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Berkshire County Special Coverage

Walking the Walk

Mindy Miraglia was inspired to launch Berkshire Camino by her treks in Northern Spain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many individuals with the motivation, opportunity, and time to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s certainly been the case in the Berkshires, where new ventures launched, or set to be launched, include a new brewery, a guided-hikes venture, and a treasure-hunt concept that introduces consumers to area businesses.

Like most of those people who find themselves walking the Camino de Santiago — the pilgrim trail (actually, several different trails) that end at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela — Mindy Miraglia was at a crossroads in her life.

Indeed, after many years in advertising and market research, subsequent burnout, and some time working at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that didn’t end well, she was trying to figure out what could — and should — come next for her.

So, like hundreds of thousands of people each year, she decided to walk the Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, to pause, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, find an answer to her question. And as she tells the story, the Camino — and, specifically, her experiences on the 250-mile trek across Northern Spain — became the answer.

Sort of. Let’s just say it’s a work or progress. Or a business in progress.

It’s called Berkshire Camino LLC, which specializes in guided hikes through the Berkshires, many of which take people from community to community and are thus patterned after what Miraglia experienced in Spain on her two treks on the Camino.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change.”

But that was not the original plan. Instead, she wanted to create hostels — the lower-cost, dorm-like hotels that are an important part of the Camino experience — in the Berkshires and thus bring a different type of accommodation for tourists to that market. But reality, in the form of skyrocketing real-estate prices, as well as a lack of capital and few options for obtaining it, has kept that dream in check — at least for now.

But Miraglia, at the advice of mentors assigned to her by the nonprofit EforAll Berkshires, has pivoted and now leads a number of guided hikes within the Berkshires through a venture that is not yet profitable but showing some forms of promise.

Overall, she can find countless ways, and phrases, to compare the rugged challenge that is the Camino to that of starting and growing a business.

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real found the inspiration, and the time, to launch Hot Plate Brewing during the first year of the pandemic.

“It’s a hero’s journey,” she said of the trek in Spain, but also entrepreneurship. “You put yourself onto that path, and you have to overcome challenges and see who you are.”

Miraglia is part of what many are calling a surge in entrepreneurship in the Berkshires, one fueled in part by the pandemic, which left many out of work and looking to start their own business. It left others wanting to leave the city and head for far more rural areas — and, again, start their own business. For still others, the pandemic triggered imaginative ideas for ways to get people out and about, and generate revenue while doing so.

Mike Dell’Aquila and his wife, Sara Real, don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but in some ways, they encompass all three. They left their condo in Brooklyn for a home in Lenox in July, and are advancing plans to launch Hot Plate Brewing Co. in Pittsfield.

As with all breweries, there’s a story behind the name; in this case, the couple lost gas service in their condo for a period of time just as they were getting serious about transforming this from a hobby to a business. So they famously bought a hotplate so they could continue honing their craft.

There’s more to this story than the name, though, said Dell’Aquila, adding that the pandemic certainly helped provide the motivation — and the time — to take their dream, which has been, well, brewing since 2018, off the drawing board.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he and Real were both working day jobs, from home, during the pandemic. Motivated by this ‘sign’ from above, they used the extra hour and half they gained each day from not commuting, as well as Zoom technology, to advance their concept.

They are closing in on a location for their venture and plan to start brewing beer by early next year.

As for Liam Gorman, the pandemic certainly helped inspire his venture, CozQuest, which he bills as “the new way to explore the Berkshires.” It’s a local treasure hunt, as he called it, one that connects consumers and businesses “through their love of community and adventure.”

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do. We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

Using their phones, players solve a puzzle, follow a map, and find and scan a QR code to win a prize from a local business. If a player finds all the prizes, he or she can win some cash. German has created a number of these hunts, in cities and attractions such as Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA, and says the business has developed a loyal following among both players and sponsoring businesses. His plan is to expand the concept and perhaps take it to other markets.

These entrepreneurs and many others are part of an emerging story in the Berkshires. It’s about people finding entrepreneurial energy during the pandemic — and finding ways to harness it.

 

It’s No Walk in the Park

As she goes about trying to grow her venture, Miraglia says there are times when she will actually tell herself that she’s “on the Camino.”

By that, she meant she’s on an arduous journey, one where you’re just trying to get to the next day and really don’t know what’s around the next bend.

“It’s hard,” she said, using that phrase to describe both the Camino and entrepreneurship, which has tested her in every way imaginable.

Indeed, while her concept has drawn interest from adventure seekers across the country and even other countries — not to mention a significant amount of press locally — there have been countless challenges to overcome. These include everything from the weather, which has canceled many hikes, to lingering anxiety about gathering in, or even walking in, large groups, to lingering anxiety about how to generate revenue in the winter months.

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children, believes he’s found a scalable venture in CozQuest.

“I’ve had to refund 15% of my deposits so far because of the weather,” said Miraglia as she referenced a spring and summer of almost incessant rain, adding that these seasons have been challenging enough; winter is a matter that will be decided another day.

Meanwhile, Dell’Aquila, while obviously confident and enthusiastic about his venture, was quite candid about his leap from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“It’s definitely terrifying,” he noted. “I vacillate from being super-excited to being super-scared.”

By all accounts, there are more people experiencing these mood swings in the Berkshires these days.

Deb Gallant, executive director of EforAll Berkshire, told BusinessWest that the agency, part of a larger, statewide network that also includes an office in Holyoke, staged its first accelerator program just before COVID-19 arrived in the winter of 2020; it had eight participating businesses. The agency then saw a considerable uptick in applications for the next few cohorts, at the height of COVID, and for all the reasons mentioned above.

“We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

“A lot of people were unemployed, especially those in hospitality,” she explained, noting that many large employers in that sector, such as Canyon Ranch, Kripalu, and others, shut down or curtailed operations. “We had a huge uptick in applications for the next two cohorts.”

The number of applications declined somewhat for the upcoming fall cohort, which she attributes to improved stability at many of those businesses that had shut down partially or completely during the pandemic. But the agency will still have a large cohort, said Gallant, adding there is still a good amount of entrepreneurial activity in this region, which has been reinventing itself for the past 30 years from an economy dominated by manufacturing, and especially General Electric’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, to one that is far more diverse and driven in many ways by tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, a multi-faceted economic-development agency, agreed.

From the early days of the pandemic, he noted, he could sense that, while COVID would bring a wide range of challenges to the region, it would also provide some opportunities for the Berkshires as well.

They have come in all forms, he went on, from professionals relocating to the area from urban centers, a migration certainly helped by the growing success of remote working and one that is prompting population growth in cities and towns that have needed such a surge, to an unparalleled explosion in the real-estate market, which has created opportunities and challenges of its own.

And, as noted, COVID has prompted a surge in entrepreneurship, said Butler, adding that it involves both new owners of businesses that failed during the pandemic — there were many, especially in the broad hospitality realm — and a wide range of new businesses as well, many of them fueled by an even greater interest in visiting the area and taking in many types of attractions.

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do,” he explained. “We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

 

Something’s Brewing

For Dell’Aquila, it wasn’t really a matter of whether he and Real would launch their brewery operation. The questions were when and where they would launch.

And COVID helped answer both, but especially the former, he said, adding that it provided the time and impetus to move ahead with their plans. “We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

Now, he and Real are home brewers with firm plans and, hopefully, a location. They are finalizing commitments for investing in their venture from friends and family, exploring possible incentives from local and state sources, and meeting with architects to finalize blueprints for their operation. They also have a slot in the next accelerator cohort for EforAll Berkshire, during which they hope to gain both a better understanding of the local business landscape and garner more feedback and mentoring on their plans and their brand, which they believe will be a solid addition to the local craft-beer landscape.

He said he and Real will bring what he called a “culinary approach” to brewing, with such as offerings as a chamomile-infused blonde ale and a Jalapeno pale ale, in addition to more traditional stalwarts such as Belgian-style farmhouse beers, some classic American pale ales, and an IPA.

Dell’Aquila acknowledged that the Berkshires were already home to a number of solid craft-beer labels, but there is room for more — and more, in his view, creates opportunities for both himself and others.

Indeed, with Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Shire Breu-Hous in Dalton, and others, the addition of Hot Plate in Pittsfield boosts the potential for what Dell’Aquila called a “beer trail” from the southern part of the county to the northern region.

“One of the things we found when we were really digging in is that there is a lot of excitement and desire for craft beer,” he explained. “And adding more options will only help; to me, density is a good thing.”

While Hot Plate is preparing to launch, CozQuest is looking to build on a solid first year and explore a number of possible growth opportunities, said Gorman, who brings a varied background to his venture. Originally in journalism, he moved to Los Angeles and ventured into television.

After relocating to the Berkshires five years ago in a search for a more stable environment in which to raise children, he became part-owner of the bar Thistle and Mirth and helped reverse its sagging fortunes. He sold his share just prior to COVID’s arrival in the region, and used some of that windfall to start CozQuest, which is in many ways inspired by geocaching, a type of global treasure hunt where seekers use GPS devices to find hidden caches.

“The engagement level has been pretty high; I like to call CozQuest a foot-traffic-building machine,” he told BusinessWest. “It brings people to places they might otherwise not have known about to discover and explore.”

German was a participant in the spring cohort of 2020, and said the experience of working with mentors and other local business owners gave him the confidence to move ahead with the concept, which is currently in what he calls phase 1, where he’s honing the concept and gauging its revenue potential.

The plan is to scale up in all ways, starting with the website, which he built himself. “It looks like someone’s first website, but … it works,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to take the concept to other markets.

As for Miraglia, her first 14 months in business have been a learning experience on many levels.

As noted earlier, she did a hard pivot, from hostels to guided hikes, thanks to input from mentors and what she called a “reckoning with reality” when it came to the costs and other challenges or making those hostels reality.

After pivoting and focusing on hikes, she did some proof-of-concept testing in the late summer of 2020, often giving away her product away as she did so. She found that there is promise, but likely more refinement of the business model as she gains more evidence concerning what will sell and generate profits.

Indeed, she’s learned there is considerable interest in private hikes — small groups and even one person going where they want to go and not necessarily on a pre-set course.

As she noted, there have been many challenges and hurdles for this venture. She started it too late to qualify for any PPP money, and has wound up bootstrapping the operation herself, drawing down a retirement fund to do so.

“As a for-profit venture, grant opportunities are scarce,” she said. “I joke that Joe Biden has invested in Berkshire Camino since I’ve invested the pandemic aid that I received as a citizen into the business. He’s welcome to come on a hike with us at no charge.

“My aim is to establish a solid baseline in 2021 that I can use to demonstrate to a lender or investor that this has viability,” she went on, adding that the business is not yet profitable and she is not drawing a salary. “I learned from walking the Camino de Santiago that the journey is long and you take one step at a time, stay present and flexible. Just like in business.”

