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A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Learning on the Fly

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors encouraged her to overcome the challenges of online learning and succeed.

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) had a long-term plan to ramp up online and digital learning.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced staff working at STCC’s Center for Online and Digital Learning to move faster than they ever imagined. The staff includes instructional designers who assistant faculty in online teaching methods they incorporate into the classroom experience.

To maintain the safety of students, faculty, and staff, STCC moved classes to remote instruction last March. Instructional designers worked with faculty over the summer to prepare for fully online teaching in the 2020-21 academic year.

Faculty and administrators acknowledge the abrupt change to remote learning created great challenges and, for some, led to a less-than-ideal learning environment last spring. The sudden need to vacate campus resulted in the use of a slew of digital tools to communicate with students, including e-mail, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and teleconferencing by phone and Zoom.

“Many faculty had been using online tools for the delivery of their face-to face classes. However, for those faculty who were not familiar with the digital space or whose courses required hands-on instruction, the ‘lift’ to online was great,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs at STCC. “Since the summer, STCC invested in tools and training to assist faculty in developing the best truly online experience possible, including the hiring of a third instructional designer. Today, all online instruction occurs in a single platform, supplemented by class discussions using tools such as Zoom.”

The college anticipates spending nearly $800,000 through May 2021 helping faculty develop hundreds of online classes and labs, de Berly said. Today, more than 80% of the credits are offered online, a jump from 12% prior to the pandemic. Over the coming year, STCC also expects to expand its online-only options in addition to its existing in-person and hybrid degree programs.

STCC English Professor Denise “Daisy” Flaim has years of experience teaching students on campus in classrooms, so converting to the online experience was a big adjustment. But she worked closely with the online team at STCC to prepare for the transition, and now feels confident.

“We’re learning technology, just as the students are learning technology,” Flaim said.

Daniel Misco, an STCC alumnus and faculty member in the Digital Media Production program, said he’s well-versed in the online teaching world. Today, he teaches most of his classes online, but misses the face-to-face interactions with students in a classroom.

“I considered myself a face-to-face instructor,” Misco said. “I always excelled in the classroom. I liked being there with students to build a rapport with them.”

The adjustment to online learning can be challenging for some students, but Misco said faculty try to do all they can to help.

STCC student Kimberly Quiñonez, who is studying social work, expressed gratitude for the support from faculty over the past year.

“My experience as an online learner has really been amazing, although there were times I felt like quitting,” she said. “During those times, my professors would reach out and check in with the class. In the very beginning, I must admit that it was quite challenging transferring from an actual classroom to a computer. The classroom brought security to most students because questions were answered immediately. With online learning, you may have to wait for a response through e-mail.”

Aminah Bergeron, a mechanical engineering technology student at STCC, said she found benefits to online learning, noting she has “gotten the hang of it” after a year of studying from home.

“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It was for sure different, but a ‘good’ different,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about getting ready, or making sure my house doors are locked, or even thinking in the back of my head, ‘did I leave the faucet running?’ I just had to open my laptop and start my schoolwork, whether at my own pace or scheduled Zoom meetings. I also had much more time to research and not worry about calculating the time I’d lose on commuting from one location to another.”

STCC will return to face-to-face, on-campus instruction when it’s safe to do so, de Berly said, but will continue to offer online options and apply digital tools to enhance the classroom experience.

Cover Story

In Demand

Tanya Vital-Basile

Tanya Vital-Basile with a common sight — a ‘sold’ sign.

Tanya Vital-Basile recently sold a house in Longmeadow to someone who might not have considered buying it a year ago.

But life changed — and so did the residential real-estate market. Considerably, in both cases.

Specifically, the buyer had lived in Boston for many years, and still has a job there, but she has been working remotely, and plans — like so many others these days — to continue doing so.

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it,” said Vital-Basile, who heads a team at Executive Real Estate. “We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

It’s a story BusinessWest heard multiple times from area Realtors.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment,” said Kathy Zeamer of Jones Realty. “A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it. We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

Call it the new normal wrought by a still-raging pandemic.

“COVID has a lot to do with it,” said Lesley Lambert of Park Square Realty. “People are working from home, and they’re realizing their home doesn’t work for their life. I’ve spoken to so many clients who want to continue working from home, even once all this clears, and they’re looking at their space and saying, ‘we thought we wanted a big, open floor plan, but what we actually want is a music room, a study, a home office.’”

All this demand — for a different home, but especially one far outside the metro areas — has created a serious imbalance with supply in Western Mass., creating a seller’s market like few this industry has experienced in recent decades.

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three. It’s crazy,” Vital-Basile said.

The most recent statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. In December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. Hampden County led the way (sales up 32.0% and median price up 11.5% from the previous year), but Franklin County (26% and 10.6%) and Hampshire County (20.4% and 9.1%) weren’t far behind.

Kathy Zeamer

Kathy Zeamer says the current climate is a supply-and-demand issue — with several factors driving that demand.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market, Zeamer said. “It’s all about supply and demand. The inventory is really low, and we have new people coming into the area, so we don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand we’re seeing.”

A few factors play into the supply challenge. Many families who might be thinking about moving out of the region are hunkering down instead because of uncertainties related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

As for demand, “I think people are trying to escape more urban areas,” she added. “We have people coming in from other parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston area. Most of my sales this year involve people from New York, California, Las Vegas, Chicago — more so than ever before. I’ve had several New York sales this year, which is more than I would typically see.”

 

Escaping the City

The lifestyle shifts driven by the pandemic aren’t the only factor driving demand, Vital-Basile said, noting that interest rates are still at historic lows, creeping below 3%.

“The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” she told BusinessWest, adding that sellers from the Hub find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment. A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“We’ve had a lot of buyers from Boston. My last three sales were from Boston — cash buyers. A lot of people are realizing they don’t have to work at their company’s location any longer; a lot of companies are letting them work from home. And this is a cheaper area — instead of a little condo for $700,000, you can get a good-sized house for $700,000.”

Zeamer said she’s also seeing an increased desire for multi-generational living experiences, which typically require a larger home than the buyer currently occupies. “They might have older parents or grown children, and they need more living space or in-law apartments.”

But the main driver for more space is simply the fact that families are spending much more time at home. “Because of the pandemic, they want more space, and different types of space,” Zeamer said. “Some people are moving because they feel cooped up in their existing homes; it’s too tight with the kids being home and partners working remotely from home.”

The pandemic has also generated a desire in some people to live more sustainably — to grow more food at home, for example, instead of relying totally on grocery stores, she noted. “They want to have a nice garden, and they’re thinking more about providing their own food sources.

“And I do think people are looking for more private outdoor space, where they can gather with their people, in their pod, without exposure from the neighbors,” she went on. “A lot of condos are coming on the market, perhaps because people in close living arrangements are looking to be more isolated.”

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale)

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale) says prime properties can get dozens of offers quickly — and over the asking price.

 

Lambert said the Berkshires and the Northampton/Easthampton area are both notable hotspots right now, but all of Western Mass., much like Cape Cod, is being seen as an attractive alternative to life in a metroplex.

“If they want to get out of their cities, it’s a good time, as a lot of companies are going with mobile workers. I think the brick-and-mortar concept is going to take a hit, and we’ll see more people realizing they don’t have to live where they work.”

Zeamer agreed. “I think Western Mass. is really appealing to a lot of urban types of buyers,” she said, noting, as tourism boards and chambers of commerce have for generations, that this region offers an urbane, progressive mindset in many corners, plus the kinds of cultural and recreational amenities city dwellers appreciate, but in a quieter, morte scenic setting with myriad ways to enjoy the great outdoors.

And, as noted, there are more seekers of such homes right now than sellers. As an example, Lambert recalled one house she sold last fall. “It was a lovely house, not a crazy McMansion. I had 50 showings in two days, and 15 offers — all over the asking price. From what I’m hearing from my teammates and fellow Realtors, it’s like that for everybody.”

 

Buying Time

While that makes for an exciting home-selling experience, it can be frustrating on the other side.

“There’s so much competition that people are struggling to secure a home,” Zeamer said. “And that’s keeping them from putting their own home on the market. It’s a great time to sell, but then you have to buy, and that part is very challenging right now.”

One of her colleagues at Jones recently got 18 offers on a property, some with cash in hand. “It’s hard to compete if there’s a cash offer in the mix. In urban areas, people are liquidating properties and have lots of cash in hand, and the prices here look pretty attractive compared to what they’re used to.”

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three .”

Also suppressing supply is the fact that some homeowners eyeing a move simply don’t want people in their houses during the pandemic, so they’re delaying a move, Vital-Basile said. “I ask sellers, ‘what makes you comfortable? Do you want a one-time showing, an open house with three families at a time, and after that, I’ll go and clean everything?’ It depends on the client.” Meanwhile, it can be especially tricky to sell a house with tenants if those tenants don’t want visitors due to COVID-19.

“Very rarely are you seeing open houses anymore. I can’t speak for all Realtors, but I switched to doing 3D home tours, where you can sit at your desktop and ‘walk’ through the house,” Lambert said, noting that in-person walk-throughs are reserved for houses the buyer is especially interested in.

In addition, “we can’t meet with clients like we used to,” she said. “We have to do a lot more remotely, talking on a phone call of Zoom call.”

The challenges of buying a house right now — both logistical and competitive — reinforce the need to have strong representation, said all the Realtors we spoke with. And to use common sense.

For instance, Vital-Basile said, some potential buyers are waiving appraisals and inspections to get a leg up, but she doesn’t recommend that. “I tell everyone, ‘don’t force the buy; you don’t want to be in a bad situation. Even if it’s the right house at the right price, don’t force it. Always have the agent negotiate.”

Lambert is certainly an advocate for the agent-client relationship — and not just any agent. “I tell them they need the strongest buyer’s agent they can find, and not just work with your cousin because he got his license six months ago. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this market, you have to know what you’re doing.”

That includes securing preapprovals and discussing beforehand what a competitive offer should looks like. “If the first time you talk to a buyer is when the boots are hitting the road, they’re going to freak out. It’s got to be a strategy you’ve developed with them regardless of the house they find.”

And it means, in many cases these days, being prepared to offer more than the asking price right off the bat, before someone else invariably does.

“I have a team of trusted affiliates who take great care of my clients, and when my clients listen to my well-erned advice, we have smooth sailing,” Lambert said. “I’m not the only realty team like that, of course. But it’s important to have advocates on your side right now.”

That said, the “crazy prices” sellers are getting don’t seem to be slowing up, Vital-Basile said. “I don’t think the market will tank anytime soon,” she said. “But a $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize. Right now, though, there are too many buyers out there, ready to move.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Uncertainty on the Menu

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

The weekend before March 17, Fitzwilly’s was gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day the Northampton St. Patrick’s Assoc. gathers for its annual breakfast, and then about 200 of them march on down to Fitzwilly’s and spend most of the day there.

“We have Irish bands, and we were sitting on 20 kegs of Guinness beer and a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for a great big party — and it got pulled right out from under us,” owner Fred Gohr said.

Remember March 16? That’s the day restaurants — and most other businesses in the Commonwealth — were forced to shut down, on just two days notice, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It was awful,” Gohr went on. “We had a staff of about 75 people, and I had to tell them all, ‘we’re closed, and you guys have to go on unemployment for a while, and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happened, all across Hampshire County’s robust dining scene, has been a series of starts and stops, hope and despair, and especially two themes that kept coming up as BusinessWest sat with area proprietors: uncertainty, but also evolution.

“We were closed completely for a month or so, then we opened and started doing a little bit of curbside,” Gohr said. “And, honestly, when that’s all you’re doing — at least for us — it’s not very profitable.”

But takeout service, never a major factor in the business, has since morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales. Other restaurants have relied even more on pick-up service, because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has (more on those later).

“Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’”

“It’s been such a whirlwind for small businesses the past 10 months, trying to get our bearings with all the changes,” said Alex Washut, who owns two Jake’s restaurants in Northampton and Amherst. “Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’

That’s because there was no ‘last time’ — no comparable pandemic in the past century, anyway. “Everything was out the window,” Washut said. “We asked, ‘who are we going to be this week?’ Then there was a bunch of changes, and we had to conform to those, and then it was a new restaurant the next week.”

Like Fitzwilly’s, evolving to a takeout model early on was new territory for Jake’s. “We were never a takeout restaurant; maybe 3% of our gross was takeout food,” he said. “So we had no system for it.”

The various systems that area eateries developed, in the weeks last spring when takeout was the only option, involved details ranging from what containers to use to how to present food attractively and, for restaurants that opted for delivery, how to keep it warm in transit.

Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass with some of the supplies used in Galaxy’s takeout business, which has been its dominant model for almost a year.

“We were able to pivot quickly,” Washut noted. “From there, we moved to outdoor dining when that was allowed, but we had never had outdoor dining before” — and questions had to be answered regarding permitting, staffing, health and safety factors.

The positive, he noted, is that, if 2021 follows a similarly bumpy trajectory, “we know what’s expected, and we know how we’ll react in the spring, how we’ll react in the summer, and how we’ll react once the fall and winter come along.”

Indeed, the establishments that survived last year’s storm are, if not stronger for the experience, at least a little wiser, even as many are barely hanging on. The hope, of course, is that 2021 is nothing like 2020. But in this industry, so critical to the economy and cultural life of Hampshire County, nothing is certain.

 

Survival of the Fittest

“We’ve evolved a lot.”

Those were Casey Douglass’ first words when asked what this year has been like at Galaxy, the restaurant he’s operated in downtown Easthampton for the past five years.
The first evolution had to do with meeting customer needs. “We’re part of the food chain,” he said. “We have a lot of customers who don’t go to the supermarket. And we were like, ‘they’re going to be putting themselves at risk going to the supermarket as opposed to getting to-go.’

“So we went to the radio station and created an ad talking about ‘Casey’s comfort food,’” he went on. “And we switched to all a la carte, basic stuff — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, meatloaf — and we were cranking.”

So much that, when he secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, he first thought he wouldn’t need it. “Then a couple weeks went by, and we said, ‘thank goodness we got that.’ It changed so quickly.”

Sales dropped to about 45% of what they once were, but he kept 70% of the labor on board, because that’s the main purpose of the PPP program. That money got Galaxy through the end of June. Then things got rough.

Jake’s owner Alex Washut

Jake’s owner Alex Washut says it might be a while before his two locations (this one in Amherst) are packed with patrons again.

After losing a couple of cooks to unemployment, the restaurant cut back from five days a week to four, and when summer rolled around, fewer customers wanted takeout, but outdoor dining wasn’t a draw, either.

Fall brought a reprieve of sorts, with the milder, less-humid weather boosting outdoor dining, but the winter has been exceptionally tricky. Indoor dining didn’t prove to be a workable option; in a space that seats fewer than 50, the governor’s current 25% capacity mandate is especially onerous, and Douglass and his team also felt indoor dining might not be safe — or, at least, feel safe — for a clientele that skews older than some restaurants.

So as winter wears on, Douglass is pressing on with takeout only — now a hybrid of the comfort-food concept and the creative American meals he’s known for — a bank loan, and plenty of grit.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point,” he said, noting that costs like food, loan interest, utilities, and equipment leases don’t just go away when sales are down. “We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

However, he insisted, “I do think the spring will increase sales a couple thousand dollars a week, and that’s all it takes. We’ll be fine.”

