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Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event for a pancreatic-cancer organization — one way it’s filling the void with live events curtailed.

While most of the business world slowed gradually in March, or even ground to an eventual halt, the story was more dire for the events industry.

It just … stopped.

“When the whole country shut down, we were impacted immediately. We were one of the first business sectors to really feel the effects,” said Andrew Jensen, president of Jx2 Productions, noting that among the state’s first orders was barring large — and eventually even modestly sized — gatherings.

Within a day or two, he recalled, “we had no business left, just one or two things left for the rest of the year. Everyone freaked out. From weddings to live events to conferences to concerts, everything was gone overnight. It was non-stop with the phone calls. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. When there’s some kind of natural disaster or act of God, everything might be off for a while in one area, but never worldwide like this.”

After hunkering down for a while to get a sense of what was to come, it was time to get off the mat and figure out how to move forward in 2020. In Jensen’s case, like most players in his industry right now, that meant a shift to a new type of virtual, or online, event.

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events. It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events,” Jensen explained. “It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

The typical live gathering might include livestreams as a secondary factor, he said, mostly at higher-end events; smaller companies typically don’t bring in a secondary audience remotely. “We had to shift our mentality, and that was hard. Did we have redundancies and protocols in place? What if we lose somebody on the other end? How does that effect everyone?”

Michael Zaskey has been dealing with those questions, too, since the industry crashed to a halt in mid-March.

“We were the first to go, and we’ll be the last to come back in a traditional sense,” the owner of Zasco Productions told BusinessWest. “We knew pretty quickly that online and virtual events were going to be the norm for a while.”

At first, companies thought they could take a DIY approach, he added. “Initially, folks were trying to do things with Zoom and GoToMeeting. Those are awesome tools for meetings or small-group sessions, but not for producing events. You can have a board meeting or discussion over Zoom, but if you want to engage and entertain and create an experience similar to a live event, that’s not the right tool. You still need a production company.”

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room, and out on the road, to meet the needs of a largely virtual event landscape.

The world is figuring that out. Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly tenfold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion. And that puts a squeeze on businesses like Jx2 and Zasco.

“People figure a virtual event costs less than a live event because you’re not renting ballroom space, but on the production side, it’s just as expensive, or even more,” Zaskey said. “We’ve tried to be flexible with budgets, but we’re working with a very slim margin.”

It’s a challenge that will remain, at least in the short term.

“Obviously, it will be a long time before live events come back full force,” he added. “Virtual events will never replace a live event, which is so much about the networking, and people miss that. But in this time of pandemic and crisis, they’re viable solutions that allow people to connect and participate.”

 

Technical Concerns

The first thing people need to learn in this new landscape is the terminology, Zaskey said. “Like, when people started using the phrase ‘socially distant,’ I’ve always thought we say that wrong. We should be socially connected and physically distant. Or connected with technology.”

Likewise, people often mean different things when they say ‘virtual event.’ “People started throwing that term around, but it means something different for every person we talk to.”

That’s because, in his world, virtual events have often meant events that occur in a virtual space, like a corporate meeting in which the CEO stands on a virtual stage in front of a greenscreen, backed by a set created electronically, as if standing in a video game or virtual-reality environment. “What most people call a virtual event today, we use the term ‘online event.’ That’s more accurate.”

There are hybrid events, too, which mix in-person and remote elements. “Instead of 500 people in a room, maybe you have 20 smaller rooms with 25 people in each room, physically distanced, and connect those rooms electronically” — a good option even in non-pandemic times for large, national companies that don’t want to fly everyone to one location for an important gathering.

Zasco is also doing some drive-in events, like a recent pancreatic-cancer fundraiser in Connecticut that had been postponed from May. “We wanted to keep our audience engaged, so we did a drive-in event and spaced out the cars, with a large screen outdoors, and you could listen through FM radio.”

While short speeches were delivered on stage — again, in a distanced fashion — the biggest donors and benefactors attended live in their cars, with others able to watch through a webstream.

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations,” Zaskey said. “That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars. I’ve been impressed, because people aren’t always known for following rules.”

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations. That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars.”

One pressing issue at online and hybrid events, of course, is connectivity and having the redundancy and bandwidth to keep connections from going down. “We’ve had to think and engineer our way into … not necessarily new technology, but using it in new ways. It’s always changing and growing.”

Part of the challenge is communicating issues to attendees, he added. If a hotel ballroom loses power, all 500 people attending in person experience the same thing and know what’s going on. “If 500 people tune into a stream and lose power to the master control room, those 500 people have no idea what happened.”

Jensen agreed that technical concerns were paramount. “It was slightly challenging at the beginning for us tech people,” he said, adding that another challenge has to do with communication — not only with the crew, but with presenters who may be in different locations.

“We’ve done thousands of events over 20 years, and the process is different. We’d have a stage manager go on stage and hand someone a microphone. Now you have to make sure you have plenty of rehearsals and walk them through the process.”

Technology upgrades are a must as well, both for production companies and their clients. “A standard laptop camera and microphone don’t work — certainly it’s not high-enough quality. So we created ‘cases’ and sold a couple dozen to clients, and have some in own inventory. This allows them to have much better image and quality and make their event that much better. We all know a standard iPhone camera or computer camera is not that great.”

Like Zasco, Jx2 found a niche in drive-in events, like graduations. And because the company got into streaming at least 15 years ago, as it went mainstream, it wasn’t too difficult to shift focus to that side of the business this year. “We kind of already had a foot in the door.”

One upside to the current situation, Jensen said, is that it’s forced businesses to think differently about their events.

“It’s a chance for our clients to think outside the box and become OK with not doing things the standard way, the rinse-and-repeat event you’ve done for 10 or 20 years. You get used to doing things a certain way: guests arrive at this time, you do a cocktail hour, there’s a formula to every live event.

“Now, you’re trying to recreate something where the guests’ attention span is definitely lower because it’s virtual, and you’ve got a lower level of interaction from guests,” he went on. “You’ve got to make sure whatever you put on the screen will resonate with guests.”

Working creatively to achieve that goal, he said, can often spark inspiration for future events as well, even the live ones that will return … someday.

 

Optimistic Outlook

Zaskey is looking forward to that day.

“We’re pretty fortunate to be pretty busy, but the profit margins are not the same as they are for live events,” he said. “The entire industry is still struggling greatly.”

Much of the staff laid off in March has come back on a part-time basis as jobs are scheduled. “A lot of what we’re doing, we have to deeply discount, not just to be a good neighbor and help clients so they can pull out of this as well, but to keep our people working.”

One long-term concern is a possible ‘brain drain’ as the pandemic wears on, he added.

“The industry is at risk of losing talent, and that scares us a little bit. As people get desperate and wonder about the future, they might consider career changes. Maybe they’ll come back, but maybe they won’t — maybe someone has always wanted to be a chef, and decides it’s time to go to culinary school. When the world bounces back and live events come back, we need highly skilled people to work on them.”

And events will come back, Jensen said, if only because people desperately want to attend them. “Human nature is interactive; we want to see people, be with people, go to dinner, go on vacation. Most people aren’t homebodies. People over the summer couldn’t wait to go to the beach or go camping. You couldn’t buy a kayak.”

In the same way, “I think live events will come back massively once we get through this pandemic and the comfort level comes back up.”

In fact, Jensen predicts bottlenecks as venues book up quickly once they get the go-ahead from the CDC and state officials. “I think it’s going to be the end of ’21 into ’22 when events pick up fully. We’re a couple years out from full recovery. But people will be eager to plan these things.”

Zaskey agreed. “It’s still very, very tough, and it’s going to be tough for a long time,” he said, but he looks back to 9/11 for a possible parallel. Events suffered mightily after that tragedy as well, but 2002 through 2004 were Zasco’s biggest growth years.

“People wanted to get back to live events. And I think the same thing will happen when the pandemic is over. Getting to that point is the challenge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial 2

Amid a tumultuous presidential election, the contentious plans to fill a Supreme Court seat, and continued upheaval on the broad matter of racial equality, additional stimulus measures to help individuals and businesses weather the pandemic have seemingly been pushed to the back burner, if not off the stove.

Indeed, while there are almost weekly pronouncements of optimism that a stimulus package may soon be passed, overall, there seems to be little actual movement toward getting a deal done, even as the pandemic shows no signs of easing and the announcements of massive job cuts — the latest from the likes of Disney and several of the major airlines — continue to dominate the business news.

In our view — and in the view of untold numbers of owners of businesses both large and small — this is no time to be taking our eyes off the ball. Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures.

That’s because … well, anyone can look at a calendar and see that there’s more trouble around the corner. Fall is here, and winter is right behind it. A second wave of the virus is predicted, and some would say it is already here. And while some states are actually loosening restrictions on what businesses can open and under what circumstances, the threat of another shutdown like the one that crippled this state’s business community looms large.

Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures

The harsh reality is that many, if not most, businesses have not come close to recovering the losses they’ve sustained over the past six to seven months. We’ve interviewed business owners across virtually every sector of the economy, from printers to restaurateurs to banquet-facility operators, and many are reporting that revenues are down 60%, 70%, or even 80% or more from last year.

And, as we said, winter is coming, which means restaurants that had been holding on, or nearly holding on, with outdoor dining will have to close those areas soon. It also means all events have to move indoors, which means, essentially, there can be no events. It means businesses and individuals that are hunkering down and reducing their spending in every way possible will only ratchet up those efforts even further.

In this climate, businesses, nonprofits, and, yes, individuals will need additional support. Individuals will need stimulus checks and unemployment benefits — perhaps not the additional $600 a week that has hampered efforts to bring people back to the workforce, but some assistance. And small businesses especially will need another round of Paycheck Protection Act support. Those checks bought business owners some invaluable time during the height of the crisis, and from all indications, more time is needed.

No one knows when the pandemic will actually subside and we can return to something approaching normal. What is now clear, at least to most observers, is that this won’t happen anytime soon. This business of printing money and incurring trillions of dollars in debt to help people and businesses through the crisis is at the very least unnerving and perhaps dangerous. But now that we’ve started down this road, we have to stay on this path and do what’s needed to minimize the damage from this generational catastrophe.

 

Cover Story Special Coverage

The Business of Pivoting

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz remembers a lot of people having some serious doubts about whether she should go forward with her plans to put a food truck into operation late last spring.

After all, it was the middle of a pandemic, people were staying home, the economy was tanking, and the restaurant business, perhaps more than any other, was suffering mightily.

But Ortiz, a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Holyoke Community College, was determined to make her dream, which she would call Crave, become reality — pandemic or not.

She had already acquired the vehicle itself, and her experience in the accelerator program operated by EforAll Holyoke had given her the confidence (and technical know-how) to get her show — a food truck specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine — on the road … literally.

Problem was, it was not business as usual when it came to securing the needed approvals and permits from city officials.

“It was even difficult to speak with officials from cities because people weren’t working as much, and you couldn’t even get into city halls,” she said. “Everything has to be mailed in, which takes … as long as that takes. Meanwhile, a lot of cities don’t have ways to do this online; you can’t e-mail them or submit a form online. You have to mail it in, and that took a while.”

But Ortiz persevered, and opened for business just over a month ago. Her truck, usually parked on Race Street, not far from the Cubit Building and just a few blocks from the computing center, is actually exceeding goals set higher than most everyone she knows thought were reasonable.

Successful launches in the middle of COVID-19 are certainly rare, and for most area entrepreneurs, especially those trying to get a concept off the ground or to the next level, these are challenging times, when the focus is on pivoting and adjusting to meet changing needs and changing ways of doing things.

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness, are like many small-business owners in that they have had to pivot during the pandemic and create new revenue streams.

In most all ways, the same can be said of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem itself, which specializes mostly on programs focused on people gathering in large numbers or sitting across a table from one another — things that can’t be done during a pandemic. Agencies within the ecosystem have been pivoting and adjusting as well.

This is especially true of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the nonprofit based in Springfield’s Innovation Center, which is in the midst of what interim Director Chris Bignelli, a partner with the Alchemy Fund, calls a ‘reset.’

That’s the word he chose to describe a retrenching after most of the agency’s staff members left within a week of each other last spring, and after COVID prevented it from staging any of the large gatherings for which it became known — not only here, but across the state and beyond.

“Our mentors advise entrepreneurs about the importance of pivoting and changing directions when needed, and we’re doing the same,” he said, adding that the pandemic and other forces are compelling the agency to look inward and find new and perhaps different ways to provide value to entrepreneurs while also providing support to other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners.”

As VVM resets and reinvents, though, work within the ecosystem goes on during these trying times — despite COVID, and in many cases in an effort to help business owners survive it.

People like Juan and Elsie Vasquez. They operate 413 Family Fitness in Holyoke, a business that, like most all gyms, was devastated by the pandemic. With help from those at EforAll Holyoke, the couple has pivoted to everything from outdoor classes to staging quinceañeras, or sweet-15 birthdays (a tradition among Hispanics), and leasing out their space to third parties (more on that later).

Meanwhile, another initiative within the ecosystem, WIT — Women Innovators and Trailblazers — is continuing its mentoring program despite COVID, and is preparing to embark on its third cohort of matches.

Leah Kent

Leah Kent says the mentor she’s been matched with through the WIT program, Melissa Paciulli, has helped her set firm goals for her business and move out of her comfort zone.

The second cohort, featuring 45 teams, up from 20 in the first, was started just before the pandemic shut things down, noted Ann Burke, vice president of the the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and one of the architects of the program, adding that she had some concerns about whether those matches could withstand COVID and its highly disruptive nature.

But for the most part, the partnerships persevered, and many have the legs to continue even after the formal program is over.

“We were really trying to see what would happen with the cohort and how they would respond with all that was happening,” said Burke. “I thought most of them would just throw up their hands and say, ‘we can’t do this’ amid all the business issues, personal issues, and issues at home. But for the most part, that’s not what happened.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it is carrying on through the pandemic, providing more evidence of its importance to the region.

Keep on Trucking

Flashing back several months and then fast-forwarding to today, Ortiz described the process of opening with a single word — ‘crazy.’

That sentiment applied to everything from getting her truck outfitted for the road — meaning wrapped with her logo and fully equipped — to buying all the supplies she needed (which meant going to the grocery store a number of times), to getting those aforementioned permits and approvals. Work started later than she wanted, and everything was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“Most of March and half of April, I called a halt to everything,” she said, noting that she bought the truck in February, but, because of the pandemic — and also the fact that she was still in school, which was also more complicated — she wasn’t able to advance her plans. “And then I started to feel more comfortable, and by the end of the April, I was going full speed.”

Or at least the speed at which City Hall would allow her to travel.

Now that she’s open, all that craziness seems like a distant memory, and business is, as she noted, exceeding expectations.

“We’ve been busy every day, and we usually sell out by the end of the day,” she said, noting that Craze features tacos, rice bowls, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more, and uses social media to connect with potential customers. “COVID might actually be helping because people don’t want to go to restaurants.”

She credits EforAll — she was the first-place winner in its recent winter accelerator — with helping her get the doors open, especially with such matters as insurance and accounting, but also focusing on the model she wanted and the service she wanted to provide.

And such work is carrying on in the COVID-19 era, although it’s somewhat different and also in some ways more challenging, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we can continue to offer a lot of the services that we provided before the pandemic in a virtual format,” she explained. “And we made that pivot very quickly, out of necessity.”

Elaborating, she said the agency was in the final stages of its winter cohort when the pandemic hit, and quickly shifted to not only a virtual platform, but a somewhat different purpose as it helped both those cohort members and other small businesses cope with everything that was happening.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners,” she explained. “We felt like there were a lot of things out of our control, but what we did want to do was support them, whether it was with help navigating PPP loans or even just applying for unemployment. We were doing a lot of one-on-one support and just helping people however we could.”

“It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

And such help was certainly needed, she said, adding that, in the case of PPP, many small businesses didn’t know if they were eligible, and if they were, they certainly needed assistance with paperwork that most established businesses turned over to a seasoned accountant. Meanwhile, a number of local, state, and federal grant programs emerged, and small businesses needed help identifying which ones might be appropriate and then navigating the application process.

Beyond that, EforAll also helped some businesses identify ways to pivot and find new revenue streams in the middle of a pandemic, Murphy-Romboletti said, adding that such assistance was provided to restaurants — helping them move beyond takeout and Grubhub, for example — and to other kinds of ventures, like 413 Family Fitness, which is one of those businesses that just ‘graduated’ from the most recent accelerator.

Like all fitness centers across the state, this operation had to shut down back in the spring, said Elsie Vasquez, forcing the company to pivot. It did so by offering classes online, then a shift to outdoor classes, more one-on-one personal training, and finally a reopening of the studio in July, with a host of restrictions.

“We’ve even done some space rental to bring in some revenue,” she told BusinessWest, adding that EforAll has been invaluable in helping to not only identify ways to generate business, but make them reality.

“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to pivot our business,” she explained. “We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do, and it’s been working out OK, but EforAll really opened our eyes to the fact that we have to think differently, and that your beginning result may not be your end result.”

In Good Company

While companies are pivoting, so too are some of the agencies within the ecosystem that serves them. And VVM is probably the best example.

Hope Gibaldi, who was serving the agency in a part-time role when the pandemic hit and is now full-time, serving as engagement manager, told BusinessWest that the agency has had to readjust as a result of the pandemic and its inability to stage the large gatherings it became known for.

Meanwhile, is doing what its mentors advise entrepreneurs to do — assess needs within the community and go about meeting them.

“There were listening sessions prior to the pandemic,” she noted, “and we’ve been taking the priorities identified during those sessions with an eye toward addressing them, while also trying to figure out how we can continue to provide value to entrepreneurs during COVID and what programming might look like when we come out of COVID.”

Elaborating, she said hybrid models blending in-person and remote programming are being considered, while, in the meantime, the agency is creating ways to bring people together on a remote basis to share ideas and work through common problems.

One such program is the introduction — or reintroduction, to be more precise — of ‘Entrepreneurial Roundtables,’ a peer-led “accountability group,” as she called it, that meets via Zoom.

“It’s a place where mentors and entrepreneurs can come and address their challenges,” Gibaldi explained. “It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

Other initiatives already in place or in the planning stages, she said, include everything from the agency’s once-thriving Community Nights (now handled remotely) to expert-in-industry mentorship, to a book club, to be launched in January, focusing on offerings in entrepreneurship, marketing, personal and professional growth, and more.

Overall, VVM looks a little different, but its mission hasn’t changed, Gibaldi said, adding that it is working to partner with other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem to help them succeed.

One example is WIT, and helping to recruit mentors for that program, which has thus far created dozens of effective matches.

Leah Kent and Melissa Paciulli comprise one such match. The former is a writer and book designer who also helps other writers with the process of getting published, while the latter is director of the STEM Starter Academy at Holyoke Community College. Kent described the relationship as an intriguing, and effective, collision of science and creativity.

“We can understand each other quite well, but we bring different strengths,” she explained. “That complementary pairing has been so fantastic. In my work, she’s really honed in on the way that I help readers finish their manuscripts and get their work published.”

The two were part of the cohort that launched last March; the kickoff gathering was on March 12, and the next day, schools were shut down, and much of the business world ground to a halt. Kent’s original mentor was not able to continue participating because of the pandemic, so she was reassigned, if that’s the right word, to Paciulli, whom she credits with taking her outside her comfort zone and helping her set the bar higher professionally and personally.

Paciulli said Kent is her second match through WIT, and one of many business owners and students she has mentored over the years. She finds the work invigorating and rewarding, especially when the mentee is coachable and open-minded — like Kent.

“When you’re working with entrepreneurs and they’re coachable, and they take action on your direction, because it’s an iterative process of finding your product, getting it to market, and pivoting when you need to … it’s a super-cool experience to be part of one’s journey in that way,” she said. “When they’re coachable and they’re action-oriented — and she is — it’s awesome.”

Where There’s a Will…

Summing up what the past seven months or so have been like for entrepreneurs and small businesses, Murphy-Romboletti said it’s been a continuous run of challenges that have tested them — and her agency — in every way imaginable.

In many ways, COVID-19 and everything it has thrown at these businesses only reinforces what she pretty much already knew.

“What always inspires me about entrepreneurs is that, if you tell them ‘no,’ they just say, ‘OK, let me find out a way to make this work,’” she said.

Many have been doing just that, providing more evidence of their resiliency and more reminders of the importance of the entrepreneurship ecosystem to this region and its future.

The pandemic has slowed some things down and added to the already-long list of hurdles entrepreneurs have to clear, but it certainly hasn’t stopped people like Nicole Ortiz — and countless others — from getting down to business.

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

Coronavirus Insurance Special Coverage

At a Premium

The story is a familiar one by now: hospitals across the U.S., hammered by COVID-19, began directing resources toward fighting the pandemic last spring and curtailed elective and non-emergency procedures. Meanwhile, patients, even when sick, stayed away from medical practices out of fear of infection.

As a result, health insurers continued to reap premiums while paying out millions of dollars less in medical claims. Some of the largest companies reported second-quarter earnings about double what they were a year ago. Anthem’s net income soared to $2.3 billion for the second quarter, up from $1.1 billion in 2019, while UnitedHealth reported net income of $6.7 billion, compared to $3.4 billion last year. Humana’s second-quarter net income rose from $940 million in 2019 to $1.8 billion in 2020.

But the issue is a complex one, especially in Massachusetts, where laws governing insurance are different, said Keith Ledoux, vice president of Commercial Line of Business, Sales, Marketing, and Business Development for Health New England, a 166,000-member health plan based in Springfield.

For example, HNE did see lower utilization for medical services among its members in the early months of the pandemic; however, at the same time, it saw an increase in prescription-drug fills as members made sure they had their medications during stay-at-home orders.

“On the pharmaceutical side, we saw a small spike in claims and overall costs starting at the end of March and the beginning of April because we had relaxed our rules on allowing folks to fill prescriptions early, or to get a greater supply,” Ledoux told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, “after April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

At the same time, the pandemic brought about a significant increase in telehealth utilization; through April, HNE had processed 114,000 telehealth visits for its members versus 900 in all of 2019, accounting for $12 million in costs for Health New England.

“One reason that’s so costly for us is that we’re mandated by the government to pay the same rate for telehealth as we would for an in-person visit, and typically telehealth is cheaper than in person,” Ledoux said, adding that future state negotiations will likely alter that formula as telemedicine continues to gain traction in healthcare.

“The silver lining is not the cost, but the behavior shift of so many members embracing the idea of telemedicine, which does broaden your ability to access non-invasive care. There’s definitely an opening for systems to adopt a new approach and potentially increase their revenue stream using telemedicine.”

Massachusetts-based Tufts Health Plan reported that COVID-19 treatment costs were one factor in actually recording a drop in net income between the first six months of 2019 to and the six months of June 2020.

Keith Ledoux

Keith Ledoux

“After April, on the medical side, we saw a significant reduction in claims, but starting in probably June, we started to see that pick back up — almost back to what we would consider to be somewhat normal.”

“Tufts Health Plan proudly serves all segments of the market, regardless of a person’s age or life circumstance,” Chief Financial Officer Umesh Kurpad noted in a statement. “This diversity in our business translates into different financial pressures, such as significantly higher COVID-19 infection rates and treatment costs for our members, particularly those who rely on both Medicare and Medicaid.

“Year-to-date, our earnings were challenging, with the increased costs of COVID-19-related expenses across virtually all of our businesses,” he went on, projecting COVID-19 expenses to reach $220 million for the full year. “The pandemic cost tail is anticipated to be long with the lingering impact of COVID-19 survivors and increased morbidity from deferred care.”

In short, there’s no one trend common among health insurers in a year where they, like all industries, have learned to expect the unexpected.

Appointment Viewing

Another Massachusetts-based insurer, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, reported little change in second-quarter net income from 2019 ($36.2 million) to 2020 ($40.9 million). It also encouraged members not to avoid medical services they need.

“Now more than ever, our focus remains on the health and well-being of our members and the communities we serve,” President and CEO Michael Carson said. “Many people have deferred care over the past several months, and it is incredibly important that they not neglect their health. Healthcare providers have implemented stringent safety precautions, and we encourage our members to seek routine and preventive care, including checkups, health screenings, and vaccinations.”

Ledoux told BusinessWest that HNE typically doesn’t know the performance of a year until probably three or four months after the year has closed.

In its planning for 2021, he explained, the company must consider uncertainties with expenses, which include utilization continuing to pre-COVID levels; increased use of high-cost technology; and costs of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines and testing, as well as increased costs for certain behavioral healthcare for children and adolescents.

Consumers are protected to an extent by state and federal laws that require health plans to rebate customers annually if the percent of premiums spent on medical expenses falls below a certain threshold.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to use a fixed percentage of the money they take in from premiums for their customers’ medical expenses — at least 80 cents of every dollar they collect in premiums from small businesses and individuals, and 85 cents per dollar for large employers. The remaining 15% to 20% percent is what they are allowed under the ACA to spend on administrative costs like overhead and marketing, and to keep as profit. Excess revenues are to be returned to consumers in the form of rebates.

“If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market. In a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Under Massachusetts’ health-insurance law, that number rises to 88 cents on the dollar. “If we perform even 0.1% better than 88%, we have to rebate that excess margin back to the market,” Ledoux said, adding that, “in a regular year, our target margin is around 1.9%, which we hardly ever achieve. All these variables make it difficult to make a profit.”

Some of those variables emerged this year in the form of concessions to the pandemic and the stress it has placed on families, he noted. “We relaxed a lot of rules on how we collect premiums. Normally it’s a 30-day grace period, and we expanded that another 30 days.” HNE also allowed furloughed employees to stay on their companies’ health plans.

“We continue to evaluate our position in the market,” he added. “There are already protections in place, profits above what would be considered reasonable, and a mandate to rebate that back to the market. We already know it self-corrects on its own.”

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, told BusinessWest that health-insurance premiums haven’t been a big topic among EANE’s members. “We’ve heard from some employers who are getting refunds, but it hasn’t been a major thing that anyone is focusing on at the moment.”