 

The Finish Line

Miraglia didn’t finish the Camino on her second trek in 2019. She had completed roughly 250 of the 500 miles before she injured herself and was forced to eventually call a halt, pack up, and head home.

She remembers exactly where she had to call it quits, and has plans to go back to back there — 2024, when she turns 60, is the current goal — and finish the walk the Santiago de Compostela.

Between now and then? She has more immediate goals and dreams, especially to take the venture she started to stability and profitability. She is not at all sure she will get there — the road ahead is paved with question marks and uncertainty.

As it is for all entrepreneurs. There are more of them in the Berkshires these days, by many accounts. They’ve launched ventures that have been inspired by, accelerated by, or facilitated by the pandemic — which has provided the time and opportunity to reflect and, and in these cases, move a dream to reality.

 

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

Berkshire County

No Standing Still

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up at the Mount — not just from 2020, but from pre-pandemic 2019.

It may not stack up to Edith Wharton’s best novels, but it’s a compelling story.

“We’ve had an incredibly good season, despite the challenge of staying in compliance with the latest CDC and local health recommendations regarding COVID,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount, Wharton’s former estate in Lenox that is now a hub for all kinds of arts, nature, and cultural programming.

In fact, Wissler said, this year’s visitorship has doubled that of 2020 — maybe not a striking statistic in itself, given the economic shutdown of that spring and a hesitancy among many people to leave their homes for much of the year. But this year’s figures are also 50% higher than they were in 2019.

Part of that success may be attributed to a decision last year to open up the property’s outdoor grounds and gardens for free. “We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety,” she noted. “We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

“We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety. We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

The house itself still requires admission, and Wissler worried people would take advantage of the free outdoor experience and leave. And maybe some did come with that plan — but many felt compelled to go inside, too. Thus, paid visitation topped the previous two years.

So did weddings, all of which were cancelled in 2020, many of them moved into this year. The Mount typically hosts about 12 weddings per year; it will welcome 26 between May and October.

Meanwhile, NightWood — an ethereal, immersive walking experience featuring original music, lighting, and sculptural elements — was a huge hit last winter, bringing in desperately needed revenue with limited attendance and timed tickets; the Mount will stage the attraction again later this year.

Still, the new focus on outdoor space — which included a lecture series under tents this summer — posed its own issues, particularly weeks when it rained and rained. “That has been a huge frustration for all culturals and restaurants, anyone focusing more attention outdoors,” Wissler said. “The weather was a punch in the stomach.”

MASS MoCA in North Adams also offers programming inside and outdoors, and found plenty of success with both in 2021. “June and July were actually our highest-attended months we’ve ever had — and that includes pre-COVID visitorship,” said Jenny Wright, the museum’s director of Communications.

“We had that brief moment after Memorial Day when we were able to lift restrictions — but we do have an indoor mask mandate in place since August 4 and require our staff to be vaccinated. But we’re very fortunate to have the luxury of lots of indoor and outdoor space on our side,” she noted, adding that, in addition to the museum’s wide corridors and spacious galleries making it easy to physically distance, MASS MoCA made good use of outdoor courtyard space this year to stage performances. “We’re very fortunate to have space on our side during this period.”

The museum’s robust artist-residency programs continued throughout the pandemic as well.

“When people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.”

“Even before we reinstated our performances, we were housing artists in residence to develop new work. That was the catalyst for us developing new digital programming. That was something we hadn’t done much of before,” Wright said, noting that the museum told artist stories with behind-the-scenes documentaries it then posted online as a way to keep the public connected even when they weren’t in the building. It’s also creating 360-degree virtual tours, starting with its famed Sol Lewitt exhibit, to post to the MASS MoCA website.

“Our mission is to make art … new art that has never existed before,” Wright noted. “When you come here and see that, it’s a powerful experience. But when people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.

“For us, it’s really thinking about ways to create multiple points of entry for people, not just the front door,” she went on. “That was something we hadn’t explored in too much depth before.”

Wissler said the Mount found similar success reaching new audiences virtually. “We were really reluctant to get into the pool of virtual programming, but COVID forced us to dive right in — and Zoom programming has been amazing.”

Specifically, events featuring guest authors have been a hit — and found a much broader audience than before. Now, an event that typically drew authors from the mid-Atlantic and New England can bring in guests from pretty much anywhere — and the potential audience has also expanded around the country and even around the world.

“That’s something we’ll continue as we move forward,” Wissler said. “We haven’t found a way to monetize it yet, but from a visitor standpoint, it’s a huge success.”

 

Dramatic Shifts

While many regional destinations and arts organizations shut down completely in 2020, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) turned in one of the year’s most notable success stories, creatively staging an outdoor, socially distanced run of Godspell in August in September — the only show featuring Equity stage actors in the entire country at the time.

Nick Paleologos, executive director, said planning for the 2021 season began in late 2020, and the general feeling as the calendar turned was that current health conditions weren’t going to change dramatically until late 2021 or even 2022.

“So we decided to build on what we learned in the summer of 2020, when we did Godspell outdoors. We planned for a modest but slightly more robust outdoor season on both our campuses, in Stockbridge and Pittsfield.”

In Stockbridge, that meant outdoor runs for The Importance of Being Earnest and a newer play, Nina Simone: Four Women, while in Pittsfield, the theater planned a community version of The Wizard of Oz, but with a slightly scaled-back supporting cast. The organization also scheduled a series of outdoor music performances.

“Then, quite suddenly, Gov. Baker decided to lift all restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, and that caught us a little off guard,” Paleologos said. “We had a planned a whole series of protocols, and now, all of a sudden, we were being told, ‘no problem, go back indoors, you don’t have to wear masks,’ all that.”

So the Stockbridge performances were shifted indoors, to the 120-seat Unicorn Theatre, while The Wizard of Oz in Pittsfield remained outdoors, under tents. While it didn’t have to mandate masks, the Unicorn did require them, even though it had recently upgraded its HVAC system.

“We decided on an abundance of caution — we would require masks and suffer any pushback there might be,” Paleologos went on. “But we encountered very little pushback. People were quite happy, even with the protocols, to wear masks for the entire indoor production. We had hardly any complaints. I think they were grateful to be back inside, in an air-conditioned space, instead of outdoors in Stockbridge during the summer.”

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, attendees didn’t have to wear masks under the tents if they chose not to, and most didn’t.

But another “curveball,” as Paleologos called it, would follow — and, unlike Baker’s decision in May, it wasn’t a positive one. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 emerged and dramatically increased infection rates in a state where COVID had been largely under control, BTG had a decision to make. It was headed into the Nina Simone part of the season and opted to keep that show indoors — but require proof of vaccination for entry.

“Again, we braced outselves for a backlash which never came,” he said, adding that the theater did have to turn away a few people who did not carry that proof with them, even though they claimed to be vaccinated. But in most cases, those patrons requested a credit for a future performance rather than their money back, and other patrons thanked Paleologos for holding fast to the policy, he noted.

“They said the only reason they were there was because of the protocol. I think we’ve gotten to a stage where the issue of concern over spreading the virus has become almost a reflective action; I think people are kind of acclimated to that.”

 

Places in the Heart

The winter-season holiday show at BTG’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield will be held indoors, with masks and vaccination required, as well as distancing by placing an empty seat between seated parties.

In other words, the show goes on at this company that has learned not only how to pivot, but that its audience is willing to pivot right along with it.

Paleologos said the various shifts this year have not only made the organization more flexible, but have shown him that the public is willing to adapt as well — and that bodes well for any future ‘curveballs.’

“It’s been a real learning experience for us. As we look ahead, we’ve become more nimble with what we do and how we do it.”

It’s just one example of how people are seeking meaningful experiences right now and are, for the most part, accepting of whatever protocols are required to engage in them.

“I think people came out of 2020 feeling starved and lonely,” Wissler said. “They’re thinking about the Mount as a destination — a nice place to meet with friends and socialize. I think people are coming for many reasons other than tourism — it’s a great place to keep up and enjoy personal relationships.”

Wright agreed that the pandemic has driven home the importance of what destinations like MASS MoCA offer.

“After everything that’s happened over the past 18 months,” she said, “it really underscores the importance of the arts and cultural destinations during these difficult times — particularly contemporary art, which is not just reflections of the moment we’re in, but can present us with a view of what’s possible. And I think people really need that right now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

By Brooke Thomson

 

Companies from Facebook to Walmart to Google have begun to mandate that their employees get vaccinated to protect against COVID-19. Restaurants throughout the state have also started to require that guests provide proof of vaccination before eating indoors.

As the Delta variant causes COVID-19 infections to increase throughout the country, there is increased pressure on businesses and employers to protect their employees and customers.

Businesses have an important role to play in addressing the health and economic impacts of this crisis. Our businesses have stepped up in amazing ways in the name of public health during the past 18 months. They have enforced masking requirements, shifted to remote and online commerce, closed down to the public, and been on the front lines of the pandemic.

Now, they are again being asked to take responsibility to stop the spread.

But should businesses alone be in charge of leading on public-health emergencies? While federal, state, and local governments took difficult and important steps to protect public health during the pandemic, government leaders now appear to have taken a back seat, relying instead on the private sector to solve public challenges.

A core duty and primary function of any government is to protect the public’s health and safety. The pandemic highlights the need for governments to take their duties seriously. Our elected officials should provide leadership driven by science and evidence, not partisan politics.

State leaders have an opportunity right now to demonstrate this leadership by adopting statewide mask requirements, limiting gatherings in dangerous situations, and providing guidance for businesses to operate safely. Businesses should be focused on their employees and their customers and take their direction on public health and safety from the officials we elect to guide us.

Leaving public-health decisions to private businesses is not the right answer. It is the duty of state and local governments to protect our health. We need leadership on the pandemic to support our businesses and employers.

 

Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Business of Aging

Wave Dynamics

Since they started entering the world just after World War II, the Baby Boomers have influenced society in general, and the business community in particular, in all kinds of ways. The same is true when it comes to the healthcare sector, especially as the oldest members of this huge and proud generation turn 75. The impact of such a large and aging group can be seen in everything from hearing practices to the many facets of the long-term care system. And in some ways, COVID has provided a preview of what it is to come.

 

As she talked about the massive Baby Boom generation, how its oldest members turn 75 this year, and about how almost all the Boomers could now be classified as senior citizens, Dr. Maura Brennan summoned a phase she attributed to her mother, but which she uses often as well: “No one gets out of life alive.”

She used those words to convey the thought that, while this Baby Boom generation may in many ways be healthier than those that preceded it — fewer smokers and more exercisers, for example — and it has enjoyed access to better healthcare and innumerable advances in treatment, from artificial joints to improved cancer care, its members will eventually see their health decline, and they will need increasing amounts of care. And many already do.