Evolving to a takeout model was jarring at first to Washut, especially since his two locations — an 1800s-era building in Northampton and a new, modern structure in North Amherst’s Mill District — are so different, with a different set of clientele, and not cookie-cutter businesses like quick-service chains.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point. We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

“We didn’t know how to be a takeout restaurant. We were making $50 in sales a day — we were in shock,” he recalled. So he shut things down completely through April, secured a PPP loan and other grant funds, and reopened for takeout in early May, then outdoor seating a couple months later. Armed with the PPP, he was able to bring back the whole staff, and the breakfast-and-lunch establishment added dinners to generate more business. When funds ran dry, dinner went away.

These days, with takeout and limited indoor seating, Washut is bringing in about 30% of typical sales, and the combined staff is down from close to 50 to around 15.

Throughout all the changes, he has prioritized safety. Even if the governor’s 25% seating rule changes tomorrow, he said, “I’m not going to increase my dining room beyond 25%; my staff and I don’t feel that’s appropriate right now. There may be things we’re allowed to do but, in reality, we choose not to do.”

Gohr had a few advantages last year when it came to keeping people safe while generating business. One was a large parking lot next to Fitzwilly’s that he rented from its owner for tented outdoor dining. He could seat 70 there, while the city of Northampton’s decision to turn parking spaces on Main Street into dining space added about eight more tables to the restaurant’s existing sidewalk seating.

“We really had a great summer,” he told BusinessWest. “Through the summer, we had a capacity of 100-plus guests, the majority of them outdoors.”

Gohr’s other advantage is a large indoor space with a normal capacity of 280. The 25% mandate has hurt this winter, for sure, as did Baker’s 9:30 p.m. curfew, which was only recently lifted. But seating 70 — separated by plexiglass barriers — is better than seating a dozen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of room in here, and we’re able to distance people. These places that have even 50 seats — and there’s a lot of places in town with just six tables — but even the ones with 50 seats, now you’re down to letting 12 people in. You can’t survive. So we’re fortunate given the size we have. Seventy people gets us by. We can survive on that if it doesn’t change.”

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return to its go-to dining status in Easthampton once it’s safe to eat out again.

A mild winter, weather-wise, helps as well. “If you start getting snowstorms on weekends on top of all the other stuff, then we’d be in trouble. But we’ve had pretty good weekends.”

A PPP loan and other grants also helped, and he’s applied for a second PPP loan, with this round capping the disbursement for certain hard-hit industries, including restaurants, higher than the first, so he’s hopeful for another influx to carry him to the spring. He’s already in talks about renting the parking lot again, and the city has discussed moving outdoor seating into Main Street again as well.

 

Pressing Through

Still, Gohr, like every other restaurant owner, knows 2021 could be another year of upheaval. “We’re hoping everyone gets the vaccine and we get back to normal. But I don’t think it’s going to be real quick.”

He’s appreciative of customers eating in the restaurant, and said gift-card sales were strong over the holidays, although not to the level of a typical year, when more people are out shopping. And he does believe outdoor dining will be a hit again. But it’s harder to pin down when customers will flock to restaurants at pre-2020 levels.

“My gut tells me it’s not going to be in the spring; it’ll be late summer or fall before we get to that point,” he said. “The mindset that I see in the public is all over the place. I know people — friends and some of my regular customers — that have not been anywhere since March. And then there are others, the minute we opened the doors, they were back. Everybody’s obviously more careful, but everyone’s comfort level is completely different. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Douglass senses real community support for Galaxy, noting that some regulars stop by three times a week, and others drop big tips and cheerlead for the establishment among their peers.

“I feel like, at least in this community, [the pandemic] hasn’t hurt on a big scale economically,” he said. “We haven’t had factories shut down. I’ve heard people are paying their rents. And I think, come the spring, people are going to be pouring out. As much as people are still nervous, if the service staff has been vaccinated, if a majority of customers have been vaccinated, people will be coming out in droves. I think people are going to hunker down all February, and then in March, with the outdoor dining, people are going to be like, ‘sign me up.’”

If that’s especially optimistic, Douglass balances the thought by saying he’s had some dark days as well, wondering if it’s worth the effort to stay open right now, and fretting over the possibility of a snowy weekend that could wipe out almost an entire week’s worth of revenues. It’s his staff who have been most enthusiastic about staying open, believing it’s important to stay in the public eye, so that Galaxy is a go-to destination when people start emerging from winter hibernation.

Still, he said, “everyone wants to go back to what normal is, but if this goes on long enough, does normal shift?”

It’s a good question, and one Washut asks himself as well. “Every day, I’m thinking about my business, trying to find that crystal ball,” he said, meaning no one really knows how 2021 will go. But he’s hopeful.

“Once it gets warm again, once the outdoor dining opens up for food-service establishments, I think the initial rush of business will be great. Unfortunately, with restaurants, it’s really hard to be proactive; we’re constantly in a reactive mode.”

Specifically, it’s tough to staff up for a rush that might be around the corner, but restaurants also don’t want to be caught flat-footed if things pick up quickly. And things might not pick up much at all in 2021.

“This will be with us for a lot longer than we want to tell ourselves, and at some level, we have to come to terms with that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be hosting 60 to 80 people in our dining rooms this year; we won’t have that level of business for a while.”

Yes, the combination of warm weather — and outdoor dining — come spring, and the prospect of rising herd immunity from the vaccines, might inject some life into the industry, but next winter could be just as difficult as this one, depending on how the pandemic’s endgame goes — if an endgame even materializes in 2021.

Meanwhile, Washut appreciates any community support he gets. “If you only come in for gift cards, awesome. If you only get takeout, awesome. Maybe we’re not in a financial position to pass that goodwill on in an equal manner, but I’ll be damned if we won’t later on. If we all keep that attitude in every level of our life, we’ll get through this for sure.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]inesswest.com

Insurance Special Coverage

Are You Covered?

By Mark Morris

Christine Fleury

Christine Fleury says making alterations to the home — a common sight during the pandemic — could change insurance needs.

Call it the great migration indoors.

When the pandemic first hit, many people were forced to quickly convert their homes into offices, schools, and entertainment centers. Some in the insurance industry predicted this might lead to more homeowners insurance claims. In reality, it didn’t.

Similarly, as people spend more time in their homes, they also depend more on their water, electrical, and heating systems to work. While some insurance claims have been filed due to these systems failing after increased use, the increase has not been notable.

In fact, Christine Fleury, Personal Lines manager at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, said companies have actually seen a decrease in severe claims from homeowners. “As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

Corey Murphy agreed, noting that, because people are home, they are noticing and taking care of seemingly minor problems like leaky gutters.

“As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

“As people pay more attention to fixing the small issues, they prevent the larger problems from ever happening. A little preventive maintenance goes a long way,” the president of First American Insurance Agency in Chicopee noted.

Most homeowners insurance claims are the result of severe weather incidents. When COVID-19 first hit, winter was ending, and warm weather soon followed. Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England in Agawam, said the mild winter this year has helped keep claims down.

“Other than a couple isolated wind events, the weather has behaved itself, and that means claims have tended to be in line with company projections.”

The pandemic has thrown a few wrinkles into the home-insurance picture this year, however.

For instance, many homeowners were motivated to invest in substantial improvements to their homes. Home construction and improvement contractors point directly to being cooped up in the house as the main motivator for people choosing to make improvements to their property.

What impact does all this renovation work have on the homeowners insurance carried on the house? The answer depends on what improvements are made and what kind of coverage is already in place.

Everyone BusinessWest spoke with agreed that, for small or cosmetic improvements, there is no need to contact an insurance agent. Some larger projects, however, may require altering or increasing a home’s coverage.

“Adding square footage to your home, doing a full remodel, or building a garage would all be reasons to consult your agent to make sure you have enough coverage,” Fleury said.

Even if they are not taking on home improvement projects, Trudeau advises people to call their insurance agent at least every couple of years so they understand the coverage that’s in place and whether they may need additional coverage.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator,” Trudeau said. “It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

With the lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure the home — and everyone in it — are protected. Here are some key factors to consider.

 

Home Work

While they may not have set foot in the office in months, people who work from home are still protected from on-the-job injuries by workers’ compensation coverage. Office workers tend not to get injured on the job, but the coverage is in place if there is an incident.

“There has never been a distinction between whether employee actions emanate from an office at the company or from an office at the person’s home,” Trudeau said. “Because this coverage is broader in scope, COVID did not force us to make changes to workers’ comp plans.”

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says claims have been kept in check recently by a mild winter.

It’s not unusual for people working from home to have a computer, monitor, and even a printer that belongs to their employer. Murphy said some jobs may require employees to have additional business assets in the home, so it might be wise to make sure everything is covered. “Most policies will pay a little toward assets being home, but it’s usually a minimal amount.”

With homes serving as business offices and classrooms, more people — and their pets — are home at the same time. According to Trudeau, homeowners’ insurance policies consider any issues with an animal as a “strict liability event,” meaning there is no way to defend the action.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim,” he explained, adding that, as people acquire more pets, the likelihood of claims increases. Most insurance companies keep a list of dog breeds they will not cover because those breeds have higher incident rates.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator. It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

Murphy encourages pet owners to speak with their agent because these restrictions can vary widely among insurers. “Just because one company doesn’t want to cover your breed of dog, check with another company; it’s not a universal list.”

Whether they have pets or not, Fleury advises her clients to carry personal liability coverage, commonly known as an umbrella policy, that supplements both homeowners and auto coverage.

“When we write home and auto policies for a customer, we always recommend buying personal liability coverage as well because it gives you that additional safety net,” she said. A typical umbrella policy costs less than $200 but can provide up to $1 million in additional liability coverage when the limits of homeowners or auto coverage are exceeded.

While dog bites and leaking water pipes are obvious reasons to carry homeowners insurance, it can be much harder to detect a leak when personal data is compromised. A significant increase in identity theft has motivated insurance companies to begin offering identity-theft protection as part of their homeowners policies.

“With everyone at home and increased online activity, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your privacy from someone getting into your system and doing real damage,” Trudeau said.

Apart from identity-theft insurance, he advises everyone to follow best practices such as using multi-factor authentication. For example, when working on an important account online, a code is sent to the user’s personal phone that must be entered to gain access.

Corey Murphy

As people pay attention to small issues in the home, Corey Murphy says, they can prevent larger issues from ever arising.

When fraudsters accesses online bank accounts, they often add a payee into the account. Trudeau advises customers to check with their bank to make sure it uses multi-factor authentication to prevent an outsider from accessing their accounts and to make sure it’s turned on at home.

“If someone has logged into your computer and they don’t have your phone, they can’t get that code,” he said.

Fleury said her agency includes identity-theft coverage in all its homeowners policies. “We feel it is important insurance and recommend at least $5,000 worth of coverage for identity theft.”

 

From a Distance

The pandemic has changed the insurance business in other ways. Typically, when a homeowner files an insurance claim, an adjuster will visit the home and walk through to personally inspect the damage. With COVID-19 concerns, that’s happening much less often.

“In some ways, COVID is moving insurance companies along the digital side of things,” Murphy said. “They are allowing homeowners with a claim to submit photos and even have video calls if the insurer is set up for it.”

The trend toward relying on consumer photos rather than a visit by an adjuster follows what’s been happening on the auto-insurance side for some time.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim.”

“Many auto insurers have created apps where the person making the claim takes a photo of the damage, uploads it for an adjuster to review, and then the payment is processed,” Fleury said.

The move toward more digital interaction is no surprise to Trudeau.

“Long before COVID, people e-mailed pictures and documents to us,” he said. “Companies have simply accelerated the move to modernization by using many tools they already had.”

Murphy likes to remind customers that every insurance company offers something a little different that their competitors. That’s why it’s important to put some thought into selecting a homeowners insurance policy.

“People need to assess what they have, in terms of their house and what’s in it, and then speak with an agent about what needs to be covered,” he said, adding that it’s about matching a person’s situation with the company that can best provide coverage for their needs — especially at a time when those needs, and demands on the home, are still in flux.

Accounting and Tax Planning

A Tax-planning Checklist

By Dan Eger

 

It is that time again, your favorite and mine, tax season!

As we have made it through hopefully the worst of the pandemic, dealing with all the ups and downs of learning this new normal in life, one thing will remain the same — the IRS still wants our money. At some things have not changed due to COVID-19.

Here are some steps to take now to help make filing for the 2020 tax season easier. Below is a list of items to gather. These are the most common required forms and items. The list is not all-inclusive, as everyone’s tax situation is different. Also included are a few other things for you to consider as you prepare to file your 2020 tax return.

 

Documentation of Income

• W-2 – Wages, salaries, and tips

• W-2G – Gambling winnings

• 1099-Int and 1099-OID – Interest income statements

• 1099-DIV – Dividend income statements

• 1099-B – Capital gains (sales of stock, land, and other items)

• 1099-G – Certain government payments

— Statement of state tax refunds

— Unemployment benefits

• 1099-Misc – Miscellaneous income

• 1099-S – Sale of real estate (home)

• 1099-R – Retirement income

• 1099-SSA – Social Security income

• K-1 – Income from partnerships, trusts, and S-corporations

 

Documentation for Deductions

If you think all your deductions for Schedule A will not add up to more than $12,400 for single, $18,650 for head of household, or $24,800 for married filing jointly, save yourself the time required to itemize deductions and just plan to take the standard deduction.

 

• Medical Expenses (out of pocket, limited to 7.5% of adjusted gross income)

— Medical insurance (paid with post-tax dollars)

— Long-term-care insurance

— Prescription medicine and drugs

— Hospital expenses

— Long-term care expenses (in-home nurse, nursing home, etc.)

— Doctor and dentist payments

— Eyeglasses and contacts

— Miles traveled for medical purposes

 

• Taxes You Paid (limited to $10,000)

— State withholding from your W-2

— Real-estate taxes paid

— Estimated state tax payments and amount paid with prior year return

— Personal property (excise)

 

• Interest You Paid

— 1098-Misc – mortgage-interest statement

— Interest paid to private party for home purchase

— Qualified investment interest

— Points paid on purchase of principal residence

— Points paid to refinance (amortized over life of loan)

— Mortgage-insurance premiums

 

• Gifts to Charity (For 2020, filers who claim the standard deduction can take an additional deduction up to $300 for cash contributions.)

— Cash and check receipts from qualified organization

— Non-cash items, which need a summary list and responsible gift calculation (IRS tables). If the gift is more than $5,000, a written appraisal is required.

— Donation and acknowledgement letters (over $250)

— Gifts of stocks (you need the market value on the date of gift)

 

• Additional Adjustments (Non-Schedule A)

— 1098-T – Tuition statement

— Educator expenses (up to $250)

— 1098-E – Student-loan interest deduction

— 5498 HSA – Health savings account contributions

— 1099-SA – Distributions from HAS

— Qualified child and dependent care expenses

— Verify any estimated tax payments (does not include taxes withheld)

 

Sole proprietors (Schedule C) or owners of rental real estate (Schedule E, Part I) need to compile all income and expenses for the year. You need to retain adequate documentation to substantiate the amounts that are reported.

 

Other Items to Consider

Identity-protection PIN

If you are a confirmed identity-theft victim, the IRS will mail you a notice with your IP PIN each year. You need this number to electronically file your tax return.

Starting in 2021, you may opt into the IP PIN program. Visit www.irs.gov/identity-theft-fraud-scams/get-an-identity-protection-pin to set up your IP PIN. An IP PIN helps prevent someone else from filing a fraudulent tax return using your Social Security number.

 

What If You Have Been Compromised?