Nationally, insurers are spending a far lower portion of premium revenue on their customers’ healthcare costs. For example, CVS said its medical-benefits ratio was 70% for the second quarter, compared to 84% over the same period in 2019.

According to a report in the New York Times, the ACA gives companies a three-year window to calculate how much to return, so members probably shouldn’t expect relief anytime soon, especially because it’s hard to tell what the rest of the year will bring, with COVID-19 numbers still fluctuating dramatically from state to state, as well as the impact of potentially expensive new vaccines or treatments around the corner. At the same time, many people who postponed getting medical attention could surge back into doctors’ offices and submit more bills for coverage.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020,” according to a statement by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “However, if these costs never materialize and remain below certain levels, American consumers, businesses, and taxpayers are protected by provisions in federal and state laws that require health-insurance providers to deliver premium rebates and put money back into their pockets.”

Community Focus

In addition to changes in patient volume and the bottom line, the pandemic shifted the priorities of Health New England in other ways, Ledoux said.

For instance, it contributed $300,000 in grants for COVID-19 relief efforts throughout Western Mass. to help residents with access to food, mental healthcare, child care, housing, and basic needs.

The company has also made benefit adjustments that make it easier for members to get the care they need, such as eliminating out-of-pocket costs for all telehealth services and for COVID-19 diagnostic testing ordered by a medical professional, no prior authorizations for members receiving medical care for COVID-19, and flexibility with payment plans and adjusted underwriting guidelines to ease the burden for employer-group customers and members.

Meanwhile, as it approaches Medicare’s annual enrollment season, Health New England is holding online Zoom sessions and drive-up events, and has added staff to its call center, to help educate people about their Medicare options.

“The second half of the year could see a lot more care, and higher costs, than the first half of 2020.”

Tufts has implemented a number of changes as well, including compensating providers 100% of an in-office rate for telehealth, working with providers on a case-by-case basis to address their concerns regarding payment stability, extending premium payment periods for employers who need more time to make payments, and contributing $2 million to support those affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

Certainly, reports of soaring profits may persuade some lawmakers to revive proposals to cap insurers’ profits even more, but insurers say they are using their financial strength to help customers, hospitals, and doctors. In the New York Times report, AHIP also cited trends like waiving co-payments for COVID testing and treatment and paying for telemedicine visits, some of which the government has mandated be covered.

“From the very beginning,” AHIP CEO Matt Eyles said, “health-insurance providers have focused on being part of the solution.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Delivering the Message

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

John Renzi says that, when the pandemic arrived in mid-March, the sign industry, like most all others, was hit hard.

Indeed, as a sector that has always been a good barometer of the economy and one that suffers greatly during downturns, the sign business was impacted by the pandemic in a number of ways, said Renzi, a principal and account executive with Pittsfield-based Graphic Impact Signs (GIS). He listed everything from the prompt shutdown of the events, sports, and entertainment industries and a halt to orders from those solid customers, to disruptions in the supply chain that have hindered many players in this large and diverse field from completing orders they do have.

GIS has certainly not been immune from any of this, said Renzi, but he believes the company acquired by his father 33 years ago has fared better than most because of the two traits that have defined it from the beginning: flexibility and resiliency.

They have been displayed in everything from how the company has pivoted and started making new lines of products, such as the plexiglass barriers now seen in all kinds of businesses, to how it has maneuvered its way through those supply-chain issues by working with suppliers and stockpiling essential materials that are now in very short supply.

Regarding those barriers, or shields, the company tacked in that direction as the business world paused and sign work all but stopped as the pandemic arrived, he noted, and very quickly had product moving out the doors of the Pittsfield plant.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply,” he told BusinessWest. “So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days. That’s the flexibility we have, and it has allowed us to be successful.”

That same flexibility is effectively serving the company as it transitions back to making signage, said Dan Renzi, John’s brother and partner, especially when it comes to supply-chain issues.

“Many of our suppliers just stopped delivering for quite some time, and then, when they started up again, the manufacturers just could not get the product to us,” he explained, referring specifically to the white polycarbonate needed in most sign projects. Working with existing and new suppliers, GIS has been able to stockpile and warehouse this essential product while some competitors are waiting for what could be three or four months to get what they need.

Thus, the company is well-positioned, even in the middle of a pandemic, to broaden an already-impressive portfolio that includes clients such as Big Y, General Dynamics, and a host of banks and credit unions, especially those installing interactive teller machines (ITMs).

GIS has become an industry leader in making the surrounds, or canopies (see photo, page XX), for these devices, and it is now making them for Berkshire Bank, PeoplesBank, Country Bank, bankESB, and several other institutions.

“The ATMS are on their way out, and the ITMs are moving in,” John noted. “More banks are expanding into this because it’s clearly the future, and we’re one of the leaders in making signage and surrounds for these ITMs.”

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

This status, coupled with the company’s flexibility and its ability to work with clients to design, develop, and install signage that is indeed impactful, has it very well-positioned for the future.

“Over the years, we’ve seen people come in with, literally, something scribbled on a piece of paper,” said Dan, explaining how GIS is involved with the client from start to finish. “We’ll take things from that really rough sketch to a complete, finished product all in one building; we can take a dream and turn it into reality.”

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest turns its lens on GIS and how it has been able to use its flexibility and resiliency to not only ride out the pandemic, but take new and meaningful steps forward.

More Signs of Progress

It’s not an official indicator of how a sign business, or any other business, for that matter, is faring. But the Renzi brothers consider it one, and they’re quite proud of it.

They were referring to how signs that have the company’s name on it — albeit in small letters that you probably wouldn’t notice (although the brothers do) — have shown up in some recent movies and TV series coming out of Hollywood.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply. So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days.”

“That’s pretty cool when you’re sitting there at a movie, either on Netflix or on the big screen, and you see one of your signs,” said John, noting that some of the company’s installations have become backdrops recently in the movies Knives Out and Behind the Woods, and the true-crime TV series Dirty John.

These recent on-screen appearances are merely the latest … well, signs of continued growth and prosperity for a company that has been part of the landscape in the Berkshires for more than 60 years. Known first as Alfie Sign Co., the business caught the eye of John Renzi Sr., a painter whose portfolio was dominated by commercial clients at a time when Pittsfield was certainly seeing its fortunes wane as its main employer, General Electric, was closing its massive complex.

“GE was moving out, and his painting business was commercial business only,” said John Jr. “So when you had large businesses moving out of Pittsfield, he was trying to set up a future for my brother and me.”

The company had a solid reputation and an impressive client list, he went on, noting that it had created signs for Fayva Shoes, Subway — it was involved in the first-generation logo for that chain — and D’Angelo’s, among others. But it wasn’t exactly well-run.

“He knew that things needed change — it was a dollar-in, dollar-out company, and it had its challenges; it took a while to get the company on its feet,” John went on, adding that his father brought some discipline and direction to the venture and put it on more solid ground, with the intention of eventually passing it on to the next generation. Which he did, but not before that generation was fully prepared to lead.

One of the many ITM canopies

One of the many ITM canopies that GIS is making for a growing list of bank clients

“Dad didn’t just hand over the business — he wanted to make sure we could handle it,” said John, noting that he and Dan officially became owners five years ago, but they’ve been managing it for the past 15. “And he did it right — we learned right from the bottom, cleaning toilets, sweeping floors, counting bolts, and getting dirty.”

In recent years, the company has, perhaps without knowing it, steeled itself against downturns — and, yes, even a pandemic — by broadening and diversifying the portfolio of clients and creating a culture grounded in the flexibility and nimbleness noted earlier.

Which brings us back to March, and the arrival of COVID-19.

“We had some really good things moving in the right direction right at the beginning of the year,” John said. “We had a good winter, things were lining up well, and we were really excited about this year.

“But when COVID hit, it hit with a jolt,” he went on. “We weren’t certain what was going to happen or how we were going about things, but if there’s one thing that my brother and I believe in — pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID — it’s that, the more flexible you are as a business, the more successful you can make yourself. And what we found is that, due to our flexibility with working with our supply chain and working with our clients, we were able to manage this crisis effectively.

One of the best examples of this flexibility was the company’s ability to pivot and begin making the plexiglass shields now seen in restaurants, banks, retail outlets, and countless other businesses.

“We reached out to suppliers and started ordering clear acrylic, clear polycarbonate, and started making these custom guards that could be adapted for bank-teller lanes, tabletops, and other uses,” Dan explained, noting that GIS made this adjustment as a way to bring employees back to work after the pandemic hit and sign work ground to a near-halt. “There was a little bit of a learning curve, but overall, it was an almost seamless transition.”

John agreed, noting that the company didn’t have to make any additional investments or find any new suppliers.

“It was just a matter of quickly training employees to make shields instead of signage,” he said, noting that, while GIS is still making these shields for a few hospitals and office buildings, it is increasingly turning its focus back to making signs.

A Bright Future

While many sectors of the economy have slowed because of the pandemic, there are still growth opportunities for companies positioned to take advantage of them, said John, noting that banks, with the emergence of the ITM, clearly represent one of those opportunities.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

He noted that banks were already moving in this direction, and the pandemic, which closed bank lobbies for months and all but forced customers to use drive-up windows for most all transactions, has only accelerated the process.

“Banks are adding them at their branches, and we’ve also seen an increase in free-standing ITMs that are not at branches,” he explained. “Chase Bank is the first one to do this; they’re looking to close 1,000 locations — downtown locations that don’t have drive-up service — and buy remote sites just outside cities, and put up these free-standing ITMs.

“We’re one of the few companies in the United States building these free-standing ITM canopies,” he went on. “It’s a very interesting development and a great opportunity for us, and we saw it happening pre-COVID; it’s 100% the future.”

As for the future of the sign business … that picture is certainly not as clear, said the brothers Renzi, noting, again, that the pandemic has hit this sector very hard, and there was already a good deal of consolidation before COVID-19 arrived as Baby Boomers retired and sold their ventures to employees or larger players from outside the region.

And since the pandemic, some of the smaller players have closed down, they said, noting they didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand the loss of business and the many other challenges that visited the industry. And many mid-sized companies have struggled with everything from retaining employees to finding the materials they need to complete orders.

GIS, again, is not immune from these challenges, but it certainly seems well-positioned to not only survive but thrive in the post-COVID world.

If you look closely — and you don’t even have to look closely — you can see the signs.

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

Construction Special Coverage

Essential Work

Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers

The new Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers project, takes shape in Easthampton.

 

 

Back in March, ‘essential’ was a magic word for employers across Massachusetts. It meant they could continue to work, provide services, and generate revenue during a time when so many sectors were completely shutting down.

But to Laurie Raymaakers, the word means more than that, because construction has always been essential to communities — particularly the infrastructure and civil-engineering projects her Westfield-based company, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons, is known for.

“Through the pandemic season, we’ve continued to get new jobs, and we have been able to keep all our employees working,” she told BusinessWest. “We are considered essential workers because we do a lot of infrastructure work for municipalities, which is very important to every community. We do all kinds of infrastructure — sewers, water, drainage, pump stations, culverts.”

Among the firm’s recent seven-figure projects are a large sewer project in Shrewsbury, a large culvert replacement in Pittsfield, and a drainage pond for Barnes Airport that had to be completed on a tight, 45-day schedule.

The company also created a road for the installation of two wind turbines in Russell and replaced a 100-year-old culvert in a pond at Forest Park in Springfield, a job that involved building a temporary dam, as well as creating new walkways and overlooks in the area. And the company’s workload for the fall and winter, and beyond, looks strong.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects. t was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

“We have enough work to keep going,” Raymaakers said. “But we’ve also worked very hard keeping employees safe. It was very difficult in the beginning, trying to get sanitary supplies for sites, like masks and sanitizer, and follow all the standards of the CDC and prepare all the proper paperwork. We value our employees, and we wanted to keep them safe. We’re very fortunate we work outdoors, with the type of work we do.”

David Fontaine Jr. tells a similar story about his company, Springfield-based Fontaine Brothers, when it comes to being essential.

“We’ve got a lot going on — we’re pretty busy this year and into 2021,” he said. “Prior to COVID coming along, we had a lot of backlog and a lot of work we had underway, so we were in a pretty healthy spot.

“During COVID, a lot of our projects stayed open the entire time because a lot of work we were doing fell under the category deemed essential — a lot of public projects,” he went on. “It was a mixed blessing because it was great to continue working, but also difficult to adapt to the changes day by day.”

Recent and ongoing jobs include building new high schools in Worcester and Middleboro, as well as a new K-8 school in Easthampton; the firm was also recently awarded a job to combine the Deberry and Homer schools in Springfield, with construction to begin next summer.

“The nice part about the public work is it’s funded with reliable state dollars; projects being constructed now were funded a year or two ago, so it’s an ongoing source of work,” Fontaine said. “It looks stable going forward next 12 months at least.”

The biggest concern right now, actually, is that some planned projects will hit a funding stall, which would manifest in a slowdown of projects a year or two from now, he added. But so far, 2020 has been a healthy year, even if uncertainty looms around the corner for many firms.

Reading the Signs

The signs were all there in February, Fontaine said, when COVID-19 was already starting to disrupt some material supply chains.

“We started preparing for it before some of our peers; we were already planning for how we were going to approach it when it came,” he told BusinessWest. “We put into place a pandemic protocol from a safety standpoint for all job sites, and tried to stay ahead of it as much as we could. We wanted to be proactive and make sure the job sites stayed open and safe.”

That involved measures that have become common in many businesses, including personal protective equipment like face coverings and gloves, worn 100% of the time.

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons recently completed an extensive project at Swan Pond in Forest Park, which involved creating a temporary dam and replacing a century-old culvert.

“We also put additional handwashing stations and sanitizing stations on all job sites,” he explained. “We also require, on every job, a daily check-in process; before anyone enters the job site, they have to self-certify they have not had any symptoms or been in contact with anyone COVID-positive the last 14 days. We’ve also been doing temperature screenings on a couple of job sites.”

Those efforts have paid off, he added. “Knock on wood, but all those measures have been effective in not having many safety concerns or incidents.”

At least one trend in the year of COVID-19 has been a positive for J.L. Raymaakers, whose yard-products division, ROAR, has been extremely busy, adding more than 600 new customers this year and tripling sales.

“That’s partly through marketing and word of mouth, but partly because of COVID,” Raymaakers said. “People have been home, not at work, and they were sprucing up their yards and planting gardens.”

Those two elements of her business — public infrastructure work and yard products — have not only helped Raymaakers and her team weather an unusual year, but thrive during it. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t recognize acute needs elsewhere.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees. If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

“Because we’ve been so fortunate this year, and so many people and organizations have been struggling, we upped our charitable contributions to help out with food banks as well as the Westfield Boys and Girls Club, making sure we give back to the community and those that are struggling.”

One trend that has not changed this year, even with so many people out of work, Raymaakers said, is a persistent shortage of workers.

“For ourselves as well as other construction companies, as much as we’re busy, it’s very difficult to find employees or crew — equipment operators and laborers — in this industry,” she told BusinessWest.

“People don’t realize you can make a good living, and we’re hearing that everywhere; it’s very difficult to find employees,” she added, noting that many of her firm’s supervisors and project managers started on the ground floor and worked their way up. “If the the trades are dying, what’s going to happen then?”

It’s not a localized phenomenon. According to a workforce survey conducted by Associated General Contractors of America and software vendor Autodesk, 60% of respondents reported having at least one future project postponed or canceled this year, and 33% said projects already underway have been halted. Yet, a shortage of labor remains, with 52% having a hard time filling some or all hourly craft positions and only 3% of firms reducing pay, despite the downturn in business.

COVID-19 is playing some role in that trend. While some companies have laid off workers during the pandemic, 44% of contractors say at least some employees have refused to return, citing unemployment benefits, virus concerns, or family issues, among other reasons.

“Few firms have survived unscathed from the pandemic amid widespread project delays and cancellations,” Ken Simonson, chief economist of Associated General Contractors of America, told the Engineering News-Record. “Ironically, even as the pandemic undermines demand for construction services, it is reinforcing conditions that have historically made it hard for many firms to find qualified craft workers to hire.”

One positive from all this has been an accelerated adoption of technology. According to the workforce survey, about 40% of responding contractors said they have adopted new hardware or software to alleviate labor shortages.

“As bad as this situation is, it’s also pushing the industry forward into a better place,” William Sankey, CEO of data-analytics solutions provider Northspyre, said in Construction Dive, an online industry newsletter. “Maybe, where it would have taken seven to 10 years to catch up to where the finance industry is in leveraging data, I think that transition will now be underway in the next two to three years.”

Down the Road

What happens over the next two to three years is really the key for all construction firms, which expect COVID-related impacts to continue to be felt down the road.

For now, though, Fontaine is gratified that his company’s workload is healthy, with public projects complemented by a fair amount of private work, including jobs for MGM and several prepatory schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon School, Deerfield Academy, and Wilbraham & Monson Academy.

“We’re hoping those types of schools will have OK years fundraising for those types of projects,” he said, adding that private-sector clients can often move from funding to the construction phase quicker than municipalities, especially when they realize they can take advantage of recession-driven lower prices.

It’s just another way this unprecedented year has cut both ways for construction firms. The big question is what the coming years will bring for a sector that’s essential in more ways than one.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Wealth Management

A Seeming Disconnect

By Jean M. Deliso

Have you wondered how the S&P 500 stock-market index has been trading at near all-time highs when, in the second quarter, S&P 500 corporate earnings were down compared to the first quarter of 2020, daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. are currently stable or declining, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ July unemployment report showed more than 16 million unemployed Americans, with an unemployment rate of 10.2%?

That question is a good one, with the seeming disconnect between what the stock market has been doing and what we are seeing in the news and the U.S. economy. No doubt the stock market was arguably pricing in what the economy will look like a year from now and what the market sees as significant pent-up demand, a fading pandemic-induced economic impact, and a wall of liquidity coursing its way through capital markets.

The real question is whether investors should be concerned about the U.S. stock market hitting all-time highs with the economy still bruised and slowly recovering. Could this mean a crash or major correction is coming?

Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

“There is a chance the economy one year from now will be in better shape than it is today — or it may be worse. But being a participant in the market for the long haul means participating in the growth and losses that happen between now and then, and always focusing on your investment time horizon.”

No one truly knows the answer to that question. But we know that market corrections and bear markets are normal and common; we just don’t know when they will arrive or how long they will last. And if anyone tells you ‘with certainty’ when a market downside is coming and how long it will last, you might want to run the other way.

When thinking about where the markets and economy could go in the next year and beyond, it’s useful to break it down by key categories:

Economics. The pandemic-induced recession has been steep and ugly. But there is a good argument that the worst of the crisis could be behind us. Manufacturing and service activity have rebounded, the housing market has seen very solid activity, and spending has outpaced expectations, according to the Washington Post.

Earnings. Second-quarter earnings were bad, plain and simple. But at the same time, earnings were not as bad as the double-digit expectation of Wall Street, and clearly stocks love positive surprises. Will earnings continue to improve going forward? That is the question — and we all hope the answer is ‘yes.’

Interest Rates. Overnight rates in most developed countries are near historic lows, meaning borrowing costs and financing costs are highly attractive for businesses and individuals that can obtain loans. The Federal Reserve also signaled plans to keep interest rates near zero for years; these actions make equities attractive by comparison.

Inflation. The amount of global stimulus is massive; the total global fiscal and monetary stimulus being deployed amounts to approximately 28% of world GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal. This ‘wall of liquidity’ makes inflation seem more likely in the coming years and will be a factor to watch.

Sentiment. Consumer and investor sentiment is improving in the wake of the pandemic, but may sour as the election nears.What’s the bottom line for investors? The nature of bull markets is that we can expect the stock market to reach new highs over time. This is what history has told us to expect every time. That said, I would caution against seeing an all-time high in the S&P index as a reason to go completely defensive. When setting a long-term investment strategy, it is important to consider how the economy may grow or contract in the next six, 12, or even 18 months, and how that plays into your personal goals and objectives. If your retirement date is close, it is always prudent to review how much safe money you may need to weather an unexpected storm.

There is a chance the economy one year from now will be in better shape than it is today — or it may be worse. But being a participant in the market for the long haul means participating in the growth and losses that happen between now and then, and always focusing on your investment time horizon.

Jean M. Deliso is a registered representative offering securities through NYLIFE Securities, LLC (member FINRA/SIPC), a licensed insurance agency. Deliso Financial and Insurance Services is not owned or operated by Eagle Strategies, NYLIFE Securities, LLC, or any of their affiliates.

Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

It took plenty of creativity — in the set design and elsewhere — but Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August when no one else could.

For the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group, things were going according to plan.

A three-year sustainability plan, to be specific, developed back in 2018, said Nick Paleologos, the organization’s executive director.

“We had a checklist of things we needed to do in addition to putting on a decent artistic season in 2019, and we hit a lot of goals. As we hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

Versions of that story have been told countless times not only in Massachusetts, but around the country and the world. But for the performing arts, it’s been a particularly tough stretch.

“Starting around St. Patrick’s Day, all we were doing was canceling shows and returning money; we were really in a kind of freefall,” Paleologos continued. “What initially saved us in the short term, and bought us time to figure out how to reimagine our 2020 season, was the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a lifeline, and it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do — it allowed us to stay in business for those crucial eight weeks in the spring.”

The 2020 season — the BTG was planning eight shows in its three indoor spaces in Stockbridge and Pittsfield — was certainly about to change. “All of a sudden, we had no idea whether we’d be allowed to perform at all,” he noted.

The journey that followed, culminating in live, outdoor performances of Godspell in August and September (more on that later), was a remarkable one, but it’s hardly the robust schedule the venerable company normally puts on. Meanwhile, performing-arts destinations like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood canceled their live slates completely.

It’s a story that affects more than arts patrons; it impacts no less than the entire Berkshires economy, which is so intertwined with, and dependent on, culture and tourism.

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

“We hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

“The visitor economy is definitely a backbone sector for us; it supports a tremendous amount of dollars in the region,” said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the multi-faceted agency that focuses on tourism, economic development, and business retention in Massachusetts’ westernmost county.

In fact, he noted, visitor dollars spent in the region over the years are approaching the $1 billion mark — and the presence of cultural attractions and other tourist destinations, from restaurants to ski resorts, is a major quality-of-life factor in business owners wanting to set up shop here.

“We were pretty heavily involved in the state’s reopening process — we played a key role in getting some of the museums open and fleshing out guidelines for hotels and restaurants,” Butler told BusinessWest, while 1Berkshire’s website has become an oft-updated clearinghouse of information on the region and its public-health response to COVID-19.

Due to belt-tightening everywhere, including among its strategic partners, 1Berkshire hasn’t operated with the same marketing budget it normally would. “But we have been able to raise enough money to do some things, and we’ve pivoted to a vision of the Berkshires that talks a lot about outdoor recreation, and about our museums and hotel properties that have been able to open.

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors. And, honestly, we’re feeling better than we were two or three months ago.”

A few success stories will do that, but stakeholders in the region are certainly hoping 2021 looks a lot different than 2020.

Out and About

Take, for example, Bousquet Mountain, which recently hired a new general manager and announced a series of renovations, including a new summit-to-base triple chairlift and a revamped snow-making system with more than 25 new snow guns, as well as new grooming equipment and a new, more accessible beginner area.

In addition, Pittsfield native and two-time Olympian Krista Schmidinger will partner with Bousquet to further the site’s youth programming, contributing to the Race Club and SnowSports School and assisting with race and school-program design, instruction, and one-on-one opportunities for young skiers. All this speaks to a resort expecting a busy season, even in the midst of COVID-19.

As for Berkshire Theatre Group, it had to fight to get a live production staged — a fight marked by creativity, not animosity. In short, the Actors Equity Assoc. wasn’t allowing any of its 59,000 unionized members to work in 2020 unless the safety of the actors could be assured.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city. We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors.”

“We’re an Equity company, so that puts a little crimp in our plans,” Paleologos said. To stage Godspell, Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire developed a 60-page manual with detailed safety protocols, including quarantining, physical distancing, and regular coronavirus testing for actors. The actors were to be kept six feet apart at all times — 10 feet when singing — with this spacing and plexiglass dividers incorporated into the set design itself.

Maguire was denied at first, “but she was relentless,” Paleologos said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

When the company and the union finally struck a deal, BTG became the only company in the entire country performing or rehearsing a musical — a major success, he noted, considering that, just weeks earlier, no one knew whether they’d have a live theater season at all, and most companies nationwide didn’t attempt one, moving instead to virtual performances only.

Meanwhile, many patrons of canceled BTG shows exchanged their tickets for future credits or donated the tickets back as contributions, as a show of support for a company — and an industry — so important to locals.

“This is not a sustainable model going forward, performing under a tent for 50 people,” Paleologos said. “But it was a miraculous success story that was totally unexpected. Our goal was just to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal moment in Berkshire County.”

It’s not the only such beacon.

“It’s too soon to gauge anything in the quantitative sense, but from what I’ve heard anecdotally, in conversations with different sectors in the visitor economy, those that have reopened have done all right,” Butler said. “A lot have changed their model — some hotels have a three-night minimum because of the cleaning expenses of turning over a room, and some businesses are closed a day or two a week to focus on cleaning and sanitizing.”

Last week, Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates several hotels in the region, announced the hiring of a COVID compliance officer, or CCO, who makes monthly visits to each hotel for routine inspections and engagement with staff and leadership. A board-certified physician, the officer strictly adheres to mandates from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays informed on the latest public-health advancements in order to advise on any necessary changes to the hotels’ protocols and procedures.

“In addition to several months of strategic planning that led to our initial creation of safeguards, it is equally important to continue evaluating our health and safety practices with the CCO’s help and expertise,” said Sarah Eustis, Main Street’s CEO. “A trusted editor was needed to process the ever-changing breadth of information out there.”