“I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care.”

While Brennan — a 70-year-old geriatrician and palliative-care physician — says people being able to live longer is in itself a success story, it has also become a challenge, for today, and especially tomorrow.

Which brings us back to those oldest Boomers, those born just after World War II, who turn 75 this year. That’s the age when, statistically, people begin to see their needs for healthcare increase, said Brennan, adding that, as one might logically assume, when a large number of people hit that threshold all at once, the system will be taxed — in all kinds of ways.

“As one might imagine, it’s going to impact virtually every sector and specialty, with the possible exceptions of OB and pediatrics,” she explained. “We’re going to see increasing numbers of older people; not all those folks are going to be frail and complicated, but there will be an increasing number of people with multiple medical problems.

Dr. Maura Brennan

Dr. Maura Brennan says the healthcare system is struggling to meet demand for direct-care workers, and the situation might get worse.

“The numbers and the complexity will rise,” she went on. “And it will impact every area of healthcare, with probably the biggest impact being in home care and nursing-home care because, personally, I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care that’s going to allow them to stay in their homes and communities as long as possible.”

Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief operating officer at East Longmeadow-based Golden Years Home Care, agreed. She said the milestone age being reached by the oldest of Baby Boomers provides an opportunity to look hard at what’s in store for the healthcare system and ask the question: is it fully prepared for the challenges to come? And, if not, what needs to be done so it might be better prepared?

In many ways, Flahive-Dickson said, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually provided a preview of sorts for what’s coming as this large generation ages, with regard to everything from telehealth to the way the overall healthcare system was tested by sheer volume of cases and even vaccination efforts, to the manner in which the need for home-care services is growing.

During the pandemic, this need was fueled by growing fears of nursing homes and other senior-living facilities. Many of those fears still persist, but for Baby Boomers, by and large, the greater issue is simply wanting to remain independent — and in the home — as long as possible.

Eric Aasheim, a certified senior advisor and owner of Oasis Senior Living of Western Massachusetts, agreed. Aasheim, who assists seniors and family members through the complex process of transitioning from home to senior-living communities across this region, said the entire long-term-care sector will be tested by the aging of this generation.

“What I see, and what I worry about, is that the long-term-care system — and that includes in-home care, nursing homes, and assisted living — is just not ready for the sheer volume of patients and residents that they’re going to have,” he told BusinessWest. “And even though these individuals living longer and their resources are being depleted, there are so few places that have any kind of programs for low-income seniors. Unless something dramatically changes in terms of the number of assisted-living facilities that can serve low-income residents, there won’t be needed options for seniors.”

Meanwhile, besides sheer size and that sense of independence and not wanting to rely on others, the Baby Boom generation boasts some other characteristics as well, including what could be described as denial when it comes to getting old and admitting some aspects of their health have deteriorated.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami. That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

And that’s why, even though she is generally seeing more patients than she was years ago, Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk, an audiologist, says she’s seeing a continuation of, and perhaps even an exacerbation of, an annoying trend whereby people will put off seeking help for their hearing years after they acknowledge they have a problem, due to lingering perceptions about hearing aids making people look old and feeble, even though modern technology has changed that landscape.

And that’s just one example of why there are still many question marks about how and to what degree this generation will present challenges and opportunities moving forward.

 

Age-old Challenges

Before getting into any real detail about the Baby Boom generation and its advancing age, Brennan wanted to set the proper tone for the discussion.

Indeed, she told BusinessWest that years, if not decades, of talk about a ‘silver tsunami’ have succeeded in casting discussion about the aging Boomers — and, again, she’s a proud, card-carrying member of that generation — in often-negative tones.

Mary Flahive-Dixon

Mary Flahive-Dixon says most Baby Boomers want to age in place, in their own homes.

“This notion of the silver tsunami makes the aging of the population sound like an impending natural disaster over which we have no control that’s going to sweep everything away,” she said. “It feels to me, and most geriatrics leaders, like we’re framing things wrong; we’re setting this up as ‘us versus them’ — us young healthy, productive people against those old people who are going to overrun the system. These people are … us. They’re our neighbors, our teachers, our relatives.”

That said, a lot of ‘us’ are getting on in years. Indeed, maybe half or more of all Boomers can now get a senior discount at the movies, the golf course, and the pharmacy. And large numbers of them are now over 70, which means many aspects of the healthcare system — from eye care to urology; orthopedics to hearing care — are certainly already seeing an impact, and it will only grow as more Boomers reach 70, 80, 90, and beyond.

Restating the matter (again, she doesn’t want to classify it as a problem), Brennan said the Baby Boom generation is indeed large (it’s estimated that, by 2035, 10% of the population will be 85 or older; it’s closer to 6% now), and its members are living longer than the generations that preceded them, again, because of better health and better healthcare.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

That’s true, but so is what her mother said so often: that no one gets out of life alive.

“Some period of decline is going to occur for virtually all of us — unless we die in our sleep from a funny heart rhythm or get hit by a truck crossing Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “And the causes of death in recent years have shifted; if you look back 50 or 80 years, the causes of death were frequently things like trauma, infection, death in childbirth — things that take you rather quickly when you were reasonably functional prior to that. That is no longer true. And with the successes we’ve had, and with people living longer, they are increasingly likely to die of multiple progressing chronic diseases.”

What does all this mean? Increasingly, Brennan said, people will need more care from more people as they age and approach end of life — a team-based approach, if you will.

“We’re going to have to think about care a different way because it’s not all about the doctors and the nurses,” she explained. “People will need hands-on home care, they’ll need symptom management, they’ll need direct-care workers who are grossly underpaid and overworked, and who churn through the system, with tremendous turnover.

“We’re struggling to meet those needs now, and it’s perceived to be, and is, a major problem,” she went on. “And if we do not alter the way we are paying, recruiting, supporting, and respecting those people, it will be infinitely worse. We’re going to need to restructure things, pay people differently, and offer them different kinds of professional development and career ladders that will make those positions more attractive; otherwise, we have a self-perpetuating situation. It’s the classic axiom — the system produces exactly the kinds of results it was designed to produce. If we don’t change the system, you get what you’ve got.”

Another issue that will have to addressed regards the number of specialists that will be needed to care for this larger generation of older residents, said Brennan, referring to geriatrics doctors, general nurse practitioners, social workers, pharmacists, and more.

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk says people still put off seeking treatment for hearing loss due to outdated perceptions about hearing aids.

“As the number of older folks is increasing, the number of experts is not increasing, not one iota,” she told BusinessWest. “And, in fact, in some fields, such as geriatric medicine, the number of certified geriatricians has actually probably declined somewhat because we’re not replacing people who are retiring with equal numbers of new grads.”

 

The Shape of Things to Come

Flahive-Dickson agreed, noting that among the Boomers now in or approaching retirement are large numbers of healthcare workers. Replacing them and making the kinds of systemic changes Brennan mentioned will be just some of the many challenges facing the healthcare system moving forward.

Several of the others involve the growing trend of people wanting to age in place — and especially in their own home.

And this brings her back to COVID and what has been learned during the pandemic.

“More care was moving toward the home, basically as a result of general anxiety about facility care — about being in hospital, about being in a skilled nursing facility,” she explained. “Because of this crisis, we’ve seen more people want to get their care in the home.”

And this is a trend she expects will continue into the future as more people from this huge generation confront questions about the care they need and how and where they want it provided.

But questions arise from this supposition — many of them, in fact, including whether there will be enough providers to care for all those people who will want to stay in their homes, and also whether the payers are willing and able to adjust to a changing landscape of need and pay for services they currently don’t cover.

Again, Flahive-Dickson said the pandemic has provided an intriguing lens for looking at the problem — and the future as well.

“If COVID has done anything for us, it has previewed what is to come,” she told BusinessWest. “The pandemic has shown us that this surge in home care is a glimpse of the future. And it has provided this glimpse not only to healthcare professionals and the general population, but also to regulatory bodies, such as Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

“They have had to relax a lot of rules,” she went on. “As the Medicare population is continuing to grow, Medicare benefits haven’t caught up to that, and this is a huge problem. There are fewer than a dozen states that even offer non-medical home-care services to be paid for by a plan, and that plan is a singular plan, and that’s Medicare Advantage. In Western Mass., no one has a Medicare Advantage plan that offers the benefits of non-medical support, so it’s either out of pocket, or you have to qualify for one of the few programs that cover this.”

As for home-care workers, she said a number of demographic trends (Boomers generally had smaller families than the generations that preceded them) and other issues point toward individuals needing someone outside the family to care for them — and real challenges when it comes to having a steady supply of workers to provide that care.

That’s another lesson from COVID, she said, referring to the law of supply and demand, which was certainly exacerbated by a pandemic during which many had apprehensions about working in others’ homes.

“Fewer and fewer family members are capable of being a caregiver, either because there are fewer families, period, or … because family members might be on a different coast,” she explained. “Just because you grew up in Springfield doesn’t mean you stay in Springfield.”

Aasheim agreed, noting that these demographic trends are just some of the challenges facing the Baby Boom generation. Another is their own lack of preparedness for what is to come — financially and otherwise.

He said that only one individual in 10 has long-term-care insurance, and this is a matter to be addressed — just not when someone is 75 or even 65; those products have to be bought much sooner. Meanwhile, not enough members of this generation (and it’s not exactly unique in this regard) have their ducks in a row when it comes to needed documents — and needed preparation for poor health that often comes on suddenly and without much warning.

“What I try to focus on with the Boomers are the things they can do now, before that eventuality,” he explained. “This includes having discussions with your family about what your preferences are in terms of long-term care, gathering the documents together, getting power of attorney and a healthcare proxy, all those things. That’s what I hammer away with them — get that stuff done now, while you’re still healthy and you have the energy and the mental capacity to deal with it, so your family doesn’t have to handle it in crisis mode a few years down the line.”

Unfortunately, he said, many don’t heed this advice.

“They all nod when I talk to them in these presentations, but are they going home and getting that stuff together? My thought would be, probably not,” he went on. “Because most of the calls I get are from people who are in crisis mode.”

Bankowski Chunyk is another who wishes that more Boomers would heed some advice. Or at least listen to family members telling them they can’t hear as well as they used to, and should do something about it.

She told BusinessWest that the hearing industry talked a lot about the Baby Boom generation years (make that decades) ago, and how its size and advancing age would comprise a great opportunity for audiologists, one they should be prepared to seize.

Bankowski Chunyk did prepare, but she said the wave hasn’t been nearly as big as all those experts predicted it would be, largely because of … well, human nature, as well as lingering perceptions about hearing aids and what they say about those who wear them.