How do you know if someone has filed a return with your information? The most common way is that your tax return will get rejected for e-file. These scammers file early. You may also get a letter from the IRS requesting you verify certain information.

If this does happen, there are steps to take to get this rectified:

1. File Form 14039 (Identity Theft Affidavit).

2. Paper-file your return.

3. Visit identitytheft.gov for additional steps.

 

New for 2021: Recovery Rebate Credit

Eligible individuals who did not receive a 2020 economic impact payment (stimulus check), or received a reduced amount, may be able to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit on their 2020 tax return. There is a worksheet to use to figure the amount of credit for which you are eligible based on your 2020 tax return. Generally, this credit will increase the amount of your tax refund or lower the amount of the tax you owe.

 

Who Will Prepare My Return?

Are you going to be preparing your tax return, or will you hire someone to file on your behalf? You might want to plan that out now so you know the required information you will need and the fee structure you can expect to pay for completion of all applicable forms. In addition to all the items listed above, the tax preparer will ask you for a copy of your last tax return that was filed. The IRS offers a ‘file free platform’ to file your tax return if your income is under $72,000. You can find this at irs.gov or the IRS2Go app. There are also some local tax-assistance and counseling programs, depending on your age and income levels (VITA/TCE).

 

Interactive Tax Assistant

The Interactive Tax Assist (ITA) is an IRS online tool (irs.gov) to help you get answers to several tax-law items. ITA can help you determine what income is taxable, which deductions are allowed, filing status, who can be claimed as a dependent, and available tax credits.

 

Be Vigilant

Finally, be especially careful during this time of year to protect yourself against those trying to defraud or scam you. The IRS will never — let me repeat that: NEVER — call you directly unless you are already in litigation with them. They will not initiate contact by e-mail, text, or social media. The IRS will contact you by U.S. mail.

However, you still need to be wary of items received by mail. Anything requesting your Social Security number or any credit-card information is a dead giveaway. Watch out for websites and social-media attempts that request money or personal information and for schemes tied to economic impact payments. You can check the irs.gov website to research any notice you receive or any concerns you may have. You can also contact your tax practitioner for help and assistance.

 

Dan Eger is a senior associate at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 536-8510.

Opinion

Editorial

The story of restaurants during the pandemic has not been a good one.

While that may be the most obvious of observations, it’s still important to keep at the forefront of any discussion of this industry — because restaurateurs will spin the past year as positively as they can. “We discovered a strong market for takeout.” “Outdoor dining was an unexpected success we’ll stick with.” “Our loyal customers tell us they can’t wait to dine out again.”

But don’t confuse those sentiments — which testify to the grit and resourcefulness of the region’s many dining establishments — with good news. There is no good news. Among the restaurant owners we spoke with for this issue, total sales over the past year have been significantly curtailed — in some cases halved, or worse.

Yes, they’ve done what they could to hang onto their dedicated staffs, with much-appreciated help from Paycheck Protection Program loans and state and local grants. And the pivots they made — one told us it was like opening a new restaurant every week — are admirable, as they were willing to change menus on the fly, install takeout and delivery, set up outdoor dining, and take any number of other steps to survive.

Some have not. And even among those that have, no one had a good year, and some are hanging by a thread. That 25% indoor capacity restriction, however needed to keep people safe, is just not going to cut it through a New England winter. That 9:30 p.m. curfew, only recently lifted, might pose an inconvenience to customers, but for a restaurant owner, those extra hours could be the difference between paying their bills and … well, not.

The economic impact on the region is massive; according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc., the Bay State’s restaurants generated $18.7 billion in sales in 2018, while employing almost 350,000 workers. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on table-service dining contributes $1.87 to the state economy. And in a place like Hampshire County, where restaurants are such a key part of the culture and economy of Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and other communities, the damage of 2020 — which is clearly extending into 2021 — is even more dire.

A Pioneer Institute report lists a few steps local and state governments can make to ease the strain a little, from allowing alcoholic-beverage takeout and delivery on a permanent basis to allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce, meats, and other whole foods during the pandemic to compete with grocery stores; from prioritizing local permitting for food trucks owned by restaurants to allowing outdoor seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, as happened last summer in downtown Northampton.

But none of these steps, or the pivots restaurants have already made, will solve the main issue — that, even at reduced capacity, diners aren’t filling tables right now, and might not until they feel it’s safe, and that gets into vaccine distribution, a whole other story.

In the meantime, why not do what you can? Order more takeout. Buy more gift cards. Sit down for a meal if you feel safe doing so; area restaurants have been transparent about their sanitization procedures. And, once the COVID fog lifts and restaurants can open more fully, support them as much as possible.

The loss of more restaurants in Western Mass. would be a blow to our economy and a culture that values good food. But mostly, it would be a blow to some good, smart people who are tired of pivoting — but continue to do so, just to stay alive.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Chris Geehern

The unprecedented upheaval of 2020 will change the way we live and work for years to come, says John Regan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

Regan punctuated his annual State of Massachusetts Business Address with a call for state policymakers to support the recovery of an economy that remains fragile in the wake of the ongoing public-health crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors in Massachusetts remain out of work because of the pandemic. Many have left the workforce altogether,” Regan said during a virtual speech to the AIM Executive Forum. “Addressing the COVID crisis by shutting down the economy again and impeding the ability of people to support their families is not a solution. Neither is imposing Draconian tax increases to address the state’s fiscal issues on the backs of businesspeople trying to keep people employed amid permanent, structural changes to the way we live and work.”

Regan noted that the unprecedented convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cataclysmic recession, and a reckoning on racial equity combined to alter the economy, the workplace, healthcare, manufacturing supply chains, and transportation. It affected schools, government, family life, shopping patterns, the housing market, race relations, and social interactions.

The upheaval has accelerated ongoing seismic shifts in the nature of the workplace, Regan noted. “What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

The bad news? “Cities like Boston that have thrived on proximity-driven innovation and community intellectual energy could see that energy dissipate as companies accelerate the move toward virtual operations,” he said. “Given the OK to go remote, workers may use their freedom to move to cheaper metros where they can afford more space, inside and outside.”

“What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

Four distinguished economic experts offered commentary about which changes generated by the pandemic might be lasting. Pamela Everhart of Fidelity Investments, Edward Glaeser of Harvard University, Dr. Lee Schwamm of Mass General Brigham, and Nada Sanders of Northeastern University said the nature of any long-term structural economic shifts will become evident only after governments moderate the spread of the pandemic.

Regan said AIM and its 3,300 members look forward to working with state and federal leaders to craft a long-term economic recovery for the Commonwealth.

“Massachusetts businesses have responded responsibly to the pandemic by prioritizing their employees and customers, investing in workplace-safety protocols, adapting operations to ensure compliance with business-specific requirements, and finding creative ways to offer services and goods while remaining operational,” Regan said. “Businesses prioritized these things because this is what our businesses do. They invest, they change, and they adapt. These are the qualities that have made Massachusetts an economic leader for decades.” v

 

Chris Geehern is executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Insurance

Premium Concerns

By Mike Horan

Insurance costs have already been rising — the property and casualty space has seen 11% rate increases annually, on average — due to uncertainty around pandemic losses, catastrophic natural-disaster claims, a lack of capacity in the reinsurance market, low interest rates, and increased size of claims due to social inflation.

Now, just a couple weeks into Joe Biden’s presidency, we are asking ourselves: how will the incoming administration impact businesses like yours, and, consequently, the insurance marketplace and your premiums?

With the inauguration of Biden on Jan. 20, we expect a return to a highly pro-union, pro-workers’-rights administration similar to what we saw under President Obama (and Vice President Biden) from 2009 to 2017. This could very well come with a change of leadership at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The current acting administrator, Loren Sweatt, has been in the role as an interim since 2017, and experts anticipate a changing of the guard.

“To prepare for the incoming administration and the changes that will accompany it, we encourage you to prioritize your safety practices. OSHA will be examining this much more closely, and so will the insurance companies.”

Most importantly for your business, you can count on a shift back to heavier enforcement of OSHA workplace violations. During his campaign for the presidency, Biden called on OSHA to “double the number of OSHA investigators to enforce the law and existing standards and guidelines.” Based on this, we expect more inspectors visiting businesses to ensure compliance, and heavier fines for infractions. We also anticipate a return to practices such as issuing press releases publicly naming companies that have been fined for workplace-safety violations, in an effort to discourage other businesses from making the same mistakes.

At Webber and Grinnell, we place heavy emphasis on loss control and creating a culture of safety within our clients’ operations. This is not just because we care about doing the right thing and keeping everyone safe (although that is certainly the primary reason). It’s also because we know that insurance companies are scrutinizing safety and losses more than ever due to the aforementioned facts about rising costs in the marketplace. They are rewarding safe companies and penalizing unsafe companies. One of the primary resources they use to make these decisions is OSHA records, so it is absolutely essential that you adhere to OSHA’s policies and guidelines.

To prepare for the incoming administration and the changes that will accompany it, we encourage you to prioritize your safety practices. OSHA will be examining this much more closely, and so will the insurance companies.

You need to be a step ahead by doing everything you can to create a culture of safety. Long-term benefits include fewer injuries, less downtime, lower insurance costs, better employee morale, and a work culture that will attract the best talent.

 

Mike Horan is a business insurance specialist and RiSC consultant at Webber and Grinnell Insurance.

 

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Opinion

Editorial

Starting in 1996, ˆ has, at the start of each year, presented something we call the Top Entrepreneur award.

We do this to pay homage to a long — as in three centuries long — tradition of entrepreneurship in Western Mass., and to recognize companies, institutions, and individuals who are carrying on that tradition today. Over the years, the winners have included traditional entrepreneurs — those leading tech companies, multi-faceted corporations, and some family-owned businesses that have been part of the landscape for decades, if not a century or more — and also some non-traditional entrepreneurs — a college president and a hospital CEO, for example.

This broad diversity is by design, and it shows that we’re honoring entrepreneurial spirit as much as we are entrepreneurs.

Which brings us to this year’s honoree — the partners and leadership team at Golden Years Homecare Services, an East Longmeadow-based company that started with home care and has since diversified into staffing, behavioral-health services, and other realms ). An entrepreneurial mindset prevails from top to bottom and in every aspect of this enterprise, and it has enabled the company to set and maintain a torrid pace of growth since.

We salute Cesar Ruiz, Lisa Santaniello, and other partners and managers who are aggressively rewriting the business plan and taking this company to new places and a higher plane.

And while we’re at it, we would like to salute all the entrepreneurs slugging it out across our region. They all deserve some credit at this ultra-challenging time for anyone trying to own and operate a business.

Indeed, running a company has never, ever been easy. But in these times, everything is much more difficult. As we’ve said on many occasions, one of the things that has inspired us during these times has been the manner in which the region’s business community has responded.

In short, it has been entrepreneurial. Business owners and managers have responded to adversity with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new ways of doing business, and new avenues for growth. Examples abound, including everything from outdoor dining at restaurants to manufacturers retooling to make PPE. At Golden Years, the pandemic actually helped fuel a surge in home-care business, as many families came to view the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

Looking back, one might call 2020 the ‘year of the entrepreneur.’ Those at Golden Years stand out, certainly, and they are most deserving of this prestigious honor. But all the entrepreneurs who have bravely battled COVID-19 deserve to take a bow.

Women in Businesss

Undervalued Again

By Alex Thornton

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A new report by UN Women has found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

Even before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours as men on domestic chores, childcare, and looking after vulnerable or elderly loved ones. Widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses, and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous. And more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

The data also shows more men saying they usually don’t do a particular task. The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average man. Nearly one-third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under one-fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that, before the pandemic, women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average mother now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average father.

There are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners. Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughters doing more to help than their sons.

The overall effect is that the gradual progress toward gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already, more than 28 million women over age 25 are estimated to have left the labor market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought that the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policymakers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental-leave programs in Italy and Belgium, and compensating parents affected by closures, as in Germany and South Korea.

Perhaps the biggest step would be simply recognizing the value of the unpaid domestic and caring work done by women, pandemic or not. The 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly 10% of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Women were grossly undervalued before the pandemic — now the situation is getting even worse.

 

Alex Thornton is senior writer, Formative Content for the World Economic Forum.

Economic Outlook

Education

Jamie Birge was searching for a piece of wood to knock on.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), which he serves as president, had essentially made it through a very different fall semester with only a handful of positive cases of COVID-19. He considers this a victory for his institution, and a clear indication that the many protocols put in place were effective.

“For the full semester, our positive rate was 10 times lower than the Commonwealth’s positive rate, and each week we outperformed our host city [North Adams], the county, and the Commonwealth,” he explained. “We were actively hunting the virus through our testing protocol, and through our tracing protocol, we made sure there was no spread. I think we had six cases, and in each of those cases, none of them spread on campus, because we were able to identify the virus through testing, we were able to either quarantine or isolate individuals, and we went to remote learning after Thanksgiving, which turned out to the best time to do that because there was an uptick in positive cases in Berkshire County, and our students were already off campus learning remotely. From a numbers perspective, we did extraordinarily well.”

The semester was a success on many levels, he went on, but for the students living on campus in singles or in off-campus housing, it certainly wasn’t the “typical residential college experience,” he noted, adding that those on campus were all in single rooms, and access was limited between residence halls. “You couldn’t go visit other people.”

Jamie Birge

Jamie Birge

“Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Focusing on the future, Birge is obviously looking forward to the day when the school can again offer that full experience. He’s not sure when that will happen — certainly not before next fall and perhaps not even then — but there are signs of encouragement, he said, referring to everything from the introduction of vaccines to the projections for enrollment for next September.

“The latest I’ve seen for the 2021 cycle is that we’re within 3% of the pre-pandemic numbers, so we’re feeling good about that,” he said, noting that, by this time of the year, many students have already committed to where they will be attending school in the fall, although the next four or five weeks are critical. “I think that’s a soft figure, and, overall, we think this is going to be a multi-year emergence to return to where we had been. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re only off 3%.”

He said that number seems to be consistent with what the other eight state schools are reporting, although there is some variation. And time will tell if those numbers hold up as the vaccines are rolled out and their effectiveness is gauged.

Meanwhile, beyond the all-important process of rebuilding enrollment, colleges and universities will face other challenges, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), especially the need to “adjust, adapt, and evolve,” as she put it, to effectively prepare students for what will be a changed landscape when it comes to the workforce and how work is done.

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID,” she explained. “We know that there are a number of jobs that won’t be returning.”

Elaborating, she said GCC will lean heavily on a panel it created called the Future of Work Advisory Committee, comprised of area business leaders across several sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, financial services, manufacturing, and others.

“They help us keep a pulse on what’s changing, what they anticipate, and what the outlook is, so we can align our new academic programs, and also adjust our existing programs to meet their demands,” she noted. “Also, it will be critically important for us to get a sense of what the workplace will look like and the skills that employers will be looking for.”

In this respect, she said colleges and universities, at least those with an eye on the long term, will be taking lessons from evolved companies that looked at the marketplace and how it was changing and began to adjust accordingly.

“These companies started asking themselves, ‘what are the market needs today that we can adapt to and meet — and what will be the unmet needs in the future, and how can we best position ourselves to meet them?’” she explained, adding that colleges have to do the same.

As for enrollment, the lifeblood of any college or university, area schools have been battling not only the pandemic, but demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes. The two forces collided with considerable force this past September, with enrollment down as much as 20% at some area schools (that was the number at MCLA) and 15% at most of the institutions, with many high-school graduates taking a gap year and many already in college simply taking a break.

