill or any portion of a bill issued to a customer. Any company that fails to comply with these orders may be assessed penalties of up to $1 million per violation.

Additionally, on March 13, the DPU formally requested that that residential competitive electricity suppliers and licensed electricity brokers cease door-to-door marketing activities to ensure that proper risk-management protocols have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, prioritizing the health and safety of both consumers and any agents conducting marketing efforts.

Coronavirus

Participants Say It’s Anything but Business as Usual

By George O’Brien

If you call the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast these days, the person at the other end of the line will likely ask you if you want the agency’s hotline.

Almost everyone does.

“We’re getting inundated — we’re getting more calls in a day than we would get in a week or two,” said Meredith Wise, EANE’s executive director, who told BusinessWest the calls vary in nature, but the vast majority of them have to do with workforce issues — whether to lay off people in the wake of this virus or furlough them (we’ll explain the difference in a minute), and how to somehow keep them if they are laid off. But there are other matters as well, especially the many evolving layers of support on the state and federal levels.

“People don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for help — they’re looking for answers, because there’s so much uncertainty, and the picture seems to change every day and even every hour,” said Wise, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging businesses of all sizes as they have probably never been challenged before.

Wise was one of several area business leaders who took part in a roundtable on this virus and the many ways it is impacting the business community — a different kind of roundtable, to be sure. Indeed, there was no actual table, round or otherwise; this was all done via a conference call and some subsequent follow-up interviews as the scene changed. (Editor’s Note: that scene continues to change, and this story will be updated as needed at businesswest.com.)

Through these discussions, we learned what should seem obvious — that, at this time, it isn’t ‘business as usual’ for anyone, and for many, there is no business at all. But we also learned that, in some cases, there is something approaching business as usual, as legal transactions and real-estate deals, both commercial and residential, move forward. Meanwhile, the marketing expert we spoke with had a simple message for businesses of all kinds — “don’t stop communicating.”

Here are the highlights from this COVID-19-style roundtable:

At the EANE

Wise told BusinessWest that, understandably, employers are on edge as they see revenue sources dry up and cash flow interrupted. A good number of calls to the hotline concern what to do with employees — lay them off, furlough them, or try somehow to keep them on, especially if the stimulus package currently being debated includes provisions that provide small businesses access to private bank loans equal to several months of expenses (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.) that would be covered by the federal government if they stayed open, maintained their workforce, and paid their bills.

“People are at wit’s end — do they lay off everyone, do they furlough people, do they shut down this operation, do they keep with that operation?” she told BusinessWest, adding that ‘lay off’ and ‘furlough’ are technical terms with specific definitions, and they are not the same thing.

“With a furlough, you’re still considered an employee — people are not going to get paid, but they’re still on the payroll, and they’re still eligible for benefits — all that stays in place,” she explained. “If you lay people off, they’re no longer an employee. They may get a call-back date, but in essence the business is parting company with that employee.”

And, with a layoff, a company has to pay all accrued paid time off and give the employee a check for that amount on their last day.

Wise said some manufacturers, concerned that business will dry up for a longer term, are laying off people (especially recent hires), while others, especially those with sizable investments in the people they’ve hired, are taking the furlough route with the hope that business will soon pick up or help from a stimulus package of some form will arrive.

“But people just don’t know when this is going to end — will it be by April 1, April 14, or are we going to the end of April or into May?” she said. “I’ve heard people say this could go on for three months and that they can’t keep their workforce going for three months.”

Meanwhile, with regard to the governor’s order to close non-essential businesses, Wise said it will certainly be unpopular with small-business owners not on the ‘essential’ list, but it might help bring a form of normalcy and routine that will replace the daily uncertainty that was annoying, to say the least.

“Let’s just do it and get it over with,” she said as the order was coming down. “This constant drip, drip, drip of changes every day is driving everyone crazy, and it doesn’t let you focus on anything.”