She said data shows that, between 1989 and 2019, the average age of an individual being fitted for a hearing aid for the first time fell from 66 to 65.

“I’m not sure a lot of progress was made getting people to address their hearing,” she said with some sarcasm in her voice, adding that, while there are certainly more people of that age than there were several years ago, sheer volume is not creating the immense opportunity that was predicted back in the ’80s and ’90s.

Whether it will materialize eventually or not, she doesn’t know — but she does know the Boomers are perhaps more vain when it comes to hearing aids than the generations that preceded them, so her industry has some work to do to change those perceptions.

 

Bottom Line

Perceptions are not the only thing that will have to change if the Baby Boomers, and those in the healthcare system who will care for them, will adequately manage this sizable demographic shift.

Brennan is right when she warns about this challenge becoming an ‘us versus them’ scenario, but she’s also right (and her mother was right) when she said that no gets through life alive.

As this generation ages, it will present enormous challenges to a healthcare sector that in many ways seems unprepared for what’s coming. That’s evidenced by the number of comments that began with the words ‘if things don’t change’ — comments referring to everything from workforce to accommodations for low-income seniors.

Only time will tell if things will, indeed, change. What is known is that the Boomers, as they have at every other phase of their life, will alter the landscape as they reach 75 — and beyond. And in all kinds of ways.

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Lessons Learned from COVID

It’s been said time and again that, for businesses large and small, the pandemic provided a number of learning opportunities. Companies learned new ways to do things — mostly out of necessity — while also learning that the ‘old’ way may not be the best way. Meanwhile, the pandemic provided opportunities that didn’t exist before — especially when it comes to hiring — and accelerated the pace of needed change. All that means the landscape has been altered for the long term.

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet, in the company’s mostly unoccupied space in Tower Square.

They’re called ‘insurance bibles.’

That’s the name those at HUB Insurance have attached to the large binders — some of them containing 700 pages or more, in the case of large commercial accounts — that tell clients everything, as in everything, about what’s in their policy, what’s covered, what isn’t, and on and on.

As he held one up, Timm Marini, president of HUB International New England LLC, noted that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, bibles only came in the printed variety. Now, if a client wants one — and some of them don’t — a digital file is sent, in part because a client can’t pick one up, and HUB can’t drop one off.

And, by and large, things will stay this way, said Marini, noting that COVID has shown those at the company that they don’t need to kill trees and use up expensive toner to provide a client with their insurance bible.

“Now, you can do it all electronically,” he explained. “And you probably could before COVID, but COVID made us do it more.”

This is just one of the many things companies large and small have learned during the pandemic, lessons that will carry over to the time when COVID is referred to in the past tense. Others involve everything from not having to scan documents for tax preparers to not necessarily limiting a candidate search to those living in the 413, to not having people travel to a conference on the other side of the state if they can instead take it in via Zoom.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back. They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting.”

In a word, the pandemic has shown area businesses and nonprofits that they have more options than maybe they thought they had, when it comes to how and where people work and just how things are done.

For this issue and its focus on the modern office, we talked with a number of business owners and managers about what’s been learned over the past 12 months or so and how COVID has actually made companies more efficient and enabled them to reduce costs in some areas. The observations were telling.

“The audit side of our practice generally required teams of people here to go visit on site at other locations,” said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruitment manager at the Holyoke-based CPA firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka. “Because of COVID, we learned we could do these remotely, which is something we’ve never done; this was a first-time experience not just for us, but for people in our industry. We’ve learned that it’s fine, it is efficient, and with some businesses, we’ll keep doing it this way moving forward.”

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’ — the printed variety. Those at HUB have had to send digital documents during the pandemic, and that trend will continue into the future.

For Springfield-based Wellfleet, now with offices in Tower Square, the pandemic has provided ample evidence that employees in many positions can work effectively and remotely, and this enables the company to expand its horizons when it comes to hiring.

“You can expand your pool when it comes to workforce; we can hire someone not from the Springfield area and have them be successful with the tools that we’ve developed,” said Drew DiGiorgio, the company’s CEO, adding that the company has already hired some people from other parts of the country. Meanwhile, it is working on plans to have other employees work a hybrid schedule, with some days in the office and others remotely.

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, said that, prior to COVID, HR Director Susie Brown and IT Director Drew Weibel were already hard on work on plans to position the bank to be more flexible with its workforce in terms of where and how it worked. The pandemic served to accelerate that process.

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets,” he noted, adding that these lengthy commutes prompted talk and then creation of plans for remote work and hybrid schedules. “We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

But even with these options in place and far more flexibility with work schedules than ever before, the bank is tilting strongly toward having people work on site — with some exceptions — and it’s also seeing most of its employees want to come back, which is another thing companies are learning as they work their way through COVID.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back,” Weibel said. “They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting. They want to come back, but some find it easier to work at home until the school situation is worked out and their children are back in the classroom.”

Stack agreed. “When the shutdown first happened, everyone was excited to work from home, so a lot of people exercised that option, and some people have found they’re more efficient from home, cutting out that commute,” she said. “But while some still work from home, the majority of people, like 97% of the people at MBK, choose to come into the office every day because they don’t want to work from home.”

Work in Progress

DiGiorgio said it’s somewhat frustrating to walk around his company’s offices in Tower Square.

More than 200 employees moved into the well-appointed space covering three full floors in the late summer of 2019, only to see pretty much everyone pack up and go home to work in mid-March.

“We love it — we wish we could be in it more,” he said with a laugh. “It’s great space — open-floor design, all the things you probably don’t want with COVID. It will be great to get back to it.”

Indeed, that’s a lot of fairly expensive (for this market) downtown Springfield real estate that is not being used. But DiGiorgio doesn’t dwell on matters that are out of his control.

Instead, he’s more focused on what the future will look like — and applying all the lessons learned during the pandemic.

As for that real estate … he said this is a growing company that took three floors with the intention of perhaps soon absorbing a fourth. Need for that additional space is less likely now, he acknowledged, but the company will still need the space it’s now leasing because he fully expects most of his employees to be back in that space.

But not all will have to come back, he went on, and some, as he noted, will never have to sit at a desk there.

“We have, over the past year, hired people in Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Upstate New York … we have a pretty remote workforce,” he said, adding that some of these hires took place before COVID because the tools were in place, but the pandemic has highlighted how effective people can be working remotely, and thus, as he said, broadened and deepened the talent pool.

“We have a billing person who’s in Tennessee. I feel more comfortable now that she can hire people in Tennessee or wherever she needs to; they may not need to be in Springfield, which is what our initial thought was. COVID has opened up our thinking to where we hire people.”

Marini agreed. “We have employees in Wisconsin who work for New England,” he explained. “We have people who decided to move to Florida and still work for New England. We had a little of that before COVID, but what we realized was that, with our ability to get our automation up and running, our digital offerings, that really expanded our talent pool; there have been some relocations during COVID and some new hires during COVID that are not Western Mass.-based. And we have some people in Western Mass. who work for some of our Eastern Mass. locations and even one in New York.”

COVID has reinforced this premise, as it has many others, while accelerating some trends and pretty much forcing companies to do some things they never considered before.

Like those virtual audits at Meyers Brothers Kalicka.

Stack said the firm’s teams have undertaken a number of them, while, in other cases, it has adopted a hybrid approach for some audits, going to the client site for some of the work while handing the rest remotely. Thanks in large part to COVID, there are now several options for handling such work, she said, adding that other lessons have been learned and other new ways of doing things revealed.

“On the tax side of our practice, we used to have clients in the building all day, every day, from February 1 through tax day, and now, maybe three people a day drop off their boxes of papers; the vast majority of people just e-mail us their material,” she explained. “They’re happy with it, it’s efficient, and it saves us a step. Instead of having to take tons and tons of paperwork and scan it into our digital system, it’s already coming to us in that format.

“We used to have to hire a scanner for tax season — a whole person whose job was to take all this paper that people would drop off and scan it,” she went on. “We didn’t have to hire a scanner this season, and that was definitely a positive change.”

Will Dávila, executive director and CEO of the Children’s Study Home in Springfield, said the pandemic has led to positive change in many forms at his agency and most all businesses and nonprofits. He echoed others when he said that COVID has served to heighten the awareness of how technology can be used to improve efficiency and save time, such as when traveling to conferences or meetings in other cities.

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home, says his agency has learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, many of them involving better use of technology.

“We now have more of a comfort level with working remotely and working via Zoom,” he said, adding that this technology existed long before COVID, but few businesses took full advantage of it. “The lesson for us, and I’m not sure we have it completely figured out yet — it will likely take us some time — is that we can do more with technology than we thought we could before. I’ve been in places where we would talk about technology and teleconferencing and telehealth, and people would balk at it. And now, we’ve been forced to take another look, and we’ve embraced it.”

Looking ahead, he said that, while most people look forward to the day when they can gather and attend conferences and meetings in person, they know there are options — there’s that word again — and they won’t be hesitant to take full advantage of them if the circumstances permit.

Caution Signs

As he walked with BusinessWest through HUB’s headquarters facility on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow, Marini pointed to a number of unoccupied workstations, some of them marked off with the yellow ‘caution’ tape usually associated with crime scenes and construction sites. Such tape can be seen throughout the suite of offices, he said, noting that the space — which was occupied by just over 50 employees prior to the pandemic — has hosted around seven a day on average, with a high of 14, by his count.

Sectioning off such areas became part of life during COVID, he noted, adding that there are myriad ways the pandemic changed the landscape for the company. Overall, there’s been a huge shift; a place once teeming with employees and visiting customers now sees very few of either.

And that has brought challenges — and some opportunities, mostly in the form of learning how to do things remotely and without reams of paper. As he talked about these opportunities, Marini gave a nod — sort of, anyway — to an organization his business works closely with, obviously: the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

“Even the Registry of Motor Vehicles here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has become more digitized, more automated, and more flexible, and that’s something I never thought I’d see after 33 or 34 years of doing this,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in some ways, his company has been inspired by the RMV, as it automates and digitizes many processes that once involved paper and in-person sessions.

As for the challenges, they came in waves, Marini explained, from equipping everyone to work at home, which was expensive and difficult logistically, to helping employees cope with everything from feelings of isolation to simply filling their days with work, even though they were home.

CHuck Leach

Chuck Leach

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets. We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

“We were too accessible when we were home, so there were no breaks for our people,” he explained. “We started having big conversations and hiring professionals to come in to coach us to make sure we took breaks and that there was separation between home and work.”

What will things look like several months from now, especially if the pandemic continues to ease? Marini isn’t exactly sure, but he acknowledged that he spends a lot of time thinking about it and working with corporate to prepare for that day.

He does know that more business will be handled virtually in the future, and there will be little, if any, need for those printed insurance bibles.