The question hanging over the industry involves that matter of pent-up demand and whether there will be good amount of it when the product is a college education.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID.”

Birge believes there will be such demand, although, as he said, it might be the fall of 2022 or 2023 before pre-pandemic levels return.

“From the information we collect from students, the students want to return to campus,” he told BusinessWest. “Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Noting that enrollment at community colleges usually rises during times of recession and high unemployment, Salomon-Fernández noted that this past fall semester was an exception to that rule, both because of large amounts of assistance to those who became jobless and the inability to attend in-person classes. She believes the vaccines, and the eventual end to those stimulus benefits, will change that equation.

“I think enrollment will start picking up in the fall of 2021,” she said. “In the long term, we can’t keep borrowing against ourselves — the national debt is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. This is not sustainable, and we expect that, as the vaccine becomes available, the government subsidies will decline, and people will have ample incentive to get back to work — and they’ll need the skills to enter, continue in, and thrive in the job market.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Birge said MCLA will operate very much as it did in the fall, but with even more testing due to the colder weather at the start. Spring break will be eliminated, and an extra day will be tacked on to President’s Day weekend.

Like he said, the spring will be a lot like last fall. It will be different, though, if the vaccines work as the experts project they will, because the finish line, when it comes to the pandemic, will be much closer.

“Everyone is down right now when it comes to enrollment,” Birge said. “But we’re feeling a little bit of encouragement that it’s better than we thought it was going to be, although it’s certainly not what we want it to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Accounting

‘Uneasiness.’

That was the word Julie Quink summoned, after considerable thought, to describe the sentiment of most small-business owners as the calendar turns to 2021.

And it seems like an appropriate choice.

Indeed, regardless of how a business fared in 2020 — and some of her clients actually held up pretty well — Quink, managing partner at the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, said most simply don’t know what to expect for the year again. Thus, they are uneasy and likely to be cautious and conservative in the months to come, which will likely play a role in how quickly and profoundly this region bounces back from all the body blows it took over the past 10 months or so.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

Many of these businesses are also uneasy because they were able to “limp along,” as she put it, thanks to support from the CARES Act, especially in the form of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that provided a much-needed cushion from sometimes dramatic drops in revenue.

Starting this past fall, when many businesses effectively spent down their PPP, they’ve been getting a look at operating without a net underneath them, if it can be called that, and for many, it’s a scary proposition.

“That’s why I think we’re going to see the true impact of this crisis over the next 12 months or so, especially as the pandemic continues,” said Quink, adding quickly that, another round of PPP was included in the recently passed stimulus package, little is known about how much help will be available, when, and to whom. And even for those businesses that get another round of help, 2021 is likely to be a struggle, she went on, again because of all that uneasiness.

Quink, like most of those in the accounting and tax field, has a good read on the economy and the factors driving it because her portfolio of clients is diverse and represents virtually every sector. Slicing through the phone calls, the questions asked, and the answers provided, she said some businesses have actually done well during this pandemic (she has a few commercial cleaners, for example), others are holding their own, and still others are really struggling.

“There is such a mixed bag with our clients,” she said, adding that this diversity of performance reflects what’s happening across the region. “I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

She related the story of a second-generation business, a wholesaler that services the airline industry, among many others. Revenues are down roughly 50% from a year ago, not because there are fewer customers, but because most of the existing customers are ordering far less as their needs have diminished.

“We had a conversation today about how to plan, and I said, ‘you should tighten your belt because I think this is going to be a rough ride this year,’” she recalled, adding that she has given this same advice to many of her clients.

Getting back to that sentiment of uneasiness, Quick said there are many things to be uneasy about, from the ongoing pandemic to a presidential election that, while officially over, has been tumultuous in every way, to the deep uncertainty about the year ahead.

“People are waiting — they’re waiting for things to be final,” she said, using that phrase to describe everything from the stimulus package to the pandemic itself. “And I don’t think the election helped anything; all the events surrounding the election have made people uneasy.”

Still another factor contributing to this state concerns changes that have come to how business is being done, and questions about when, or even if, things will go back to normal.

“I have some clients who are international and can’t fly and can’t participate internationally in person,” she explained. “So they’ve had to refocus on how they do business now, and they don’t really know what the future will bring.”

As for her own profession, 2020 was certainly a different year, one with a tax season that never seemed to end. But it was a good year for most, because clients needed more assistance, or ‘touches,’ as she called them, with PPP and other matters.

And 2021 is certainly shaping up as more of the same, with another round of PPP looming, more questions concerning how to plan for the months and quarters ahead, and more of that uneasiness that will certainly play a large role in determining what kind of year this will be.

 

—George O’Brien

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced $67.4 million in awards to 1,366 additional small businesses in a second round of grants through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. (MGCC). Additionally, the new Sector-Specific Small Business Relief Grant Program, also administered by MGCC, is now accepting applications from businesses from sectors most impacted by COIVD-19. Both grant programs are part of a new, $668 million relief package.

The businesses being notified of their successful grant application include many that are owned by minorities (50%) and women (48%). Restaurants and bars, beauty and personal services, healthcare, and retail are among the top sectors receiving relief in this second round of awards. The first round of grants announced late last month totaled nearly $49 million in support of 1,158 Massachusetts small businesses.

MGCC is continuing to review existing applications and will make awards over the coming weeks to companies that meet demographic and industry preferences. Businesses that have already applied to MGCC’s Small Business Grant Program do not need to reapply to the new program.

In addition to providing grants to businesses within the existing pool of applications for the Small Business Grant Program, applications are now being accepted for a new Sector-Specific Small Business Relief Grant Program that targets industries experiencing the most significant economic hardship and a loss of revenue. Industries given preference in this new program include restaurants, bars, caterers, and food trucks; indoor recreation and entertainment establishments; gyms and fitness centers; event-support companies (photographers, videographers, etc.); personal services (nail salons, barber shops, independent pharmacies, etc.); and independent retailers.

This new business-relief program will offer grants up to $75,000, but not more than three months’ operating expenses, to be used for payroll and employee-benefit costs, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, and interest on other debt obligations.

The online application portal for the new program will close on Friday, Jan. 15. Awards are expected to be announced in February. Program details, application instructions, eligibility and documentation requirements, and more are available at www.empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

Things Are Heating Up

Hot Oven Cookies Seizes Growth Opportunities During Pandemic


COVID Tails

Pandemic Has Forced This ‘Pet Resort’ to Consolidate and Pivot


Words to Live By

Greenfield Recorder Stays Locally Focused on Pandemic — and Everything Else


The Latest Word

At Hadley Printing, the Presses Have Started Rolling Again


Root Causes

For This Dental Practice, COVID Has Brought Myriad Challenges

 

Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

 

Rob Pion was walking outside at his family’s Buick/GMC dealership on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee, and used the view to put things in perspective for this industry as a trying, but not altogether terrible, year comes to an end.

“That’s basically the new-car inventory,” he said, pointing to a long single line of cars along the front of the property, noting that he was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Indeed, inventory remains an issue for almost all dealers in this region as manufacturers struggle to catch up after weeks, if not months, of shutdown at the factories. And matters are worse for GM dealers, said Pion, the third-generation principal of this venture, because of the lengthy strike at that corporation in 2019.

But aside from supplies of new cars — and things are getting slightly better on that front as well, as we’ll hear — the picture is brightening somewhat for auto dealers, and a sense of normal is returning, at least in some respects.

Or a new normal, if you will.

Indeed, Pion said the pandemic has effectively served to speed up the pace of change within the auto industry when it comes to doing things remotely and moving away from those traditional visits to the dealership to look at models, kick the tires, and even drop off the car for service.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says inventory remains an issue at his dealership, and it will likely remain that way into the new year.

“There are experts out there saying that we moved forward 10 years in three months when it comes to internet purchasing, out-of-state deliveries, and people doing 98% of the deal over the phone or the internet,” he told BusinessWest. “And that sounds about right.”

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, which operates four dealerships (Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volvo), agreed. She said the pandemic has certainly made online buying, as well as vehicle pickup and dropoff for needed service, more popular, and these trends will have staying power, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again.

And while it was a somewhat tumultuous year, especially when it came to inventories of both new and used cars (and the prices of the latter), it wasn’t really a bad year for many dealerships — and certainly not as bad as things as things looked in March and April, when some dealerships actually closed and all others were seeing business come to something approaching a standstill.

“We’re actually on track for what our plan was 2020, even with what happened in March, April, and May,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, quickly noting a few caveats to that assessment. “Some things moved around a little — more used cars and fewer used cars based on supplies — but overall, as I said, we’re on track for where we wanted to be as a dealership.”

Cosenzi concurred. “Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020,” she said. “When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

‘Normal’ also applies, to some extent, to end-of-year, holiday-season sales, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that smaller inventories will certainly limit how many cars, trucks, and SUVs will be sold, including to businesses looking for tax incentives — although demand is certainly there.

But those end-of-year sales, such as Mercedes’ annual Winter Event, are happening, and they are bringing customers to the ‘dealership,’ literally or figuratively.

“It’s like a cherished piece of normalcy,” said Wirth. “People see that the Winter Event is happening, that the deals are out there. I feel like both our customers and our team are enjoying the fact that there’s a normal, busy holiday-selling season — so far, at least.”

He made that statement toward the middle of December, and that tone reflects a degree of uncertainty that still prevails in this industry and most all others as well.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their Mercedes-Benz dealership managed to hit most of the set goals for 2020 despite the pandemic.

Indeed, while it’s easy to reflect on 2020, projecting what will happen in 2021 is much more difficult, said those we spoke with. Generally, there is optimism — or guarded optimism, which is the popular phrase at this time of year, and this time in history especially — but still some concern.

Overall, those we spoke with said trends and sentiments that took hold in 2020 — from less reliance on public transportation and services like Uber and Lyft (fueled by pandemic fears) to people gaining more comfort from (while also putting more resources into) their vehicles — should continue in 2021, and that bodes well for the year ahead.

But, as this year clearly showed, things can change — and in the time it takes for one of these new models to go from 0 to 60.

 

Changing Gears

Looking back on 2020, the dealers we spoke with said it was a trying year in many respects, and, overall, a time of adjustment — for both those selling cars and buying them — because of the pandemic.

Many of those adjustments involved the purchase or leasing process, with much of it, as noted, moving online. But the pandemic also forced most car manufacturers to shut down for weeks or months, eventually leading to those half-full (if that) lots at the dealership that became one of the enduring, and very visible, symbols of the pandemic.

Thus, instead of going to the lot and picking out what they wanted, as they had become accustomed to doing for years, many more customers had to factory-order their vehicle and wait, usually several weeks, for it to arrive. This meant extending leases in some cases, said Wirth, adding that the factory-ordering process took longer, in general. Overall, he noted, customers and his dealership adjusted, and there wasn’t a significant loss of business.

“Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020. When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

That’s because demand was consistently high, for a number of reasons, starting with some pandemic-fueled reliance on the family cars — yes, even as people were driving less, and considerably less in some cases — and a greater desire to take care of that car or trade up, something made more feasible and attractive by everything from incentives from the manufacturers to stimulus checks from the federal government, to the fact that people weren’t spending money on vacations or many other things.

Indeed, Michelle Wirth said 2020 was a year of greater appreciation for the car, and a time when many chose to focus on, and put money in, their homes, their cars, or both.

“There was a point in time during all this when your vehicle was probably the only recommended mode of transportation available to you,” she explained. “And if you chose, for whatever reason, not to have a car for a long time, suddenly, you felt you needed one.

“And if you had one, and it wasn’t as safe or new or nice as you might like, you did something about that,” she went on. “It was the same with home improvement — people were looking around and saying, ‘I didn’t spend much time here before. Now I do; I need to do something.’ The same with their car.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We saw many people reallocating their household budget,” she said. “We saw the majority of the people who shop our brands put their money in their houses and their vehicles, and also feel more like they had to rely on their vehicles, now more than ever.”

Elaborating, she said — and others did as well — that this sentiment applies to both service (taking better care of the car currently in the driveway) and buying or leasing something new or newer, more reliable, and in some cases lighter on the monthly budget.

Indeed, some manufacturers have been offering unprecedented incentives — Cosenzi noted that at least one brand is offering no interest for 84 months — and many of those still employed and with stimulus checks in hand soon eyed new or used cars as rock-solid investments.

“People were saying, ‘I can upgrade my car and get a lower interest rate; I can have a newer car that’s under warranty; I can pay less in interest in the long run and maybe lower my payment,’” she explained. “There are a lot of people who weren’t working or nervous about not working, that were taking advantage of the stimulus and really took that to make decisions about how to allocate their income.”

The problem is that supplies haven’t been able to keep up with demand — for most of this year and on most lots, anyway.

 

Keep On Truckin’

Which brings us all the way to back to Rob Pion pointing at that single line of new cars at his dealership. He said inventories have been consistently low and are due to remain that way. And when vehicles do arrive on the lot, they’re either already spoken for or not on the lot for long, especially when it comes to trucks, the pride of the GM line.

“We’re preselling vehicles at an unprecedented rate — the vehicles are sold before they hit my lot,” he explained. “Typically, people just want to come in and see them: ‘give me a call when it gets here.’ Now, they’re ‘here’s my deposit, call me when I can pick it up.’

“I don’t have any pickup truck inventory,” he went on. “So any businesses looking to make those year-end purchases for tax writeoffs … that’s just not happening this year because there’s little or no availability for them when it comes to that type of vehicle.”

Still, overall, dealers are reporting that the parking lots are more full than they have been.

Peter Wirth said supplies have been steadily improving at Mercedes-Benz, and in the meantime, between the stock at the Chicopee location and a sister dealership in New York, most customers have been able to find what they’re looking for or factory-order it.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, said inventory levels have “balanced out” at her dealerships, and there are now adequate supplies for what she hopes will be a solid end-of-year run.

As for what has been a crazy year for the used-car market, where at times vehicles were difficult if not impossible to find and prices skyrocketed, some normalcy is returning to that realm as well.

“As quickly as it went up, the market is perhaps just as quickly coming back down,” said Pion, adding that, overall, it’s been ultra-challenging for dealers to not only get used cars but cope with the fluctuations in that market — from when the bottom dropped out back in the spring to when prices soared during the summer, to the state of relative uncertainty that exists now.

Peter Wirth agreed that it’s been a bumpy road when it comes to used cars — for a time, he had one employee who did nothing else but try to find vehicles to buy — but said some stability has returned.

“We have roughly 75 used cars in stock,” he noted. “It took us a while to catch up on inventory, just because sales were really good on pre-owned cars all year, so while we kept buying more cars, we sold them right away. It’s taken us until now to find more cars so we replenish supplies. And it’s not just about buying cars — you want be selective and find the right cars.”

Looking ahead … well, while people can do that, it’s difficult given how many unknowns dominate the conversation, regarding everything from pandemic spikes to vaccines to new- and used-car inventories.

“The vaccine is a positive, people not wanting to depend on public transportation or ride-sharing is a positive, and the incentives and low interest rates are positives,” Cosenzi said. “But we can’t be in denial that there is still a virus out there and people are being more cautious than ever before.”

But while question marks remain for the year ahead, the consensus is that 2020 was, overall, not as bad as it could have been, and that a sense of normal — if perhaps a new normal — has returned.

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stuart Anfang, M.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Coronavirus

Root Causes

Dr. Ronald Goldsher

Dr. Ronald Goldsher says COVID has brought a host of new challenges for his practice, but also some rewards in the form of being able to help patients in need.