Developments of Note

Jeff Sullivan noted that it’s not business as usual for the region’s banks, and it won’t be for quite some time. But there will be a good deal of business, especially if, as expected, banks play a key role in funneling federal stimulus money to small businesses in the form of what will amount to bridge loans.

In the meantime, banks are keeping busy enough — with everything from customers who want some cash in their pockets during these uncertain times (and that’s many people) to businesses seeking lines of credit, or larger lines, to get through the crisis, to homeowners looking to take advantage of the recent drop in interest rates to refinance. And, again, that’s many people.

“It’s a little strange here … we had a large backlog of loans that were closing during the month of March, so we’ve tried to stay somewhat business as usual with those,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “Most of those are happening, and part of the reason we want to get through that is because the nature of the loan requests we’re going to get are going to change dramatically, from the normal buy, sell, refinance-my-building kind of stuff to building up piles of working capital to get through the downturn.

“I think I’ve heard more of the ‘we need to do whatever we can to keep the doors open’ type of conversations from people,” he went on. “But we’re also hearing about people wanting to refinance their free and clear property so they’ll have a lot of cash because they think there will be some opportunities down the road — there’s a little of that going on, too.”

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of refinancing on the residential side of the equation as homeowners look to capitalize on those interest rates, he said, adding that there is also commercial activity and a limited amount of business expansion happening.

Things should change dramatically with the stimulus package and its likely provision for forgivable loans that will, as he put it, essentially put everyone on unemployment for three months.

“People are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens,” he said as the bill was still being hammered out. “If something doesn’t happen, there will be another wave of layoffs.”

Case in Point

Scott Foster, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, said his firm’s phones might not be as busy as EANE’s, but they are ringing constantly. And many of those who are calling are looking for the same kinds of answers.

“I’m as busy as ever — the phones are ringing off the hook; people are working and getting things done while they still can,” he said just prior to the governor’s order to shut down non-essential businesses. “It’s mostly about contingency planning, looking at federal aid that’s already passed or is coming down the pike and how it’s going to help them, or staffing decisions — whether to furlough people, lay them off, or keep them on the payroll.

“All these questions are coming, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns,” he went on. “But this is business — people have to make decisions; you don’t get to not make decisions, or the decision gets made for you. So we’re very active.”

Foster said that deals — everything from real-estate acquisitions to business transactions — are still taking place, albeit at a slower pace in some cases.

“I have some real deals … they’re not closing tomorrow, but they’re still going,” he explained. “I haven’t had anyone pull the plug on any deal I’m working on; next week might be a different story, but right now, they’re all charging forth.”

As for the general tone of those in the business community, while many are understandably anxious, there’s also discernable optimism, he said, especially regarding some provisions of the stimulus bill being debated — ones that would essentially ‘mothball’ businesses until the crisis is over, with funds provided by the government to pay people and pay other expenses as well.

“Big sections of the economy are going to go on pause,” he explained. “And if the federal aid is sufficient and businesses reopen in a few months and the economy restarts … there’s a lot of optimism I’m hearing from business owners about what things are going to look like on the other side of this. It might be misplaced optimism, but it’s there.”

Overall, he said most business owners are “keeping their heads on,” as he put it, and not panicking.

“And the main reason they’re not panicking is because everyone is going through this,” he said. “It’s not one business or one sector, it’s hitting everyone, and you’re seeing some people growing — Amazon’s hiring, Walmart is hiring, Domino’s is hiring, online delivery services are hiring … there are some positive things happening.”

‘Cover’ Story

Dave Griffin has been in the insurance business for decades now and has certainly seen almost everything in the course of his career. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different — in all kinds of ways.

That assessment refers to everything from the volume of the phone calls to the very difficult nature of the conversations with the people on the other end of the line.

“It’s been a tough few weeks, obviously,” said Griffin, vice president of Holyoke-based Dowd Insurance. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years here, and you develop a strong relationship with your clients. There have been a lot of hard conversations here this week with people just trying to do whatever they can to keep their business open. They have a real passion for what they do, and it’s heartbreaking to hear that they have to lay off employees and talk about the business like it might not be around.”