As for employees, like others we spoke with, he expected that they will come back, because the company wants them back, but also because they want to be back in that office setting.

Such sentiments were echoed by many of those we spoke with. They noted that it seem logical that, after getting a taste of working at home, many employees would prefer that option, but what employers are generally seeing is the opposite reaction.

“People are sick of remote everything,” said Stack, noting that Meyers Brothers Kalicka has a younger team within the audit department that could do its work from home, but instead it has reserved the firm’s huge boardroom for the past six weeks so the members can work together, but safely and well spread out.

“They have music playing on Spotify every time you walk in there,” she said. “They just want to be in the same space — they think they’re more efficient that way, and they can ask questions of each other faster and stay on track better because they’re all together. It’s not something we told them they had to do; they’ve chosen to do it.”

Dávila agreed, although he noted that he has some employees who are quite happy working at home, and are “working on it” when it comes to returning to the office. By that, he meant he’s offering some flexibility on this matter and not rushing anyone back who doesn’t want to rush back.

“I think it’s partly generational — people who have been in the field for 15 or 20 years or more and are used to those in-person interactions, they’re used to having that time by the water cooler when they’re getting a cup of coffee. I consider those valuable interactions that help with morale,” he told BusinessWest. “But we also have younger staff who are very comfortable with technology and embrace the idea of working remotely.”

But, ultimately, they will come back, probably by the end of the calendar year. “I don’t want to say absolutely not,” he said when asked about hybrid arrangements that offer a mix of remote and in-office work. “But my preference is that we get people back to a schedule where they can see each other and interact.”

Lee Bank’s Susie Brown agreed. “When it comes to Lee Bank, I think everyone enjoys being together,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of people who are unwilling to come back; those that are unwilling are those that have other challenges at home with their children.”

Bottom Line

COVID is far from over, and there are certainly more lessons to be learned as companies large and small continue to cope with an unprecedented challenge.

But it’s already evident that this battle has prompted changes that will live on long after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. As they were forced to do things differently, companies learned that, in many cases, these different ways are better than the old ways.

Like the insurance bible. Clients, at least some of them, will still need one. But they won’t need to thumb through 700 pages of printed material to find an answer.

COVID has changed all that — and it keeps on changing the landscape.

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

Opinion

Editorial

In some ways, it seems like it just yesterday. In other ways, it seems like years ago.

That’s what the last 12 months of COVID-19 — 12 months unlike anything any of us have experienced before — have been like. They’ve gone by fast, but it’s been a long, as in long, year.

As with the Kennedy assassination (for those of us old enough) and with the morning of 9/11 for those who are younger, everyone remembers where they were and what was happening when the governor put his stay-at-home order in effect. For many, it meant packing up (if they hadn’t already packed up) and leaving the office for what we all thought might be a few weeks, or a few months at most.

We soon learned that those projections were way off base and that we would be living with the pandemic and all the hardships that came with it for a long time.

In the months that followed, we would learn much more, as our roundtable discussion with six area business leaders (see story on page 6) reveals. We learned that we didn’t have to be in the office, necessarily, to get our jobs done. We learned new ways of doing things. We learned to embrace technology — well, because we didn’t have a choice. And we all wondered why we didn’t embrace it earlier.

We learned some other things, as well. We learned that life is hard, and not just during a pandemic. But COVID, by exacerbating things, made it clear that work/life balance isn’t just a buzz phrase; it is a serious, serious challenge and something that employers now understand better than they ever did before.

As our panelists indicated, we all learned to listen a little more than we used to, and we learned how to more empathic to the needs and challenges of employees. Many of us learned how to be better managers because, in short, that’s what had to happen. We learned that making sales quotas, hitting deadlines, and reaching quarterly goals are not the only things that keep people up at night.

We also learned how to pivot — again, because we had to — and look for new ways to carry out our missions, make payroll each week, keep people employed, and keep the doors open.

In short, we’ve learned a lot — about pandemics, business, life, and ourselves. This is not a silver lining to this horrible crisis — there are none of those. It’s simply reality.

What’s also reality is that the hard decisions and the myriad challenges are not over — not by a long shot. Now, we have to determine how we’re going to execute all these things we’ve learned when life and work go back to normal, or something approaching it.

We have to decide how our businesses will function when it’s safe for everyone to come back to the office or the classroom or the restaurant. We’ve learned that people can work from home, but is that the best place to work — for the company and the employee? And there are other questions, including those related to how we can continue to listen, understand, and be empathic when we’re no longer in crisis mode.

These are just some of the things we need to think about as we mark a dubious milestone — a year of coping with a global pandemic.

It’s been a year to learn, reflect, adapt, and change. And we’re far from being done with any of those things.

Opinion

Opinion

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to the tragic COVID-related deaths at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke almost a year ago, there are no silver linings. There is nothing that can fill the void left by lost loved ones, and nothing that can relieve the anguish visited upon staff members who had to endure that catastrophic sequence of events that led to the deaths of at least 76 veterans.

But sometimes, such tragedies eventually lead to progress, to improvements, to new and better ways of doing things. And it appears that this may well be the case with the Soldiers’ Home.

Indeed, out of the ashes of the calamity of last spring have emerged plans for a new, eight-story Holyoke Soldiers’ Home that will replace the 70-year-old facility that is, in many ways, inadequate and obsolete. Last week, the Baker-Polito administration filed a $400 million bond bill to move forward with the construction of the new home, the next big step in the process of making a new facility reality.

While the need for a new Soldiers’ Home has long been understood and embraced, there is no doubt that the events of last spring — when the virus overran the facility amid a series of questionable decisions that ultimately led to resignations and, later, indictments for criminal neglect — have helped pave the way for a proper, modern, 235-bed facility that will serve veterans for generations to come.

This project still has a long way to go before it becomes reality. There are stern deadlines to meet and more important votes to take place in the state Legislature. But there certainly appears to be sufficient momentum to see this initiative to the finish line. It has been generated by caring people who want to do right by future generations of veterans — but also, we believe, by a deep desire to “make things right” for the families of those who died last spring and the for the staff members who have long endured inadequate facilities, said the chairman of a coalition of former Soldiers’ Home administrators, families, and veterans advocates who have embraced plans for a new home.

Truthfully, nothing will really make things right. But this is huge step in the right direction.

Business of Aging

Shot in the Arm

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll off production lines, many questions remain — about how quickly they’ll reach the general public, about long-term efficacy and safety, about how many Americans will actually want one.

But on one issue, there is no doubt, Dr. Andrew Artenstein said.

“This is a spectacular achievement just to get where we’ve gotten so far, and I think we should appreciate that,” the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “It’s been a whirlwind, and I mean that in a good way.”

Everyone in healthcare understands the upside — the dramatic promise — of a vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 10th month.

“A vaccine is a major component of getting on the other side of this,” Artenstein added. “It’s not the only component, but it’s an important and necessary piece of shortening the duration of this pandemic and possibly preventing future waves.”

With Pfizer gaining emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to begin distributing its vaccine — and Moderna expected to do the same — the Baker-Polito administration announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of vaccine shipments to Massachusetts, expected to begin around Dec. 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for frontline medical workers. Another 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled-nursing facilities and assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

In all, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered by the end of December. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, state leaders expect to receive and distribute more than 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the public should not let down their guard when it comes to masking and social distancing while they wait for the vaccine.

“It does make perfect sense,” Artenstein said of the prioritization plans, which reflect judgments on the federal level and ensure delivery to groups like healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities before the rest of the public. In the case of seniors, for example, “it’s not that they’re more likely to get the virus, necessarily, but they’re more likely to die if they get infected. They do worse.”

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare workers have a greater risk of coronavirus exposure than most other people.

“We’ve been inundated — inundated — with calls from other groups that they want the vaccine,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on that word. “But the truth is, it isn’t available for the general population now, and it may be several months before it is.”

Artenstein, an infectious-disease expert who founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, has been one of the public faces locally of the fight against COVID-19, and he was careful to temper optimism about a vaccine with a reality check on the timeline — and what people need to do in the meantime.

“A vaccine may eventually be the answer, but it’s only going to be part of the solution for the next six to 12 months, assuming we continue to get vaccines that are safe and effective. It’s going to take a while — even if all goes well — before we get enough immunity in the population to really put an end to this thing.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “we would benefit greatly by continuing to push the classic ways to interrupt transmission: masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings. All those things will continue to help us because, even after we start vaccinating parts of the population, it will take the better part of the year to roll it out to everyone, and we need to continue to interrupt transmission.”

Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, agreed, even though it can be a challenge getting through to people suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ who feel isolated and weary of all the changes in their lives over the past year.

“I’m sorry people are tired,” she said. “But the basic messaging isn’t hard — wear a mask, wash your hands, and don’t be inside spaces with a mask off with people you don’t know. I do think the holidays have created a tremendous sense of urgency to remind people again, especially with students leaving schools and coming back to their homes.”

Hopefully, health leaders say, vaccines will put a definitive end to the crisis. But that day is still far off, Collins added. “People need to wait it out.”

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

In announcing the Commonwealth’s vaccine-distribution plans, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts goes further than national recommendations by prioritizing all workers in the healthcare environment, not only providers, but also food-service, maintenance, and other facility workers. Similarly, home health workers, including personal-care attendants, are prioritized on the list, recognizing their important role providing services to vulnerable individuals and the fact that they often reside in communities highly affected by COVID-19.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins

“Messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical. Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Phase one of vaccine distribution — which, as noted, includes healthcare-facility workers; police, fire, and ambulance workers; congregate-care settings, including not only senior-living facilities, but shelters and jails; and home-based healthcare workers — is expected to last into February. Phase two, expected to run from February to April, will prioritize individuals with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; all adults over age 65; as well as workers in the fields of early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health.

Phase three, expected to follow in April or May, will see the vaccine more widely available to the general public.

Baker’s announcement noted that vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves the vaccine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

All this is necessary for emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Artenstein said, but the testing process is far from over, and long-term effects won’t be known until, well, the long term.

The emergency-use ruling “is not licensure, but allows the immediate use of the vaccine pending more information that leads to licensure down the road — because we’re in a pandemic,” he noted, adding that he’s optimistic about further testing, as trials so far have shown about 95% effectiveness across all age groups, with no serious adverse effects.

“The data I’ve seen is pretty impressive for efficacy and safety of the vaccine. And there were around 40,000 people in the trial, so that’s a good sample,” he said — enough to start delivering some immunity to high-risk populations now.

The question, especially as distribution widens in the spring, is how many Americans will actually take the vaccine. Collins said the Public Health Institute has conducted preliminary outreach and found some skepticism and mistrust of the government when it comes to vaccine advice, especially in communities of color.