In many ways, Dr. Ronald Goldsher says, dentists and periodontists were better-prepared for COVID-19 than many others in healthcare, and certainly most business owners not in that sector.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic,” said Goldsher, owner of Pioneer Valley Periodontics, which operates offices in Northampton and Greenfield. “At that time, there were a lot of mandated changes in infection control, so we’re used to sterilizing everything, using barriers on equipment, wearing masks, and disinfecting surfaces between patients; we may have ramped things up a bit [since COVID], but we were used to doing all that.”

But being better prepared certainly didn’t mean Goldsher and others in this profession were fully prepared for all that COVID-19 would throw at them — from the trepidation of patients to seek needed care to the equipment that would have to be purchased (from PPE to special air filters) to keep staff and patients safe; from confusion regarding what procedures could be carried out (and when) to the sharp reduction in overall business volume.

Add it all up, and it’s been ultra-challenging and even unnerving, said Goldsher, before adding quickly that it has also been rewarding at times. Indeed, to be open and able to provide needed services to those in need, especially those with emergencies, has been gratifying, he told BusinessWest.

“Every day, I have patients thanking me for being open and doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Some people tell me stories about how they have food delivered outside their home, their mail goes into plastic bags and they wait several days until they open it, they don’t exchange any money and they don’t leave their house — but they come to their dental appointment because it’s been eight months, and they used to come every two or three months to get their teeth cleaned, and they haven’t had a cleaning in a year. They’re so happy we’re open and providing this service, and, in their words, we’re taking risks to see patients. That’s brings a lot of lot of joy to my practice and my staff.”

Playing back the tape from a trying 2020, Goldsher said he was skiing in Colorado in late February as the news about the virus started to intensify. By the time he returned in early March, things were still normal, but soon began to change in a profound way — for both his business ventures; he and his sons also operate the entertainment venue Hawks & Reed in downtown Greenfield.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic.”

Hawks & Reed had to close down, as all indoor performance venues did, and the periodontal office did as well, starting March 13.

“We shut down for what we thought would be two weeks, and two weeks turned out to be almost three months,” he explained, adding that the green light to reopen came in late May, only to have that date come and then be moved back another week, forcing the practice to reschedule a number of appointments and inconvenience several patients — and staff as well.

“There was a lot of confusing information, even when were ready to reopen Pioneer Valley Periodontics; the timelines that were given us by the governor were convoluted and confusing,” he said, noting that these adjectives also describe the information coming out about which procedures fell into the category of ‘essential’ — those that could be undertaken at that time — and which ones didn’t.

But gaining clarification on such matters was just one of the struggles, he went on.

“We were available on an emergency basis, but that comes with a lot of other issues,” he explained. “Like having staff that can come in in an emergency — they can’t be there all the time — and preparing the office for those emergencies.”

As noted earlier, Goldsher said dental practices in general were in some ways better-prepared for this pandemic because of safety measures that have been in place for some time. And his practice was even better-prepared than that in some respects because of the way he had stockpiled PPE over the years.

“I had thousands of surgical gowns that I collected over the years from doing implants,” he explained. “They come in a pack — there would be four or five in a package; we’d use two, and there would be two or three left over. The staff would always say, ‘let’s just throw these away,’ and I would say, ‘put them in a bag.’ We had garbage bags filled with gowns, so we were able to donate several thousand of them to Baystate Franklin Medical Center.”

Still, the pandemic has tested this practice in myriad ways, he went on, speaking for all those in healthcare when he mentioned everything from maintaining adequate staffing to coping with sharply reduced patient volumes, to simply dealing with all the unknowns, not to mention the emotional trauma of seeing patients in the middle of a pandemic.

“Despite all those precautions we were taking, it was still a little unnerving, and it took a couple of weeks for people to settle down because the psychological impact of the virus was there; you can’t see it, but it’s there,” he noted, adding that the spouse of one patient treated by the staff developed COVID-19 and eventually died.

As the calendar turns to 2021, the practice is coping with patient volumes far below what would be considered normal, said Goldsher, mostly due to a fear factor that has always been prevalent, but has kicked into an even higher gear amid the recent spike in cases.

“Patients will cancel at the very last minute depending on the news of the day,” he told BusinessWest, adding that overall revenues are down probably 35% or more for the year, this on top of all those additional expenses. “And from the top levels on down, there has been a lot of confusing information that’s been disseminated.”

He’s not sure when something approaching normal will return, but he does know that challenges remain and it will be some time before there is significant improvement for those in the field.

As he said, being better-prepared certainly helped, but it didn’t fully prepare anyone for what this unforgettable year has brought.

 

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

Coronavirus

The Latest Word

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers say Hadley Printing is back to something approximating normal, and employees have actually logged some overtime.

 

Chris Derosiers was searching for a way to describe what things were like last spring, at the height of what’s now being called the first COVID-19 surge.

And he found an analogy that probably works for just about every small-business owner in this region.

“It’s like being on the highway … you’re going to 65, 70 miles an hour and cruising along nicely, but with three-quarters of your trip still in front of you,” he said, effectively summing up how things were going during Q1 at Hadley Printing, the family-owned venture he serves as president. “And then … it’s like hitting a wall of traffic, and you don’t know how long that wall of traffic is. And six or seven months later, we’re just finally getting to the other side of that traffic jam.”

By that, he meant the company has been experiencing gradual improvement over the past several months, and is approaching something approximating normal: business that is off perhaps 10% from last year. Recently, and for the first time since the pandemic started, the workflow was such that team members were actually able to earn some overtime, a much-celebrated milestone because of what they believe it indicates.

What isn’t known is whether the company will hit another wall of traffic, or when, said Chris’s brother, Greg, the company’s vice president, adding quickly that this puts Hadley Printing in the same position as just about every company during the pandemic — an unsettling place, to be sure.

“What we don’t know is whether this ‘back to normal’ will stay that way, or whether there will be another cycle where people pull back a little bit,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the best this company, or any company, can do is find ways to cope and persevere until times improve.

Flashing back to mid-March, a painful exercise for most every business owner in the region, the brothers Derosiers recounted how their venture hit that proverbial traffic jam.

“When this thing broke back in March, we were doing just great; everything was rocking and rolling, and we had a ton of work in here,” said Greg, adding that things changed abruptly and profoundly. “Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Elaborating, the two said that print jobs of all kinds and sizes were being shelved, and for various reasons. Cost was one of them, obviously, but in the case of the 2020-21 schedule for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, for example, it was a case of need — or lack thereof. Organizers had no idea when they could next stage live concerts, so there was no need for a schedule. And in the case of annual appeals launched by colleges and nonprofits (and there are traditionally many of those throughout the year), those leading area institutions decided the peak of a pandemic was certainly not the time to be waging such a campaign.

“Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Add it all up, and the phone kept ringing, and each time it did, the person at the other end was canceling an order.

“And Chris and I looked at each other and went, ‘whoa.’ We didn’t know whether to look left or right; we didn’t know what was going on,” he went on, adding that, by late April, relief, in the form of PPP and other measures, had been rolled out with the intention of helping companies like Hadley — and the businesses that form their customer base — through what was projected to be eight to 10 weeks of very rough water.

“We all know now that it wasn’t an eight- to 10-week problem,” Greg continued, adding that one of the biggest challenges for this company was not knowing if printing would be deemed essential — status that was eventually earned.

“A lot of the printers rallied together to fight and make the case that printing was essential,” Greg said. “When the governor initially sent out the guidelines on this, the lines were a little blurred; it didn’t say in black and white whether commercial printing was essential.

“The few orders we did get were communication and mailing pieces focused on how to deal with COVID,” including man from hospitals and other healthcare providers, he went on. “Chris actually sent a letter to Governor Baker explaining why printing wasn’t an essential business.”

From the start, the priorities, the two said, were to be conservative with spending and watch every dime, and do everything they could to hang onto to talented, hard-to-replace printing professionals.

“The difficulty that we have in the manufacturing world is that we have some pretty highly trained people who are very good at what they do,” Greg explained. “Finding these people is very difficult, so we don’t want to let our workforce go. And so, for us, the last resort was to lay people off or furlough them; we hung on for as long as we could before we made any decisions like that.”

Fortunately, the company has historically been conservative fiscally, he went on, and had the ability to put money aside and weather a storm of this consequence, although it certainly hasn’t been easy.

“That part has been a blessing, but we need to make that back up,” he went on, adding that the company, which turned some type of corner in September, believes its improved situation is part of a broader pattern within the business community — and society in general — to find ways to cope with the pandemic and not merely cancel or put things off, as was happening in the second and third quarters.

As for 2021, Greg said no one really knows what to expect. He does believe that, because of what businesses went through in 2020, and because they don’t know when ‘normal’ will return, many will remain conservative in their approach — right down to print jobs.

“It’s like walking on a sidewalk on an icy day,” he explained. “You’re going to be careful where you walk and what you do, as opposed to proceeding as usual. I think 2021 will be that way — like walking on ice.”

 

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

Coronavirus

Words to Live By

Joan Livingston

Joan Livingston says reporters are working hard remotely, but she’s looking forward to the unique energy of a full newsroom.

Late last winter, Joan Livingston and her team at the Greenfield Recorder were planning a comprehensive, multi-part series of articles marking the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. But, as businesses of all kinds can attest, plans made in February had a way of shifting in March.

“We were planning a series on suffrage; it was going to run, and we stopped that immediately,” said Livingston, editor in chief of a daily publication that covers some 30 communities in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. But while the editorial focus may have changed — we at BusinessWest also remember, quite clearly, those early days of all COVID stories, all the time — the Recorder’s philosophy of hyper-local coverage did not change.

“That has remained our focus, how those communities have been impacted,” she said. “We had to shift gears pretty fast. We weren’t expecting this; no one was expecting this.”

Michael Moses, publisher of the Recorder and several other community newspapers in Western Mass. and New Hampshire, remembers closing all the buildings on March 16 and setting up reporters, designers, salespeople, and others at home.

“At that point, everyone wanted to work remotely, so we took steps to make sure they were able to work from home,” Moses said. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have a lot of time for planning for that, but everything came together pretty well. From an IT perspective, we were already teed up with our front-end system for the news to operate from anywhere, and that flexibility certainly helped us. So it was an essentially seamless transition.”

Since then, the newspaper offices have been open to employees who need to use them, from customer-service staff to the business offices, as well as some reporters, but in general, much of the work of producing these daily and weekly publications has continued remotely.

“A few people work only from home, some are hybrid and come in half the week, and then there are people like myself, who work in the newsroom all the time,” Livingston said of the environment at the Recorder, which is headquartered in downtown Greenfield. “We wear masks when we talk to each other, and we practice safe-distancing rules, but I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

That said, “I’m impressed with our hardworking staff,” Livingston went on. “They continue to generate coverage — that’s one good thing the pandemic did not stop. They’ve been great.”

Like all community newspapers with a wide coverage area, the reporters tend to stick to specific geographic beats, getting to know their communities intimately. The pandemic has shuttered municipal offices to the public and canceled annual events, making a reporter’s traditional in-person contacts harder to come by.

“I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

However, “business hasn’t stopped in terms of what’s happening in town governments, which we cover pretty heavily,” she added. “Some of it’s done virtually, we’ve had annual town meetings in cars or a field, and people have been inventive about trying to be safe during this time. That has been nothing like being in person, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now.”

At the same time, readers’ reliance on locally generated news is more critical than ever, especially in a year when locals need to understand how COVID-19 affects them personally, yet messages from national media sources and (especially) the internet have ranged at times from sensationalized to misleading.

That reporters are delivering that news by communicating with team members remotely is all the more impressive, Livingston noted. “Our computer system allows us to work anywhere, and that’s really helpful.”

It’s a slightly smaller team these days, too, she added.

“We had some layoffs after a few months [of the pandemic], and the paper got smaller because businesses are struggling and advertising is not their priority. But I’m impressed by the work ethic of the staff because we are down a few people, and hopefully, when things change, we’ll be able to restock those positions. But they’ve picked up the slack, and I’m impressed.”

Moses sees a silver lining in this year’s shifts in the way people work, because the industry was already moving in some ways toward more remote work, or at least asking questions about the best use of physical space.

“This has allowed us to accelerate where we were going anyway, so there are some positives to all this,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’re always trying to find efficiencies, and I want to be able to draw on those efficiencies.”

That’s not to say publishing hasn’t been challenging this year; it certainly has. “No surprise there, but, thankfully, we’ve been able to manage through it, and as difficult as it’s been, everyone has stepped up pretty well, regardless of which part of the business they’re functioning in.”

The Recorder did eventually get to that series on suffrage over the summer, examining the issue over a period of weeks, not only from a national perspective, but also — and maybe more importantly — through the lens of local history, local organizations, and local viewpoints.

That’s how the newspaper has continued to handle COVID-19 as well.

“I’m reminded every day that, on a whole range of subjects, whether or not they’re health-related, we’re helping readers manage through this, giving them critical news they need, and trying to provide them the right local information they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” Moses said. “That’s even more critical now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

COVID Tails

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick have had to pivot and create new revenue streams, because COVID-19 has left fewer dogs home alone.

“Because no one wants to be left home alone.”

That’s the marketing tagline for a venture called Wagging Tails Pet Resort, and until the middle of last March, it effectively summed up what this company was all about and why it was so successful; dog owners wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment.

That was true for the boarding side of this operation, obviously, but the day-care component as well, said owner Chris Pratt, who told BusinessWest that many professionals had come to understand the value of leaving a dog in a day-care facility — for companionship and also, in the case of larger, athletic breeds, to work off some off their considerable energy before their master gets home at the end of the day.

But starting in March, most dogs didn’t have to be left home alone. Their owners were working remotely for the most part, if they were still working at all. Meanwhile, very few people were traveling anywhere.

Almost overnight, business for the day care, boarding, and other components of the multi-faceted Wagging Tails operation plummeted, said Pratt, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for her — not that it’s come at a good time for anyone.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night. I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

That’s because business had been so good at her resort on Russell Street in Hadley that she moved aggressively and opened a second location on Florence Road in Easthampton — the Heritage Farm — last February to handle what had become an overflow.

Just a few weeks later, though, there was no overflow. She said she kept operating both locations as long as she could, but when Thanksgiving came and the numbers of boarding and day-care dogs were just a fraction of what they were a year ago — and not able to generate enough revenue to pay the staff — Pratt was forced to shut down the Hadley operation, with the intent of reopening when things get better.

“We’re combining our resources to get through the winter,” she explained. “And we’ve been very fortunate that a number of customers have decided to make the 15-minute journey across the bridge to bring their dogs here to the farm.”

That farm, all 30 acres of it, like the Hadley setting, is described by Pratt as a one-stop shop for dogs and their owners, offering everything from boarding to grooming; from day care to retail sales of food and other pet supplies; from walking to training. But because there’s less of all that, there’s now even more that people could do during one stop — or a few.

Indeed, Pratt is making the most of the indoor and outdoor spaces at the farm, and now offering new services ranging from horse boarding to riding lessons, to animals (such as several goats that arrived recently) that children and families can visit with.

“There’s a lot of things going on here that families can take part in,” said Tracey Faulstick, a business consultant working with Pratt to revise the Wagging Tails business plan. “There’s farm animals … there’s a lot that families can participate in in terms of training, horse lessons, and more. There’s an entire community here that’s dedicated to taking care of animals and people in a very safe environment.”