Meanwhile, the hotel group has also partnered with Blue Canary, a company that trains hotels in hospital-level cleaning methods and conducts regular check-ins. Main Street’s housekeeping leaders participated in three days of intensive sessions that focused on best practices and heightened awareness. Attendants were trained in techniques that include longer cleaning times, stronger disinfectants, new cleaning tools, and identifying critical, high-touch areas that require the most attention to ensure guest health and safety.

“This new reality has impacted our housekeeping teams in a huge way,” Eustis said. “Main Street Hospitality is committed to staying at the forefront of this.”

Restaurants have had barriers to overcome as well, Butler said, especially those that depend on visitor traffic at other area attractions. “Some have been able to pivot and focus on a delivery and takeout model, while others haven’t made the transition as seamlessly, and many don’t have the square footage inside to sit too many, and if they’re not able to adapt some outdoor seats, it can be challenging.”

The soon-to-arrive colder weather will force many eateries to become more creative until the state lifts restrictions on indoor capacity — and patrons feel safe enough to eat indoors.

“We certainly understand some businesses will have to make more permanent decisions about their fate. And some businesses, unfortunately, won’t make it to the other side of this,” Butler said. “But the outdoor recreation scene has been very busy — it’s flourishing this summer, and that will continue into the fall.”

Lessons Learned

Paleologos told BusinessWest that banks did a good job easing loan terms for cultural organizations and other nonprofits in the spring, and argues that the next step would be a permanent shift in that direction.

Writing this month in Berkshire Trade & Commerce, he cited a study in Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an economic-development plan for Berkshire County, showing that jobs in the creative industry grew at a faster pace than in any of the other sectors examined.

“In other words, cultural nonprofits are absolutely central to the Berkshire brand,” he wrote. “The profitability of other commercial industries depends heavily on the success of this county’s theatres, museums, music, and dance companies. Creating new and innovative financial products that contribute to the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector must become a top priority for local banks. As an example, sufficiently collateralized operating loans to nonprofits must be offered at the most favorable rates — not the least.”

Meanwhile, Butler added, bringing visitor traffic back to 2019 levels will depend largely on people’s confidence regarding safety, and the public-health metrics on that front have been very good in the Berkshires. “We’re optimistic that will continue and we’ll come out in a stronger place at the end of this.”

That said, there certainly has been a visitor footprint in the Berkshires this year, he went on.

“We won’t have hard data until 2021, and I’m certain it’s going to be down — we don’t have a lot of the key economic drivers, like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. But on the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of visitation from Eastern Mass.; they see us as the rural side of the state. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Connecticut and New York. Second homeowners have been living here since March, making their Berkshire residence more permanent during the pandemic. All those dollars circulate back into the local economy, which is a good thing.”

Any forward momentum is welcome, Paleologos added. But so much still remains in flux.

“We can’t guarantee, by the time we get to next summer, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be able to have shows indoors again,” he said. “The good news is, having had this experience, being able to find a way to do it outdoors, maybe we could incorporate a hybrid model, under tents and indoors. A lot is up in the air at this point, depending on how fast a reliable vaccine comes on the market and how much public confidence there is at its safety and efficacy.”

He noted that the theater business goes back to an amphitheater cut into the hillside at the Parthenon 2,500 years ago — and likely before that.

“From then up to now, the bedrock of our business is people coming together in a single place to have a shared experience and to learn a little bit about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

That’s what the Berkshires do, too, bringing people together every year for an array of activities, many of which have been curtailed in this year of COVID-19.

But the show will go on, eventually — with or without plexiglass.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

Travelers at Bradley (and there are fewer of them) will find a number of new protocols, from mandatory face coverings to more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Bradley International Airport has a contract with a medical laboratory willing to conduct COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which manages the airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., thinks that would be an ideal way for healthy travelers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont in July.

But state leaders turned that option down.

“We have a lab that’s willing to start testing here, yet we can’t convince the Department of Public Health to allow that to occur. It makes no sense,” Dillon said. “Because what’s impacting us now is the travel advisory that’s been put in place here in Connecticut.”

According to the policy, both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out a travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Failure to do so incurs a $1,000 fine.

“Unfortunately, the airlines are reacting to the travel advisory by pulling flights out of the airport,” Dillon explained. “As you can imagine, it’s very, very difficult for someone to take a week vacation and then, when they come back, have to take a two-week quarantine. The same goes for business travel — people aren’t going away for two days when they have to quarantine for 14. That’s had a pretty chilling effect on our level of recovery.”

It’s a recovery — if one can call it that — from the most dramatic loss of business airports across the country have ever experienced, the post-9/11 period included. In April, passenger volume at Bradley was down 98% compared to the same period last year. The airport has recovered some of its volume, but a typical day is still some 70% to 75% below 2019 numbers. And the state of Connecticut is doing the airport no favors with one of the most rigid travelers’ advisories in the nation.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable. This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region.”

“I’m not questioning the medical necessity of a travel advisory — I’m not qualified to question that, and I take folks at their word that it’s is a necessary thing,” Dillon told BusinessWest. “What we have asked for here is a testing option. If you get a negative COVID test, you should be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine period. Massachusetts is doing that.”

He has other questions — including why it’s OK to cross the border for a funeral, but not a business meeting — and they all come, he said, from a place of common sense. “We’re not questioning the travel advisory, but I do think testing here at Bradley would make all the sense in the world.”

If the impact of discouraging interstate travel was a short-term thing, it would be less frustrating, but Dillon is looking far beyond 2020, when airlines will emerge from the pandemic as much smaller companies, with fewer planes to spread around the nation’s airports, and some tough decisions to make about where to put them.

“They’re really having a struggle,” he said, with some airlines saying they don’t expect to return to normal operations until 2023 or 2024. “There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this.”

This is true, he said, not only of airlines, but of airports.

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable,” Dillon explained. “This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region. It’s a concern of ours not only for today but as we look to the future — what damage we’re doing to our relationships to airlines as well as their view of this market.”

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is easier when terminals are less crowded, as they are now.

For this issue’s focus on transportation, BusinessWest spoke with Dillon about how Bradley is navigating an unprecedented business challenge, and why it’s important to keep investing in the future, because the future is where this story really gets interesting.

Shifting on the Fly

Even before COVID-19 was a thing, Dillon often spoke about how Bradley was constantly competing on two levels: with Logan and the New York airports for passengers, and with every airport in the country for those precious aircraft assets. On thar front, Connecticut’s mandatory quarantine isn’t helping.

“Airlines have to be in locations like Boston and New York simply because of the population and business volume. But airlines have alternatives in terms of not having to serve Bradley and still serving a good portion of this market area,” he explained. “I don’t think it would serve the area really well without us, but an airline trying to skinny down as a result of cost-cutting measures could very well look at it that way.”

The more pressing issue in 2020 has been plummeting demand, of course. “If we don’t have passengers coming through the airport, airlines cut back, we don’t get airline fees, and no one’s here utilizing concessions, parking, renting cars, all the businesses here. When your business is off 75% to 80%, you have a corresponding drop in revenue. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Dillon said Bradley was fortunate to receive some financial assistance from the CARES Act, which allocated $10 billion to airports across the country. Based on the allocation formula, Bradley received $28 million, which sounds like a lot of money, he went on, but to put it in perspective, that covers about three months of operating expenses and debt service. And the pandemic-related travel slowdown is now well into its sixth month.

“We are fortunate that, as an airport authority, we did create what I consider some healthy reserves, and we will rely on those reserves to some extent, but it wouldn’t be prudent to exhaust our reserves,” he said, noting that they impact bond ratings, among other things.

Bradley did institute a hiring freeze, not replacing most employees who chose to retire this year, and has cut department budgets by 10% to 20%. The CAA is also looking at further measures, including a voluntary severance program.

“It is a goal of ours to try to prevent involuntary severances,” Dillon said. “We don’t want to get to a place where we’re talking about layoffs. For now, that’s off the table. We tried to make a commitment to the employee base — first and foremost, to protect their health, and second, to protect their paycheck. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge.”

About $20 million in capital projects are on hold as well, but some are moving on, including an airport-wide restroom-renovation project that should be complete by October, and features a largely touchless experience with sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and more. These features were planned well in advance of the pandemic, but Dillon said travelers will appreciate them more now.

“People want a safe, healthy, clean environment, and we try to deliver that the best we can,” he noted. “Folks think differently about hygiene in public places now; they have different expectations.”

Other protocols in place at Bradley include the expected: mandatory face coverings, more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts at high-touchpoint areas, plenty of hand-sanitizer stations, signage detailing physical distancing rules, and plexiglass shields in high-passenger-interaction areas.

Some airlines have committed to limited capacity on planes as well, Dillon said, citing Southwest and Delta as two examples. And the airport is developing touchless kiosks where travelers don’t have to interact with an agent or touch the screen to activate the ticketing process.

Bradley’s restrooms

A major renovation of Bradley’s restrooms, including many touchless features to discourage the spread of germs, began well before the pandemic.

“The key for us is to keep differentiating ourselves from our larger competitors,” he told BusinessWest. “We want people to understand that Bradley is going above and beyond in terms of sanitizing and cleaning the facilities. And Bradley might represent a better option because it’s less congested. We’re going to keep highlighting to the traveling public why Bradley is a better alternative.”

View from the Ground

Again, however, all these efforts are blunted by the fact that considerably fewer people are traveling, and Connecticut is making it difficult to do so.

Airlines are struggling too, Dillon said, sending 135-passenger planes into the sky with only 25. And, like airports, they’re all having internal discussions about the future. Bradley’s five-year contract with carriers expired in June, and with no airlines in a position to sign another five-year deal, they opted for one-year extensions.

But even had longer-term contracts been in place, he explained, “I think a lot of people don’t understand how an airline agreement works. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee you full revenue coming in, because airlines pay revenue in large measure based on landing fees. Airlines can have a presence and pay rent for space, but they’re not required to operate a certain number of flights. If you have carriers cut operations in half, the landing fees we get are then cut in half from that carrier.”

As a difficult, uncertain year continues to unspool, there are a few bright spots, especially progress on a $210 million ground transportation center — expected to be fully operational in late 2021 — that will house car-rental services, expand public parking, and incorporate public-transit connections.

“All that money had been bonded prior to the pandemic, so we’re committed to the project,” Dillon said. “It will really transform the look of the airport and our operations. People who haven’t been to the airport recently will be surprised by the magnitude of the project and how it’s transforming the space out there.”

In addition, cargo business at Bradley has remained consistently strong. “I believe one factor is that people are staying home and doing a lot of online ordering, so we’re seeing small-package delivery — UPS, Fedex, and Amazon — all increase at the airport,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the revenue profile of cargo is much different than passenger traffic, as the bulk of the revenue at any airport comes from the passenger side of the house. But I appreciate that cargo is doing well right now.”

After all, in a year of startling setbacks, any good news is welcome. But what airports need now is clarity — and for people to get back on planes.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I’m convinced that, by working smart and having employees work smart, we’ll be able to get through this. But it will be a balancing act for a while.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Uncharted Waters

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

It’s safe to say 2020 has been an unpredictable year, testing the ability of all businesses to be nimble. Matt Sosik thinks banks are passing that test.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change,” said Sosik, president of bankESB. “So we’re used to it. It’s not always visible from the outside, but culturally, we were very well-positioned to deal with the pandemic.

“The unique thing was that it just seemed to happen so fast. It was zero to 60, and you can’t always move at that pace,” he added, noting that bankESB is part of a family of three different banks with almost 500 employees. “But we pivoted as fast as we could.”

Part of that was recognizing that many customers were suddenly in turbid financial waters, and needed help. So, early in the pandemic, all banks were doing what they could to help them, whether that meant deferring mortgage loans for a few months or guiding businesses through the hastily assembled Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

“We had a customer-centric focus, which meant helping people navigate payment-related financial issues — at least the financial issues in their lives that could impact their ability to pay us. We did modifications for a lot of folks; we could foresee this was going to be a problematic situation for them. We got out front of it early and tried to alleviate that one piece of stress at a time when so many aspects of life were stressful. We did millions-of-dollars-worth of modifications for customers in the Pioneer Valley.”

Business customers, especially ones forced by a state mandate to shut their doors, were facing similarly dire issues, Sosik said. “We were also doing PPP by the truckload. It was uniquely challenging for us because it all happened at once.”

Such efforts have impacted banks’ bottom line, said Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB), noting that about 15% of mortgage and commercial loan customers took advantage of deferral programs, resulting in an impact of $900,000 from an accounting perspective.

“Everyone else seemed to be in good shape — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t see this totally ending until there’s some sort of treatment or vaccine that’s really effective. That being said, things are slowly reopening, and Massachusetts has done a pretty good job keeping infections down.”

And community banks were an important part of that, he said, noting that those loan deferrals, plus costs related to the shutdown and investments in safety protocols in order to reopen, have contributed to GCB being about $1.5 million behind where it would normally be.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change. So we’re used to it.”

“It’s going to be a profitable year, but a lot leaner. It’s going to be a challenge,” Tucker went on. “What worries me is what hasn’t risen to the top. We did the payment holiday, but now that the unemployment supplement is gone, and companies rightsize — a lot of them were paying people but couldn’t keep it up forever — I think, until we have a vaccine, we’re looking at a very difficult 2020 and 2021. We’ll be solid; we’ve put a lot of reserves aside, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Loan Stars

There are some positive signs in the economy, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which launched in Springfield last year. He participates in a group of bank CEOs, and on their last group call a couple weeks ago, most said they were pleasantly surprised that, at least on the commercial-loan side, customers who had deferred loan payments had largely returned to their normal payment schedule.

He noted that bank stocks have been “beat up,” as the analyst community didn’t like the idea of deferring principal and interest. “But the overall, totally unscientific trend I’ve seen is that people are pleasantly surprised with how businesses are coming back.

“From our standpoint, we see a lot of growth; businesses are making plans again,” he went on, conceding that New Valley doesn’t yet have a huge portfolio to manage.

Meanwhile, the housing market and stock market are doing better than anyone expected three months ago, he noted, which contributes to an overall mix message when GDP was down 30% in the second quarter and unemployment rose to 16%. “These are troubling numbers, and from a community-bank perspective, we hope it doesn’t turn into a haves-and-have-nots recovery, where the rich get richer and more people get left behind.”

Tucker said demand for loan deferrals has been way down, and banks are now pivoting to help businesses with the forgiveness-application phase of the PPP.

“We did about $18 million worth of PPP, which for us was a lot because most of our loans were under $250,000,” he said, noting that GSB handled about 280 such loans. “It was about a year’s worth of work in a month. Like a lot of banks, our staff was working nights and weekends.”

Sosik added that the waters surrounding the PPP forgiveness phase are still a but murkey and could use some clarity from Congress so the forgiveness path can be clearer. “If people are unclear about forgiveness, they don’t want to spend the money, so it doesn’t get out into the economy.”

At the same time, he added, banks are also being cautious when it comes to growth plans.

“It’s a time to be careful, but at the same time it’s been a very successful year,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve grown a lot this year, but we’re obviously looking forward, expecting continued economic challenges, and our job is to be here for many years. There are times to push hard and run fast, and times to slow that down and be cautious.”

Still, banking leaders are pleased to have made the investments they did in online and remote banking models, Tucker noted, while holding up his smartphone. “Our fastest-growing branch is this. That’s a reality.”

“Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks.”

But while the number of GCB customers using remote banking is 25% higher than before COVID-19, branches still serve a critical purpose, he added. “We’ve seen a lot of people realize we are invaluable to them. When they had problems with their mortgage, they can deal with one person and not get shuffled through a lot of bureaucracy. That’s a plus.”

While branches are still necessary, he went on, they’re different than they used to be; the recently opened South Hadley branch is 1,800 square feet, less than half the space the bank used to set aside for new branches. But he doesn’t foresee any closures, aside from two Amherst branches, about a mile apart, that recently consolidated into one.

“Some banks are using this time as a trigger to say, ‘OK, we’re going to close these branches,’” Tucker added. “We’ve chosen not to do that because there’s enough disruption for customers as it is.”

Sosik noted that bankESB has invested a lot of money in the remote infrastructure and platform. “The technology works seamlessly, and the adoption was good. We were looking for a catalyst we could use to push it and have customers really start enjoying the technological advances. We didn’t expect it to come from a pandemic; we didn’t want it to come from a pandemic. But the pandemic absolutely pushed people to use it.”

That said, “we totally believe in the branch part of the overall delivery system, and we’re still investing in branches,” including one recently opened in Amherst. “But they’re much different than the ones we built a decade ago, or even five years ago. There’s still a need for a branch; customers still want that. Even if they don’t need to be there, they still like that someone they know and trust can work with them when they need it.”

Here for the Long Haul

Whatever the model, the presidents BusinessWest spoke with all believe in the work community banks have done and continue to do during a very difficult year for so many.

“We believe in it,” Sosik said. “Everyone who works for a community bank does it because we love that part of it. If you look at any successful New England town, you’re going to find a locally managed, if not locally owned, community-type bank at its economic center”

While banks still grapple with the impact of not only loan deferrals but ultra-low interest rates, they’re still in strong shape, he added.

Sullivan agreed. “Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks. Banks are healthy and have lots of capital. And hopefully we can turn the page soon and get back to normal lending.”

Tucker doesn’t know what shape the recovery will take — a U, a V, or the one he feels is most likely, resembling the Nike ‘swoosh’ logo, with a long, gradual ascent to normalcy.

“But we’ll do fine, and we are doing fine,” he said. “There’s just a lot of pressure on the margin with rates as low as they are and all the unknown with COVID.

“I’m very optimistic, though,” he added. “Businesses are doing OK. Yeah, a lot of them are struggling, but we see a lot of small businesses trying their damnedest. And we’re trying to support those businesses. We’re here, and we’re going to be here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus

Volume Business

By Mark Morris

When COVID-19 made its arrival in Western Mass., it was mid-March, just weeks before the start of the traditional home-selling season. Area mortgage professionals didn’t know what to expect when the pandemic hit, but they certainly weren’t projecting a solid year.

Soon, though, they had to adjust those expectations and projections.

Indeed, a combination of factors, from historically low interest rates to high demand and low inventories, have made this a much busier, much better year than most residential lenders and home sellers could have hoped for back in the dark days of March.

Indeed, instead of completely canceling the spring home-buying market, the pandemic merely postponed it, said James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending with Holyoke-based PeoplesBank.

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August,” he told BusinessWest.

Jeffrey Smith, vice president and chief Lending officer with Freedom Credit Union, concurred, noting that any debilitating effects on the housing market from the pandemic have been more than offset by lower interest rates. The rates were already fairly low — in the 3.25% to 3.5% range — before the pandemic, he said, but now consumers can now get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for well under 3%.

James Sherbo

James Sherbo

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August.”

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years,” Smith said. “When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

Meanwhile, many mortgage holders are taking advantage of these lower rates to refinance, and this high volume of refis, as they’re called, is keeping most all lending institutions busy.

“It’s crazy … we’ve seen an 80% volume increase in our overall business compared to last year,” Smith noted. “And we certainly did not expect that.”

Tami Gunsch, senior executive vice president and director of Relationship Banking at Berkshire Bank, agreed. She said the bank is pleased with the Mortgage Division’s performance, “especially during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the housing market and the various, and powerful, forces that are driving it.

Rooms for Improvement

Flashing back to mid-March, Sherbo said his department was mostly focused on where (and how) team members would work, and keeping employees and customers safe.

“We just tried to prepare as best as we could to keep our team safe and our customers safe,” Sherbo said. “When COVID-19 first hit, everybody wondered what would happen; nobody had a crystal ball.”

Indeed, no one could have foreseen how the drop in interest rates — one of many steps taken to stimulate the economy — and other factors would collaborate to stimulate virtually all aspects of the housing market and create a unique set of circumstances.

Home sales are strong, again, because of low interest rates even though fewer homes are for sale, said Sherbo, adding that he can’t recall a time when both conditions have happened at the same time.

Jeffrey Smith

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years. When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

“I’ve seen rates this low before, but I’m not sure we’ve seen this lack of supply in quite a while,” he said, adding that it’s no surprise that many people do not want to move or sell during the pandemic, so the supply of homes for sale is limited. That creates an environment where many purchase offers are coming in higher than the asking price.

“New listings are selling very quickly,” noted Smith, adding that nearly all the houses offered for sale in early July were sold by early August.

In addition to people moving out of the city and into the suburbs to take advantage of low interest rates, Smith said the demand for second homes is exploding.

“In the last three to six months, prices have increased by 20% or more in areas like Cape Cod or Maine,” he noted. “Second homes are a hot market right now, and because there is a limited supply, properties are on the market for only a short time before they are sold.”

Then, there’s the refi market.

Gunsch said that, in addition to strong new-mortgage activity, Berkshire Bank is doing a high-volume business in refinances.

“Refis account for 52% of our closed-loan production through July,” she said, “while in the prior year, during the same period, they accounted for 35% of the closed loan volume.”

Smith added that, thanks to the robust business Freedom is doing with loan refinancing, he does not anticipate the lack of housing supply to limit the institution’s growth potential this year.

Strong housing-sales activity is even more impressive considering how the entire home-buying process had to quickly change when COVID-19 hit.

The notion of a real-estate agent walking potential buyers through a house for sale sounds almost quaint these days, as virtual tours have replaced showings, and drive-by looks at a house have become the norm.

“People are buying homes based on what they see online,” said Smith. “Many people are not even going out to the house to see it. In some cases, particularly for second homes, they are buying them sight unseen.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Smith said Freedom had limited online mortgage-application capabilities, but the virus forced the institution to quickly go all in.

“Luckily, we had the technology to be able to make a fast adjustment to online only, so we were kind of ready for it,” he told BusinessWest.

PeoplesBank launched its paperless mortgage-application system in October 2019 after two years of refining it. When COVID-19 arrived and disrupted so much of daily life, Sherbo said having a touchless system already up and running made it easier to maintain business levels.

“Our customers don’t have to meet or sign anything in person,” Sherbo explained. “The entire application process can be done online or over the phone. We were ready for this, which was great.”

Gunsch said Berkshire also uses an online application process. When an appraisal of the property is needed, only the exterior is appraised to reduce physical contact.

“Loan closings are still done in-person with everyone wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines,” she added.

Critical Deferrals

A serious concern at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential for mortgage delinquencies to spike due to homeowners affected by financial and health issues. In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on consumers through March 2021.

Meanwhile, those who are struggling with COVID-related issues are encouraged to contact their mortgage holder to defer payments. The law makes it clear that, by deferring, consumers merely extend the length of the mortgage without taking a hit on their credit rating.

All the mortgage professionals BusinessWest spoke with said the deferral program has worked to keep delinquencies down and allow people to stay in their homes.

“We have a strong team in place to assist our borrowers with loan deferrals and ensure they understand their options to defer payment during this time,” said Gunsch.

Smith said that roughly 5% of Freedom mortgage holders have taken advantage of the deferral program. “We’re actually seeing our delinquencies at very low levels, lower than they’ve been in years.”

Smith added that most of the deferral requests occurred in April and May. With each passing month, the number of new deferrals continues to decline.

“The deferral program is working the way it was intended,” Sherbo added. “It’s giving people the chance to maintain their own stability and credit.”

As for inventories, even that picture may improve soon. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed new housing construction starts are up more than 23.4% in July 2020 compared to July 2019. The national figure closely mirrors the Northeast, which saw a similar increase of 23.3%.

Locally, Sherbo said new home starts are relatively flat, but if interest rates continue at record lows, that would encourage more new construction in Western Mass.

Just as no one had a crystal ball back in March, none of the mortgage professionals we spoke with can really say what will happen six months or a year from now. That’s the nature of this pandemic — a high level of unpredictability.

For now, the housing market is booming at a time when few thought it would. This is good news for banks and credit unions — and for the customers they serve.

And it’s certainly one of the more intriguing stories in a year with seemingly no end of them.

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Despite what she described as “shifting sands and shifting times,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle believes her city is more than holding its own in the face of COVID-19.

By that, she meant this community of roughly 16,000 people is moving ahead with a number of municipal projects and economic-development initiatives. And it is also undertaking several efforts, often in cooperation with other entities — such as the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce — to help its business community, and especially the very small businesses that dominate the landscape, weather this intense storm.

“We’re focused on a good, basic plan that addresses infrastructure and quality of life for everyone in our city,” she said, as she addressed the former — and the latter as well.

In that first category, she listed everything from a $100 million school-building project to a $45 million mixed-use development, called One Ferry, that involves renovating old mill buildings and reworking the infrastructure in the Ferry Street area.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times. It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

And in the second category, she mentioned several initiatives, from small-business grants to a community-block-grant program designed to help microbusinesses, to efforts to help renters. Indeed, the city has put aside $300,000 in relief for renters; the relief begins in the fall and is meant to keep an important source of affordable housing in place.

“If you start losing renters, many of the owners will have to sell because they’ll have trouble paying their mortgages,” the mayor said, adding that there are many ripple effects from the pandemic, and the city’s strategy is to keep the ripples from gaining size and strength.

Overall, LaChapelle acknowledged that COVID-19 is forcing businesses, families, and institutions to make pivotal changes during very uncertain times, but she remains an optimist.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times,” she noted. “It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

Progress Report

Like other mayors BusinessWest has spoken with in recent weeks, LaChapelle said COVID-19 has certainly impacted businesses in every sector, changed daily life in innumerable ways, and even altered how city government carries out its business.

But in many respects, it hasn’t slowed the pace of progress in the city — at least when it comes to a number of important municipal and development projects, including the aforementioned school project.

Mo Belliveau

Mo Belliveau

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them.”

The as-yet-unnamed school, located on Park Street, is an example of several elements of the city’s plan coming together. The new building will house students from pre-K through grade 8, replacing three older elementary schools in Easthampton. New road infrastructure is planned in front of the building as well, with the addition of a roundabout intersection.

LaChapelle noted that the $100 million project is slightly ahead of schedule and should be completed by late 2021 or early 2022. The roundabout will be completed this month.