“In order to counteract that, we have been trying to find and lift up messengers in the community who are trusted people, whether faith-based leaders or other trusted messengers, to counteract skepticism and fear about getting vaccines, whether the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine,” Collins told BusinessWest, adding that the institute held a virtual town-hall event two days before Thanksgiving and asked 10 such messengers to share their wisdom on prevention measures.

Artenstein breaks down vaccine attitudes into three distinct groups of people — two of which are those champing at the bit for a vaccine, and a small but robust community of anti-vaxxers who express skepticism at vaccines in general.

“Then there’s a whole middle group who could be convinced to get the vaccine, but they’re concerned about safety and effectiveness,” he explained. “It’s a risk-benefit calculation, and based on what I know about vaccines, the risk seems low, and the risk of COVID seems pretty high, especially right now, with such high rates in the community.

Hampden County, in fact, currently ranks third among Massachusetts counties for transmission rate, with more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Typically, around 70% of people in a community — or a nation — need to be exposed, either through natural infection or a vaccine, to reach the desired herd immunity, he added. “In the U.S., that’s a big number. But the risk-benefit calculation is obvious. You’d like, over time, to have enough people willing to get the vaccine to help the general population.”

 

Anticipation and Reality

While surveys currently suggest about 60% of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, that number could rise higher if early results from the priority groups demonstrate both effectiveness and safety.

“The U.K. is going first, and then U.S. healthcare workers have to go — which is obviously the right thing to do — then people over 65,” Collins noted. “It’s not like the general public is being made guinea pigs. We will actually be able to see a lot of people getting the vaccine, and the companies will see the reactions.

“So, messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Artenstein agreed, adding that, for the group of Americans ready to line up right now, the wait may be longer than they realize, but that’s OK.

“We’re a little over our skis on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, but it’s going to come out as more of a slow roll; there’s a manufacturing process, an approval process, and a safety process. There won’t be 300 million doses available tomorrow, and that’s hard for some folks.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest, questions, and anxiety, and rightly so,” he added. “We’re living in a very different time, and people want to move very fast. But we have to make sure we do things in the safest possible way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Stuart Anfang, M.D.

The holidays are supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ as one song notes. But for some, it may be the most difficult time of the year after the loss of a loved one.

The holiday season can be especially difficult for those who are preparing to spend these joyous occasions for the first time without a spouse, child, or other beloved family member or friend by their side. These feelings of grief are only exacerbated this year by COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many, plus the general stress of dealing with the pandemic.

It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and even helplessness and hopelessness while navigating the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence, and watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings — or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs — are worrisome signs.

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them. Remember, it’s OK and not a sign of weakness to ask for help.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you — for example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.

Together, you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums or making and displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased. Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, make sure to follow public-health recommendations about masking, social distancing, and gathering in limited numbers.

Many people also find solace in generosity, as this is the ‘season of giving.’ Many people also volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.

For some, the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you. But if you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school, or home — problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself, or wanting to die — that may be time to seek some professional evaluation. A good place to start can be your primary-care provider or a trusted clergy.

The bottom line is, help is available. Do not suffer in silence.

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang is vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

Healthcare Heroes

While This Shelter’s Protocols Changed, Its Mission Never Did

The metaphor is an easy one to draw.

“If COVID was the invading army, all of us here — every one of us — had to set the wall and hold the wall and make sure folks were going to be safe,” said Keith Rhone, Operations director at Friends of the Homeless in Springfield, a program of Clinical & Support Options (CSO).

The reality, however, was much more complex. In its dorms, its kitchen, and places where clients meet therapists, clinicians, and other staff one on one, FOH was tasked, back in March, with implementing social distancing and a host of other protocols aimed at keeping everyone safe — both those delivering a broad range of services and those receiving them — while never shutting those services down.

That they did so, and how, makes the entire team true Healthcare Heroes.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that.”

“In some ways, we can’t do anything differently,” Clinical Director Christy O’Brien told BusinessWest. “We’re never going to shut down; we’re never not going to be here. Despite the social distancing we had to do, we’re never not going to be close to our people — not necessarily physically, of course, but we still need to know how they’re doing, how we can help, all those things. Where other places were forced to move to telehealth, that’s never going to work for us. The needs are still the needs.”

Those needs encompass not only shelter, but clinical services, such as mental-health and substance-abuse recovery coaching and therapy; housing — FOH has a number of lease-holding tenants; three meals a day; clothing and toiletries as necessary; transportation and delivery services; prescription pickups; case management … as Rhone put it, “the job here is whatever it takes.”

COVID-19 didn’t arrive at an ideal time, said Bill Miller, vice president of Housing and Homeless Services — not that there’s ever a good time for a global pandemic.

“We were coming out of a winter where we served more people and were more full than we had ever been in our history,” he recalled. “So it was a tough winter, and what the pandemic required was a complete shift in our mindset because our inclination and our mission has always been the same: how do we serve as many people as possible? So we wanted to continue to serve in the same way, but we had to adopt a whole new style.”

Among the changes, picnic tables and tents were erected outdoors — spaced apart — to accommodate distanced meal lines. Volunteers, who are instrumental in the service of FOH meals and other activities, were temporarily suspended. In the dormitories, some beds were removed, with overflow space employed in the dining room. Partitions went up, and guests were arranged head to toe when sleeping.

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless, who had to quickly figure out new protocols in the spring while continuing to serve clients at the same level as before.

Additional temporary staff were hired to more regularly and thoroughly sanitize spaces, and hand-sanitizer stations were mounted throughout the campus. Dozens of donors and staffers designed and sewed homemade cloth masks so that each shelter guest would have reusable, washable masks.

Meanwhile, from the pandemic’s earliest days, before on-site testing became available, temperature screenings and interviews were conducted to alert the team to early signs, and as the situation progressed, Baystate and Mercy medical centers were quick to work with FOH on testing.

CSO also staffed and managed large tent facilities, which were erected in partnership with the city of Springfield and served as emergency accommodations in the event of positive cases (see the related story of another Healthcare Hero, page xx). When another shelter in the city needed to close due to guests testing positive, the CSO team was able to quarantine those who had been at risk and refer those who ended up testing positive to state-run MEMA isolation sites. FOH further assisted many of those individuals once their isolation periods were completed.

Why was all this critical? Simply put, while COVID-19 has swept through homeless populations in Boston, Worcester, and other cities, homeless individuals in the Greater Springfield region have been largely spared, thanks to the quick — dare we say heroic — work of the team at Friends of the Homeless.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that,” Miller said, adding that “there wasn’t one person who backed out, who wasn’t going to show up for work. We have a dedicated team who have been here for a long time. It was just incredible how everybody showed up.”

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people.”

It wasn’t lost on Miller that many people working at Friends of the Homeless fall into high-risk categories when it comes to COVID-19. “To have people come into work anyway is just striking.”

“Everyone came in and suited up and did the work,” added Delphine Ray, manager of Case Management Services. “They didn’t hesitate. This is our home away from home, and, by the grace of God, we managed to pull through.”

Dave Ware, men’s shelter manager, said he had many concerns about to manage the social-distancing aspect of the pandemic at FOH. “They really came together to figure out how to manage that in the dorms and kitchen. They came up with a good strategy to handle the social-distancing part.”

It wasn’t always a top-down strategy, Miller added. “There was a fad in business management some years ago — idea-driven organizations. That meant the ideas came from staff at all levels. That’s what we saw here. ‘What if we try this?’ ‘OK, let’s do that.’ Because this was something we’d never seen before, and we didn’t know what to do. And it ended up going well. Everybody was on high alert, and everyone had ideas.”

O’Brien also praised clients of Friends of the Homeless for taking the pandemic seriously and getting tested in the early days, before much was known about the virus and they were already preoccupied with some very real concerns, from mental health to lack of housing. “COVID wasn’t a primary concern for a lot of people. But they jumped on it when informed.”

He recalled warm moments, too, among upsetting ones — “incredible moments of humanity, seeing people come together in a time of crisis and fear. It was very genuine.”

That said, the need for the broad array of services provided by Friends of the Homeless to hundreds of people every day remains persistent, as does COVID-19 itself, as the cold weather approaches — not that those needs go away in the warmer months, Miller said.

“There may be peaks and valleys of needs; it’s not predicated only on cold weather. We used to see more of a lull in summer, but not so much anymore. And when times are hard economically…”

He didn’t have to finish that thought to register his point, which is, the tougher a community’s social and economic challenges, the more necessary FOH becomes.

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people,” Ware added. “When you look nationally and globally, you see so many people suffering, homeless, without food. We’re just a small place that takes care of those needs, but nationwide, so many people are suffering in this way. I’m proud to work in a place that takes care of people who need it. We’re one of the only places around here that does it on the level we do.”

As noted earlier, this is not an organization that can just shut its doors to the ‘invading army’ of COVID-19.

“We’re home for many people,” Miller said.

“And if we don’t do it,” O’Brien added, “who will?”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Trial by Fire

STCC respiratory-care students

STCC respiratory-care students Stefani Glukhova and Max La work at Baystate Medical Center.

Tallon Tomasi used to punch the same clock everyone else does when starting her shift as an LPN at the Leavitt Family Jewish Home in Longmeadow.

Not anymore. Because she works in a COVID-positive unit at the skilled-nursing facility, she enters by a different way than those in the negative units.

“Now, when we come in, we do this check-in system where we wash our hands, get our temperatures taken, we’re asked about symptoms related to COVID, about recent travels, recent exposure to people who have traveled. Then we get our gear, we wash our hands, and go to work.”

As a nursing student at Holyoke Community College, Tomasi is just beginning her healthcare career, and doing so right on the front lines of a global pandemic the likes of which haven’t been seen in more than a century.

Some aspects of it are tough to bear.

“The thing that’s very hard is not having family members being able to come in and see their loved ones as we are going through this difficult time,” she told BusinessWest. “Some of our patients have dementia, and not being able to see their families, it is challenging.”

“The thing that’s very hard is not having family members being able to come in and see their loved ones as we are going through this difficult time. Some of our patients have dementia, and not being able to see their families, it is challenging.”

That said, “I think our facility has done a good job,” she went on. “We do phone calls with family, and we do FaceTime, so I think that helps a little bit. But not being able to physically touch loved ones is hard for some of the patients and their family members.”

Tomasi paused to consider what else has been challenging about working in healthcare during the time of COVID-19.

“Everyone is so fearful of not knowing what’s going to happen,” she finally said. “That’s a big problem. We are not fully aware of how this thing will go, how to treat it, so the new big problem is fear — fear of the unknown. We don’t know everything about it, there’s anxiety around it, and I sometimes get scared because I know that I have the ability to spread it. But you know what has to be done — you have to help.”