Creation of this community is a classic case of pivoting, making do, and trying to earn a living and keep people employed until things get better — a business survival plan, if you will. It’s also another case — among a great many in this region — of a company doing very well and expanding its operations … until the word COVID became part of our lives.

Indeed, as dogs barked parked consistently — and loudly — in the boarding area, Pratt recounted how and why she amended her business plan more than a year ago and put some ambitious expansion plans on the table.

“Hadley was full at the time … we had a waiting list,” she noted, adding that, essentially, all aspects of the business were booming, from the grooming to the training to the boarding and day care. But COVID-19 changed things in a hurry.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night,” she recalled. “I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

But that was just the start. Indeed, restrictions imposed by the governor essentially shut down the grooming and training operations, two reliable revenue sources, for two months. Meanwhile, as noted, few people were traveling anywhere, for work or pleasure, putting a deep dent in the boarding side of the venture.

Some aspects of this business have returned to one extent or another — grooming and training, for example — and the day-care side has bounced back somewhat, as some dog owners realize the value of that service, even if they are home working all day. Pratt is hoping more people get that message.

“Dogs still need to socialize,” she explained. “Even if people are home working and with their dogs, they should still bring them to day care occasionally, to keep them socialized and keep them from getting separation anxiety; it’s better for the dogs. We were seeing, with people who hadn’t been here for weeks, that when they brought the dog back to day care, the dog was so happy, so excited, and so energetic that they lost most of their socialization skills — so we had to reteach them.”

This reteaching is just part of the COVID story at Wagging Tails, an intriguing saga that, like many in this region, involves imagination, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which are needed to get to other side of this pandemic.

 

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

Coronavirus

Things Are Heating Up

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand, not retrench, and set new and ambitious goals for the future.

For many small-business owners, 2020 has been a year to hunker down. To focus on survival. To put plans for expansion on hold and devote time and energy to simply getting to next month, or even next week.

Not so for Sheila and Dan Coon, owners of Hot Oven Cookies.

For them, 2020 has been a year to take their brand to places, and a level, it had never been before, and to foster plans to take it further still in the years to come. It’s been a time to establish themselves downtown and uptown, as they like to say (we’ll explain later), and expand not only the footprint, but also the product lines, including cookie dough by the pint — ‘dough to go,’ as they call it.

There has been some good fortune, or serendipity, if you will, along the way, and some strong evidence that cookies have become a comfort food in the midst of this global pandemic — there’s even talk of a possible cookie shortage for the holidays. But mostly, this has been about entrepreneurial spirit and seizing opportunities when they have come about — traits that have defined this venture from the start.

About a year or so ago, none of what has transpired since seemed likely or even possible. In fact, as Sheila recalls, the husband-and-wife team were thinking about packing it in and turning the oven off for good.

Indeed, by late 2019, the company, then located at 1597 Main St. in Springfield, had endured several months of turmoil with its landlord over conditions that had made it increasingly difficult to do business — no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, for example. By mid-November, matters had come to a head, and the company had essentially ceased activity in that location, operating for a time out of its Cookie Cart (a food truck of sorts) until its pipes froze in the winter.

The two partners eventually went back to their storefront at the behest of customers, but when they did, it was late February, just before the pandemic arrived and a wave of restrictions on small businesses like this one went into effect.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad,’” she recalled, adding that, instead of shutting down, they decided to hang in — mostly due to the strong loyalty displayed by long-time customers.

That decision to persevere became just the first of many watershed moments over the past nine months or so. The company has since opened two new locations — one in Sixteen Acres at the Bicentennial Plaza (that’s the ‘uptown’ location) and then another (a replacement for the old site) further south on Main Street in Springfield, in a location formerly, and briefly, occupied by a Delaney’s Market. Both opened just last month.

Sheila knew about the downtown location and had her eye on it — sort of. She had long thought it out of her reach price-wise, but then, there was some of that serendipity.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad.’”

“I remember saying to someone, ‘if I could open up where Delaney’s was, I would do it in a heartbeat,’” she told BusinessWest. “It was wishful thinking, but two days later I got a phone call, and someone said, ‘hey, we have the keys, would you like to go see it?’

“We came to see it a few days after we opened Allen Street, and we thought, ‘this is beyond our reach,’” she continued. “But our brand reputation preceded us, and the landlord was extremely willing to work with us because he wanted us here. And here we are.”

In addition to those two locations, the company still operates the Cookie Cart, which has been parked at a number of area colleges, businesses, and even private residences for birthday parties and anniversaries, and also has a kiosk at Bradley International Airport, which has been idled by the pandemic — the one aspect of the venture to be slowed by COVID-19.

As BusinessWest talked with Sheila at the downtown location on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, customers steadily filed into the store. At one point, the line became long enough that she hit pause to go help her employee behind the counter.

It has been like this pretty much since the location opened, she said, adding that the Hot Oven brand — featuring more than 100 flavors, including staples like Dark Chocolate + Seal Salt Chip, Boozy Cake Batter Sugar, and Coquito Snookerdoodle — has always been popular and sought out by those in this market and others residing well outside it.

And the pandemic has made it even more popular, she believes, theorizing that the cookies provide a measure of comfort, a measure of normal, at a time when people are craving both.

Indeed, when asked how the downtown was doing since opening, she started with “wow,” paused for a second, and put it in perspective.

“My husband and I had a logistical meeting before we opened both the shops,” she recalled. “And the conversation went something like this: ‘we’re moving two blocks over to a new location and new customer base, and we’re moving uptown to another location; it’s going to take a while for people to catch on that we’re here.’

“Nope … that hasn’t been the case,” she went on. “Business down here for us has been double or triple what we’re doing two blocks over. And uptown is a beast of a shop — we sell out every day.”

Looking ahead, Sheila said the company is looking forward to the day when the kiosk at Bradley can open and become a strong source of revenue that can finance future expansion — perhaps into Worcester, Boston, and other cities. And there has long been talk of franchising this brand and taking it well beyond its Western Mass. roots.

For the immediate future, though, the two have their hands full with the two new locations and the brisk business they are witnessing.

There have not been too many business-expansion stories during this pandemic, but this is certainly one of them.

Call it a feel-good story if you like, but this is also, and especially, a taste-good story. And a very intriguing one at that.

 

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

Cover Story

Selling the Region

Rick Sullivan was talking about the pandemic … and about how it just might present some opportunities for this region to prompt companies currently located in expensive office buildings in pricey urban centers to at least look this way.

And he paused to reference an article he had just read that morning about how those in the Aloha State were thinking pretty much the same thing.

“Hawaii seeks to be seen as a remote workplace with a view,” he said, referencing the headline he had just read. “They’re making the same pitch we are — it’s a great place to work remotely … with a view. It’s the same concept — we have great outdoor recreational opportunities, we have the mountains, the skiing, the rafting, and the biking.”

Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, quickly acknowledged that Western Mass. is not Hawaii. But to one degree or another, it can, as he noted, offer at least some of the same things — like those nice views. And a sticker price — for commercial real estate and many other things — far, far below not only Boston, Cambridge, and New York, but many other regions of the country as well.

There is a certain quality of life that has always been here but has taken on perhaps greater importance in the midst of a pandemic as people — and some businesses as well — are starting to think about whether they want or need to be in an urban setting.

These factors may be enough to turn some heads, said Sullivan and others we spoke with, all of whom noted that, as the pandemic approaches the 10-month mark, the emphasis is shifting locally — from talk about how there may be an opportunity to seize, to action when it comes to seizing such an opportunity and getting those heads to turn.

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, is taking action in the form of online tools, through which interested businesses, agencies, and individuals can obtain needed information about the region and even explore options within the commercial real-estate market for a new home.

“We’ve invested in a whole suite of tools, one of which has seven or eight tools that basically walk a business through everything from why the Springfield region is a good place to start a business or expand a business, all the way through where your competitors are, where your customers are, and where your workers are,” she said of a product called Localintel. “And then it continues with information about where to find real estate that fits your purpose; it heatmaps everything for you.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan said the EDC, which has received an uptick in the number of incoming calls from businesses and site selectors looking to learn more about the region, has made efforts to promote the area and take advantage of pandemic-related trends and movements as one of its strategic priorities for the coming year.

Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work

Rick Sullivan says that, like Hawaii, Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work — with a view.

“Part of our strategic plan is to increase the marketing for such efforts and make that pitch,” he explained. “We’re going to work through what that looks like, but we are certainly not equipped to do a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign. I do think we can raise our profile and make that pitch.”

But while there is opportunity in the midst of this pandemic, challenges exist as well.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and a long-time promoter of Springfield and especially its downtown area, said there are some lingering perceptions about the city and region — regarding everything from workforce to housing stock to public safety — that have to be overcome. Also, there remains considerable work to do when it comes to simply getting the word out about Western Mass. and all that it has to offer.

Meanwhile, as for trying to convince companies and state agencies to move here — something Plotkin has been doing aggressively for some time now — he said there are cost and logistical concerns that remain stumbling blocks.

“When I talk to people about this, I see a lot of heads nod in agreement — they see why this region makes sense on many levels,” he said. “The pushback comes with people not wanting to uproot themselves and make that move. We have to be able to overcome that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic may change the landscape in some positive ways, and also what has to happen for the region’s fortunes to improve.

 

Moving Sentinents

Plotkin told BusinessWest that, whenever he meets attorneys or other professionals from Boston or New York — and that’s often — he invariably makes a point of asking them where they’re based and how much they’re paying to do business there.

He then offers a pitch for this region, letting the individual across the table know that things are less expensive and — in some ways, at least — better here.

“I’ll say, ‘you know what … you can probably do a lot better here,’” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘if you have a big office, maybe you can keep an office in Boston and move your back-room operations here.’”

Moving forward, the assignment for the region, said those we spoke with, is to take these pitches, these efforts to sell the region, to a higher plane — now more than ever, because of what the pandemic has shown people.

In short, Sullivan noted, it has demonstrated that people can work remotely, and effectively, and that companies don’t necessarily need to lease as much space as they’re leasing now, or lease it in high-traffic (although not at this particular moment in time), high-rent areas.

It has also shown professionals, and especially young people, that they don’t necessarily have to live in one of those urban areas — like Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco — to get the kind of rewarding, high-paying jobs they’re all looking for.

“Because of the pandemic, quality of life has become something that people can really consider when they’re determining their work/life balance — you don’t need to be in the expensive big cities to be able to have the kinds of jobs people are looking for,” he explained. “You can really focus on your work/life balance, and you can really focus on your quality of life, and that’s where Western Massachusetts really shines. You can be working remotely, you can be telecommuting, and you can have that quality of life, that cost of living, that we have in Western Mass. that’s very attractive.”

As that story about Hawaii makes clear, Western Mass. is certainly not alone in this thinking. Indeed, there will be plenty of competition. But in this region, there is, by most all accounts, more recognition of possible opportunities and more of a combined enthusiasm for seizing it.

“I think there’s more of a critical mass,” Creed noted in reference to the collective efforts she’s seeing. “Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.

1350 Main St

Evan Plotkin wants to convert three floors within 1350 Main St. to space where people can both live and work, an example of how the region may be able to benefit from the changes brought about by the pandemic.

“And I’m hearing it from business owners as well,” she went on. “They’re saying, ‘why do I need to have downtown space in the larger markets?’ So I think there is opportunity.”

But there have always been opportunities for this region when it comes to effectively selling its quality of life and lower cost of living. The $64,000 question at the moment is whether COVID will become a type of X-factor and drive interest in an area that has traditionally drawn that kind of head-nodding that Plotkin talked about, but certainly not as much action as most would like.

And the answer to that question is certainly unknown at this point. But it’s clear that there is now growing interest in at least trying to sell the region in a more aggressive way.

Measures like Localintel, a step recommended in the Future Cities study released in 2016, are a part of such efforts, said Creed, noting that the platform is currently being tested and should be on the chamber’s website soon.

The chamber is partnering with the city, which will also be able to put Localintel on its website, she went on, adding that the chamber will be adding another tool specifically for startups, partnering with Valley Venture Mentors in that initiative.

“It walks you through all the steps you need to go through to start your business,” she explained. “And then, you go to the next suite of tools, which will walk you through the customers, the competition, and more.”

 

In Good Company

Beyond simple lessons in geography regarding where companies can be located, the pandemic has provided some other lessons as well, said Sullivan, especially those related to supply chain and what can happen when overseas links in that chain are broken.

Indeed, a number of major manufacturers, as well as local anchor businesses such as hospitals, colleges, Big Y, and others, have expressed interest in making their supply chains more reliable, he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments would indicate that there are opportunities for this region to build on its already-strong manufacturing sector.

“We’ve seen, partially because of the pandemic, that supply chain, when it’s overseas and all split up, is much less reliable,” he explained. “That’s an opportunity for us because manufacturing is one of our strengths in this region.

“This is just one of the ways that we can come out of this pandemic in a stronger position than when we went into it,” he went on. “We need to be able to move forward where there are opportunities that we’ve identified.”

And the growing number of phone calls to the EDC, and the nature of those calls, would seem to indicate some potential opportunities, Sullivan went on, adding that there have been calls from companies looking for more of a campus-like setting; from manufacturers looking to move operations onshore; from call centers looking for smaller, more affordable facilities; and even from modular-home builders intrigued by the region’s accessibility and highway infrastructure.

Such calls lead to the inevitable questions about whether the region has the ability to actually move forward in the fashion he suggests. Does it have the housing inventory? Does it have an adequate workforce? Does it have communities that would attract businesses and individuals? Does it have the vibrancy and amenities needed to attract young people?

Plotkin has been answering some of these very questions as he vies to make the property he co-owns, 1350 Main St., home to what’s being called a remote-work hub that would enable people to live and work in the same building, a concept that has become more intriguing as the pandemic has lingered.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin was preparing to meet with those looking to site such facilities — he believes he has made it to the next round in the process — and state his case. He said he’s got a solid one, when considering both his building and the three full floors he’s proposing for a remote-work hub and this region, but as he was preparing his response to the RFP, he realized that, while the region has a lot to sell, it has to work harder at selling it.

“It’s all about salesmanship and about trying to overcome some of the negativity and the obstacles,” he explained. “It’s trying to overcome a perception that doesn’t reflect what we really have here.”

And one of the more critical perceptions, or misperceptions, in his view, at least, involves workforce and fears that this region cannot support certain types of industries or specific businesses.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I think there’s more of a critical mass. Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.”

“There’s a fear that workers wouldn’t want to live in Springfield,” he explained, “and also the fear that their chances of finding the talent they need in Springfield and the surrounding region would be harder; that’s the biggest impediment I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters, he said, adding that, before it arrived, the city was enjoying some momentum. But many of its major attractions, from its hockey team to its symphony orchestra to its $1 billion casino, are shut down or operating much differently than before the pandemic.

Taking the long view, though, he said these institutions will return, and they will be part of an attractive package the region can market, a package that seems to make more sense with each passing day living and working during a pandemic.

 

Bottom Line

Time will obviously tell whether Western Mass., Hawaii, or anywhere else will benefit greatly from the lessons learned from COVID-19 and the trends emerging from this unique time in history.

What is apparent at the moment is that this region seems committed to at least trying to seize what appears to be a clear opportunity to benefit from attitudes about where companies can and should be located, and how they can and should be conducting business.

“Let’s just say I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Creed said.

So is everyone else.

 

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

 

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

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

COVID-19 Features

Let There Be Light

Judy Matt says the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) exists for one reason — to entertain residents across the region and create some memories.