Meanwhile, other projects are taking shape or getting ready to move off the drawing board. One involves River Valley Co-op, the Northampton-based food cooperative, which is currently building a 23,000-square-foot market in Easthampton on the site of the former Cernak Oldsmobile Pontiac dealership. The co-op is scheduled to open by spring or summer of next year.

Once complete, the mayor explained, River Valley will employ 60 full-time union workers with the potential to expand to nearly 100 workers in the next two years. Road improvements that will benefit the new co-op include a dedicated turning lane into the market and straightening the road in front.

“This is an area along Route 10 that has been a traffic pain point for economic development,” she said. “While it’s a $400,000 project, we expect the return to far exceed those dollars.”

Another project in the works is One Ferry, an initiative expected to bring new residents, new businesses, and more vibrancy to the city.

“In the next 18 to 24 months, this project will add quality apartments, condominiums, and office space,” LaChapelle said, adding that public infrastructure to support this project includes a roundabout that connects a residential area, the industrial park, and the mill district of Easthampton. The first building in the project, recently completed, provides space for two businesses and two apartments.

“Right now, this project is providing jobs and vitality for the area, and that will only increase,” she noted. “One Ferry is huge for our future.”

Dave Delvecchio

Dave Delvecchio

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options. It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

Another bright note for the future involves Adhesive Applications, which makes adhesive tapes for use in more than a dozen industries. The longtime Easthampton manufacturer is planning a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot addition to the company, the mayor said.

The chamber and the mayor’s office are also working together on Blueprint Easthampton, a resource map designed for entrepreneurs and business people.

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them,” said Mo Belliveau, executive director of the chamber.

According to a news release on Blueprint Easthampton, the mapping initiative will improve access to available business tools and strengthen the links between the city and the business community.

New Normal

While work continues on these projects, efforts continue to assist those businesses impacted by the pandemic. And the Greater Easthampton Chamber has played a large role in such efforts.

Prior to the pandemic, Belliveau had begun shifting the emphasis at the agency away from events and more on education and discussion-type programming. After organizing and scheduling programs for the year, stay-at-home orders went into effect in March and wiped out all those plans.

“Like so many small businesses, we at the chamber had to pivot along with our partners and find new ways to provide meaningful value to our community,” Belliveau said, adding that many of these new ways involve providing information — and other forms of support — to businesses during the pandemic.

Indeed, Easthampton received a $30,000 grant from the state attorney general’s office designed to help small businesses pay for COVID-19-related expenses and allow them to continue their operations. LaChapelle invited the chamber to be the administrator of what became the Greater Easthampton Sustaining Small Business Grant (SSBG) program. Applicants could request up to $1,500 and use the grant for buying PPE, paying their rent, or purchasing supplies needed to comply with state guidelines on reopening.

A total of 31 businesses qualified for the grants, which were to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Fortunately, all 31 applicants received grant money totaling more than $43,000, thanks to donations from Easthampton-businesses Applied Mortgage, which kicked in an additional $10,000, and Suite 3, which covered the remainder of the funding requests.

“My goal going forward is to find other businesses that are able to contribute to this effort so we can do another round of funding,” Belliveau said. “The need is great, and the money from this first effort went fast.”

In addition, Easthampton and six surrounding communities recently became eligible for a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses get through the pandemic. Businesses with five or fewer employees can apply for up to $10,000 in grant money. Easthampton was the lead community in applying for the block grant.

“We have many innovative small businesses in Easthampton who still can’t reopen,” LaChapelle said. “This grant program is designed to help them stay afloat.”

Dave DelVecchio is president of Suite3, a company that provides IT services for businesses of all sizes. While most of his customer base is in Western Mass., Suite3 also has clients internationally and in several U.S. states.

As an IT service provider, DelVecchio measures success by “ticket requests,” an indication that a customer needs support. When COVID-19 started taking its toll and many businesses were shut down in March and April, ticket requests were at their lowest point. Since then, Suite3’s business has come back to pre-pandemic levels.

As a past president and current treasurer of the chamber, DelVecchio was concerned about the impact COVID-19 was having on the business community, and especially its growing portfolio of restaurants.

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options,” he said. “It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

He added that Easthampton has a good number of other businesses affected by COVID-19 that did not receive as much attention as the restaurants.

“Businesses such as travel agencies and professions that require personal interaction, like chiropractors and massage therapists, were also affected by the virus,” he said, noting that the SSBG and Community Development Block Grant can make a real difference for such businesses.

Coming Together

DelVecchio credits Belliveau with changing the focus of the chamber to more education without losing its important role as a provider of networking opportunities. Part of the changing organization involved moving from an annual fee model to monthly dues. While that can be a risky move, DelVecchio noted there was almost no attrition in membership.

“We are grateful that we continue to get support from the business community and they see value in the chamber,” he said, “especially at a time when expenses are being put under greater scrutiny.”

This support is another indication of how the community, which had been thriving before the pandemic, has come together to cope with a crisis that has provided a real test — or another real test — for residents and businesses alike.

As the mayor noted earlier, Easthampton’s grit and resilience has helped it survive a number of economic downturns and other challenges in the past. And those qualities will see it through this one as well.

Coronavirus

Safe at Home

By Mark Morris

Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’

This before-and-after view of Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’ is just one of many jobs keeping crews busy recently.

When COVID-19 began spreading earlier this year, it forced everyone to make adjustments. Or, as Brian Rudd put it, “The pandemic lets you know how prepared you are for change.”

Rudd, owner of Vista Home Improvement, said his company handles around 700 projects every year, and keeps everything straight by following an organized process. Once the pandemic hit, those processes had to change on the fly.

“Thanks to our staff and our company culture, we were able to adapt quickly, especially in the way we interact with our customers,” Rudd said, adding that some of the changes, such as heavier reliance on technology to interact with customers and employees, will benefit the business long after coranavirus is under control.

Amid such changes, though, several home-improvement contractors who spoke with BusinessWest tell a similar story about 2020.

Specifically, they all experienced downtime in March and April; even though they were included among ‘essential’ workers, the home-improvement business suffered a severe slowdown, as most people were not comfortable with any outsiders in their home during the early months of the pandemic.

But as more precautions have been put in place, business has returned to most companies — and, in some cases, increased over last year.

Back in December, Ger Ronan, president of Yankee Home, organized what he calls a ‘mastermind’ group of 11 home-improvement companies from all over the U.S. The point of the group is to network and share ideas about what’s working and what’s not.

“In the early days of the pandemic, members of the group came together and wanted to help in any way they could,” he said. “I got lots of ideas and strategies from companies much larger than mine, and they really helped.”

Ronan expressed a common observation as to why home renovation work has picked up. With people spending so much time at home, they are looking at faded siding, worn-out roofs, and other needed repairs. On top of that, fewer people are going away on vacation this year, opting instead to invest money in their homes.

With everyone staying put, homes are simply getting more use — and attention — than in the past.

“There’s more wear and tear on rooms in the house, especially bathrooms,” he said. “Our bathroom-renovation sales are really strong.”

Scott Keiter, president of Keiter Homes, said his company is working on a wide range of home projects. From new additions to kitchens, bathrooms, and especially outdoor living spaces, he said people want to make their houses more user-friendly in this time of increased isolation.

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed,” Keiter said. “Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

Safety First

All three contractors follow state guidelines for COVID-19 in terms of masks, sanitizing worksites, and keeping a safe distance from clients. They also emphasized the importance of safety for their employees and clients.

“Every morning, we give all of our employees the option to not work that day if they do not feel safe,” Rudd said. “That’s become part of our daily routine, and it’s worked great.”

When working on exterior projects such as siding and roofs, Keiter said, it’s fairly easy to maintain a safe distance from the homeowner.

“It’s a little more complicated when we have to work inside the home,” he said. “A simple solution like a plastic partition wall allows us to segregate our work area from the client’s living space.”

Yankee Home uses red carpets to protect clients’ floors when working inside the home. In addition to having the carpets cleaned frequently, Ronan said, project managers from his company visit every job site to make sure all safety protocols are in place.

These contractors told BusinessWest that having people at home during renovation projects was definitely a help and not a hindrance to the job. They all pointed out how much easier it is to discuss changes to a project while the owner is on site, rather than trying to reach them at work and waiting for a reply.

Ger Ronan

Ger Ronan says people have been spending more time at home — and finding more reasons to invest in their home.

“We do a lot of customization, so it’s nice to have people there so they can tell us exactly what they want,” Ronan noted.

At a recent siding and window installation, Rudd added, the homeowner appreciated the details of the work and enjoyed seeing the job from start to finish. “We love people being home because they can see the craftsmanship and what goes into the investment they’ve made with us.”

One trend developing as a result of so many couples working from home involves ‘his and her’ home-office spaces. Keiter, who builds new homes as well as additions, said he has not worked on such projects, but expects he might get requests in the near future. Long before the work-at-home explosion, his clients have wanted home-office setups either for work or to stay in touch with distant family members online.

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter

“We’re doing a huge deck for a client who just had a swimming pool installed. Because they are spending so much time on their property, I think people are reinvesting in their homes for their own enjoyment.”

“Whether it’s a dedicated office space, flex space, or a study, many plans call for one room in the house that’s being dedicated for computer use,” he explained, noting that the next trend in home offices will likely involve upgraded wireless infrastructure. “From parents working at home to kids trying to go to school online, and all the other laptop and iPad use, I think we will be seeing more sophisticated wireless access points in the home.”

Security Blanket

Though business is booming now, Ronan predicts that the pent-up demand caused by COVID-19 will eventually dissipate, but won’t reduce business too much.

“You know the old adage of, no matter how bad the recession might be, you’ll always get your haircut,” he said. “Well, we’re not quite up there with hairdressers, but you’re always going to take care of your home.”

Rudd said 2020 reminds him of the period right after 9/11 when people saw the home as a security blanket. Similar to that time, his clients are focused on ‘nesting’ in the safety of their home — so it’s not surprising his business is up 32% over last year.

“Anything related to the home is booming,” he noted. “Friends of mine who are landscapers are having record years, too.”

Homeowners have long been advised to make renovations to their kitchens and bathrooms because money spent on those two rooms will provide the best return on investment if the house ever goes up for sale. While kitchen and bathroom renovations remain popular, Keiter said, he’s finding that people are investing in those spaces for a different reason: quality of life.

“We’re staying at home because the virus has made the world unpredictable in so many ways,” he told BusinessWest. “With all this uncertainty, putting money into our homes seems like a pretty safe bet.”

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

The idea of doctors and patients communicating across a distance, via a video connection, is not a new one, Carl Cameron notes. But COVID-19 “opened the floodgates” to making it a reality for millions.

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived,” said Cameron, chief operating officer at Holyoke Medical Center (HMC). “And the governor came out and said, ‘look, for televisits and the phone, video, however you can get the visit done, and we expect the payers to pay for it like it’s an in-person visit.’”

So health organizations started doing just that. “We started with basic things like getting some iPads, getting some physician PCs set up, and then it was, ‘OK, what are we going to use for an application?’” Cameron said, noting that they started with a mixture of FaceTime, Google Meet, and a product known as Doximity.

“A lot of doctors are familiar with that; it meets all the security requirements of HIPAA in terms of being a secure channel,” he explained. “You basically send a link to the patient, and they just click it, and it creates the connection with the doc. It even uses a virtual telephone number for the doc, so it doesn’t have to be their actual cell phone. It’s a very easy process.”

Among the physicians pleased with the expansion of telehealth is Dr. Kartik Viswanathan of Holyoke Internal Medicine.

“Before the pandemic happened, we were seeing close to zero televisits. During the pandemic, we started doing televisits to reduce the number of people coming in. Infection was rampant, and at that time, we didn’t want people in the waiting rooms, and when seeing patients, we needed to be completely in PPE and masks.”

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived.”

So government did the right thing, he added, freeing up telehealth to be billed like a regular office visit. “Remarkably, it was very popular with patients. They loved it,” he said, noting that patients appreciated not having to drive to the office, and if a doctor was running late, it was OK, since they were at home. “They weren’t upset if they were 15 or 20 minutes behind.”

Cameron agreed. “We were using it wherever possible and where the government would allow us to get paid for it. Obviously, with COVID, nobody wanted to leave their house — as a country, we didn’t have a good understanding of how the disease spread; everyone was saying shelter in place, so people didn’t really want to go out.

As a result, practices saw significant dips in volume, he went on. “But as we put the telemedicine in place, I was eventually able to bring us up to just below pre-COVID numbers for office visits. We still had some patients, depending on the acuity, who needed to be seen in the office or the ER, but we were doing 75% to 80% of our visits via telemedicine.”

Viswanathan said having the distance alternative reduced anxiety in patients during a generally anxious time. “They were happy to see us. Even with COVID testing, people had so many questions, and just the fact they could speak with us, communicate with us, really relieved a lot of the anxiety for them.”

Carl Cameron

Carl Cameron says the technology needed for effective telehealth exists, and so does patient demand.

And now, with medical practices largely back open, albeit under strict safety protocols? “Televisits are here to stay,” he told BusinessWest. “As a provider, I find it convenient, and the patient finds it convenient. I think it will still be 20% to 30% of daily visits even after the pandemic is over.”

Pros and Cons

Viswanathan conceded that televisits aren’t the same as in-person visits, in a number of key ways.

“The challenges come when we don’t know the patients from before — when it’s a new patient we’ve never seen before. There’s a little discomfort level that I haven’t seen him. But for established patients and managing chronic illnesses, it’s just great,” he said.

“It can’t replace all office visits because we really need to see some patients — there are subtle signs we tend to miss if we’re seeing only through a camera. There are procedures we can’t do on a television. If they have a rash, that is not well-examined on television. Those are some challenges.”

Medical organizations have brought up technology access gaps as well, particularly among certain demographic groups. Health Affairs, an online publication of Project HOPE, recently reported that more than one in three U.S. households headed by a person age 65 or older do not have a desktop or a laptop, and more than half do not have a smartphone. While family members or caregivers can help, one in five Americans older than age 50 suffer from social isolation.

Access to technology is also a barrier in other ages and minority groups. Children in low-income households are much less likely to have a computer at home than their wealthier classmates. More than 30% of Hispanic or black children do not have a computer at home, as compared to 14% of white children.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward?”

Even on the provider side, organizations have work to do to fit telehealth seamlessly into traditional practices, Cameron said.

“We need to continue to beef up the infrastructure so that it allows for effective management of both televisits and in-person visits, so that the physician can be flexible,” he explained. “They can take a laptop, go into a room, do a normal visit with a person, do their documentation, and then, for televisits, go slide it into a docking station where they have two monitors up; they’ve got the documentation and can see the patient at the same time, right in front of them.”

Like other trends that evolved on the fly during the pandemic, like remote work (see story on page 22), telehealth may have served its purpose well during these chaotic months, but to make it a permanent fixture will require planning.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward? With the efficiency and effectiveness I saw with our practices, this is absolutely a tool we can continue to develop.”

One of the evolutions in Cameron’s organization may be a move toward expanding the use of Doximity, perhaps in conjunction with the Meditech web portal, where parients can schedule a telehealth visit on the latter, and the link is sent via Doximity.

“It’s not like the technology isn’t there, and it’s going to continue to evolve and move forward,” he went on. “But what’s made it a reality is now, you can get paid for it, and there’s some funding out there to beef up the infrastructure.”

Peace of Mind

While primary care and certain specialties are making strong use of telemedicine, behavioral health has been a particularly fertile field. The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) began using its own platform, called TeleWell, through its BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center in January, just before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S.

Through TeleWell, clients could connect remotely with a clinician, recovery coach, or prescriber for varying times and frequencies.

“The response from the community has been positive, with many individuals requesting the ability to continue receiving services utilizing TeleWell in the future,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations.

“The flexibility of MHA’s TeleWell best matches the ability of individuals to receive services, while also in a location of their choice, in which they are comfortable,” she added, noting that client feedback suggests a growing role for this model in the future. “The adaptive world of today has been a benefit to the critical to needs of tomorrow.”

MHA recently announced $13,333 in grant funding provided by Baystate Noble Hospital to advance Well Aware, an information and education initiative that aims to raise awareness of the availability of telehealth services to help people dealing with the challenges of opioid and substance use disorders in the Greater Westfield area.

“The ability to connect via TeleWell can be of critical importance for people who cannot partake of services in person due to the COVID-19 crisis, a lack of transportation, or concern about the stigma often associated with seeking help,” said Kimberley Lee, vice president of Resource Development and Branding for MHA, adding that TeleWell can be an important bridge to enable people to receive the care they need from the safety of their own homes, and that, for people with opioid and substance-use disorders who either wish to enter into recovery or are already in recovery, being able to keep regular appointments with a counselor is critical for them to achieve success in staying sober.

“This is especially important during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended our society and created a new normal of social distancing,” said Ron Bryant, president of Baystate Noble Hospital. “This practice has resulted in large numbers of people who feel isolated from their families, their circle of friends, and their normal life’s routine. This in turn can result in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty, all of which can be addressed through behavioral-health services.”

It’s not just behavioral-health professionals saying telehealth offers an easier and less anxiety-ridden experience, one that makes it more likely patients will keep their appointments. Cameron reports the same trend at Holyoke Medical Center’s practices.

“One thing we found was our no-show rates dropped dramatically,” he said. “It’s pretty easy for the patient. They’re notified at home, and all they have to do is connect. They don’t have to go anywhere.”

As offices reopened to the public, he continued, “we’re probably a mix now of 60% in office, 40% telemedicine. So it’s shifted a little bit, but our goal is to continue to push it as a tool for the providers because, in certain cases, it’s more efficient and effective. It’s actually quicker for the patient and provider.”

Cameron doesn’t expect demand to be an issue, especially as more patients try out a remote visit, he said, noting that a couple of family members recently scheduled televisits and were surprised how easy and effective a visit could be without having to go to the office.

“There’s a push by the state and the feds to keep this in place as a tool to connect with patients. There’s been a push to extend it, make it permanent as a way to get paid, and at the full rate of an office visit. There are definitely enough patients out there who want this.”

Generation Gap

Viswanathan agrees that patients have adapted to the technology. Even older patients, who might not be comfortable with technology, have responded positively when a family member or visiting nurse has shown them how to access it. “When they see the benefits and ease of using it, their acceptance just shoots up.”

Most physicians like having the option as well, Cameron said, noting its potential in on-call situations, when a doctor can send a patient a link and get connected quickly.

“It’s a great tool that gives us much more flexibility. So I don’t see this going away,” he told BusinessWest.

As COVID-19 cases subside, some practices are going back to seeing most patients in person, he noted, but HMC continues to reinforce the use of telehealth. “This is a tool we want to use for the right visits. We want to make sure we give the option to patients. And, as we beef up the technology around it, docs like it.”

One reason, Viswanathan said, is it opens up a practice’s business to patients who may live farther away than they’d like to drive on a regular basis. He also foresees a day when community centers are equipped with telehealth ‘booths’ where patients can transmit their information and be connected to a doctor.

“It will never replace a visit,” he added, “but I think there’s going to be so much innovation around this.”

Part of Cameron’s job will be to continue to educate providers on how telehealth can be an effective tool.

“We still have older docs not accustomed to using all the technology. Back in ’07, EMR was a challenge. Now we’re asking them to do person-to-person visits via telephone or video,” he said. “So I think we’re still early in the process, but I’ve seen tremendous benefit to this that I don’t think is going to go away. And our plan here is to continue to educate, build the technology around it, and make it easier and more efficient for our providers and the whole system.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Modern Office

Small Steps for Big Wins

By Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

Work-life balance in 2020 has been different, to say the least. And many people have unexpectedly found themselves in a new office … at home. This trend does not seem to be going away. In fact, many businesses plan to extend their work-from-home policies through the end of the year and are considering more permanent work-from-home plans.

If you are working from home, the expectation is that you are working from home. However, if you are not accustomed to this new environment, it can be tricky to perform to your fullest potential while also maintaining work-life balance. You and your employees may need to take additional steps to invest in overall well-being in order to remain effective at work.

Here are some things to think about, focusing on healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Mind

Staying focused and on task is key for productivity. Keep your mind clear and focused. To do that:

• Take a Break. Step away from screens occasionally. Don’t forget to give yourself a few minutes throughout the day to recharge in the same way that you would if you were in the office.

• Fully Participate. Nothing will help you enjoy your time off more then a job well done during your time on. Be engaged during meetings. Put your full workday in. Remain committed to your mission and vision while working. Your mind will appreciate the normalcy, you will do better work, and you will find it easier to turn off your work at the end of the day.

• Schedule Tasks, but Set Limits. Stay organized and on task by being clear about how you will spend your time. Schedule appointments with yourself to complete work. Limit tasks based on how much time it would normally take to complete them in the office.

• Set Ground Rules with Your New ‘Colleagues.’ If you are working remotely due to COVID-19, chances are that there are more people hunkered down at home too. To stay productive and avoid frustration, communicate with your family about boundaries so that you minimize interruptions and distractions.

• Set Up Your Home Office. Remember your first day of work, when you brought in a box of favorite things to keep you inspired and productive? Take some time to set up your new dedicated home-office space. Keep your work area organized and separate from your ‘life’ area. Even setting up a simple desk or table in a dedicated space will help you get into work mode when it is time. It can also prevent your work from overrunning your kitchen, living room, bedroom, or all of the above.

Body

Working — and doing everything else — at home can leave us feeling sluggish. Stay energized to feel and do your best.

• Take a Walk. If you’re taking a 10-minute break, don’t waste it scrolling on your phone. Go outside and take a walk. The combination of sunlight, fresh air, change of scenery, and movement can give you an injection of energy to get back at it.

• Stand Up. On a conference call or virtual meeting? Stand up or even walk or pace during the call. The walk can increase your focus, and you can also get some exercise at the same time.

• Try Yoga to Increase Focus. Did you know certain yoga poses may increase focus and concentration? Try yoga in the morning before work, or mid-afternoon to increase your focus and stay active. Poses for focus include tree, eagle, warrior III, half-moon, dancer, extended hand to toe, side plank, crow, and headstand.

• Choose Healthy Snacks and Meals. With a full range of access to unlimited food and snacks, it can be easy to fall off track and overdo it on the junk food. This obviously can lead to fatigue and become problematic if it becomes habitual. Maintaining a healthy diet with good portions will keep you fueled and energized.

• Drink More Water. Keeping hydrated is critical for well-being. Again, with full access to your kitchen, you may be prone to drink more sugary drinks, coffee, or soda than you normally would. Or you may not be taking in as much water as you usually do. Keep a water glass at your desk (but not near electronics) so you can stay hydrated throughout the day.

Spirit

Acknowledge emotions that are coming up as you navigate a new work situation and then take steps to redirect the narrative.

• Practice Gratitude. Showing appreciation can help you feel more positive emotions. Thank your colleagues when they help you with something. Take a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to work from home right now. Studies show that people who feel and express gratitude generally have a greater level of happiness.

• Go Outside. During social distancing, you can still leave your home to go for a walk or simply enjoy a cup of coffee on the porch. Research has shown that going outside can improve your short-term memory, restore mental energy, relieve stress, improve concentration, and increase your creativity.

• Stay Connected to Colleagues. While you can’t swing by a co-worker’s office to chit-chat, you can take a few minutes each day to connect. Whether it’s a private Facebook group, Teams, or group chat, take some time to check in. Talk. Laugh a little. Share photos, comments, and videos. Motivate each other to do great work together. Staying connected keeps us together while we’re apart.

Healthy Perspective

Small actions that are taken consistently can add up to big results. Focus on the three big rocks and the small wins that can be achieved within them to position yourself for a healthy mind, body, and spirit while working from home … and, for that matter, working from anywhere.

As you and your employees navigate this new work-from-home environment, remember that being productive and healthy is good for business and good for people. Many find that, when they have accomplished their goals during the day, they are able to relax and enjoy their time ‘at home.’ On the contrary, if they have been distracted throughout the day, they may find that nagging feeling of work piling up and following them everywhere.

Create a dedicated space, hours, boundaries, and habits to increase effectiveness and maintain a healthy work/life balance while working from home.

Sarah Rose Stack is marketing and recruiting manager with Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 322-3401.

Accounting and Tax Planning

A Primer on RMDs

By Bob Suprenant, CPA, MST

Bob Suprenant, CPA, MST

With all that’s happened in the world this year, the SECURE Act, signed into law on Dec. 20, 2019, seems to have been robbed of the celebration it deserves.

Let’s give it its due and weave our way through the 2020 rules for what are known as RMDs.

First, what is an RMD, or required minimum distribution? It’s the minimum amount you must take out of your retirement plan — 401(k), IRA, 403(b), etc. — once you reach a certain age. The theory is that the amount in your retirement plan will be liquidated as you age.

To calculate the RMD, as a general rule, you divide the balance in your account at the end of the previous year — for this year, it would be Dec. 31, 2019 — by the distribution period found in the Uniform Lifetime Table. These tables currently run through age 115. Seriously.

Who Must Take an RMD?

This is where we blow the party horns and throw the confetti. These rules changed on Dec. 20, 2019. If you reached age 70½ in 2019, you were required to take your first distribution by April 1, 2020. If you reach age 70½ in 2020, you are not required to take your first distribution until April 1, 2022.

At the risk of putting a wet blanket on the fun, if you do not take the full amount of your RMD and/or you do not take it by the applicable deadline, there is a penalty. The penalty is an additional tax of 50% of the deficiency. The additional tax can be waived if due to reasonable error and you take steps to remedy the shortfall.

Did COVID-19 Change This?

Yes, the CARES Act, which was signed into law on March 27, 2020, included provisions that waived the requirement for RMDs in 2020. This also happened in 2009 when the stock market crashed. In 2020, RMDs are not required. The RMD waiver also applies to inherited IRAs.

It keeps getting better. On June 23, 2020, the IRS released Notice 2020-51, which allows those who have taken an RMD in 2020, but wish they hadn’t, to return the money to the retirement plan by Aug. 31.

There is a bit of a catch here, though. Most who take RMDs have federal and state tax withholdings on their distributions. Under this relief, the entire distribution must be returned to the retirement plan, not the distribution net of taxes.