With graduation — such as it is this year — just around the corner, many more nurses and other healthcare professionals are getting ready to transition from college into full-time work, but they’re facing an uncertain job market when so much of the sector’s energy is tied up in simply containing the pandemic.

“I checked in with some of our soon-to-be-graduates, and as far as the job market goes, I would say it’s pretty much up in the air and confusing,” said Kathleen Scoble, dean of the School of Nursing at Elms College.

On one hand, she noted, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital just down I-91 have responded “pretty expeditiously” to graduating seniors, several of whom landed positions right away. On the other hand, Baystate Medical Center has informed applicants that its new-graduate nursing program, traditionally a very popular landing spot for Elms grads, has been postponed.

Brooke Hallowell

Brooke Hallowell

“We have mechanisms to do more triage and problem solving with patients before they come to a place where they’re exposing themselves to others.”

But the need is great, she added, and Elms President Harry Dumay agreed, adding, “I’m proud of being part of this sector and proud of not only our institution, but all students and graduates on the front lines during these difficult times.”

Even if, as we’ll see, it can be a little challenging getting to those front lines.

Field Work

For Springfield Technical Community College, which boasts the largest health-simulation center in the Northeast, students not having access to campus means not being able to use those tools in their training, President John Cook said.

“That does hinder the potential of our students to finish, graduate, and work in these fields, which, if they weren’t in demand before, are certainly in demand now.”

That’s a major factor in nursing right now, Scoble said.

“If you ask students what our major responsibility is, it’s preparing them for licensure; it’s our primary responsibility as a program, to make sure they meet all their graduation requirements. And that has been a keen challenge the last semester; all of our clinical learning experiences were canceled — understandably.”

Carol Leary, president of Bay Path College, also noted that nursing students have had their clinicals put off — and there’s only so much that can be accomplished online.

“For me, that is a concern because many of them need to sit for their licensing exams before they can begin to work,” she said. “The accrediting bodies are trying to work with all the programs across the country to figure out how students can sit for exams.”

Scoble noted that only one testing site is open in the entire state where nursing students can take their licensing exam, known as the NCLEX, and that site is following CDC requirements for social distancing. “So you can imagine, with thousands of nursing graduates in the state, how long it will take for them to test the class of 2020. But they’re trying to open as many sites as they can.”

In Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance when shuttering the Massachusetts economy in March, language was included allowing new nurses to practice without a license, if supervised by a professional nurse of equal or higher education.

“It’s really up to the employers how they would receive a new graduate who is not licensed, how they would recruit and receive them,” Scoble said. “We would provide any supporting documentation they would require.

“I checked in with some of our soon-to-be-graduates, and as far as the job market goes, I would say it’s pretty much up in the air and confusing.”

In the past, she explained, a typical student would agree to a position in early spring, then take the exam in June and start work around July.

“All that is unknown right now. Students would say the only thing they can control is finishing the program and preparing for NCLEX. We’re stressing to our soon-to-be-graduates to prepare for the NCLEX — and continue to prepare — until they have the opportunity to sit for the exam.”

In a similar situation, three respiratory-care students from STCC recently began working at Baystate Medical Center after applying for and receiving limited permit licenses, said Esther Perrelli Brookes, director and department chair of the Respiratory Care program. Eight other students have applied for limited permit licenses so they can work in the field.

“Students chose to study respiratory care because they want to help people. They want to make a difference,” Perrelli Brookes said. “I’m extremely proud of my students who are stepping up during this unprecedented health crisis. I’ve had many students reach out to say they want to find out what they can do now. I’ve been helping them get their limited permit licenses.”

“I was one of the first in my class to do it,” student Max La said. “It’s a good learning experience because other respiratory therapists are there and you can learn from them.”

The limited permit license means he can perform certain tasks, but not everything a fully licensed respiratory care therapist would do. “We can’t touch the ventilators,” he said, referring to the devices that some seriously ill COVID-19 patients use in hospitals.

At Baystate, La does not work with COVID-19 patients, but must wear a gown, mask, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and he said Baystate takes precautions to protect him and others from contracting the coronavirus. “There’s always concern, but Baystate has a good policy. Everyone has masks, and they do temperature checks when everyone is walking in.”

STCC’s respiratory care program trains students skills in treatment, management, diagnosis and care of patients with breathing problems associated with diseases such as COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists will continue to be in high demand at hospitals and medical facilities, with job growth of 21% projected between 2018 and 2028 — and that was before COVID-19 wrought what is essentially a respiratory crisis around the globe.

Seeds of Change

Demand should remain high in many health fields, said Brooke Hallowell, dean of the School of Health Sciences at Springfield College, though it may be uneven in the short term. Take physical and occupational therapists — in emergency-care settings, they’re playing an important role in patient care. But those who work with post-surgical patients for, say, joint replacement may find work more intermittent as many elective procedures are being postponed.

One area of growth is in the realm of telehealth, she added. “All of our health professionals are going through a rapid transition in terms of telehealth access, and Medicare and insurance companies are adjusting their policies related to telehealth, and reimbursement for telehealth visits is being revamped.”

These efforts are intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the lessons being learned may be long-term, Hallowell noted.

“Instead of waiting in a room full of sick people to be seen at the doctor’s office, we have mechanisms to do more triage and problem solving with patients before they come to a place where they’re exposing themselves to others. I think this is here to stay … how we carry out our practices will be changing in big ways.”

Interest in some health programs may shift as well, she added. For example, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, a specialty within physical therapy, is getting more attention for the vital role it plays in COVID-19 treatment. And Springfield College is probably launching its new undergraduate program in public health this fall at the right time, too.

“We expect that will be a popular major, as people become more aware of what public health and epidemiology are,” Hallowell said. “That’s good timing for us.”

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, told BusinessWest that a great deal of first responders, nurses, and other healthcare workers have taken classes at community colleges like HCC at some point.

“When I think about our role in ensuring that we have the workforce talent we need in healthcare, which is the primary sector in Western Mass., I think it’s important that we continue to think about the kind of training we’re doing and how to continue to support this community.”

Scoble doesn’t foresee a time when nursing is not an in-demand profession.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to experience over the next few months,” she said. “A lot has to do with how we come back as a country, as a state, and as a community, but I have no doubt that every single one of my graduates will land a position at some point. If this was a normal period of time, a normal spring, many of the graduates would be on the fringe of accepting a position. They would have had interviews and been called back. Right now, a lot of that is at a standstill.”

When they do land jobs, Scoble added, “they’ll have the knowledge and skills and competencies, but lack a great deal of experience. So my number-one concern is, will they enter a work environment where they have the kinds of orientation and support they need? It’s definitely a concern.”

Stefani Glukhova, one of STCC’s respiratory-care students who started working at Baystate in March, may put some of those concerns to bed.

“All the staff here are very kind and generous and are always willing to help you,” she said. “As it gets busier at the hospital with fighting COVID-19, the registered respiratory therapists work around the clock to help fight the virus. My fellow classmates and I do our very best to be available and help out with treatments, floor therapies such as chest physical therapy, and much more.

“This is an amazing learning experience that I would recommend,” she concluded — even if it comes during a pandemic that no one would ever recommend.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Sections Special Coverage

Hitting ‘Pause’

 

 

Evan Plotkin calls it the “trickle-up effect.”

He was referring specifically to the pressures placed on the owners of multi-family dwellings and apartment complexes — and also to those landlords’ vendors — when, as a result of job losses forced by COVID-19, tenants cannot pay their rent, yet they’re protected from eviction by state and/or federal legislation.

“Multi-family property-management companies and landlords may be impacted disproportionately to the extent that there are forgiveness rules being discussed that would loosen rent-payment obligations and allow residential tenants to defer rent payments,” he said. “Clearly, unless there are provisions for the property owners to be made whole on the deferral or forgiveness of rent, it could create a variety of economic hardships to those property owners.”

But the trickle-up effect applies to virtually all types of commercial real estate and fallout from COVID-19, said Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who tragically lost his mother to the virus earlier this month. He and other property managers who spoke with BusinessWest noted that the pandemic has forced the closure of all kinds of businesses and severely impacted the cash flow of almost all others. And this has obviously made it difficult for some to the pay the rent.

Some tenants have requested deferrals or other forms of help, but others didn’t exactly ask. They essentially just took them.

“I have some tenants, large, strong companies, that have sent letters saying they have stopped all payments to all vendors, landlords, etc. — period, without any time frame,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Development Associates, which has co-developed and now manages a number of office and retail properties in Western Mass. and Connecticut. “There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.’”

Vincunas, who was in the process of writing e-mails to those at the top levels of those companies saying that such tactics were “un-American, like hoarding, and not the right thing to do,” said many other large companies have been far more diplomatic, with actual requests for 50% of rent payments, with offers to pay it back over the next six to 12 months.

Meanwhile, others we spoke with said they are working with tenants while also introducing, or reacquainting, them with the phrase force majeure (more on that later).

Ken Vincunas

Ken Vincunas

“There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.”

But issues with collecting rent comprise just one of the many COVID-19-related challenges now facing commercial real-estate brokers and managers. Others include trying to do business differently, with many people working remotely; a dramatic slowing of activity within the market as companies pause to assess the damage and debate whether to move forward with planned deals; and emerging concerns that, as time goes by and companies see the advantages to having people work at home, companies may adjust their needs for space downward in the years to come, creating more problems for building owners.

“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home,” said Plotkin. “And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.

“Everything flows from the occupancy of your building,” he went on. “If your building becomes less occupied, it’s worth less, the market value goes down, and it triggers all kinds of things that are not necessarily good for the office-business market; that’s a clear fear that we have.”

Jack Dill, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, which manages a number of properties across the region, agreed, but offered the hope that these ongoing experiments will lead some to conclude, as he has, that having people working in one place promotes collaboration.

“Work is a social enterprise — it’s about relationships, and it’s about trust,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s about the free flow of information, and that’s a lot harder when people are disbursed.”

Vacancy Signs

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-April, Vincunas noted that he had recently sent in his application for relief from the SBA-administered Paycheck Protection Program.

The application was made to essentially cover the costs of keeping the staff at Development Associates’ small office in Greenfield — located at the Greenfield Corporate Center, which the company manages — on the payroll.

And that’s just one of a long list of COVID-19-related hardships that the company is coping with. Indeed, Vincunas noted that one staff member, concerned about the health risks associated with coming to work, abruptly retired several weeks back, prompting some shuffling of duties and leaving the company generally short-handed.

“She didn’t want to leave the house,” he noted. “And that really set us back. She retired, and that was that, leaving us to pick up the slack.”

The story is generally the same with other property managers and brokers, who are, like businesses in virtually every other sector, coping with new realities when it comes to where and how work is being conducted.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin

“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home. And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.”