While talk of stimulus packages continues, business owners, especially those hit immediately by the crisis — restaurants, hotels, clubs, banquet facilities, and retail establishments — have been dealing with the moment, said Griffin, and most come forward with the obvious question: ‘does my business-interruption policy cover this deadly virus?’

And the answer he has had to give, unfortunately, is ‘no,’ and, as noted, he’s given it to a large number of people.

There is hope that this answer may change, just as it did after 9/11 — terrorist attacks were not covered in most all business-interruption policies, but that law was changed — but for now, the answer remains ‘no.’

If there is any good news for most insurance customers, it is that their payments are generally based on annual sales volume, and as those numbers go down as the pandemic continues, so do those payments. Meanwhile, many insurance carriers are responding to the crisis by providing flexibility on payments and commitments not to cancel policies if payments cannot be made.

While answering questions about policies and listening to his clients, Griffin also offered some perspective on the situation in the form of hope — and expectation — that most of those business owners he’s had these hard conversations with find a way to persevere and come out on the other side.

“Hopefully, we can come out of this sooner rather than later,” he said. “And I have no doubt that this region will rally behind the local businesses.”

And Now, a Word, or Two, or Three, About Marketing

John Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc., told BusinessWest that, while every sector, and almost every business, has its own unique situation with regard to the virus and its impact, there are some common threads, or thoughts, when it comes to marketing in these difficult times.

To explain it, he summoned three words — actually, one word repeated three times — that was essentially the mantra of Doug Bowen, the now-retired president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, a long-time client.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate — that’s what he used to say, and I think that’s practical advice for everyone right now,” he said. “You need to be talking to your employees, and you need to be talking to your customers.”

As for the messages to be conveyed, he said they generally fall into several categories — from informing the public about what’s happening with a specific company during this crisis to speaking directly to employees. In both cases, the messages are generally about reassuring the intended audience.

“You really want to reach out to employees from the standpoint of appreciation and thank them for their efforts,” Garvey explained. “There is a lot of insecurity out there, and anything organizations can do to placate or resolve that is really important right now.”

Such efforts to reassure and thank people become more difficult and more complicated when a company is also laying off or furloughing employees, he acknowledged, but this shouldn’t stop businesses from heeding Bowen’s mantra.

Meanwhile, as for marketing and communicating in general, this is a perilous time, but it’s also a time when your message can be heard, he went on, because people are listening, and they’re looking for information.

“Your whole audience, your whole customer base, is pretty much sitting at home right now,” he noted. “They’re on social media, they’re reading things online, etc., etc. — you have their attention; never have people been more focused.”

That said, advertisers need to send messages that are important or interesting, or they won’t keep that audience’s attention, Garvey went on, and people need to send messages that are sensitive to the times.

Overall, he said many businesses have been so caught up in the day to day of coping with the crisis that they have become “frozen” when it comes to marketing. The “thaw,” as he called it, should come now, or very soon, as something approaching a new sense of normalcy prevails.

“And then,” he said, “the responsibility is to communicate, communicate, communicate.”

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

COVID-19 Daily News

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order this morning requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public from Tuesday, March 24 at noon until Tuesday, April 7 at noon. These businesses are encouraged to continue operations remotely.

The Baker-Polito administration issued a list of designated businesses and other organizations that provide essential services and workforces related to COVID-19 that may continue to operate brick-and-mortar facilities during this two-week time period. This list — based on federal guidance and amended to reflect the needs of Massachusetts’ unique economy — includes healthcare and public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; critical manufacturing; transportation; energy; water and wastewater; public works; communications and information technology; financial services; defense industry base; chemical manufacturing and hazardous materials; news media; and other designated community-based essential function and government operations. While these businesses are designated as essential, they are urged to follow social-distancing protocols for workers in accordance with guidance from the Department of Public Health. 

Businesses and organizations not on the list of essential services are encouraged to continue operations through remote means that do not require workers, customers, or the public to enter or appear at the brick-and-mortar premises closed by the order.