By way of example, if you have a gross RMD of $20,000 and there is $3,000 in federal and state withholding, your net distribution is $17,000. To have none of your RMD taxed, the $20,000 must be returned to the retirement plan by Aug. 31. If you return only $17,000, you will be taxed on a $3,000 distribution.

Do I Take an RMD In 2020?

I know I don’t need to take an RMD in 2020, but should I? The answer is … it depends. And you should consult your tax advisor. Ask this individual to run projections to see what the best amount is for you to take as a distribution. For married joint filers, the 12% federal tax bracket includes taxable income up to $79,000. For amounts over $79,000, the tax bracket is at least 22%, a full 10% increase.

For many of my clients, I try to take full advantage of the lower tax bracket and get their incomes as close to the $79,000 as possible. Other clients, who use their retirement-plan distributions to make their charitable contributions (a very wise idea as you will generally save state taxes in addition to possibly saving federal taxes), should probably take a retirement-plan distribution in 2020.

Those who are aged may also want to take a distribution. Under the inherited IRA rules, your IRA beneficiaries will be required to take distributions, so consider their tax rates compared with yours.

As always, in the tax code, there are exceptions to exceptions, and this brief summary is only the cocktail hour. Be aware that you are not required to take an RMD for 2020. If you have taken an RMD, you can return it by Aug. 31. Do some tax planning to determine the best amount for your 2020 retirement-plan distribution.

Bob Suprenant, CPA, MST is a director of Special Tax Services at MP CPAs in Springfield. His focus is working with closely held businesses and their owners and identifying and implementing sophisticated corporate and business tax-planning strategies.

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

Critical Condition

Guy DiStefano

Guy DiStefano says the non-urgent procedures that were shut down in March typically support the rest of what hospitals do, leading to major revenue shortfalls this spring.

Back in March, when COVID-19 was just starting to crest, hospitals took steps to brace for a potential surge of patients. But while COVID-19 surged, revenues slowed to a trickle.

“Early on, we realized we needed to build capacity for a surge of patients so we didn’t get overwhelmed like they did in New York City, so we shut things down early in March — which blew a hole in everybody’s finances,” said Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health. “We’ve been gradually returning to prior operations. We always remained open, of course, but it was only a week or two ago that we resumed more elective kinds of cases.”

Many hospitals are doing the same, but the overall losses to the state’s hospital industry are, as Keroack put it, “staggering” — expected to total between $5 billion and $6 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. “It’s a big stress test, if you will, for hospitals. And some have been hit more than others.”

All area hospitals have taken a financial blow.

“This has been very challenging, with the reduction in services,” said Guy DiStefano, vice president of Finance at Mercy Medical Center. “All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

At the same time, he added, “we still have all our expenses in place, just like any other business. Look at restaurants — the doors were closed, but they still had rent, utilities, all the other expenses, and the employees.”

Through May, Mercy saw a $25 million reduction in revenues due to pandemic-related reductions in services — and plummeting volume in the ER, a development that surprised hospital officials nationwide. At Mercy, daily Emergency Department cases dropped from a typical average of between 225 and 250 to around 100 to 120.

“Those slowly crept back up — we’re at 150 to 180 on a daily basis, so we’re not at full capacity, and there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Our business is coming back, but we lost a lot of revenues.”

“All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

Joanne Marqusee, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said the hit has been significant. Through May, the facility recorded a loss of $18 million, partly due to COVID-related costs, but mostly because of lost volume. That number would be worse if not for $5.5 million in federal support.

“But that in no way covers our losses,” she added, noting that Cooley Dickinson Health Care could see a revenue shortfall of well above $30 million for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have,” she went on, noting that service hours could be temporarily curtailed in some services, while employees making more than $26.50 per hour will forgo raises for the time being.

While that move shaves some costs while protecting lower-paid employees, it doesn’t make nearly enough of a dent, Marqusee noted. “So we’re looking at ways to further reduce expenses. But the work we’re doing already will certainly have an impact.”

DiStefano said Mercy has also had to take steps like furloughs and reducing hours to mitigate the losses. “We did everything we could to help employees keep their benefits in place. But employees are the number-one cost of a typical hospital — about 50% to 60% of the cost structure.”

Holyoke Medical Center has been losing roughly $6.5 million per month since services were curtailed back in March, President and CEO Spiros Hatiras said. But the community hospital did take some steps early on to gird against the damage.

“We were probably the first hospital in the area to furlough folks; we didn’t hold off because we saw it was absolutely important to be financially viable because we don’t have a parent company to spot us money,” he told BusinessWest, adding that many furloughed employees took advantage of the $600 federal boost in unemployment and wound up bringing in more than they did while working.

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns not because of the revenue issue, but because patients shouldn’t forgo necessary care.

“That helped reduce expenses significantly,” he added, noting that almost 170 of 250 furloughed employees were back at the start of July, with another 80 to 90 expecting to return at month’s end. “Then MassHealth stepped in and allocated $11.8 million over four months to cover some of the losses, and we got a one-time payment from the feds of about $3 million. Add it all up, and through May, our losses were roughly $3 million — not insignificant, but we were able to survive it.”

Dollars and Sense

Baystate is surviving, too, Keroack said, emphasizing the importance the health system has not only on its 12,000 employees, but on the region, where it has an annual economic impact of some $4.2 billion.

When the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, he expects Baystate to have lost about $160 million in revenues due to volume losses, but the system was able to secure about $75 million in federal relief and another $23 million state aid.

“The rest of that will likely be covered by reserves,” he added, noting that Baystate is fortunate to have both reserve funds and a broad service model.

“The smaller hospitals that have cash-flow problems got hit very hard because they didn’t have much in the way of reserves, but the other group is bigger hospitals that are highly specialized, like Mass General, where their revenues really depend on that elective surgical volume. Hospitals that are jacks of all trades and have good size, like Baystate, were hit less hard. Not to say it was pleasant what we’ve been through.”

Calling a $160 million revenue loss a ‘less hard’ hit may speak in some ways to the financial clout of the healthcare industry as a whole; it’s certainly one of the Commonwealth’s key economic drivers. And as patient volume continues to ramp back up, hospitals will be on safer ground when it comes to budgeting.

“At Baystate Medical Center, we’re at 80% to 90% capacity, so I would say people are mostly back.” Keroack said, noting that, while patients are returning gradually for routine care and procedures, current volume is still affected by social-distancing and sanitization measures that have slowed the pace of treatment. “In the community hospitals, they’re a bit further behind — more like 60% of former volume.

“In the long run, the question is, will volumes be permanently depressed?” he went on. “We’ve tried to convince people you really don’t want to put off stuff you know is worthwhile — you don’t want to ignore symptoms that might be serious. We have seen a number of people lately whose illness is much more serious than it would have been in pre-COVID days.”

Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Emergency Department has seen a 100% increase from its COVID lows, during the height of the pandemic locally, when it was handling 35 to 45 patients per day. Now, ED providers are seeing 70 to 80 patients per day, which is still about 20% below the organization’s typical ED volume.

“We are seeing people with chronic illness who have waited too long to seek medical attention and are sick,” Emergency Department Nurse Director Sara McKeown said. “We have also seen an uptick in people seeking mental healthcare; patients presenting with substance-use issues and trauma are also increasing.”

Patient volume is bouncing back at Holyoke Medical Center and its community-based practices, but ED visits still lag, Hatiras said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard of people putting off heart conditions and other things, and that can lead to bad outcomes. People shouldn’t stay home with serious conditions.”

That said, “I don’t blame the government for being overly cautious with closing down elective surgeries,” he added, noting that the elimination of many procedures over the past two months was, more than anything else, about preserving beds to treat an unpredictable pandemic.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have.”

Now that the infection rate is being effectively controlled, he explained, hospitals are trying to communicate the message that they are safe places to visit — with plenty of strict protocols in place, from masking to social distancing to constant sanitizing — for patients who need to be seen.

DiStefano said the challenge has been ramping services back up — and bringing back furloughed workers — to match what is proving to be pent-up demand, but in a measured way. “It’s a delicate balance — how do we do this to best serve the community?”

It’s a long road back from the volume lows of the spring, when physician revenue dropped by 50. They’re now back around 65%, and inpatient beds are at about 80% of capacity. But people with serious health concerns should not put off care, he stressed, especially since the hospital has been diligent about infection protocols and keeping COVID-suspected patients separated from the rest.

“We take great pains to keep this environment safe,” he said. “The message to the community is, ‘if you are hurt, if you have a condition, this is a safe place to come.’” It helps, he added, to be affiliated with a larger system, Trinity Health, and while Mercy has rarely seen the kind of financial deficit it faced this spring, its leaders are still doing what they can to meet community health needs.

“We are the fabric of the community; there are no concerns about Mercy’s future,” DiStefano told BusinessWest. “We are going to be here for many years to come. Fortunately, we have the backing of a larger organization, and that helps a lot.”

Distance Learning

If there is an upside to navigating the pandemic, he said it might be the growing importance of telehealth, which became not just a convenient tool for providers and patients over the past few months, but a critical one — and one that seems to be on track to be covered by insurance payers in the future much more consistently than before.

“This has become more of a platform that allows us to reach out to patients,” said DiStefano, whose background in telemedicine goes back to the 1990s. “I hope it’s a bigger part of healthcare going forward. Obviously, you have to do some testing in the office, but you can do preliminary or follow-up appointments with telehealth, and that reduces the volume of patients in the waiting room and the physical office, which allows us to have a much cleaner, COVID-free environment to keep those people safe.”

In short, it’s a way to boost volume — and revenues — while making patients who do go to the hospital feel more secure.

Hatiras agreed. “We had to switch on the fly to do more telehealth, but what we saw was care being delivered even more efficiently,” he said. “We saw no-show rates completely drop. So it’s an effective way to provide care, and there will certainly be more pressure on insurers to reimburse appropriately for telehealth.”

Indeed, Marqusee added, “what has been stopping us from doing more telehealth has been reimbursement; I hope we never go back to the days when we were so underpaid for telehealth. It has been a terrific model.”

In the meantime, she sees volume slowly returning to Cooley Dickinson — perhaps reaching 90% of a typical season come October. “But the reason we welcome those numbers is because people need to get care — it’s not because we need the volume. We know from national studies and anecdotally that people have been afraid, and they’re forgoing care, and that can really have health impacts for people.”

That’s why her facility, like the others BusinessWest spoke with, is not only maintaining strict protocols around infection control, but is communicating what it’s doing with the community.

“People have to believe that and feel confident. It’s really important that people don’t stay home in pain with issues that will just get worse. People aren’t coming with heart attacks, or appendicitis, or they power through a head injury, and it turns out they had a brain bleed. People need to come for care, and they should know this is a place they can come and feel comfortable.”

Not so comfortable, however, that they neglect the behaviors that have reduced infection rates in Western Mass. and allowed hospitals to increase their non-COVID-19 services.

“We’re in a good place; there isn’t a high level of COVID in our community. But that can change quickly,” Marqusee said. “I want people to always remember the reason we have low levels of COVID is because of the efforts everyone is making to social distance, wear masks, and practice hand hygiene. We shouldn’t take the reopening as a sign they we don’t need to do those things, but to do it even more. That allows us to provide needed care to all our communities.”

Keroack says he expects some patients to enthusiastically return to care providers, while others will be stragglers who need more convincing — while others will continue to embrace telehealth as the best option.

“We may not return to our former volumes until we have a vaccine and everyone feels totally comfortable,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it’s going to be a process.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Solid Proof

Mike Quinlan

Mike Quinlan says the pandemic has ratcheted up online orders and curbside pickup, while generating an increase in overall consumption of alcohol.

Some are calling it the ‘drinking at home’ phenomenon — a reference to how people who can’t go to bars, nightclubs, or (until recently) casinos have been doing all or most of their imbibing at their residence instead.

Others are calling it the ‘drinking while working at home’ phenomenon, and that’s another story, one that has a number of employers understandably concerned.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a fact that people are not going out to drink nearly as much as they did BC — before COVID. And they’re drinking more, by most all accounts — according to a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in the spring, 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with higher rates among younger adults — and for reasons ranging from coping with all the additional stress from the pandemic to not being in the office for eight or nine hours a day, to being able to stay up later on ‘school nights’ because they don’t have to dress for or commute to work in the morning.

All this has created opportunities for some area business owners, especially liquor-store owners — always deemed essential by the governor — who have seen sales volumes rise (in some cases dramatically) and a number of trends emerge.

That list includes everything from more bulk purchases to buying less-expensive items to keep overall spending down; from ordering online to getting items delivered or picking them up at curbside.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy,” recalled Sean Barry, owner of Four Seasons Package Store in Hadley. “It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

Mike Quinlan, fine wines manager at Table & Vine in West Springfield, agreed. He said overall business volume has increased, as have visits to the store, but what has really ratcheted up has been online ordering and curbside pickup. The company has always featured the former — it’s been especially popular with wine buyers — but not the latter until the pandemic created a huge need for it.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy. It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

“The impact on our business for online orders went up dramatically — it was a huge increase in the number of orders we were getting,” he said last week, noting that, while it has tapered off lately as restaurants have reopened, recent holidays, such as the Fourth of July, saw huge volume, and orders continue to flow in. “There’s a stack of orders for us to pick today, and then we keep up with it throughout the day.”

For others, this trend, which would appear to have some staying power — because, in this state, bars won’t open until there’s a vaccine, and in others where they’ve opened, they’re closing down again — is simply shifting business from one type of client to another.

Indeed, Paul Kozub, founder of Hadley-based V-One Vodka, said that, while his sales to liquor stores are certainly up — 30% to 40% over last year, by his estimation — sales to restaurants and bars are way down. And the scale is not exactly balanced because the latter has traditionally been the source of more business than the former, especially at certain times of the year, like spring, when COVID-19 shut most everything down.

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub says that, while the pandemic has certainly increased sales of his vodka in liquor stores, that hasn’t made up for the losses he’s incurred at bars, restaurants, and events.

“In March and April, I lost 50% of my business because I do so much in bars and restaurants during those months, while I do a lot more in liquor stores in November in December, so that was quite a shock,” Kozub said. “The package stores are up, but that certainly doesn’t make up for what we’ve lost in those bars and restaurants.”

Overall, as with most sectors of the economy, the pandemic has created some opportunities for those making and selling spirits, and also eliminated others. For this issue, we take a look at how the numbers provide some hard proof — yes, that’s an industry term — of how buying and consumption habits have changed.

Case in Point

Barry, like many liquor-store owners, reduced his hours early in the spring and closed earlier at night. There were many reasons for this, he said, listing fewer people being on the roads, the fact that almost all surrounding stores were closed, and a desire to limit the risk of exposure to customers and employees alike.

But there was also what he called simply the “fatigue factor.”

“My staff was just overworked, so we needed to cut back,” he explained, noting that, while things have settled down somewhat since then, with restaurants now open, many people are still wary about going to such eateries, and in the meantime, large numbers of people continue to entertain and, yes, work from home.

Which means they’re buying more at the liquor stores. And their buying habits are changing in all kinds of ways, said Barry and Quinlan, noting that in-person visits are still popular, but curbside is flourishing as an option, and delivery, offered by some but not all, has certainly gained significant traction as well.

And while business is up generally, there have been periods of especially heavy volume, including some holidays that have historically been dine-out occasions but are now, like most things, stay-at-home affairs.

“When Mother’s Day came, and Father’s Day … those are occasions where a lot of people go out to a brunch or something like that — but not this year,” Quinlan said. “And so we saw our business jump significantly during those weeks when people would be having meals at home instead.”

Barry noted that, while it’s logical to assume that the closing of the five colleges located near his store in the middle of the spring semester would certainly have impacted his bottom line, he said that’s not really the case.

That’s because the vast majority of students are underage, he noted, and also because his store, unlike some in that area, does not directly market to the college crowd.

But the crowd it does cater to is definitely buying more these days, adding that he’s seen several trends develop. One is that many people — meaning those who can — are buying in bulk, on the theory being that, as with trips to the supermarket, many are trying to make as few as possible.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit. People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles.”

So they’re coming less often, and they’re also buying in larger quantities, which is better for them than it is for the liquor-store owner.

“Sales are up, customer counts are pretty flat, and overall, net profit is slightly down,” Barry said. “That’s because everyone is buying bulk items and taking advantage of case discounts and all that stuff.”

Quinlan concurred, to a point. He noted that, while buying the large, economy sizes, or full cases of products, is less profitable for the store, Table & Vine — and other stores, he presumes — have been able to sell more in fewer hours, thus yielding greater overall productivity and profitability.

But while consumption of alcohol is increasing — statistics nationally confirm that — overall spending in individual households may not be. People are buying in bulk, as noted, but they’re also buying less-expensive items in some cases.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit,” Quinlan said. “People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles; the number of bottles we’re moving has increased significantly.”

Mixed Results

As for what people are buying … it’s generally across the board, said Barry, noting that wine and vodka probably represent the biggest increases.

Speaking of vodka, Kozub, while referencing the shifts in consumption and buying and some changes at his company as it expands nationally, said the pandemic has certainly helped his business in some ways — but definitely hurt it in others.

Indeed, while he’s done much better with liquor-store sales — in large part because the company is now working with a distributor, which has opened a number of new doors — he’s suffered greatly from not having bars, restaurants, and other gathering spots — from the Hadley American Legion to the South Deerfield Polish Club; from MGM Springfield to the Big E — open for business.

And there are other missed opportunities as well.

“We were going to be the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Kozub, noting the company’s current push into Ohio, where that shrine is located (in Canton). “And we were going to sell a lot at the induction ceremony and Hall of Fame Game, but that just got called off.”

As for his liquor-store business, he’s been helped by the work-from-home and stay-at-home trends, and also by ‘Zoom mixology’ sessions, as he called them, Zoom happy hours, and other vehicles to educate the public, bring them together (online, at least), and share experiences somewhat like being in their favorite bar.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distributor he’s hired has certainly reduced the profitability of each bottle he sells in his liquor store, but it has greatly increased volume.

“Without the change to a distributor, we would be down 40% overall for the year,” Kozub said, emphasizing, again, just how much he’s lost through restrictions on people gathering in large numbers or confined spaces.

And this ongoing trend — and even taking steps backward in some states, including Florida, Texas, and others — is slowing V-One’s efforts to go national.

“We’re going to do Ohio and Michigan next, but we’re going to wait a little bit for Florida, Texas, and California,” he said, adding that those states, among the current hot spots, are closing many of the bars and restaurants that were open just a few weeks ago. “The timing of us going national is good in some ways, but tough in others.”

Meanwhile, in the current climate, getting into new liquor stores and expanding that footprint, which is among Kozub’s many goals, is somewhat of a challenge.

“The liquor stores are so busy that they’re not necessarily excited about bringing in new products right now,” he explained. “Because they’re selling everything they have, they’re selling a lot of the staples — the brands people know.”

Beer with Us

This is yet another emerging trend at a time when there have been many changes when it comes to what people are buying, when, where, how, and in what quantities.

The pandemic has certainly changed the landscape in so many business sectors and aspects of society — and alcohol is just one of them.

For some businesses, this will be a vintage year — another industry term — while for others, like Kozub, it will be a mix of new opportunities and lost opportunities, with the former hopefully outweighing the latter.

And, as with those other sectors, it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

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

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pandemic Lessons

Rich Kump

Rich Kump says the pandemic has forced people who had been reluctant to bank remotely to give it a shot.

It’s the wave of the future, Rich Kump said — and the COVID-19 pandemic simply cast that wave in sharper relief.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch,” the president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union told BusinessWest. “We’ve been educating our members for three years, trying to move them out of the branch, and there’s still a percentage of America who just likes to everything in person. You need to take a thoughtful approach; you can’t force people into it … although COVID did that, to some extent.”

A widely held vision of the bank (or credit union) branch of the future — one shared, to some degree, by other local banking leaders we spoke with — does indeed promote robust online and mobile tools for routine business like deposits and withdrawals, leaving less traffic in branches, but a greater percentage of that traffic given over to more complex or consultative matters.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch.”

And many people who have long resisted online banking are singing a different tune, said Paul Scully, president of Country Bank.

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology,” he noted. “An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

In most cases, it’s just a matter of breaking old habits, Scully said — “and old habits are comfortable habits. But I think people are becoming better acclimated to technology and getting over their fears. There are still people who think, ‘I have to go into the bank to make that transaction because what if the money doesn’t get there?’ But as an industry and as a bank, we’ve been able to alleviate the concerns some people have.”

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed.

“Banking in general is going to change. The stuff you need to do is the same, but how you’re going to do it will change,” he said, noting that lobby traffic has been declining for years, and what was already a high adoption rate of mobile tools only accelerated over the past three months as banks closed lobbies to most routine business. “People are starting to realize it’s probably more secure, so they’re getting more comfortable. It’s also way more convenient.”

And gaining momentum in these shuttered times.

“Customers realized they really can do all their banking online,” Scully said. “We’re no different than Macy’s or Amazon. You realize you can sit down with your laptop or phone and purchase something from a retail outlet, and you can also do your banking that way. People are becoming more comfortable with it — so we need to keep upgrading and enhancing it.”

That’s not all they’re doing. Banks and credit unions, despite a much higher reliance on drive-up lanes and mobile platforms lately, never really closed during the pandemic, and while they continued to serve customers — in some cases, helping them navigate sudden financial hardships — they were also learning lessons and conducting internal conversations about where the industry is heading and what the bank of the future should look like.

Some were discussions that had begun years ago but, again, were suddenly cast in sharp relief as the wave known as COVID-19 came crashing down.

Staying Connected

People have been starved for human contact, Kump said. He knows that from UMassFive’s call center, as calls over the past three months are 25% longer, on average, than last year.

“A lot of it is, people just want to talk,” he noted. “Yes, they call for a reason, but then they want to talk. It’s a bit of a community.”

Bolstering the call center was one of the success stories of late March, which he recalls as a tough time.

“I don’t think anyone was ultimately prepared for this; we were scambling,” he said, explaining that many retail personnel in the branches began covering the phones, often from home. “Within two weeks, 70% of our staff was working from home. That’s when the chaos evolved into routine.”

Like the other institutions we spoke with, UMassFive didn’t close completely, staying open by appointment for services that couldn’t be done remotely, from notary signings to certain loan closings to instant-issue debit cards. The week Kump spoke with BusinessWest, the credit union was operating a soft opening of sorts before announcing a shift to walk-in business.

“Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

Day recalls a similar experience.

“In that first week, everything was shutting down, and people were saying, ‘you’re a bank. You can’t shut down,’” he said. But Florence transitioned to drive-up service where possible while witnessing an expansion of remote banking — as well as phone-call volume that was up 100% early on.

“We helped a lot of people transition to mobile and computer options. People have used the drive-ups. We opened the lobbies for people who needed to do something in person. We went out to cars in some cases,” he recalled. “You couldn’t come and go as you wanted, but we never really closed. If you called and the only way to do something was in person, we did it in person.”

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says shifting most employees to remote work was one of the smoother transitions necessitated by COVID-19.

Still, the sudden, in many ways forced expansion of remote banking is just an extension of where the industry was already headed, Day explained. “We had already seen trends toward online, mobile, people doing much more on their computers and phones. The pandemic just really accelerated that.”

Scully said the transition to employees working remotely was one of the easier shifts.

“It wasn’t that difficult for us. We had all the technology in place that allowed us to immediately have all our non-branch staff working remotely, literally overnight. So that fell into place nicely for us; we didn’t miss a beat. Business was never impacted.”

For example, he said Country processed about 450 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans remotely, while Zoom calls and Webex meetings became the order of the day. It has worked so well, in fact, that non-branch employees will continue to work from home until Aug. 31, even as branches begin opening up this week, which is a boon for parents still uneasy about — or unable to access — camps and day-care services.

“We closed a day or two before other banks, just recognizing what was happening, and moved people to drive-up or leveraging technology,” he said, noting that lines were sometimes long, but customers were able to access the services they needed, in some cases using interactive teller machines (ITMs) at two locations.

“We’ve walked a lot of people through the technology, and the customer care center reached out directly to help them. We had curbside service at some locations, and we also used that as an opportunity to talk about technology.”

Branch of the Future

All this enhanced technology goes hand in hand with what many banking leaders say is an evolving role for branches.

Branches are certainly needed, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is opening a new branch on the ground floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield this summer. Like every other area bank branch, it will stress pandemic safety, with a mask requirement, six-foot distancing, and glass partitions between customers and employees.

But it will also reflect a move toward a role for branches that emphasizes financial wellness and consultative services more than routine business.

“That’s going to be the bigger component of what a community bank does — trying to help people navigate a lot of things,” he explained, before adding that there will be plenty to navigate in the coming year, when more customers than usual will be struggling to achieve stability. “Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

The bank of the future will put greater emphasis on this consultative role, through personal interaction that can’t occur online.

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology. An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

Kump said UMassFive has eliminated tellers — or, more accurately, it has eliminated branch employees who handle only that role. Instead, employees are trained to be “universal agents,” able to tackle multiple roles, from traditional teller business to loans and other matters.

To achieve that, the credit union has tripled its training budget over the past few years, seeking to identify not only financial skills, but empathetic personalities with a real desire to help people.

“The face of banking is changing permanently. Branches in the future won’t be as critical, with fewer transactions coming in. But they will always be needed for key parts of financial life,” he explained, citing anything from home and auto loans to opening memberships to simply seeking financial advice.

“We won’t need the huge teller line anymore. We won’t need as many branches, and the services we’re providing in the branches are changing, he added, noting that customers are also discovering they can conduct routine business face to face — sort of — through ITMs. “Someone could be at the Northampton drive-thru, talking to someone working from home in Belchertown.”

That raises the question of how many workers need to be on the premises, both while COVID-19 is still a threat and afterward, considering how effectively operations have continued during the pandemic.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person. If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

“From a back-office standpoint, about half are working remotely,” Day said. “Can they continue to do that long-term? Yes, but there’s still the human element, and people can feel isolated. Feeling part of a team is important to some people, while some people are loners. But technology is certainly giving us some options.”