As for business itself … on the brokerage side, things have slowed considerably, as might be expected given the vast amounts of disruption, fear, and general uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

But some deals have been completed. Vincunas said he signed on a new tenant at the beginning of the crisis, and some smaller build-out efforts — being undertaken “slowly and carefully to ensure social distancing” — are in progress.

Dill said the ‘deal flow,’ as he called it, is still moving, and his company closed on a few leases early in April. Properties are still being shown, he went on, albeit carefully, and while observing certain protocols, such as frequent use of hand sanitizer and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.

But, like others we spoke with, he noted that, as the crisis has continued, the pace of business has slowed, and many who were in the exploratory stages of a potential move have backed off, waiting for the skies to clear.

“We’ve had some say, ‘interesting, attractive property, we’re interested, but things are so unsure, let’s let this settle down and we’ll re-engage at the other end of this.’”

Vincunas agreed. “At the beginning of this, I lost three hot deals that were going ahead, and none of them have come through,” he said, noting that one involved a building in Agawam he was going to buy and lease to an interested tenant. That interest is now gone.

“I had two other tenants who were going to lease space in a building we own already, and both of them said, ‘we have to slow down, things are changing … we don’t know,’” he went on. “Everyone has this uncertainty, and they’re thinking, ‘let’s not do anything for a while.’”

As for existing tenants, while some are experiencing something approaching business as usual — Vincunas has a kidney-dialysis venture and an ambulance company in his portfolio of tenants, and they certainly fall into that category — many have been forced to close their doors because they’re not essential, and most others are hurting to some degree.

Therefore, property owners are working with these tenants, offering some deferrals on at least a portion of their rent, Plotkin explained, noting that there is what amounts to a ‘base rent’ amount in each lease, as well as an additional amount to cover operating expenses, including security, cleaning, utilities, and others.

“The base-rent amount can be deferred, not abated, for a period of time,” he explained. “But the amount for operating expenses can’t, because we still have to keep the lights on, and we still have to pay the bills.”

Extraordinary Times

This brings us back to ‘force majeure,’ a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability and obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance — such as a war, riot, hurricane, or flood — prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

A pandemic certainly fits that description because some businesses have been forced to close by state decree, and almost all others have been negatively impacted in some way. It’s the force majeure clause that no doubt prompted those letters that Vincunas described earlier.

Dill said Colebrook is working with clients on a case-by-case basis, and is working with tenants experiencing hardships. Like the others we spoke with, he referenced the trickle-up effect, or the ripple effect, that tenants not being able pay some or all of their rent will generate.

“When you go to the next circle out … if landlords have tenants who can’t operate and therefore don’t have the cash flow to pay rent and other changes, that immediately impacts landlords and their ability to meet their obligations, including debt service,” he explained.

While coping with the present, those we spoke with are also looking to the future, and they project that the pandemic will change the landscape in perhaps profound ways.

For starters, Vincunas believes that the current trend toward more purchases being made online, with items — from groceries to books to sporting goods — being delivered to the home will continue, and it will drive need for additional warehouse space.

“So many things are drop-shipped,” he explained. “The warehouse and logistics business is due for a big infusion of activity, just by the nature of a growing reluctance among people to leave the house.”

Conversely, this trend will negatively impact the retail side of the business, a trend that’s already playing out on Main Streets and in malls across the country.

But it’s the office sector that has those looking down the road most concerned. Indeed, those we spoke with said it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that companies will learn from this pandemic that there are advantages to having some people working at home and fewer people at the office. And, eventually, this will lead to downsizing and less overall demand for office space.

“The office market, and retail, are the two sectors of real estate that will be most impacted by this,” said Plotkin. “In the case of office, we were seeing some pretty good momentum right before COVID-19 — Springfield usually lags behind, but nationally, the office segment was doing very well. That has come to a complete standstill.

“And the fear amongst my colleagues is that people are starting to realize that this home-work model works for them, and will this replace the need for office space?” he went on. “It remains to be seen how this is going to play out, but that’s a real fear out there; as leases renew, those tenants might be evaluating whether they need the amount of space they occupied. They may do a home/office model that would reduce the amount of space they need.”

Those we spoke with are certainly hoping that, while businesses get this ‘test run,’ as Plotkin described it, they decide there are advantages to having co-workers in one place.

“That collaborative model is important for innovation,” said Plotkin. “Having people together in close proximity offers the sharing of ideas and collaboration in ways you can’t get with a Zoom meeting.”

Dill agreed. He said companies, and his is one of them, are experimenting with having workers dispersed and working from home, and some of the results are trickling in.

“It’s working pretty well,” he said. “But it’s not the same as having your people together, where they can meet casually, sit down in the same room, and solve a problem.”

Time and Place

Just what will come of the ongoing ‘test run’ of remote working remains to be seen.

What’s clear now, though, is that this pandemic is having a significant impact on the commercial real-estate market locally, and across the country.

The ‘trickle-up’ effect, as well as the trickle-down effect, are real, and as the crisis continues, the toll it is taking on this important sector continues to mount.

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

Coronavirus

Mixed Bag

Matt Sosik helped Char Gentes

Matt Sosik helped Char Gentes secure a PPP loan through bankESB that kept Riverside Industries employees paid for eight weeks

Char Gentes calls the Paycheck Protection Program “a lifeline.” Her nearly 200 employees no doubt agree.

Gentes is the president and CEO of Riverside Industries, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, helping them find ways to achieve daily independence, from securing and maintaining jobs to undertaking activities like voting and going to the store.

In mid-March, the organization was shut down by the same mandate that has shuttered the doors on countless businesses and nonprofits across Massachusetts. Four weeks later, Riverside hadn’t laid anyone off — but that situation was unsustainable.

“We had been keeping our employees paid as we were waiting to hear what the state reimbursement was going to be; actually, a lot of nonprofits were doing that,” Gentes told BusinessWest. “The senior management, myself, and the board were all on the same page — we wanted to keep our employees home, we wanted to have their back, and we wanted, as much as possible, to continue to pay them 100% and make sure they had health insurance. These human-service workers are often people who live paycheck to paycheck.”

When bankESB approved a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to Riverside Industries, Gentes could breathe a little easier, as the loan will allow it to pay its employees for the next eight weeks.

“We’re grateful for those eight weeks, and we certainly hope to be able to open our doors sometime in June,” she said.

While Riverside’s Easthampton facilities are closed, its mission has not stopped, as the organization continues working with clients under a new remote service model. Without the PPP loan, Gentes said that she would be facing some difficult decisions on how to keep her organization operational.

That contrast — between desperation and relief — explains why so many small businesses are frustrated with the PPP, which quickly ran out of money, and also generated plenty of confusion in the banks where business owners applied for loans.

The PPP is a small-business stimulus program included in the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The PPP initially provided $349 billion for U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) lenders like bankESB to fund loans to businesses in order to guarantee eight weeks of payroll and other costs to help businesses remain viable. To qualify, businesses must have 500 or fewer employees and demonstrate that they have been negatively affected by COVID-19.

When the $349 billion ran out in less than two weeks, the shortfall generated an immediate outcry — not only for a second infusion of funding, but because of news that large, national companies were claiming tens of millions in PPP funds while small businesses couldn’t get access.

That second round of funding — $310 billion in total, approved by the U.S. Congress on April 22 — may not last much longer, but banks have likely learned lessons from the first round.

Sense of Urgency

Matt Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB, remembers those first days of the PPP well.

“It was harrowing. They did, in fact, rush it because they felt the urgency … but the program was not ready for prime time,” he recalled. “When it rolled out, a lot of people were frustrated, but — and I’m not trying to sound defensive — I wish people wouldn’t blame local banks. We were in the dark; the customers knew what we knew, and it wasn’t enough. They didn’t provide enough instruction.

“In the end, we made it out on the other side, and we got caught up,” Sosik told BusinessWest in mid-April, noting that the three banks in the Hometown Financial Group family, including bankESB, approved $100 million under the program, and spent the next week getting money into the hands of the people who were approved.

“It was very, very difficult — a massive amount of work by our employees. They kept grinding and got us out on the other side of things,” he said.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reported that, following the PPP launch, the SBA processed more than 14 years’ worth of loans in less than 14 days.

“The PPP enjoyed broad-based participation across the country from lenders of all sizes and a wide array of industries and businesses,” he noted. “From its start on April 3, PPP provided payroll assistance to more than 1.6 million small businesses in all 50 states and territories. Nearly 5,000 lenders participated in this critical program, including significant lending by community banks and credit unions. Nearly 20% of the amount approved was processed by lenders with less than $1 billion in assets, and approximately 60% of the loans were approved by banks with $10 billion of assets or less. No lender accounted for more than 5% of the total dollar amount of the program.”

“It was harrowing. They did, in fact, rush it because they felt the urgency … but the program was not ready for prime time.”

The majority of these loans — 74% — were for under $150,000, he noted, but that didn’t stop a swell of outrage following reports of large companies, from Ruth’s Chris Steak House to Hallidor Energy, claiming eight-figure PPP loans.

Few in Washington balked at the need for additional funding. The second round of $310 billion is part of a larger, $480 billion relief package that also includes money for hospitals and expanded COVID-19 testing. Of the $310 billion, $60 billion will be set aside for smaller lending facilities, including community financial institutions; small, insured depository institutions; and credit unions with assets under $10 billion.

The Next Wave

Bankers hope for a smoother process getting the new funds approved.

“It got off to a rocky start and got a lot of bad press — I Googled and found maybe one story with a remotely positive angle to it,” Sosik said, before coming back to Riverside Industries. “This is a story about the good parts of humanity — the work Riverside does and our ability to play a small role in helping them stay alive. They do such incredible work, such necessary work.

“Riverside is a strong organization financially,” he went on. “It’s just that, when funding isn’t coming in, it doesn’t have a war chest to keep dipping into.”

As for Gentes, she’s hoping the loan helps her not only take care of employees, but prepare them to return when the governor says it’s OK to open the doors and restart person-to-person services.

“When we’re ready, we need our workforce to come back, and we need them to be ready to come back,” she said, adding that the organization’s roughly 150 clients are called once a week, maybe twice, to make sure they’re OK. “We’re in the process of developing remote learning, and assessing what each client has available to them in terms of technology to make this happen.”

Countless other small businesses and nonprofits have equally pressing needs, and could use a lifeline, she told BusinessWest. “Without it, a lot of nonprofits will go under.”

Sosik likes hearing that.

“I have to admit, it’s heartwarming to make a difference,” he said. “And I’ve heard some other good stories. There’s so much uncertainty — ‘I’ve put all my blood, sweat, and tears into my business; is it all over for me?’ To relieve that pressure has been a heartwarming experience for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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