Restaurants, bars, and other establishments that sell food and beverage products to the public are encouraged to continue to offer food for takeout and by delivery if they follow the social-distancing protocols set forth in Department of Public Health guidance. On-premises consumption of food or drink is prohibited. 

Due to evolving spread of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, Baker has directed the Department of Public Health to issue a stay-at-home advisory outlining self-isolation and social-distancing protocols. Residents are advised to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel and other unnecessary activities during this two-week time period.  Residents over age 70 or with underlying health conditions, who are considered at high risk when exposed to COVID-19, should limit social interactions with other people as much as possible. 

The Baker-Polito administration does not believe Massachusetts residents can be confined to their homes and does not support home confinement for public-health reasons. However, the administration’s order limits gatherings to 10 people during the state of emergency, a reduction from the 25-person limit established in an earlier order. This includes community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based, and any other event or activity that brings together more than 10 people in any confined space. The order does not prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people in an outdoor space, like a park or athletic field.

Coronavirus

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, we’re hearing more and more references to the past — and with good reason.

Part of it is an attempt to put this crisis in perspective, and for perspective, you have to look to the past and things to compare this to. That’s why we’re hearing and reading references to 2008 and 2009 — the Great Recession — as well as 9/11, 1987 (the great stock-market nosedive), and, increasingly, the Great Depression of the 1930s, especially as the estimates for unemployment come in; indeed, some of the latest projections are for 20% or more, numbers not seen since 1932.

But we’re also hearing references to World War II, for reasons that involve not so much perspective (although there’s some of that) as inspiration. We’re hearing and reading references to everything from the Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb) to the arsenal of democracy, the phrase coined by Franklin Roosevelt to describe what the United States should — and did — become as the war became a global conflict.

These references and comparisons are essentially spot on. What this country needs right now is a response similar to the one perhaps last seen during World War II — and on all kinds of levels.

Like the arsenal of democracy. In very short order, the U.S. economy went from a struggling peacetime economy — yes, the Great Depression lasted, in most all respects, into the early ’40s — into a thriving wartime economy where manufacturers retooled and produced items needed for the war effort. Examples abound, but the best known is Ford shifting gears — literally and figuratively — and producing B-24 Liberator bombers instead of cars at its famous Willow Run plant (where ‘Rosie the Riveter’ worked). In fact, at peak production, it was rolling out a new bomber every hour.

As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, it’s clear that we need what amounts to a different kind of wartime production — the war against this virus. Just as Ford made bombers, Caterpillar made tanks, Packard manufactured aircraft engines, and Studebaker produced trucks during World War II, today’s manufacturers need to step up, retool, and make surgical masks, respirators, and other items desperately needed in hospitals across the country.

And some are already volunteering to do just that, including Ford, GM, and Tesla. Meanwhile, cruise lines have proposed converting some of their ships into hospital ships, perhaps to care for those who need care but do not have COVID-19, and hotel owners have suggested perhaps converting their facilities into hospitals during this crisis.

These are the kinds of things that happened during World War II, and they need to happen now.

Meanwhile, on the home front during that war, there was sacrifice and a willingness to pitch in and do what was necessary, with drives to collect everything from rubber to aluminum for the war effort. Not everyone was happy with the rationing of many products, but they coped.

Contrast those images with those of people hording toilet paper and partying on the beaches of Florida during spring break, and it’s easy to see that the current generations can learn a lot from the Greatest Generation.

But there are many, many signs of generosity and caring being seen today — everything from MGM Springfield and other venues donating food items to food pantries to the Community Foundation’s creation of the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, to NBA players donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help arena workers who are now among the unemployed.

To get through this, we’re going to need a lot more stepping up, sacrificing, and using all our talents and imagination to help in this new war effort.

For inspiration, all we have to do is turn the clock back 75 years.

In these times, many people will be working remotely. In addition to accessing BusinessWest online, readers may wish to add their home address. To do this, e-mail [email protected], visit  https://businesswest.com/contact-us/subscribe/, or call 413.781.8600.