And the bank, which recently broke ground on its third Hampden County branch, this one in Chicopee, has certainly been discussing those options.

“More transactions are going online, but when you want to talk to a person to problem solve, especially with more complex transactions, that can certainly be done over the phone — and has been during the pandemic — but the way we’ve designed our branch of the future, there’s more consulting. If you want to come in and consult, we’ll talk to you — a lot. So frontline people will still need to be there to handle questions and solve problems.”

Getting Through the Pain

In fact, banks and credit unions never stopped solving problems over the past few months. Scully said Country, like other banks, was able to accommodate deferrals of loan payments for individuals who has been furloughed or were generally dealing with greater financial stress.

“I felt like this was a watershed moment,” Day added, noting that more than 200 mortgage borrowers and 200 commercial borrowers took advantage of three-, six, or 12-month deferrals, the latter being the most popular option. “Having been through downturns in my career, I knew that we needed to give people some time. People are resilient, businesses are resilient, but they needed some time. So we worked with residential and business customers on deferred payments.”

Kump said UMassFive issued forebearance on nearly 1,000 loans for people who were “furloughed or just worred,” as well as launching a small-loan program for those who just needed a little cash. “If you were furloughed, that didn’t change the decision to make a loan for you.”

That was in addition to PPP loans, which the credit union approved for members and non-members in the community alike, 96% of those loans issued to employers of five workers or fewer. It also looked for other ways to support community needs, such as donations to food banks and organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, as well as donating meals to first responders.

Although those needs still exist, banks and credit unions are beginning to get back to normal operations, expanding branch operations under enhanced safety protocols — “it’s a great time to be in the plexiglass business,” Scully said — while considering the lessons learned during the months when most business was conducted remotely.

“Was there frustration at first? Absolutely,” he added. “At first, people were like, ‘what do you mean, a bank is closed?’ But as every industry started to close and people started working remotely, people began to understand.”

After all, a bank that saw a fire ravage its headquarters in 2008 and a tornado rumble through its home region in 2011 has no problem posting social-distancing reminders and directional arrows and getting back to branch business. “This is bigger than a tornado,” Scully said. “The lesson we’ve learned is to always be prepared and remain nimble.”

Even as it moved from a soft-opening week to broader branch service — where walk-in traffic is allowed but appointments are still advised to reduce the wait — Kump marveled at how the credit union’s members have adjusted to remote business. Especially new members, 90% of whom have been joining online, compared to 40% to 50% in a typical year.

“There’s a percentage of customers who will still be reluctant to walk into a business,” he added. “We’re seeing that with restaurants opening and people still not coming.”

It helps, of course, that many have discovered the power of digital banking.

“For a lot of folks, it’s generational; they’ve been intimidated by technology, of depositing a check with a picture on their phone,” Kump continued. “Now they’ve been forced to do it, and they’re asking, ‘why was I taking time out of my day to run over to the credit union to get cash or transfer money? I don’t have to do that.’”

Day also expects people to keep using those tools, but for those ready to return to the branch, even for matters as basic as depositing a check, they’ll do so protected by masks, shields, and any number of other precautions. “The pandemic isn’t over, and people are still going to get sick. We want to keep people safe.”

Bottom Line

Usually, when BusinessWest talks to local banks and credit unions, it’s about their own business outlook for the year ahead, but this is not a typical year, and talk of asset growth and loan portfolios has been pushed aside to some degree by the need to simply stay afloat — and keep customers afloat, as well.

“The outlook is generally positive, but it will not be without pain,” Day said, speaking for both Florence Bank and its customers. “We know it will get better. It’s just a matter of when.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

At This School, Pandemic Has Been a Real Learning Experience

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy was perhaps better prepared for the pandemic than some other institutions, but pivoting to online learning was still a stern challenge.

Brian Easler still recalls the name of the briefing staged by the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago: “The Impending Pandemic.”

Actually, what he remembers even more was the subtitle to the program: “It’s Not a Matter of If, It’s a Matter of When.”

He took the content to heart, and because of that, he believes Wilbraham Monson Academy (WMA), which he serves as head of school, was in some ways better able to handle the arrival of COVID-19 in mid-March.

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually,” he told BusinessWest. “That was a three-day workshop I attended in Washington led by some of the country’s leading epidemiologists. I came back to the school with a lot of good information on how to prepare.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of that warning, the school was well-stocked with what everyone knows now as PPE, and there were plans already in writing for several different scenarios depending on when in the school year the pandemic actually hit.

Such preparation certainly didn’t make the closing of the campus to all but a few international students who simply couldn’t get home, or the transition to remote learning, easy. But it probably made it easier, said Easler, comparing what has transpired over the past several months to a military operation — and he should know, having served in the Army Airborne Rangers.

“You’re getting swept up in something bigger than yourself, where there’s risk involved and a degree of planning,” he explained. “And the decision making — the emergency decision-making process — is much different. During normal times, a decision might be very difficult to make; during an emergency, that decision becomes very easy. We wouldn’t normally turn our school meeting space into a second dining hall — that would be a big decision during normal times. But under these conditions, it was an easy decision to make.”

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually.”

Flashing back to March — and then further back to what he heard all those years ago — Easler said the pandemic did not hit quite like those experts projected it would.

“What tripped up us a little bit is that the CDC was anticipating a pandemic that would be fast-moving,” he explained. “We were prepared for three weeks; that was fine when it came to PPE because all the students went home. But it didn’t help us with transition to an online education program; we had to literally make that up on the fly during spring break.

“In the end, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a fast-moving pandemic, because fast-moving also means really deadly,” he went on. “We were planning for a three- or four-week event, as opposed to a 12-month event, which is more like what we’re looking at. But as a school we saw the signs early, and we paid attention to the right things and the right information. When the students were getting ready for spring break, we told them to bring their laptops and books home with them and to be prepared in case we were not able to return for classes.”

Overall, that transition to remote learning went smoothly, he went on, because of the tight, close-knit nature of the WMA community and the hard work and dedication of staff and students. And these elements are also facilitating efforts to plan for the fall semester, which will start at its traditional time in early September and feature a hybrid model that mixes in-class and remote learning.

“We can simultaneously run classes on campus for the faculty and students who can be on campus, while students and faculty and who cannot be on campus can still synchronistically participate in the same program,” he explained. “It’s fluid, it’s very flexible, and, quite honestly, it’s the future of education anyway. We wish it didn’t take an event like this to move us in this direction, but we’re happy to be moving in this direction — it’s good teaching.”

Looking ahead to the fall, Easler said enrollment, which is traditionally roughly 400 students, remains steady, and, overall, the school may see its numbers rise due to uncertainty among parents about just what the public-school environment might look like come late August or September.

“We’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in local interest,” Easler noted. “I’m speculating, but I think the public-school systems are going to face some significant challenges, and they don’t necessarily have the space resources that we do — we’re structured much like a small college campus with multiple buildings, lots of outdoor space, and a number of spaces that, even though they’re not used as classrooms, can be used as socially distanced classrooms; we have a lot of advantages over public schools.”

Whether this interest locally translates into a bump in enrollment remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that early and effective planning has paid off for this venerable institution.

And it was necessary because the planners of that program in Washington all those years ago were right; it was a question of when, not if, a pandemic would arrive.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Chicopee-based Company Is Still Trying to Get Out of First Gear

Dennis King

Dennis King says the pandemic brought bus travel to a near standstill, impacting every type of customer in the company’s portfolio.

Dennis King says he’s experienced a number of subtle, but mostly not-so-subtle, cruelties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting with those low gas prices from a few months back and the fact that no one could really take advantage of them.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go,” said King, president of Chicopee-based King Ward Bus Lines, who used that statement in reference to individuals and families — and just about every one of his customers.

Indeed, ‘nowhere to go’ applied — and still applies — to college and high-school sports teams, an important client base in the company’s portfolio. And to people seeking to visit one of the region’s casinos. And to groups heading to Red Sox games. And to people looking to go to a show in the Big Apple. And to classes going on school field trips.

All those sources of revenue dried up, seemingly overnight, for this family-owned business, said King, adding that the last bus left King Ward’s garages on March 14, and the company’s busiest time of the year was essentially wiped off the calendar.

“And our July is kind of on hold, because we don’t have any trips booked, unless something happens with the casinos,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while the Connecticut gaming palaces are open, they are currently not accepting bus groups. The Bay State’s casinos are set to open early this month, but it isn’t known if they will accept bus groups.

As for the future … it is a giant question mark, he said, noting that, while the Red Sox may start playing again, it’s not known if there will be any fans in the stands. Meanwhile, Saratoga Raceway in New York and countless other venues that people travel to by bus are closed for the summer or the rest of the year. Meanwhile, no one really knows if there will be any high-school and college athletics this coming fall, or any school field trips.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go.”

And then, there’s the Big E, another important source of revenue for the company. It’s been canceled for 2020, leaving another huge hole in the budget that will be difficult to fill .

Faced with idle buses, King said he laid off or furloughed all but a few of his employees back in the spring. He’s looking to bring some office staff and mechanics back on Aug. 1 and hopes things get busier come September.

“We’re banking on college athletics coming back,” he noted. “If there is a light at the end of the tunnel — and that’s if — it would be schools getting back in session.”

As for the casinos, and especially MGM, King Ward was given what was at the time (the summer of 2018) thought to be a game-changing contract to bring people to the casino from various destinations across the region. To say things haven’t worked out as planned would be an understatement, said King, noting that the service — subsidized by MGM at the start — was scaled back only six months after the casino opened in August 2018, and it eventually evolved into a door-to-door service using vans rather than buses, with those choosing this option getting credits for the gaming floor and lunch — what amounted to what King called “a free ride to the casino.”

“But it never really took off,” he said, adding quickly that the service does have the potential to grow, and, like many others, he’s watching and waiting to see if and when the casino will reopen.

There will be a lot of watching and waiting for this company, which, like so many others, is dependent on other businesses and institutions for its livelihood. The pandemic has impacted all of them, and, as noted earlier, the trickle-down, in this specific case, was much more like a torrent.

So much so that King was one of many within the bus industry who ventured to Washington, D.C. several weeks ago to lobby elected leaders for financial assistance for a sector he said is often overlooked within the larger transportation industry.

“I don’t expect to be busy again until Labor Day, unless something happens and the casinos start accepting buses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that ‘busy’ is certainly a relative term in 2020, and there are myriad factors that will determine when, and to what extent, the buses start rolling again.

Still optimistic, despite a gloomy year to date, King said people are calling and asking about service to the casinos.

“People are ready to get out — they’ve been cooped up for a long time,” he said, adding that he hopes there will soon be places to take people.

Gas certainly won’t be as cheap as it was back in March, but all things considered, that’s certainly one of the more subtle cruelties stemming from the pandemic.

—George O’Brien

Insurance Special Coverage

Sticker Shock

Business-interruption insurance should be a simple idea to explain. But in the era of COVID-19, it has become a thorny topic.

“It is coverage that most businesses have as part of their insurance program; basically, it’s one of the key components to an insurance portfolio for a business,” said John Dowd Jr., president and CEO of the Dowd Agencies. “A covered loss is defined as physical damage to your property or on your property.”

He noted, as one example, a fire that causes a shutdown until repairs are made, with the insurance payout allowing the business owner to pay rent, taxes, and in some cases wages and benefits. “It also covers loss of property, which is a very important coverage.”

But not every event is covered, he noted, and that’s the rub lately among business owners who would like business-interruption insurance to cover losses from the pandemic-related economic shutdown — and lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are pushing to enshrine such losses in the coverage.

“Obviously COVID isn’t covered — the loss that triggers business interruption has to be the result of physical damage to the property,” Dowd reiterated. “The problem with COVID is that’s not physical damage; it’s a virus. It’s specifically excluded, like other transmittable diseases. The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

That didn’t stop 39 Massachusetts legislators from co-sponsoring a bill earlier this spring titled “An Act Concerning Business Interruption Insurance,” calling for business-interruption coverage for losses due to “directly or indirectly resulting from the global pandemic known as COVID-19, including all mutated forms of the COVID-19 virus.”

Moreover, the bill asserts, “no insurer in the Commonwealth may deny a claim for the loss of use and occupancy and business interruption on account of COVID-19 being a virus (even if the relevant insurance policy excludes losses resulting from viruses), or there being no physical damage to the property of the insured or to any other relevant property.”

The legislation applies to policies issued to businesses with 150 or fewer full-time employees, and insurance companies can apply to the commissioner of the Division of Insurance for relief and reimbursement of amounts paid on claims through a fund created by the act, subject to eligibility and reimbursement procedures to be established by the commissioner.

John Dowd Jr.

John Dowd Jr.

“The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

Such relief would be needed, as Dowd demonstrated with a little math. He noted that, if business-interruption insurance was triggered by COVID-19 for all businesses with fewer than 100 employees, the cost would be between $280 billion and $350 billion — per month. “Our collective surplus of all insurance companies is somewhere between $800 billion and $900 billion. In three months, the industry would be insolvent.”

Having said that, he noted that pandemic coverage is already available — a development that emerged over the past decade following SARS and other global threats. For example, the organization that operates the Wimbledon tennis tournament bought such a policy, which costs more than $1 million a year, but when this year’s event was canceled, the policy paid out $15 million.

Impossible Costs

State legislation is a different matter, of course, aiming to reshape the very nature of business-interruption insurance. New Jersey lawmakers proposed and defeated such a bill this spring, “presumably because they looked into the potential insolvency of insurance carriers,” Dowd said. “And if people can’t buy insurance, what happens to our economy?”

Carl Bloomfield, managing director at the Graham Co., a Philadelphia-based insurance brokerage, recently told Insurance Business America that, while more than a half-dozen states that have proposed this type of legislation, he doesn’t expect the bills to pass.

“Doing it through state legislation would be very detrimental to the country on a go-forward basis from the aspect of overturning centuries of contract law,” he noted. “If you start upsetting the precedent of contract law that’s been established for centuries, that creates a very dangerous environment for all businesses because there’ll be no certainty around something that’s in the contract today, but could be overturned in court.”

If the Massachusetts bill becomes law, constitutional challenges are certain, writes Owen Gallagher, publisher of Agency Checklists, a news source for the Massachusetts insurance industry.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill.”

The rewriting of existing insurance contracts, as proposed by this legislation, he notes, would raise constitutional questions under the U.S. Constitution’s contract clause.

“As members of a regulated industry, insurance companies have not fared well in contesting state legislative or regulatory action claiming a constitutional violation of the contracts clause. The United States Supreme Court has upheld laws impairing contracts based on a state promoting public welfare. However, this legislation may be one of the very few laws that fails that minimal test based on its blatant revision of existing insurance contracts for a limited class of insureds.”

The second constitutional challenge arises under the Constitution’s takings clause, which states that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation.

“Insurers have had some success contesting laws where a state’s regulatory mandates go too far and amount to a confiscation of property,” Gallagher notes. “In this case, the proposed law creates new obligations that take money from insurance companies and transfers it to small businesses that have suffered economic loss because of state action. It is difficult to see how these insurers would not have had their property taken for a public purpose in violation of the Constitution.”

Dowd sees the U.S. government eventually negotiating a coverage cap for pandemic events much like it did with terrorism in the years following 9/11. “The insurance industry is saying, ‘OK, in the future, we’re willing to participate, but we need a cap, like $250 million, which is the most the insurance industry can absorb for a pandemic, and everything over that, the federal government has to pay.’

“So they’re in the throes of negotiating that,” he said, adding that carrier involvement would likely be voluntary. “That makes sense, as a lot of the smaller mutual insurance companies don’t have nearly the surplus that the Travelers and Liberty Mutuals have. But a lot has to be sorted out.”

A Better Plan?

Dowd, who serves on the board of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Insurance Agents, said that organization backs an idea that would cast insurers in more of a support role to the government on pandemic claims as they relate to business interruption.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill,” he explained. “We think that’s a good idea, rather than throw out stimulus money to companies that may not need it, that may not experience a loss of income. Instead, we’d have people file, have their experience validated, and get paid based on need — not an assumption that every small business needs it.”

Such a plan is being considered in the fifth stimulus bill being kicked around in Congress, he added, which makes more sense than forcing insurers to cover for losses they never considered.

“We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay that financial bill. We’d be out of business,” Dowd said. “But if we can offer services at an agency level and carrier level, review the claims, and validate the claims, we think that has some merit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

A quick look around downtown Springfield and other area communities would reveal that the economy, which had been in a kind of deep freeze for the better part of three months, is showing signs of coming back to life.

Let’s start with the tents. Indeed, they’re an interesting symbol of how the restaurant industry is emerging from a state-forced hibernation of sorts that saw them relegated to takeout service only. Such tents are now to be found in a number of parking lots, alleyways, and even closed streets as restaurants try to claw back with outdoor dining.

Perhaps the most visible sign of all this is Fort Street in downtown Springfield, where the owners of the iconic Student Prince restaurant have placed several tents and created an atmosphere that not only speaks of Europe — where outdoor dining is far more commonplace — but prompts one to wonder why it took a pandemic to create something like this. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that will be in place until the fall, and could become a yearly addition to the downtown landscape. Let’s hope it does.

And there are other signs of life as well, including the pending reopening of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, and other attractions. Tourism has become a huge part of this region’s economy, and this economic engine, if you will, won’t be firing on anything approaching all its cylinders until this sector roars back to life.

And that’s the sobering news amid the positive signs we’ve seen lately. Indeed, while these businesses are reopening, they are not roaring back — yet, anyway. As the story on page 10 reveals, hotels and tourist attractions have had a miserable spring, and the summer is dominated by question marks about whether the tourists will come back, and how many of them.

There is optimism that concern about traveling in anything but an automobile will spark a surge of interest in so-called staycations that might benefit the region and its many tourist attractions. The theory goes that, instead of traveling across the country or to other countries — or even Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, for that matter — residents of this state and neighboring states might take in the attractions of Western Mass.

We have to hope some of this happens.

But matters are complicated by several factors, starting with the MGM casino and the many restrictions likely to be placed upon it. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still discussing a number of guidelines, but at the moment, craps, poker, and roulette will not be allowed, and overall capacity might be set at perhaps 25% of previous levels. These restrictions will make it difficult for MGM to operate in anything approaching a profitable manner, and they will also limit the number of visitors who might come to the casino and then take in more of the region.

Then there’s the matter of the Big E. Huge questions surround what the 2020 fair might look like and whether there will even be a 2020 fair. No Big E, or even a much smaller Big E, would be a huge blow to the hospitality industry that depends on it.

So, while there are some signs of life in the region when it comes to the economy and tourism, we still have a long way to go. v

Coronavirus Cover Story

Shell-shocked Businesses Respond with Grit, Determination

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked businesses large and small in virtually every sector of the economy. The individual stories vary somewhat, but there are several common themes — lost revenue streams, struggles to make payroll and pay the bills, and large amounts of uncertainty about what the future holds. But there are other commonalities as well, including a willingness, born of necessity, to respond to this crisis — the worst situation any of these business owners have faced — with determination, imagination, and the will to find a way to get to the ‘other side.’ For this issue, BusinessWest talked with 10 business owners about what has happened since the pandemic arrived with brutal force three incredibly long months ago, and how they’re battling back. These are their COVID stories.

Zasco Productions

Event company works to pivot, position itself for the long term

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Go Graphix

In a sign of the times, this company has pivoted into new products

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Lenzy Dermatology

Practice owner says many patients still wary of returning to her office

Liz Rosenberg

TheToy Box

Shop owner finds ways to share joy at a time when it’s badly needed

Teddy Bear Pools

During peak season, this area fixture is making up for lost weeks

Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality

Hotel group continues to grow through an uncertain time

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood

For this photographer and sock maker, the pandemic is a developing story

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Mercier Carpet

Pandemic poses challenges, opportunities for flooring company

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Cuts Plus

Salon owner says he missed the relationships the most

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

Eastside Grill

Restaurant owner says reopening will be exciting, but scary, too

Modern Office Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

Mark Proshan says predicting what’s coming next in his business — office furniture and design — has always been a difficult assignment.

But now … it’s even more of a complicated guessing game.

Indeed, in a sector where the landscape can change quickly and profoundly, and for a number of reasons — from a declining economy to changing tastes — the pandemic has produced an even greater sense of uncertainty about what lies around the bend, said Proshan, president of West Springfield-based Lexington Group.

“For the first time ever, I don’t even pretend to be smart enough to see what’s coming down the road,” he told BusinessWest, noting that this applies to both the short and long term. “We don’t know when bigger places of business will open back up, what their attitude is going to be toward spending money, and what things will look like down the road.”

Tyler Arnold, a principal with Holyoke-based Conklin Office, who spoke with BusinessWest from the company’s office in Northern New Jersey, agreed. He noted there are many variables that will affect decision making at individual companies when it comes to if and when employees return to work, how many return, and how much space they’ll take up when they do return.

“The number-one priority for people right now is to bring back fewer people, spread things out … and then see what happens,” he explained. “They might look at their footprint and say ‘we’ve got 1,000 employees, and we’re occupying 100,000 square feet.’ They may decide to only bring back 500 employees — but does that mean they need 50,000 square feet or 75,000 square feet? I think there will be a lot of that going on.”

But there are some things that are known. It seems certain that the collaborative, open spaces that companies have developed over the past several years will change — perhaps significantly.

Arnold said the old 10-by-10 private offices that dominated the business landscape years ago and are still favored by some banks and law firms won’t make an immediate comeback — they’re very expensive and still somewhat impractical. But there will certainly be a move to create more privacy and shield employees from one another and the public.

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider than models popular just a few months ago. He says these units are among the items now in demand as businesses work to increase privacy in the workplace.

This has been made apparent by the number of calls both companies are taking from business owners and managers looking to adjust their spaces for a pandemic.

That’s especially true in New York City, said Arnold, where many financial-services companies and corporate headquarters had moved to benching to place as many people in as small an area as possible. Now, many of those benches are being outfitted with dividers, or higher dividers, as the case may be.

“Right now, the immediate demand is for adding privacy screens, be that acrylic material or fabric,” Arnold told BusinessWest. “So much that has been built out over the past 10 years has an open plan, open feel to it. What’s the easiest, quickest, least costly way to give people a sense of detachment from the person sitting next to them? It’s some kind of privacy screen.”

“A lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case.”

Proshan agreed. “We do have inquiries from people as to how to modify their spaces to make them more private, making walls higher, making plexiglass partitions and glass partitions, where possible,” he noted. “Meanwhile, a lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case. If it is the case, the need for higher-end furniture will likely not go hand in hand with staying at home; it may well be the Staples of the world and the Costcos of the world that will be selling those items because people might be paying for it out of their own pocket.”

As for companies bringing people back, the plan of action for many companies is not to put anyone immediately next to or across from someone else, even if there is a screen, said Arnold, adding that many businesses are ramping up slowly and in waves. How big the waves will get remains to seen.

Actually, that’s just one of many things that remain to be seen, as we’ll see as BusinessWest talks with these experts about how the pandemic might reshape the modern office as we know it.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest about the physical changes that will come to the modern office in the wake of COVID-19, Proshan said it would probably be easier to do a little show and tell.

With that, he walked to the front lobby of the company’s spacious headquarters on Union Street. There, two workstations are outfitted with what would have to be called pandemic-era features.

Before discussing them, though, Proshan reached for his phone and scrolled to images of what used to be there, because this is where the discussion had to start (see photos, page 24). Before, there were fairly low structures that were wide open. They’ve been replaced by units of similar height topped by plexiglass panels on two sides, with narrow openings in front to keep those behind them safe.

“This is the kind of thing we’ll be seeing — this is the direction we’re going in,” said Proshan, adding that, for the foreseeable future, the focus will be on privacy and keeping people safe. Collaboration? Well, not so much.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

“People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

At least not as much face-to-face collaboration, he went on, as he took BusinessWest on a walk to the showroom, where he sat down at benching that sports those higher walls that can’t be seen over and are designed with privacy and protection in mind.

While orders for such products come in, the larger questions looming over the industry concern the longer term. But while contemplating the future, those we spoke with are also coping with the present, which is challenging on many levels.

Indeed, Proshan said a number of projects that were in the pipeline have been paused as companies and institutions try to absorb what has happened and what it all means moving forward. He mentioned a $1.2 million library project at one of the area colleges and several other initiatives that have been put on hold because the plans that were blueprinted months ago may no longer be viable in the COVID-19 world.

“When you think about what may change when people go into a public space like that, you can certainly understand how and why these institutions might want to pause,” he said. “We have lots of repurchased and paid-for inventory that, because the colleges and universities are shut down, we can’t even get in to deliver this product.

“And the policy for a lot of these places is that they can’t pay for product until it’s delivered and installed,” he went on. “But, unfortunately, my manufacturers insist on getting paid once the product is received by me — so you can see the dilemma when you’re talking about a large volume of merchandise.”

There are other challenges to contend with as well, such as reopening their own offices, which were ‘essential’ in some cases — Lexington earned that designation in West Springfield because it delivers to healthcare providers — and also dealing with various employment issues, and trying to serve customers in remote fashion, a somewhat difficult task when many consumers like to see, touch, and kick the tires on the products they’re contemplating.

Arnold, like Proshan, said the phones essentially stopped ringing during the month of March. Then commenced a period of speculation and webinars about when offices would reopen and how. And then, things got busy again as companies started gathering information and proposals for those protective shields and dividers for benches, with a decent percentage of those proposals turning into orders.

The new workstations

The new workstations in the lobby at Lexington Group contrast sharply with what existed before, and speak volumes about current efforts to keep workers and visitors safe and increase privacy.

What concerns Arnold at this point is what happens when this ‘bubble,’ as he called it, is over and companies, now getting comfortable as employees slowly return to the office, contemplate their future needs, and their footprint.

Indeed, his company is currently working on projects involving leases that were signed months ago. The question is, will new leases be signed?