It hasn’t been able to do any of that to this point in 2020, obviously, and Matt, the long-time executive director of the nonprofit agency, has been frustrated and disappointed by this reality. Annual events such as the pancake breakfast (long heralded as the world’s largest), the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Big Balloon Parade have been wiped off the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there remains uncertainty about whether any of those can be staged in 2021.

Meanwhile, at the SOS, with little revenue coming in other than a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the proceeds from the annual golf tournament, the staff — and that includes Matt — have been on unemployment for at least some of this year, although she has continued to come to the office every day.

But there will be one bright spot as a very trying year — for both the region and the SOS — comes to a close, as the necessary approvals (and many of them were required) have been received to stage Bright Nights in Forest Park from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6.

Things won’t be exactly the same — there will be new restrictions on everything from the hours of operation (the front gate will have to be shut at 8:45 p.m.) to how tickets are paid for (no cash, for example) — and the the gift shop in the park will be closed, although a facility will open downtown in the Springfield Visitors Center. And no one will be allowed to get out of their cars under any circumstances.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had.”

But just being able to have Bright Nights will provide a huge boost for the region and the Spirit of Springfield, Matt said. “The region needs Bright Nights, now more than ever. It’s been a long, trying year for everyone.”

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

There will be some new restrictions on hours, method of payment, and other matters, Judy Matt says, but Bright Nights will go on in 2020, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

But while the region needs Bright Nights, so too does the Spirit of Springfield, which relies on the income from this signature event to help carry out its mission and present those other annual gatherings listed earlier.

So Matt and others will be keeping their fingers crossed on the weather — past history has shown that a few snowstorms can wreak havoc on the bottom line — while trying to make the most of the opportunity it has been given to stage Bright Nights in the middle of a pandemic.

And early indications are that, despite some restrictions on the hours and other factors, this could be one of the best seasons in the 26-year history of the Bright Nights, given what kind of year it’s been and the need for some kind of relief valve, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while it might well achieve that status, this year’s Bright Nights will be challenged by the restrictions imposed upon it by city and state officials, especially the shortened hours of operation.

“We are theoretically losing 39 hours during which we could have been selling tickets — in the past, we had a lot of nights where we were open ’til 11,” she said, adding that, with vehicles going through at the rate of 300 per hour, those lost hours will hurt.

The city has allowed Bright Nights to stay open an additional three days, she went on, adding that, while this will help, the volume of traffic through the displays decreases markedly after Jan. 1.

“I can keep talking about what we can’t do and what we won’t have,” she said. “But we’re just very grateful to be able to do this; it’s important that this region has Bright Nights this year.”

As for what comes after Bright Nights … Matt said there are certainly question marks about whether the SOS will be able to get back into the entertainment business full-time next year, but she and her staff have to plan as if that is going to be the case.

But if the current conditions continue well into next year, the agency will be facing some hard questions. In addition to the events being wiped off the slate, COVID-19 also prohibited the agency from staging its annual Bright Nights Ball, which traditionally nets the SOS $50,000 to $60,000 for operating expenses.

Without that revenue, the agency needs a very solid year for Bright Nights and probably other forms of help, such as that small PPP loan it received last spring, which enabled a few of the staff members to remain on the payroll.

“We’re trying to figure it all out,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hoping we have a good year for Bright Nights; if we have a good Bright Nights, that will take us into March or April. After that … we’ll have to see what happens.”

While the long-term picture is clouded by question marks, the immediate future is bright — or at least brighter — now that the agency has been given the green light to continue what has become a holiday tradition, not just for those in this region, but for those who travel to it to enjoy what has been recognized among the top holiday lighting displays in the country.

The pandemic has turned out the lights on a great many institutions and activities this year, but not these lights.

It won’t be exactly the same — nothing is in the middle of a pandemic — but this impressive show will go on.

 

—George O’Brien

Accounting and Tax Planning

Review, Refocus, and Reset

By Julie Quink, CPA, CFE

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

This year has been riddled with a series of unexpected and unanticipated events for business owners and organizations, the height of which continues to be the pandemic and its continued significant impact.

With the uptick in positive cases continuing, business owners and management continue to face difficult business decisions and worries surrounding the financial and safety impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus. With much on their minds running a business day to day, it becomes difficult for business owners, management, and even accounting professionals to ‘see the forest for the trees,’ as they say, and, as a result, they often set aside the opportunity to plan.

Using the lessons learned in 2020, there is no better time to review, refocus, and reset.

Review

Countless impacts, some quantifiable and some undocumented or unknown, exist within organizations resulting from the events thus far in 2020. Among them:

• An unprecedented amount of fraud has occurred, impacting unemployment claims, accounting systems, and data breaches, to name a few areas of concern;

• Key accounting standards that were intended to be implemented in 2019 and 2020, including the lease-accounting and revenue-recognition standards, were deferred by the standard setters to ease the strain on companies in this high-pressure economic atmosphere;

• Significant stimulus funds have been made available to the business community through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program, the Provider Relief Fund for hospitals and healthcare providers, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program;

• Businesses that have been severely impacted by the pandemic may qualify for the Credit for Sick and Family Leave and the Employee Retention Credits;

• Remote working has become the norm out of necessity rather than convenience as businesses try to keep employees safe, while maintaining the desired level of production;

• Not-for-profit organizations are feeling the pinch of decreased donation levels at a time when their services are needed the most; and

• Interruption of business globally due to the closure of various countries, limited travel, and availability of resources has contributed to the economic challenges for businesses.

Typically, reviewing the results and events of a previous year or period is instrumental in planning for an upcoming year. For many organizations, pivoting and reframing have partially replaced planning in 2020, sometimes just to survive.

Refocus

If there is any bright spot in the current environment, it is the ability to step back and refocus. Bringing the lessons learned from 2020 thus far into clear view, organizations can’t necessarily do what they have always done and survive. Some key areas that may need a refocus include:

• Technology and security of accounting systems and sensitive data;

• The review and planning for changing accounting standards. We know there is potential for new standards or revisions of existing standards to assist in evaluating the impacts of the pandemic on financial reporting. In addition, the timeline for implementation of standards that have already been deferred may be moved even further down the road.

• The use of PPP and other stimulus funds, including employer credits, requires additional consideration from a financial-reporting and a tax-compliance perspective. Will additional stimulus funds be made available in 2021?

• Long-term remote working may encourage the movement from traditional brick-and-mortar locations going forward.

• Fundraising efforts of not-for-profit organizations may need to continue to shift and adapt to our current virtual environment, with gathering restrictions for physical events still in place. The balance of budgeting between mission and funding will seemingly continue for the next few years. Will this spur mergers of not-for-profits to allow for continued mission?

• A shift of international business perspective, including supply chain, will need to continue to occur, perhaps to source more products and services locally.

A common thread weaved in among the suggested areas of refocus is the impact they have on the financial health and well-being of an organization. Taking the time to strategize and refocus in key areas opens new opportunities to shift and reset. With many demands on business owners and management to manage day-to-day operations, this process can be easily lost but remains critical.

Reset

The resetting process is the opportunity to remove the 2020 eyeglasses and pick up a prescription with new, improved lenses for 2021. This ‘new normal’ that organizations are facing encourages outside-the-box thinking, as the original box may not exist anymore or may look entirely different than before. Resetting may continue to be critical to an organization’s success and survival. Resetting in some key areas will help the organization be agile and adaptable to change.

It is clear that business owners and management may not be able to embark on the resetting process all on their own. The reliance on IT, accounting, legal counsel, investment advisors, and business consultants, included in an organization’s team of professionals, will become increasingly important. These spokes in your professional team’s wheel are critical to maneuver through the upcoming year.

Traditionally, strategic planning has encompassed perhaps a three, five-, and 10-year plan. Internal planning — and planning externally with your accounting professionals — have moved to a shorter-term focus, including many transactional and situational planning opportunities, as a result of the continuously changing environment, additional stimulus-fund opportunities, and compliance requirements.

Business owners and management do not need to hold all the information necessary to reset and reframe, but they do need to know the appropriate people to whom they can reach out.

Takeaways

As business owners and management think about the year ahead using the 2020 rearview mirror, one thing is for sure: they should have their team of professionals on speed dial.

If they do not have the right professionals in place, now is the time to make changes. The guidance provided by the spokes on the professional wheel should not be underestimated because one thing is clear: no one of us has all the answers to navigate the new normal, but collectively the team can help provide the input needed to move the organization to the next levels.

Remember: review, refocus, and reset.

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE is the managing principal of West Springfield-based Burkhart, Pizzanelli, P.C., certified public accountants; (413) 781-5609.

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Tightening the Safety Net

 

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

As Andrew Morehouse conducted his tour of the facilities at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the sights and sounds helped tell the story that is emerging at this agency — and within this region — at a critical time.

The first thing to notice was the copious amounts of food of all kinds — from sweet potatoes in huge bins to hundreds of cases of canned tuna — now stored at the complex in Hatfield and in other locations as well, destined for local meal sites and food pantries. Indeed, the Food Bank is “over capacity,” as Morehouse, its executive director, put it, because of the soaring numbers of people who are now facing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, and the way government agencies, businesses, and individuals have responded to those numbers.

This capacity issue was clearly in evidence, with pallets of food stacked not only on the shelves and the floor space of the warehouse, but in the hallways leading to it as well.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster,” he explained. “We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

As for the sounds … well, the Food Bank was mostly quiet at the hour of this visit — late morning, approaching noon — but the few workers on the floor were talking about what they witnessed in the parking lot of Central High School in Springfield, where a drive-thru food-distribution site, supported in part by the Food Bank, has been established. The staffers were talking about long lines of vehicles, and how this has become a constant, or a new norm, with this initiative.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster. We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

Meanwhile, fewer people are working at the Hatfield facility, with many more working remotely because of the pandemic, and a host of safety protocols in place to keep those who do come in — and the public in general — safe.

In many ways, the Food Bank — and the hundreds of sites it serves — has become one of the enduring symbols of this pandemic locally. Indeed, just as the bread lines of the mid-1930s became an indelible image that came to represent the Great Depression, the long lines of motorists picking up food — it can no longer be distributed indoors — have come to symbolize this pandemic.

And as fall continues and winter approaches, need is only expected to grow, said Morehouse, who cited projections from Feeding America showing that, by year’s end, an estimated one in six residents in Western Mass. (perhaps 127,000 people) will be experiencing food insecurity, as opposed to one in 10 before the pandemic began, and one in four children. That would be a 40% increase in the number of people overall, and a more than 60% increase in the number of children.

In many ways, such numbers help tell this story. During the fiscal year that just ended Sept. 30, the Food Bank distributed 14.8 million pounds, or the equivalent of 12 million meals — a 23% increase over the previous year, compared to an average 6% increase year over year. Meanwhile, over the past seven months, the increase has been roughly 30% (from 7.3 million pounds to 9.5 million), much higher than the annual increase, obviously, because of the direct impact of the pandemic, and the highest seven-month spike in the agency’s 38-year history.

Behind the numbers, though, is the inspiring story of how the region and its business community have responded to the crisis, said Morehouse, adding that this response was quick and profound, and it is ongoing.

Sweet potatoes from local farms

Sweet potatoes from local farms are among the many items jamming the shelves and floor space at the Food Bank, which is over capacity due to spiking need.

The biggest question concerns what comes next, and it’s one that’s hard to answer, he noted, adding that many factors will go into determining where these numbers go in the weeks and months to come.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Morehouse about the mounting problem of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic and how his agency has responded. Overall, he said this response “is how the safety net is supposed to work.”

Elaborating, he noted that the Food Bank has been able to meet soaring need because federal and state agencies have stepped up and put more food into the system, but also because the region has stepped up as well.

 

Food for Thought

As he talked about what has transpired since March, when the pandemic arrived in Western Mass., Morehouse said it’s been a period of adjustment — for area residents, for his agency, and even for area farms.

For many, the pandemic left them unemployed or in a position where they were earning less — although generous unemployment benefits certainly helped large numbers of people impacted by the downturn in the economy. But those unemployment benefits also had the unintended consequence of leaving individuals ineligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, creating a different kind of problem.

For the Food Bank, the first several weeks of the pandemic were chaotic, he said, as the agency mounted a response to what was happening — but had to do so in the middle of a health crisis.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about how to protect oneself from COVID-19, and suddenly, so many people lost their jobs or were furloughed,” he explained. “There was an outpouring of concern, of wanting to help, from people who don’t know that an emergency food network exists. So we were fielding calls from community groups from all across Western Massachusetts, saying, ‘we want to bring food to the Food Bank,’ or ‘how can we support you?’

“And it took a while for us to connect people to the pantries and meal sites in their communities as a way to support households that were at risk of hunger, because that’s who we work with,” he went on. “We don’t receive individuals who are in need of food assistance at our warehouse, and we don’t deliver food to households; we work through the existing network of about 165 independent pantries and meal sites, plus our own distribution programs to 51 senior centers every month, and on our mobile food bank, which has 26 distribution sites across all four counties on a biweekly or monthly basis.”

When asked how the Food Bank responded to that 30% spike over the past seven months, Morehouse replied with a quick “it wasn’t easy,” before elaborating.

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries spills out into the hallways at the Food Bank, clear evidence of soaring need in the region.

“It took us a while to catch up, I’ll be honest,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there were a number of challenges to overcome, starting with disruption to what he called the “supply chain,” meaning donations of food to the agency from individuals and also, and especially, area supermarkets.

“There was a run on those supermarkets, so it was a significant hit,” he recalled, adding that roughly half the food distributed by the agency comes from the private food industry in the form of dry goods, produce, and close to 1 million pounds of meats frozen on the sell-by date.

Beyond this disruption to the supply chain, the Food Bank was impacted by shortages of staff and a loss of many of its distribution sites; several of them closed, including all brown-bag sites for elders and many mobile locations.

Slowly, over time, those sites reopened, while also changing how food was distributed, he noted, adding that as, the spring progressed, the Food Bank adapted to what became a new normal, both in terms of how it operated and with the numbers of people now facing food insecurity.

Indeed, over the period from March to August, the latest information available, the average number of individuals served each month grew to 107,000, Morehouse said, adding that 20,000 of those, or 19%, are people who have never come to a pantry or meal site.

And that percentage of new visitors was much higher, perhaps 40%, in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the layoffs and furloughs started climbing, and before those generous unemployment benefits kicked in. The numbers then leveled off for a time, but they started climbing again, he went on, adding that, when the new six-month numbers come out, the total people being served should far surpass that 107,000 figure.

 

Numbers to Chew On

Behind the numbers is the story of how this rising demand has been met with the help of a number of contributing sources — that safety net Morehouse described earlier.

These include the federal government, state agencies, area businesses, and philanthropic efforts like Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“The federal government has stepped up — we’ve received considerably more federal food,” he explained, referring specifically to CARES Act appropriations that enable such agencies to buy more food. “And there was an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and regional and state foundations, as well as from Feeding America, the national network of food banks.”

The agency has also received more than $400,000, with another $123,000 coming, from the Massachusetts COVID Relief Fund, he went on, adding that a number of individual businesses, including Big Y and the Antonocci Family Foundation, have made sizable donations as well.

Part of the federal government’s response has come in the form of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a new program through which the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with national, regional, and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Mapleline Farm in Hadley is one of several local farms in the region that have adjusted with the pandemic, now supplying the Food Bank with milk in family-sized packaging.

This program supplies boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products, which distributors package into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

The program has benefited several area farms, said Morehouse, noting that those supplying the boxes are purchasing products from many area farmers who were severely impacted by their inability to sell to restaurants, colleges, and universities closed by the pandemic.