“I think that, when we get to the middle of the summer, there will be a pretty good slowdown at that point,” he said. “People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

There are already strong signs that some companies will not go back to their former offices, and if they do, they’ll probably do it gradually, with many seeking smaller footprints for fewer employees, which means less office furniture to be sold, said those we spoke with.

Arnold said he’s seeing a lot of this in New York, which is still very much in lockdown mode.

“Initially, people couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he noted. “But at this point, many corporations are taking their time and making decisions. The mentality is that, ‘we’re turning a profit, everyone’s working remotely, everybody’s safe; until we’re really comfortable that we can put them in an environment where we can minimize risk and people can focus on what they do, we’re in no rush to return to the office.’”

Mass transit certainly plays a big role in what’s happening — or not — with people returning to the workplace, he went on, adding quickly that, in many markets, and with businesses across many sectors, the question concerning such returns is increasingly ‘if,’ not ‘when,’ and also ‘how many will return?’

Whether this changes or not in the short or long term is yet another of those questions that are difficult to answer at this juncture.

Again, about the only thing that’s relatively certain is that the past will become prologue when it comes to privacy and how the office might look and feel moving forward.

“Ten years ago, everyone had tall walls, lots of privacy — people had their own space,” said Proshan. “‘Collaboration’ became the buzzword the last few years, and the walls came down, and shared space became the big thing. And while I think people will still have the need to collaborate, I think they’re going to be doing it in a much more enclosed environment.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the place where they started this discussion, Proshan and Arnold said that, while some things are known at this juncture, many more are not. And speculation might not be a fruitful exercise at this point.

“I don’t think there are whole lot of crystal-ball gazers who really know what’s going to shake out from all this,” Proshan said. “No one really knows.”

Arnold concurred. While the focus for now is on privacy and spreading people out, he noted, the landscape may be altered again. “All this can change on a dime if there’s good news about a vaccine or something like that. For now, everyone’s planning like this a year or so off.”

A year seems a long way off in a business where predicting the future is difficult — and has now become much more so.

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

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a New Way Forward

By Mark Morris

Essential.

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School is an $82 million project currently being built by Daniel O’Connell’s Sons.

That one word made all the difference for the construction industry as most sectors of the economy shut down, except for a handful deemed ‘essential’ by the state, construction among them, and thus able to continue working.

But to do that work, they had to quickly adjust to a new reality, as construction managers adopted new guidelines and procedures to prevent workers from catching the virus on the job site.

“At that time, building the project became secondary,” said Joe Imelio, project executive for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

On March 25, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order outlining COVID-19 guidelines and procedures for donstruction sites. In addition to reinforcing CDC guidelines on frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distancing, the guidelines detailed specific procedures for construction sites.

In addition to providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and face shields when social distancing is impossible, the mandate also imposed a “100% glove policy” while on the job site.

Another guideline emphasized zero tolerance for sick workers on the job. The guidelines stated in all caps: “IF YOU ARE SICK, STAY HOME!” Every day, each person reporting to work is expected to self-certify their health status by completing a brief questionnaire to confirm they are healthy enough to work for that day. If the construction work is inside, known as a “closed building envelope,” a medical professional must take everyone’s temperature before they can enter the building.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers about the adjustments they have made to maintain a safe environment for workers and keep their projects moving.

David Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said he began preparing pandemic protocols in February, before the guidelines were established, to make sure his company could continue to operate safely.

Joe Imelio

Joe Imelio

“At that time, building the project became secondary. The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others,” he noted.

In early February, Nate Clinard, vice president of safety for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, began purchasing more PPE than the normal stock, as well as hand sanitizer and disposable rags and towels. He also tried to buy hand-washing stations for outdoor job sites, which were selling fast.

“Because they were difficult to get from vendors and suppliers, we built our own portable wash stations,” he said.

But, despite the hurdles, at least firms were working, and continue to work, although the long-term economic impact from the pandemic and the shutdown — and what that means for the volume of projects contractors will compete for down the line — remains to be seen.

Starts and Stops

Within some niches, the pandemic offered opportunity. For example, in mid-March, as much of the state began shutting down, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) accelerated its scheduled projects for the roadwork season that was about to begin in a few weeks.

Janet Callahan, president of Palmer Paving, which has many DOT contracts, said her crews would normally work on large road projects at night when traffic is lighter. As stay-at-home orders resulted in empty roads across the state, the DOT allowed paving crews to switch to daytime construction.

“For the same number of hours, we are able to work safer and more efficiently,” Callahan said. “You just get more done in daylight.” She noted that daytime paving is a big reason DOT projects across the state are 25% ahead of schedule.

Other construction managers saw several projects delayed at the outset of the coronavirus. Stephen Killian, director of New England Operations for Barr and Barr, said a number of his company’s projects were pushed back by as much as 12 weeks.

“Our people worked on the jobs as best as they could remotely, but if you can’t put it in the ground, you’re not moving the project forward.”

Killian added that, even when projects begin again, it’s not as simple as bringing all the workers back and resuming the job. Among the governor’s guidelines is a mandate that construction managers devote one day as a “safety stand down” to make sure everyone understands the new protocols. Combined with CDC guidelines restricting meetings of no more than 10 people, restarting a job can become a logistical challenge.

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others.”

“If you have 130 people on a job site, the ramp-up is slow because everyone needs to have the stand-down meeting to understand their responsibilities,” Killian said. “Doing that for all 130 workers in one day isn’t possible now because you can’t meet in groups larger than 10 people.”

One concern cited by several managers involves the uncertainty and anxiety about a virus that everyone is still trying to understand.

“Everyone seems rattled, and tempers are shorter because people constantly feel under pressure,” said John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Construction Services.

Callahan agreed. “Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

To try to ease some of the anxiety, Clinard and his staff made themselves available at all the company’s job sites to answer questions and listen to concerns.

“Early on, a lot of people just needed to talk,” he said. “We were there to help educate and provide an ear for them.”

As the owner of his company, Rahkonen said he feels a real responsibility to his employees. He described the decision to continue working during the pandemic as a scary one.

“There were a lot of people who thought we should shut down, but I don’t think that would have been beneficial to the families of our workers,” he said. “So far, knock on wood, we’ve been right.”

Trial and Error

As might be expected, suddenly adapting to new protocols is a process of trial and error. Killian noted a problem with getting accurate temperature readings back in March when it was still cold outside. “People were running temperatures of about 86 to 90 degrees because they were walking to the site after they parked their cars.”

To get more accurate readings, Killian said they changed the protocol to a drive-up system where everyone’s temperature is taken while still in their vehicles.

On face masks, Killian said his safety director found a contradiction in the state regulations. Guidelines for the construction industry say masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible. The regulation that covers all businesses, however, says face coverings must be worn by all workers. While Killian supports wearing masks near other workers, requiring masks at all times may cause problems. He’s concerned about worker fatigue and potential health issues on those summer days when 90-degree temperatures are common.

“We have to be mindful that the average age of the tradesmen and construction workforce is over 45 years old,” he said, adding that he has reached out to state officials seeking clarification on the requirement.

Palmer Paving crews

As more people stayed home and off the roads, Palmer Paving crews switched to daytime work.

Clinard said his job sites are using technology to make the daily self-certifying questionnaire work better. By assigning a QR code to each project, workers simply hold their phone cameras to the code to launch the questionnaire. Once completed, the information is loaded to a master document for that project.

“This gives us a real-time read of who’s on site and that they are healthy,” Clinard said.
“If any responses to the questionnaire suggest issues with that person’s health, they are not allowed on the job site that day.”

Requiring people who aren’t feeling well to stay home contributes to what Imelio called a “culture change in the construction industry,” adding that, “for many of the workers, if they stay home when they’re sick, they don’t get paid.”

On the flip side, Killian said many healthy workers who would normally be on the job are instead filing for unemployment out of a concern they may bring the virus home. “Unfortunately, that affects the daily number of men and women on site. Even the union halls are having a difficult time getting additional staff.”

Several managers addressed the real costs that come with COVID-19 mandates that didn’t exist a few months ago. Fontaine said his company’s staff is able to address many of the requirements but not all of them.

“There are definitely additional costs associated with COVID, such as the increase in labor to sanitize the site and bringing in medical professionals for temperature screening,” he noted.

Killian said building owners have agreed to pay for many of these extra costs, but they’re not happy about it because it’s an added expense they could not have anticipated when budgeting the project.

Factoring in all the added expense from the COVID-19 protocols creates another challenge when bidding on future projects as well. “If you bid on a job and put the cost of all the mandates in your bid, you may not be competitive,” Killian said.

In recent meetings on future projects, Imelio said he was asked about the impact of COVID-19 going forward. “It’s like asking, ‘what do you think interest rates will be in a year?’”

Fontaine’s company is currently building South High Community School, a $200 million project he described as the largest public project in the history of Worcester. He’s concerned that projects like these, which depend on tax revenue from state and federal sources, will be hit hard in the future. In the past, the company has adjusted by taking on more private construction when public projects slow down.

“The biggest question for us is how will COVID affect the 2021 and 2022 workload,” Fontaine said. “We may have to refocus our project mix for a couple years if we go through another significant downturn.”

Hit the Road

If nothing else, Callahan said, the pandemic is a reminder of the important role infrastructure plays in the region’s safety and economy. “Essential service providers such as hospital workers, firefighters, power-company crews, and delivery people all depend on our road system to get to their jobs and to help people.”

Despite the extra steps to start each day, all the managers said they are adapting to the new requirements. The trick now is to stay diligent.

“Our processes are in place, and they work well for the personal protection of all our employees,” Imelio said. “It’s different than the old way of doing business, but we’re making progress.”

“Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

Even though their work is outdoors, Callahan said it’s important for her crews to remain diligent. “It would take only one person to affect the jobs of 25 people, and that’s only one crew. We’ve made it clear to our staff, there is no relief from these guidelines.”

Strict compliance is worth it, she went on, because it gives her company the opportunity to repair roads for the DOT and municipalities around the state.

“We are so grateful to be working and employing people,” she said. “We are not part of the 41 million people who have suffered a job loss during the pandemic.”

Fontaine said his workers have had a great attitude during a time of difficult adjustments.

“Being in an essential industry, you know it’s important to be cognizant of your safety and the safety of those around you,” he told BusinessWest, “and you know it’s important to keep moving forward.”

Coronavirus

Practice Owner Says Many Patients Still Wary of Returning to Her Office

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy, like many healthcare practitioners, says many of her patients are reluctant to come to the office out of fear of contracting COVID-19, leaving overall volume down considerably.

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy admits to not knowing exactly what would happen when she officially reopened the doors to her Chicopee-based dermatology practice on May 18.

She knew what she was hoping to see — that patients who had put off coming to see her for more than two months out of fear of the virus would start scheduling appointments and getting their concerns and even routine checkups addressed.

And while that’s happening to some degree, the numbers are not what she hoped, although Lenzy would be the first to say that two weeks’ worth of data is probably not enough to make a definitive statement on what it all means.

“Last week was better than this week,” she said toward the tail end of May, adding quickly that she wasn’t sure just how this was attributable to the Memorial Day holiday or other factors. “We’re still not reaching the numbers we set as a goal — even the reduced numbers we established by limiting the number of office visits to half what they would be normally to allow social distancing.”

Lenzy, who opened her practice in 2014 and quickly built up a clientele of some 30,000 patients, believes her venture is typical of most others in the broad healthcare realm when it comes to the impact of the pandemic and the ways in which it has changed business — in some cases for the long term.

This is true of everything from the emergence of telehealth as a way to evaluate patients remotely (more on this later) to the manner in which the crisis brought the practice to a precarious place, where Lenzy, who has a staff of nine, wasn’t sure if she was going to able to make payroll.

With some relief from the CARES Act, specifically in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, Lenzy has been able to pay people and keep all her staffers employed — although that money can only be used for another few weeks.

She — like just about every small-business owner who has received such a loan — is already starting to think about what happens when that money runs out. That’s because normal, as in life in mid-February before the pandemic reached Western Mass., still seems a long way off.

Flashing back to the pre-pandemic days — that’s a phrase all business owners and managers have added to their lexicon — Lenzy said hers was a very busy practice. And while deemed essential because of the services it provides, the office closed on March 18 — again, like most all healthcare practices in the region — and shifted to seeing patients virtually.

And, for the most part, this move to telehealth went smoothly.

“It was definitely a generational piece,” she explained. “Some of our older patients had some difficulties, but they were able to get people to help them; some people don’t have smartphones or don’t have computers with cameras, so we did so some phone visits. But some people preferred to wait until we were back in the office.”

As for the business, while Lenzy she kept all her employees on, she cut back hours from 40 to 30 a week. “That was still a stretch,” she said. “But I wanted to keep everything going.”

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses. That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The PPP money arrived her account in the beginning of May, and it provided some desperately needed breathing room.

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses,” she said, adding that there are many of those, including rent and supplies. “That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The practice reopened exactly two months after it closed, but this was and is a phased reopening, she explained, noting that, to maintain social distancing, roughly half the staff works at home a few days each week and continues to see patients virtually.

“There’s always one provider in the offices at a time to see patients,” she said. “And we’re limiting the number of patients per hour that are in the office; with our specialty, we do a lot of procedures, like biopsies and freezing, so a lot of the patients that we’ve seen virtually needed to come into the office and have something done.”

They’re coming in, but, as noted earlier, not in the numbers this practice needs to get back on secure financial footing.

“We cut our volume in half, but we haven’t been able to even do that,” she said, adding, again, that she’s working with a small sample of data. “In talking to our front desk, we have some people who still don’t want to come out, so we’re trying to convert those people to virtual care.”

As for when things will get better and those numbers will improve, Lenzy said that will happen when and if more people feel comfortable enough to go back to the office.

“Our success and how we fare depends on peoples’ comfort levels,” she told BusinessWest. “And right now, it’s too early to say when people will reach this comfort level. My front desk is telling me that now, many people are saying, ‘I just want to wait.’”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Shop Owner Finds Ways to Share Joy at a Time When It’s Badly Needed

Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg says customers appreciate the messages on the front door of the Toy Box, as they wait for her to reopen that door.

One of Liz Rosenberg’s favorite games — to both play and sell — is called Lion in My Way.

“It’s for ages 5 and up,” said the owner of the Toy Box in Amherst. “You’re presented, in card form, with obstacles, like a lion in your way, a giant wall, all sorts of things. And then you have a hand of cards that are ideas how to get past this obstacle — maybe a catapult or balloon or a sandwich to feed the lion. You have to create the story. I feel like this is the greatest game.”

And not just because she feels like she’s living it every day.

“It’s a great lesson in, ‘ugh, yes, this is awful, but what do I have in my pocket that I can use to get past the awful part and start making progress?’” she continued. “It’s all here in this game.”

Retailers across Massachusetts being told, three months ago, to close their doors indefinitely? That’s no game — but Rosenberg has been playing some effective cards.

Like morphing into a delivery service.

She recalls shuttering her shop on Sunday, March 15. “But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

The strategy was to offer delivery within 20 minutes of the store — which gave her some solid territory to cover without infringing too much on similar stores in the region.

“It allowed me to get in my car in the morning and drive to the store and open it up, work all day, and at 2:00 make a route map and deliver to people’s driveways, and then go home,” she explained. “I didn’t have to interact with anyone.”

She soon found this model was actually functional, and used the Toy Box’s Facebook page to showcase as many items as possible to keep customers engaged. “My website is under construction, and now isn’t the time to focus on that, and people require visuals,” she said of her Facebook photo albums.

She also spends plenty of time offering gift ideas over the phone. “I find myself absolutely cracking up, standing here trying to describe something, my hands moving, hoping they get a visual on this. It’s really entertaining.”

The result hasn’t been anywhere near normal sales volume, but it has kept the shop afloat.

“But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

“I didn’t know what it would bring in; I didn’t really think about success,” Rosenberg told BusinessWest. “I just thought about day by day, and at the beginning of this, that’s where everyone’s head was — ‘it’s 10 in the morning; where is life going to be at 11?’”

Another card she drew on was humor — “because that’s how I live.” For example, the first day the doors were closed, she arranged a group of stuffed animals in the store window, with speech bubbles offering messages like “we miss your faces” and “we will deliver toys” and “we love you!”

“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen from behind the register, taking pictures outside the front door. It makes me giggle.”

In the past couple of weeks, Rosenberg has played the curbside-pickup card — well, parking-lot pickup, “because we don’t have a curb” — and continued a popular gift offering known as ‘mystery bags,’ for which customers provide the recipient’s age and pay a discount price for a surprise assortment of goodies, such as putty, markers, stickers, mini-games, bouncy balls, and more.

“People trust our judgment on things their children or grandchildren or friends’ children might like,” she explained. “People tell me the age of the child and a couple things about them, and I put together little activities to keep them busy, keep them curious, and keep them educated. It’s gone over really well.”

Rosenberg is hoping to reopen the Toy Box in mid-June, depending on the guidance she gets from Boston, and is mulling ideas like shorter hours — perhaps half-days, or full days by appointment only — so she can manage staffing and sanitizing in a safe manner.

“As much as we’d like to be open for business, I only want to do it safely — against the virus and against unnecessary worry and anxiety,” she noted. “Anxiety is a real thing, and I don’t want people feeling forced to come into the store. So I will continue with deliveries and parking-lot pickup because, in my mind, that’s the safest way.”

One of the speech bubbles in the window reads, “we are essential.”

That may not be true in the eyes of Gov. Baker, but Rosenberg is quick to note how important it is for kids — who have, after all, been cooped up in their homes for about three months now — to experience joy through play.

“We are essential — not necessarily from the government’s perspective, but from families’ perspective. Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time. That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

For This Photographer and Sock Maker, the Pandemic Is a Developing Story

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood says both his photo studio and sock business have been greatly impacted by the pandemic.

Lenny Underwood started off by talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge dent in both his businesses — a photography studio and an intriguing venture called Upscale Socks, which has become one of the many intriguing stories of entrepreneurship being written in the region. But then he put those losses into their proper context by changing the subject to his grandmother.

“She died from this virus,” he said slowly and deliberately for additional emphasis, as if it were needed. “Her name was Queeie Brown, and she died late last month [April] — it was awful.”

So Underwood, a member of BusinessWest’s recently announced 40 Under Forty class of 2020 — honored for his entrepreneurial exploits as well as his work within the community, such as donations of socks to area groups — has seen the virus alter his life in probably every way imaginable. Right down to his socks.

His designer socks, a venture he started dreaming about in 2014, became a reality the following year. He now has several dozen styles, including a popular ‘Springfield Firsts’ sock that came out last year and continues to draw orders. The products are manufactured by a partner in China, said Underwood, adding that production had to be halted for a time earlier this year when the virus was spreading through that country.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people. Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

But as this year has progressed, that setback has turned out to be just one of many ways the pandemic has changed the landscape for Underwood — and perhaps one of the more minor ones.

Indeed, like most all photographers, Underwood has seen the virus rob him of a number of jobs and reliable revenue streams — everything from proms to weddings to family gatherings.

“Most of my photography is event-based, but I do some head shots and senior portraits as well,” he told BusinessWest. “Mainly, though, I’m on the scene, on location for different celebrations.”

And there certainly haven’t been many of those over the past three months, and those that have been staged have been smaller and decidedly different, he went on; after searching his memory bank, he determined that the last event he worked was the second Saturday in March.

The following Tuesday, he recalls getting seven cancellations for jobs that day alone. “I was looking forward to four proms, a lot of graduations, and weddings,” he went on, adding that he has one wedding still scheduled for late in July — and he’s somewhat dubious about that — but everything else has been wiped off the calendar.

Overall, he estimates that business is off 65% to 70% from what it was a year ago, a precipitous decline that has forced to him to seek — and eventually receive — unemployment benefits. However, they are due to run out in 20 weeks. He has also applied for a number of grants through various agencies, and is awaiting word on whether he’ll receive any.

Underwood has managed to find some work — a few of those ‘parade birthdays,’ for example, a photo shoot for a newborn, a few ‘senior-announcement photos,’ as he called them — where soon-to-be high-school grads announce where they’ll be going to college — and some other scattered assignments.

Meanwhile, the virus has generated some needed, but somewhat macabre work. Indeed, there has been a noted increase in funerals across the area, and for some of them, Underwood has been hired by families to scan photos of the deceased for slideshows and memorial tributes.

Still, like most photographers, he has seen his business devastated by the virus and doesn’t have any real idea when things might start turning around.

As for his socks … he’s still getting orders — someone recently purchased 20 pairs of the ‘Springfield Firsts’ style, for example — and some specials he’s been running have helped to generate more of them. But overall sales volume is down because he’s not able to sell them at large events, which generated a good deal of sales prior to the pandemic. Overall, sock sales are down by roughly 50%.

As he talked with BusinessWest near the tail end of May, Underwood said he had a few events on the books — an outdoor church service, for example. But the longer view is clouded by uncertainty and some doubts about whether the large events that have become his livelihood will be staged any time soon.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people,” he said. “Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

For now, he’s maintaining his focus and looking for opportunities whenever and wherever he can find. For him, the pandemic is a developing story — in all kinds of ways. u

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Pandemic Poses Challenges, Opportunities for Flooring Company

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck, says that, while business is off because of the pandemic, the crisis has led to some opportunities on the commercial and residential sides of the ledger.

Doug Mercier was talking about how sales for March, April, and May are off probably 30% from what they were a year ago at the flooring company started by his parents a half-century ago.

And while that’s certainly not what he had in mind for quarters one and two, he quickly put those numbers in perspective.

“Look at restaurants,” said Mercier, president of the company that bears the family name. “Many of them are down … 100%; they’re not seeing any business. This has hit us hard, certainly, but it’s actually created a few opportunities as well.”

Indeed, some institutions and businesses — from area colleges to some of those aforementioned restaurants, most already in the portfolio of clients, but some others as recent additions — have taken advantage of unwanted time and a closed building to do some work on those properties, including new flooring.

“We’ve done work for a number of restaurants in this area,” said Mercier, listing projects in several area communities. “They were sitting idle; the business was empty. Then they started cleaning and painting, and realized that the flooring really needed to be replaced.”

Meanwhile, several medical facilities have been forced to renovate or repurpose space, creating other opportunities, and on the residential side, time at home has convinced people that they need to move ahead with some planned projects, said Mercier, adding that, at this time, there are a good number of projects (again, not as many as in a typical year, but a good number) in the proverbial pipeline.

“Residential clients are calling — they’re trying to see what we can do to enable them to see samples online,” he said, noting another change in how business is being done as fewer people are willing or able to visit the showroom on Riverdale Street. “With people spending more time at home, they’re paying more attention to those jobs that need to be done.”

“We’ve done work for a number of restaurants in this area. They were sitting idle; the business was empty. Then they started cleaning and painting, and realized that the flooring really needed to be replaced.”

But, as noted, there have been a number of challenges to contend with, including the matter of taking on these commercial and residential assignments while keeping crew members safe, Mercier told BusinessWest, adding that social-distancing requirements necessitated some adjustments when it comes to when and especially how work is done.

There is also the matter of keeping those trained installers — valued employees that were a challenge to find and retain before the pandemic hit — on the payroll.

“We don’t want to lose installers,” said Mercier, noting that, thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan secured early last month, the company has been able to rotate crews in and out — as a safety measure, but also because there is less work overall — but still manage to pay everyone. “We’ve been doing a ‘week on, week off’ kind of thing and have kept everyone on.”

Meanwhile, Mercier, like many service businesses of this kind that are sending crews into the field, started offering employees hazard pay, an additional expense largely covered by the PPP loan funds.

Mercier was quick to note that a number of projects planned by commercial clients were shut down as the pandemic hit, including some at colleges and prep schools in this area and just outside it — Assumption College in Worcester, for example, as well as a large job at a housing project. And they are being handled now, creating more work for crews.

Meanwhile, new projects are coming into the pipeline, many in response to the pandemic itself. Indeed, he cited the example of a cafeteria in one of the area hospitals.

“They’re trying to rework the space so it will be more conducive to halting the spread of disease and bacteria,” he explained. “So they’re taking out the carpeting and putting in a more resilient surface. The pandemic has created some business for us.”

Looking ahead, Mercier sounded an optimistic note when he said he expects a relatively steady supply of work in the pipeline. He said the company recently took a few residential orders, and some on the commercial side as well.

“Since these businesses have been sitting idle, a lot of plans and blueprints have been worked on, and, looking forward, it seems like there will be an uptick in projects,” he said, adding quickly that there are number of question marks concerning the longer term, especially when it comes to the colleges.

Perhaps the best sign that better times are ahead comes in the form of the delivery trucks pulling in almost daily at the company’s storefront and showroom.

“They’re coming in fuller, and we know that’s a good sign with what’s going on with the economy,” Mercier told BusinessWest, referring to vehicles that would make several stops on a route delivering product that’s been ordered. “When the trucks arrive and there’s very little in them, you know no one is ordering. But when you see the trucks stacked pretty full … that’s a good sign.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Restaurant Owner Says Reopening Will Be Exciting, but Scary, Too

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

A new mural starts to take shape in Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area, as restaurants anticipate outdoor seating becoming much more prominent under state reopening guidelines.

There’s a little alleyway beside Eastside Grill in Northampton that used to hold a few dumpsters and parked cars, but not anymore — it’s been converted into an outdoor dining space. Last week, local artists painted a mural of the Big Easy there, to reflect the restaurant’s New Orleans influences.

Reopening the restaurant’s doors is certainly big. But nothing about it has been easy.

“When they shut us down, I’ve never been so anxious in my life,” owner Debra Flynn said. “This is my life. This is my employees’ life; they depend on this income to pay their bills. It was really scary at first, and it still is, actually, because we don’t know what’s going to happen once we open up. We won’t be making as much money as we once did, and there are so many restrictions. What’s going to happen when we open?”

For that outdoor seating area, Flynn has a bistro feel in mind, with eight high-top tables, spaced at least six feet apart, that seat two diners each; she doesn’t want more than two to a table at first. The space is adorned by large donated urns, and local landscaper Justin Pelis donated some plants.

“Everyone has really come together,” she said. “I have an incredible staff. The executive chef has refined the menu to keep costs down, yet it’s creative and inventive, and my general manager has been running back and forth to Restaurant Depot to get things we need.”

They’ve both been multi-tasking for some time; in fact, a team of only four, including Flynn, have been maintaining a robust curbside-pickup and delivery service five days a week since early in the shutdown.

“It was very popular,” she said, before drawing on some hyperbole. “We went from zero to a million in two seconds. We’ve never done anything like that, and that first week we opened, we were going very quickly.”

At first, the restaurant offered its fare through curbside pickup — the customer would pay over the phone, and the food would be handed through the passenger-side window — or delivery, to Northampton destinations initially, but that’s being expanded to Hatfield, Florence, Leeds, and Easthampton.

“I don’t know if delivery is ever going to go away,” she added. “For people who don’t want to sit at a table, they can take it home. Especially for the elderly, it’s been great.”

Flynn was able to access a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but even that was fraught with anxiety.

“No one was telling us how it worked; nobody knew anything,” she said, adding that she was thrilled when the PPP guidelines were changed last week, extending their use by an additional eight weeks — which is critical for restaurants that had little or no work available for their teams over the first eight weeks of the loan.

She had the aforementioned skeleton crew making and delivering takeout, but what about the bartenders? “The bar is closed right now — sure, you can take out beer and wine in bottles, but you don’t need a bartender to grab a bottle. The bar won’t be open until phase 3 — maybe phase 4. No one’s allowed to set up a bar.”

When the governor says restaurants can open, Eastside’s hours will shift again, to Wednesday through Sunday, with a longer day on Sunday: noon to 8 p.m., marking the first time Eastside Grill has effectively served lunch.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio. It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

It’s all part of being creative at a difficult time, one she knows isn’t exclusive to restaurateurs.

“Retailers are having it bad, too,” Flynn said. “With curbside pickup, nobody can try anything on because they can’t go into the building. So retailers have it as bad as restaurants do.”

Still, she noted, the restaurant industry is in many ways unique in the challenges it will face when it can once again serve guests.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio,” she said. “It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

After all, dining out is an experience, one that can’t be replicated by takeout food, no matter how tasty.

“It’s the feeling of being served — that’s what it’s all about,” she told BusinessWest. “We were never a takeout business, and it took a while to make the food look nice. We’re used to putting it on a plate and making it look appetizing. Takeout is a whole different ballgame; people eat with their eyes, and a lot of times takeout doesn’t look as pretty.”

Flynn was quick to add, however, that the takeout ‘plating,’ if one could call it that, did begin to look nicer as the weeks wore on. Not as good as reopening the doors will look, when she and her team can begin serving up that New Orleans culinary spirit in person once again.

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Proceeding as Planned

Gene Cassidy

Even if the fair goes on as scheduled, Gene Cassidy says, crowd counts could be way down.

Gene Cassidy likes to say those at the Big E ‘manufacture’ the 17-day annual fair that is by far the biggest single event on the region’s calendar.

“It’s like putting an automobile together,” he told BusinessWest. “You really can’t cut components out and expect the vehicle to run; it costs ‘X’ number of dollars to produce the fair, and we’re still going to spend that — we have to produce a fair that people are going to want to come to.”

And so, those planning the 2020 edition of the Big E are proceeding with the mindset of including all the parts that typically go into the Big E, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently decimating the local economy and wiping events off the calendar in wholesale fashion.

But while Cassidy is currently certain there will be a Big E — that’s currently — he’s less certain about a great many other things. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t know how many people will come to the fairgrounds this September. He quoted at least one poll showing that 50% of respondents said they would not let the pandemic impact their decision to attend an event like the Big E, but another 40% said they wouldn’t attend such an event unless there was a vaccine for the virus.

And if attendance is down 20%, 30%, or even 40%? “It’s going to be a heavy lift to overcome that, but we can’t afford not to go forward.”

And if the fair should have to be canceled? That has happened a few times during the history of the fair — during World Wars I and II, to be specific — but Cassidy isn’t thinking in those terms, because the economic hit would be extremely difficult to absorb.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future,” he told BusinessWest, adding that such a decision won’t have to be made for some time, and he is obviously hoping, and projecting, that enough progress can be made that he won’t have to take that course.

“I have confidence that we’re going to learn from this bug faster than we’ve learned from anything in the past,” he said. “And I have confidence that, by the time we get to the summer, things are going to start to loosen up; we’ve learned a lot, and we’re going to learn a great deal more — and we will open.”

As he talked about this fall’s Big E and the prospects for it, Cassidy joked that, for a change, the ongoing reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which links West and Agawam and abuts the Big E property, will not be the main topic of conversation this summer and fall.

It will still be a topic — two lanes will be closed until late summer 2021, according to the current schedule — but certainly not the topic.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future.”

Indeed, the bridge is now largely an afterthought as the Big E and the region cope with the global pandemic and questions about both the short term and the long term that simply cannot be answered.

Already, the virus has had a huge impact on the Big E, as it has on any venue that hosts large gatherings. Searching his memory banks — and it was hard to remember back that far because so much has happened, or not happened, as the case may be — Cassidy said the last event event staged at the Big E was an antique and crafts show on March 7 and 8.

Everything since has been wiped off the calendar, including the huge home show scheduled for late in March and the planned Hooplandia, a 3-on-3 basketball festival slated to make its much-awaited debut in June.

Everything is cancelled or postponed through June, he went on, adding that he was not aware of any cancellations for July at this time. Aside from the basketball tournament, this summer was to be dominated by a number of horse shows and a few other gatherings.

But most of the attention has now shifted to the fair, which annually attracts more than 1 million people to the region and contributes more than a quarter-billion dollars to the local economy. At this point in time, the expectation is that the show will go on, said Cassidy, adding that adjustments can and will be made to help maintain the safety of visitors and employees alike.

These will come in such realms as ticketing and accessing the property, he said, adding quickly that, given the nature of fairs — putting a lot of people in very close proximity to one another as they do everything from ride on rides to eat fried dough to watch concerts — there isn’t much more that can be done to facilitate social distancing.

“The fact is … a fair is not the place where you can enforce social distancing,” he said. “We can be suggestive, but that’s not what a fair is. It’s uniquely the American way of life, and it just doesn’t lend itself to social distancing.”

These sentiments explain why there are questions — and concerns — about just how many people will make that pilgrimage to West Springfield this fall, and how many times they’ll make it.

“Citizens are going to decide how close they want to be to other people,” said Cassidy. “And I suspect that there’s a segment of society that may never return to a fair again.”

For now, those planning the fair are proceeding to ‘manufacture’ a fair like those that have come before it — but with some adjustments for the pandemic, obviously.

“We’re building a comprehensive plan for cleaning and disinfecting,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, given the fact that the Big E is an agricultural fair, it has rigorous policies in place for disinfecting the various facilities on the grounds.

Other changes will come with ticketing — there will be print-at-home ticketing, for example — as well as with access to the grounds in an effort to create some distance between people. Employees will wear masks and gloves, and visitors will be wearing masks as well, he said.

As for planning for the fair, it is, in most all respects, right on schedule.

“We’re going at the same speed as we always do,” Cassidy noted. “All the entertainment is booked; the concessionaires are lined up, although many of them are not working currently, and and I hope they can make to September. We’re going full-speed ahead — at this point, the fair is more than 90% ready to go.”

And, as noted earlier, it has all the components that the fairs have had in recent years.

“It costs us about $20 million to run the fair, and we hope to gross about $23 million or $24 million from the fair’s operation,” Cassidy noted. “We can’t produce an event that’s compromised, because people won’t come back.”

That said, one of his biggest concerns moving forward is the massive workforce needed to put on the fair, and the generational nature of that workforce.

“We have grandparents, parents, and grandchildren, all of whom participate in the workforce,” he explained. “And we have hundreds of people who volunteer at the Eastern States, many of whom are over age 65. My job is to protect my 65-year-old as well as any patrons who are in that demographic. That’s what our plan is focused on — how do we protect people who are most vulnerable?”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Special Coverage

For Many Impacted by the Pandemic, It Might Be a Viable Option

By Michael B. Katz, Esq.

One thing I’ve learned in my 45 years practicing bankruptcy law is that most individuals who wind up taking this course of action are good people who have found themselves in bad and unexpected circumstances, most often caused by things that were beyond their control.

People get sick, get divorced, lose employment, and have accidents. Likewise, businesses can be adversely affected by events over which they have no meaningful control. Outbreaks of disease, oil shortages, breaks in the supply chain, changing technology, interruption of their workforce, and many other factors can all cause a business or individual to be unable to stay financially afloat.

Which brings us the COVID-19 pandemic. It represents the epitome of unexpected circumstances and matters beyond our control. Indeed, in an effort to slow the spread the spread of the virus, the state has shuttered all non-essential businesses, leading to unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

In these precarious times, individuals and businesses are finding themselves in dire financial circumstances they could not have foreseen, nor done anything to prevent. Given their predicament, some might be looking at bankruptcy as a possible recourse.

In order to help honest but financially burdened individuals make a fresh financial start, Congress has passed a number of bankruptcy laws. Here are the key types:

 

Chapter 7

This is the type of bankruptcy proceeding that allows certain qualifying individuals to eliminate most of their unsecured debts (those without mortgages) and to make a fresh financial start.

In order to qualify for Chapter 7, a person cannot have filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy within the prior eight years. The person filing, known as a debtor, must also pass a test which limits how much earned income the debtor had earned in the prior year. This is called the means test, and it varies based on the state in which the debtor resides, the number of dependents in the family, and whether there is any earned income generated by the debtor’s spouse.

For example, for a Massachusetts resident, the limitation is $67,119 for a single person, $84,125 for a couple (combined gross income), and then increases in different amounts for additional dependents. These limitations became effective as of April 1, 2020 and are subject to periodic adjustment. Similarly, in Connecticut, the individual cutoff is $66,689, and $88,594 for a couple.

Michael B. Katz

Michael B. Katz

In these precarious times, individuals and businesses are finding themselves in dire financial circumstances they could not have foreseen, nor done anything to prevent. Given their predicament, some might be looking at bankruptcy as a possible recourse.

While most unsecured debts can be eliminated in Chapter 7, there are some types of debts that cannot, including income taxes owed from the past three years, alimony and child support, student loans, and debts incurred due to an accident while driving under the influence. 

One of the major benefits of Chapter 7 for an individual obtaining a discharge is that not only are the debts — such as most credit cards, personal loans, foreclosure and repossession deficiency balances, and medical bills — totally wiped out, they are eliminated without incurring any phantom income, on which both federal and state income taxes would be owed.

Compare this to either making a direct settlement with a lender or credit-card company, or going through a non-judicial, multi-year debt-settlement plan, where anything that is settled with the creditors results in the person receiving a 1099 from the creditor and having to pay taxes on the forgiven portion of the debts. In Chapter 7, Congress has decreed that all discharged debts are tax-free, and therefore no hidden taxes are incurred.

The key aspect of Chapter 7 is that the Bankruptcy Court is trying to help an honest debtor make a fresh financial start. In regard to secured debts — for example, those debts that are secured by a lien or mortgage, most often vehicle loans or a home mortgage — in Chapter 7, the debtor gets to select whether they wish to keep the item and continue making the payments, or to surrender the item and wipe out any shortfall amount that might exist after the secured party sells the item after repossession or foreclosure sale.

While a corporate entity can also elect to file Chapter 7 and have the Bankruptcy Court liquidate its assets and distribute the proceeds to its creditors, it does not get to carry on its business affairs after filing. Only an individual qualifies for a discharge, so a corporate entity must cease all business after it files Chapter 7.

 

Chapter 13

In this type of proceeding, an individual is given an option to repay all or a portion of the debt, if approved by the Bankruptcy Court and Chapter 13 trustee, through a plan of reorganization that generally lasts for a period of three to no more than five years. There is no need to pass the means test to qualify for Chapter 13, and, unlike the restrictions in Chapter 7 that allow it to include only unsecured debts, Chapter 13 can also affect secured debts.

The most common application in Chapter 13 is to use it to stop a foreclosure sale of a debtor’s home or automobile, and it allows the debtor to pay the outstanding past-due amounts over the life of the plan, in addition to requiring the debtor to make the full current payment each month. 

For example, if a lender is owed $60,000 in back mortgage payments, requiring the borrower to pay it in full in order to prevent a foreclosure sale, in a Chapter 13, the debtor could propose to pay $1,000 per month for the 60 months of its Chapter 13 plan, plus pay the current mortgage amount each month so that debtor does not fall further behind. 

These are simplified examples, and the details of a Chapter 13 plan are more complex and would require you to consult with a qualified attorney for more specific advice.

 

Chapter 11

A Chapter 11 reorganization can be filed by an individual who owns a business and operates as a ‘DBA,’ but due to its complexity and expense, it is most often filed by a corporate entity.

The idea of a Chapter 11 is to grant the business a ‘time out’ and give it some element of time to figure out a plan of reorganization to allow it to continue in business. Under 11 USC 362(d), all lawsuits and claims against the debtor’s business are enjoined from proceeding, and the debtor gets time to meet with its creditors and to seek to formulate a formal plan of reorganization.

That plan may propose to pay unsecured creditors a percentage on the dollar, which must be found to be a greater percentage than the creditors would receive in an immediate liquidation of the business and its assets. In some cases, mortgage debts can be reduced to the actual value of the assets that secure the mortgage, so that if the debtor owes a lender $750,000 on a building that can be proven to be worth only $500,000, the debtor can seek to ‘cram down’ the mortgage to a reduced amount of $500,000, and the additional $250,000 gets treated as an unsecured debt, and paid at the same percentage on the dollar as the other unsecured debts.

This is a very simplified version of a Chapter 11, as there are many other requirements that must be fulfilled by a Chapter 11 debtor, and the cases are necessarily complex and sometimes expensive. However, the overall savings to the debtor can be substantial, and they are often the key to a business’ survival.

The court in a Chapter 11 is seeking to be fair to both the debtor and its creditors, as well as preserving the jobs of the employees of a business.

 

Non-bankruptcy Alternatives

There are sometimes options for a business to consider without the need to file a formal insolvency proceeding. They require a skilled and knowledgeable attorney to know how to handle these matters, and they include utilization under Massachusetts state law of an assignment for the benefit of creditors, trust mortgage, or sometimes just using a skilled negotiator to try to convince creditors to accept an informal settlement of their debt, rather than forcing the debtor to use funds to pay for a formal bankruptcy proceeding, when those same funds could be paid toward a voluntary settlement with the creditors. 

In reality, these voluntary settlements are often difficult to finalize because you need to negotiate with multiple parties, who sometimes will not agree to the same terms. In a Chapter 11, the creditors are legally required to accept whatever settlement is approved by the bankruptcy judge, after a plan is voted on and approved by the Bankruptcy Court.

It is important that you not let your pride prevent you from finding the best and most effective solution for your personal or business cash-flow problems. You cannot make an informed decision until you know and understand all of your options, as well as the positives and negatives of each option.

During this pandemic, many fraudulent parties are preying on people, so make sure to do your homework to get the name of a qualified person to advise you or your business. Contact the Hampden County Bar Assoc. Lawyer Referral Service, call your accountant, or do a Google search to find an experienced person to help you or your business. 

Working together, we can all find ways get through these uncharted waters.

 

Michael Katz is the chairperson of the Bankruptcy & Creditors Rights department of the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C., with offices in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, Hadley, and Westfield; (413) 781-0560.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

The New Math

Julie Quink noted that, at her accounting firm — as well as most others — it is tradition to have a large party on April 15, the tax-filing deadline, or perhaps the 16th.

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

Jim Barrett

Jim Barrett

These are celebrations of hard work well done, she told BusinessWest, adding that staff members who have been under a great deal of stress and working long hours and long weeks can take a deep breath and relax, knowing that the worst is over for another year.

This April 15, there was no party at Burkhart Pizzanelli, the firm she serves as managing partner, or at most other firms. And it’s not just because the filing deadline has been extended to July 15 by both the state and federal governments.

It’s because there is still a great deal of stress, and the long hours continue as accounting firms play a huge role in trying to help their clients get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On a personal level, I’ve probably never worked as hard in my entire career as I have this year,” she noted. “I’ve put in many more hours than I have other years, and I know others have as well.”

Quink was one of several area accounting-firm executives to speak with BusinessWest as part of the latest in a series of virtual roundtable discussions concerning COVID-19. Those at the ‘table’ said these are, quite obviously, different times for accountants. While some of the work hasn’t changed, like all those tax returns, some of it has, including efforts to help clients of all sizes and in virtually every sector file for disaster relief (especially through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program), and — now that the money has started coming in — properly manage those funds so that the loans granted are forgivable.

But the work goes well beyond helping clients fill out the necessary paperwork, said Steve Erickson, CPA, partner in charge of Whittlesey’s Holyoke office. He said clients need to carefully manage cash flow, and they also need plans for the short and long term as they address life during — and after — this pandemic, and his firm, like others, has stepped in to assist with this often-difficult work.

“The biggest concern we see is cash flow and advising clients on what’s coming down the pike and making good long-term plans for whatever they’re doing,” he told BusinessWest. “And each one of them is unique; I can’t say that there’s one that’s very similar to the other.”

Meanwhile, the manner in which work is being done is obviously changing as well. Many of those we spoke with are working at home — some or all of the time — while discussions with clients and co-workers are now done mostly by phone, e-mail, or Zoom. And since accountants are working with clients’ sensitive financial information while at home, proper protocols and security measures have been added.

There are lessons being learned. Summing up the comments offered, it seems that those in accounting work much more efficiently — and certainly communicate much better — when they’re together in the same office, sharing ideas and collaborating. As for clients … the remote meetings have worked well, for the most part, and they may be the preferred method moving forward.

“From a positive standpoint, this has shined a bit of a light on our firm as far as our processes, our policies, how we can do things better, and what we should be looking to do better, said Patrick Leary, CPA, a partner with Springfield-based MP CPAs. “Hopefully, we’re going to learn from this and everyone else will learn from this and make themselves a stronger firm.”

“The biggest concern we see is cash flow and advising clients on what’s coming down the pike and making good long-term plans for whatever they’re doing. And each one of them is unique; I can’t say that there’s one that’s very similar to the other.”

Overall, this has been, and will continue to be, an intriguing, challenging, and in most all ways rewarding time for accountants, said those at the virtual table. Clients are calling them — and leaning on them for help — like never before, and as a result, relationships are being strengthened, and new ones are being formed.

Jim Barrett, managing partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said that, for some time, his firm — and most all firms, for that matter — have been working to broaden the umbrella of services to clients and develop relationships that are more advisory and consultative in nature.

The pandemic has in some ways forced the issue.

“This crisis has spurred us to do more consultative and advisory work with clients, not only with navigating the stimulus package, but also navigating any changes in their business, be it with employees or costs,” Barrett explained, adding that this work is certainly ongoing and is likely to continue for some time.

Beyond the Numbers

All through her career, Quink told BusinessWest, she’s prided herself on having the answers when clients have questions.

She still has most of the answers, but COVID-19 has changed that equation as well, because now, the questions are, well, different — in many cases, much different.

“This is my 29th year doing this, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve said ‘I don’t know the answer to that’ as much as I have these past few months, and follow it up with ‘I’ll have to get back to you,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that, in many cases, the answers don’t come easily.

That’s because clients are asking about whether to furlough employees or lay them off; or about whether employees can be ordered back to work; or about how to handle a situation where a laid-off employee is making far more on unemployment than they would on the job — and, therefore, wants to stay laid off; or about what to do with employees who must stay on the payroll for the loan from the SBA to be forgivable, but have no work to do because the business can’t open yet because it’s not deemed ‘essential.’

“People who scrambled to apply for the loan as soon as they could for fear that the funds were going to run out are now starting to receive those proceeds, and they’re asking, ‘if I bring my employees back, what am I going to do with them?’” said Leary, noting that there are many types of businesses that fall into this category. “Do they paint the walls?

“If you’re a lower-wage earner, and you can make the same or more on employment, what’s the incentive to go back to work and help my employer have some of his loans forgiven?” he went on. “It’s a predicament that a lot of companies are facing, and we haven’t seen any real guidance on it.”

Coping with such questions is a new reality for accountants. Actually, it’s one of many new realities. And they all come on top of the oldest of realties — tax season.

Add it all up — pun intended — and this has been a very different start to the year for accountants. Things began as they generally do, with tax-return work starting to flow in during the winter months and building toward the annual late-March, early April crush. By mid-March, though, as the pandemic reached Western Mass., and especially after non-essential businesses were ordered closed on March 24, things changed dramatically.

Clients were suddenly thrust into a situation unlike anything they’d seen before, said Barrett, and they were calling their accountant in search of some answers and, more importantly, some guidance.

“There’s a lot of companies and medical practices who have never gone through this before, and they’re doing the appropriate thing … their financial people are going through their expenses, they’re going through what needs to be paid and what should be paid — basic business decisions that they’re trying to make under a period of duress,” said Barrett. “What we see is that either the company doesn’t have a financial person — it’s the owner asking us — or they do have a financial person, and that person is, for the most part, by themselves, and they’re looking for advice or just want to bounce their plan off someone to see that it makes sense.”

And as clients started calling with new and different needs, accountants were having to adjust to new ways to work.

Indeed, most have been working at home — another of those new realities that brings its own set of challenges — and thus communicating with clients and colleagues alike in ways other than face-to-face.

“We’ve instituted procedures and policies that we never had before because we’ve never had that many people working out of the office,” said Barrett, whose sentiments were echoed by others at the ‘table.’ “We’re still fine-tuning those moving forward, but it’s changing the way we work, without a doubt.”

Erickson agreed. He said Whittlesey closed its three offices on March 18 and went to remote access. Like everyone else who’s gone through it, he called it a learning experience.

“It was a little bumpy at first, just getting used to the whole thing and trying to stay out of the kitchen and all the snacks in there,” he noted. “But, overall, it’s gone smoothly.”

Quink noted that, while Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its office to outside traffic, some staffers still come to the office most days, and carefully practice social distancing — while taking a number of other steps in the name of safety — while doing so.

“We’re not on top of each other; we have a nice layout so we can maintain the appropriate distance,” she explained. “At lunchtime, it might look like you’re looking at the royal family — there’s one on one end of the table and one at the other end, and we’re always going around and reminding each other about being safe and taking the steps to stay safe; we emphasize that, if one of us goes down, the entire firm is down.”

Forms and Function

But it’s the nature of the work, more than how it’s carried out, that has been the more dramatic, and impactful, change for accountants.

Much of it has involved filing for PPP relief and now helping clients carefully manage that money, but, as noted earlier, it goes well beyond that.

There are all those questions to answer, or try to answer, as the case may be, but there’s also the task of helping companies plan — something that’s very difficult to do in these times — for whatever might happen in the coming months.

“We have spent quite a bit of time with our corporate clients talking about cash-flow management and cash-flow projections,” said Leary. “We’re talking through ‘what-if’ scenarios with a range of clients that runs the gamut, from those in the cleaning-supply business who cannot get enough product in the door to those in the hospitality industry who have shuttered their doors.

“We’ve had some discussions with some distributors and manufacturers who are now being more cognizant of their suppliers and their inventory levels,” he went on, offering a specific example of the consultative work going on. “They’re looking at having redundant suppliers; instead of having just a West Coast supplier, they’re asking whether they should also have one from Canada or one in the Asia market. If borders get closed, do they have a redundant supplier, and what is the proper inventory level? There’s a lot of thoughtful planning going on.”

Erickson concurred, and noted that, while planning, clients of all sizes are grappling with the moment as well, and this means dealing with everything from cash flow to employment matters to discussions with the landlord and the bank about possible deferrals of payments.

Quink agreed and noted that, overall, there are important conversations to be had with clients. And while some of them, especially those with the cleaning companies that have more work than they can handle, are upbeat in nature, most are exactly the opposite.

“We’re having a lot of strategy conversations with clients, and the reality is that some of the clients we’re taking to … we know they’re not going to make it through this,” she said. “So we’re having the best conversations we can to position them so that when that happens — if it happens — they’re at least well-advised.”

While it’s difficult to see any silver linings to the current crisis situation, the accountants at the ‘table’ said they can find some in the way that clients are looking to learn from what’s happened and take steps to not only survive the pandemic but be a better, stronger company for the future.

“There are a lot of people proactively planning for the long term,” Leary said. “And to me, that’s positive; they’re not making impulsive decisions and thinking that this is going to close their doors permanently. It’s more, ‘when we come out of this, how do we do it better?’ And that’s encouraging.”

As for the accounting firms themselves, they’re dealing with the moment themselves, and it’s a challenging time. Most of the consulting work mentioned above is provided at the upper levels, by the partners, who, at the same time, are trying to manage younger staff members, many of them working remotely.

“We’re trying to juggle two things at once, and we’re frustrated that we can’t teach as much, and it’s difficult to manage younger people at home,” Barrett said. “Meanwhile, there’s that thought in the back of our minds … ‘boy, I hope we get paid for this.’”

Indeed, while firms are eager to help, they are advising clients knowing that the bills for their services may wind up at or near the bottom of the pile of those that get paid. Such fears are the basis for comments shared by many at the table that, while this will be a busy year, it may not be a good one when it comes to the bottom line.

This is just one of many stress-inducing matters to contend with during a year that will be unlike any other for the accounting firms in the region.

“The toll that this pandemic has taken on our team from the mental perspective is enormous,” said Quink. “It not just how it’s extended the season, but how it’s added a lot to our workloads.”

Bottom Line

Getting back to the annual April 15 celebration … Quink told BusinessWest there might be a party on July 15, when tax returns are now due. But maybe not.

Tax season will be over, but the work of helping clients navigate their way through COVID-19-generated whitewater will be ongoing.

That’s part of the new reality for accountants, and it will become the status quo for the foreseeable future. It will be a challenging time in many different respects, and one that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘taxing situation.’

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