“It took a while for some of these farms to adapt, but many of them have,” he said, citing, as one example, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, a dairy farm whose name and logo were on countless boxes of quart containers of milk in the Food Bank’s warehouse.

As for the future, Morehouse said the contributions that have poured in from individuals and businesses have left the organization in a solid position financially for this current fiscal year, one in which overall need is expected to continue growing, while the economy is projected to continue struggling.

Meanwhile, question marks remain about the ongoing level of support from state and federal governments, as well as from individual contributors, he said, citing the potential for donor fatigue as the pandemic wears on.

“The state is operating on a month-to-month budget, so we’re not even sure if we’re going to be level-funded for a program that we’ve come to rely on for 30% of our food since 1992,” he told BusinessWest. “And the federal government has not passed another stimulus package, so we’re anticipating a decline in federal support.

“We have a jigsaw puzzle of public and private emergency food resources that rely of federal and state funding and private charitable support,” he went on. “We rely on all those sources of support to get the food we need and the resources we need to keep operations afloat.”

One of the important pieces of that puzzle is Monte’s March, the fundraising walk from Springfield to Greenfield that was launched by radio personality Monte Belmonte to benefit the Food Bank. Belmonte has seen the ranks of people joining him on his late-November trek grow steadily over the years, as well as the amount raised for the agency, but that first trend won’t continue this year, as the pandemic is forcing organizers to encourage individuals to support the march remotely — although the top-performing teams when it comes to generating donations will be able to march.

But, given the urgent need for support, they are hoping the second trend will continue. The goal for this year has been raised from the $333,000 mark set last year — each dollar donated buys three meals, so the goal was to fund 1 million meals — to $365,000, or $1,000 a day, or 4,000 meals a day (one dollar now buys four meals, due to greater efficiency).

 

Hard to Digest

Looking at the projections from Feeding America for the next several months, the ones predicting that one in six area residents will be food-insecure, Morehouse had his doubts initially about whether things would really get that bad here.

But now, he’s thinking they may be realistic — painfully realistic, to be more precise — especially when one ponders the unanswerable questions concerning when the pandemic will subside and to what degree the federal government will keep on printing money.

One thing Morehouse does know is that the Food Bank will continue to pivot and respond proactively to the ongoing crisis — right down to finding more warehouse space.

 

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

Coronavirus Health Care Special Coverage

Forward Thinking

A rundown of the big issues facing healthcare 20 years ago would, in some ways, be similar to the same list today, encompassing persistent challenges like hospital finances, staffing shortages in certain specialties, strategies to tackle substance abuse, and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Yet, the solutions to those issues have certainly evolved. For example, hospitals have seen a dramatic shift to accountable care, a model in which disparate providers work together and are paid for patient outcomes, not how many procedures they order up. And patients are increasingly active participants in their own care, as are senior-living residents and their families.

Technology has exploded as well over the past two decades, from robotic and minimally invasive surgery to increasingly targeted cancer treatments and rapid advances in prosthetics — not to mention the IT revolution, and the shift to electronic health records, patient portals, and, of course, everyone’s favorite pandemic-driven technology, telemedicine, which, most doctors agree, will continue to play a key role post-COVID-19.

Education has expanded as well. Stroke survival rates are higher these days, partly because people better understand the signs, and so are cancer survival rates, with the public more aware of the importance of screening. In fact, one huge story over the past 20 years has been the rise of preventive wellness and patient education — and keeping people out of the hospital as much as possible.

So, yes, many decades-old concerns of patients remain key concerns in 2020 (along with that whole pandemic thing that has dominated this unusual year). But the way we tackle those issues — with new ideas, new technology, and new facilities — is dramatically different.

To better paint that picture, we asked area health leaders what the next 20 years might hold in the areas of hospital administration, behavioral health, cancer care, and health education. On the following pages are their intriguing perspectives.

What’s Next for Hospitals

What’s Next in Behavioral Health

What’s Next in Cancer Care

What’s Next in Health Education


COVID-19

A Second Wave?

Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols

Dr. Robert Roose says Mercy Medical Center is maintaining its COVID-19 protocols — and hopes the public does so as well.

Dr. Robert Roose knows we’re all sick of this — the mask wearing, the working and learning from home, the lack of fun places to visit … all of it. He gets it. Really.

But here’s the thing.

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself,” said Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center. “And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months. Our practices need to be just as vigilant as they were in the spring and summer in order to be effective. And we need to continue to be clear, consistent, and fact-based in our messaging.”

We spoke to a few local medical leaders who all cautioned against letting ‘pandemic fatigue’ change behaviors, especially when a vaccine is still not available, infections are rising in many states (the positive-test rate has crept up in Massachusetts, too), and no one knows how the looming flu season will intersect with a still-prevalent coronavirus.

“We aren’t seeing an influx of hospitalized patients like we saw here in the Northeast in March, April, and into May, but we see the data, and it gives all of us some reason for caution, if not broader concern regarding what the colder season might bring. There’s a lot for us still to be cautious about,” Roose told BusinessWest.

That said, local hospitals have learned a lot since the spring as well, he added. “We gained a lot of knowledge we can use to directly improve the health and safety of patients and our colleagues in the community. We have also implemented ways to ensure that care can remain accessible, timely, and safer throughout the pandemic.”

“The virus has not grown weary of transmitting itself. And it has not waned in the summer months with the hot weather, and it will not wane in the colder months.”

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis, chief medical officer at Holyoke Medical Center, said shortages of key supplies in the spring — not just personal protective equipment (PPE), but reagent and transport medium for test kits — led to reviews of processes that will leave hospitals more prepared if a second wave does ensue.

“This virus is unpredictable, and a lot of our early conclusions didn’t bear out,” he said. “We didn’t have lot of experience with this particular virus — how it behaves, how it’s contracted. There was a lot of back and forth in the scientific community on how to best handle it.”

While the medical community saw a great deal of variability in protocols, the goal was always to keep patients — and the community at large — safe. That’s still the case, Ahtaridis said, but part of the challenge is encouraging them to do their part.

Dr. Estevan Garcia

Dr. Estevan Garcia

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions. Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down.”

“In terms of thinking about a second wave, a lot of it will depend on the behavior of the public and that virus fatigue. We thought it would be a few weeks, and we’ve seen it drag on and on,” he noted. “The risk is the public starts to lose that caution they’ve been displaying, where they’re not wearing masks, they start to let their guard down. That can lead to a second wave in and of itself.”

Mercy is certainly not letting its guard down, Roose said.

“It’s important to recognize we will continue to maintain the safety protocols in our care that have managed to keep infections much lower than they otherwise would have,” he said. “We’ve managed to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate clusters of infection in hospitals and other settings.”

Local medical leaders hope that trend continues — and they’re doing much more than hoping.

 

Virus, Meet Virus

That’s because there’s always a new wrinkle — the latest being flu season, which is right around the corner.

“There’s concern about the cooler weather driving everyone indoors, and concern with the flu as well,” said Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer for Cooley Dickinson Health Care. “We’re beginning to see upper respiratory infections, which are concerns as we move into the fall and winter timeframe. But is it COVID? Is it a cold? Is it the flu? We treat them differently, and we need to make sure we’re isolating the COVID cases.”

Garcia said area hospitals have engaged in a remarkable show of cooperation over the past eight months, communicating with each other on a regular basis and making sure sufficient testing is available. With testing more widely available than it was in the spring, he encouraged not only symptomatic people to be tested, but healthy individuals planning on visiting a grandparent.

He and Ahtaridis both noted that some countries — Australia being the most-cited example — saw much less severe flu seasons than usual earlier this year, and experts credit the widespread use of masks and social-distancing protocols.

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season,” Ahtaridis said. “But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

Garcia agreed. “Because of the protections they’ve been taking for COVID, some countries have seen a less severe flu season. But that shouldn’t give people a false sense of security; you should still get a flu shot, use physical distancing, mask wearing, hand washing … all those things are good against the flu.”

He worries, however, that not everyone will recognize the value in continuing COVID protocols.

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

Dr. Simon Ahtaridis

“My suspicion is it might be a light influenza season. But we are still actively vaccinating patients and making sure patients have information about the flu vaccine, so they’re ready for the season. It might be less severe than last season, but there won’t be zero cases.”

“It’s clear to me that folks are all tired of all the precautions,” he said. “Until a vaccine is proven effective against COVID, we can’t let our guard down. That’s how we have clusters and multiple people getting infected. If we want to get kids back to school and open up businesses again, we’ve got to get through the next wave of late fall and winter and into spring, when, hopefully, there may be some availability of a vaccine.”

The colder weather will pose a challenge, he added, driving people into enclosed spaces for longer periods.

“The fatigue factor is real, but we’ve got to double our efforts to protect ourselves, so masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing are all super important as we move forward,” Garcia said. “One challenge, as we move indoors, will be social distancing at restaurants — these are places we want to continue to stay open, but let’s make sure we’re on top of it and people don’t let their guard down. We need to hold on for the next probably four to six months.”

Roose agreed that pandemic fatigue is a real phenomenon and tough to combat, especially heading into a time of the year usually packed with holiday gatherings. Where people must gather, he said, they need to remember what’s been working in Massachusetts so far.

“We can appeal to people’s sense of generosity and responsibility, their care and love for others — this is something we can do that ultimately can help protect the safety and health of others,” he said. “When you can connect it to something personal or to somebody’s values, that can be a much more effective way to understand the why behind what we’re doing.”

 

Taking the Long View

These protocols contributed to Massachusetts seeing a relaxation of its infection numbers throughout the summer, but Ahtaridis noted that the positive test rate rose from 2% to 4% recently. “It’s not a huge number, but it’s a doubling of cases, and that probably does reflect changes in behavior and risk tolerance.”

The solution? Do your part.

“Until we have a vaccine, I suspect we’re going to continue with some level of precautions and attention to safety,” he said — and perhaps some of those precautions will never go completely away. He suggested people will look at photos of crowds years from now and be able to tell, by the presence or absence of masks, whether a picture was taken before 2020 or not.

“Even if COVID goes away, even with a vaccine and the advent of better treatments for COVID, I think the public has become more aware of personal space, shared air, and hygiene,” he added. “We’ll probably see some long-term changes.”

With infection numbers still low when compared to some other states, it’s a good time to get vaccinated against the flu, Garcia said — or to get that procedure that was put off in the spring.

“During the spring, people were putting off needed care,” he said, due to both their own concerns and hospitals and other medical facilities shutting down certain treatments to make room for COVID patients. “We’re doing our best to get the message out, make sure people know it’s safe to get care. You shouldn’t put off your care. You don’t want to shut everything down moving forward.”

Roose agreed. “We have processes and procedures in place where we can continue to provide routine, elective, and necessary care while also handling people with COVID,” he said, noting that hospitals, including Mercy, have done a good job of creating separation between patients possibly exposed to coronavirus and those haven’t been exposed. “That’s an important message for the community to hear — that this system has the ability to treat you, even if there’s a second wave of infections.”

While some procedures fall into the cosmetic category, Ahtaridis added, most medical care is not purely elective, which is why hospitals, Holyoke included, have put plenty of thought and resources into making sure they’re safe spaces.

“While the risk never goes down to zero, from a risk-benefit perspective, if you have a medical need, getting it addressed is very important because unmet needs can cause bigger problems down the road,” he said.

“Hospitals tend not to be where people are getting COVID — it tends to be out in the community,” he added. “While not everything is an emergency, most of the things we do are time-sensitive, and if we let medical issues go unaddressed, the consequences can be somewhat dire. We encourage everyone to seek care as appropriate, and do it with confidence.”

And, of course, keep wearing a mask.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19

PPP Loan Forgiveness 101

By Jeff Laboe, CPA

Please realize that the information available today is different than it was a four months ago, and will most likely look different two months from now, so keep that in mind while reading this article.

With all the uncertainty these days, the last thing taxpayers should be worrying about is how to complete the application for your Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness. The intent of this article is to give taxpayers an idea of the application process and forms that need to be submitted for forgiveness of the PPP loan the business received.

Jeff Laboe

Jeff Laboe

A business of any type (LLC, S-corp, sole proprietor, etc.) that received funds via a PPP loan in 2020 may apply for the forgiveness of repayment of this loan. Taxpayers who received a loan, maintained proper records, followed the Small Business Administration rules and guidelines with respect as to how the loan proceeds were spent, and performed all necessary calculations should qualify for forgiveness on the repayment of the loan or the portion of the loan that qualifies.

There are three different application forms that may have to be completed based upon your individual PPP loan program. You have 10 months from the completion of your loan period to file one of these forgiveness applications. The three forms to be used are Form 3508S, 3508EZ, and Form 3508, or the equivalent forms offered by your bank.

The first is Form 3508S, which can be used only by those who received $50,000 or less in PPP loan proceeds. The application asks taxpayers to provide the forgiveness amount requested and to certify with signatures that all the conditions were met. There are no calculations required on the application and no reductions in forgiveness due to reduced head count or salaries or wages. This form is the most straightforward.

Form 3508EZ may be used by self-employed individuals, independent contractors, or sole proprietors that have no employees and/or wages at the time of the loan-application process.

A business also qualifies to use this form if it received more than $50,000 but less than $150,000 in PPP funds, and met one of two additional scenarios:

• Salary and wages were not reduced by more than 25% during the loan period, and the employee head count was restored by the end of the chosen loan period — essentially, the net head count wasn’t affected; or

• Salary and wages were not reduced by more than 25% during the loan period and you were unable to operate the same level of business due to compliance with requirements to any work or customer safety requirements related to COVID-19. Similar to the 3508S application, there are no calculations required. Taxpayers instead need to confirm and provide support that the loan proceeds were used for eligible costs.

The last form is the standard Form 3508. This application is for all taxpayers who do not meet the thresholds to file one of the previously discussed forms. This standard application is much more detailed and complex, and may require some additional time and supporting documents. Taxpayers might want to seek assistance from their professional advisors.

“With all the uncertainty these days, the last thing taxpayers should be worrying about is how to complete the application for your Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness.”

Additionally, if your business also obtained an EIDL advance, that amount needs to be subtracted from the amount of loan proceeds that would otherwise be eligible for forgiveness. This applies for all three loan-forgiveness forms. Legislation has also been introduced (U.S. Senate Bill 4321) that details potential automatic forgiveness for any PPP loan under $150,000 if the debtee “signs and submits to the lender an attestation that the eligible recipient made a good-faith effort to comply with the requirements under section 7(a)(36) of the Small Business Act.” The status of the bill is uncertain at this time.

Once you have submitted your application, the loan provider has 60 days from the date the application was received to issue a decision to the SBA. The SBA then has 90 days to review the application and remit the forgiveness amount to the lender.

When it comes to PPP loan-forgiveness applications, remember the three different levels: less than $50,000, between $50,000 and $150,000, and above $150,000. As of now, taxpayers have to apply for forgiveness within 10 months of the end of the loan period. Be sure you complied with all the rules and guidelines on what the qualified expenses are and kept accurate and complete records. And don’t be overwhelmed by the applications. If you need assistance, there are resources for you.

 

Jeff Laboe is a senior tax associate with MP CPAs; www.thempgroupcpa.com

Law

Taxing Decisions

By Hyman G. Darling, Esq.

As this article is being written, the election is pending, and many people are trying to consider the options relative to tax issues for the end of 2020 and going into 2021. Since no one can predict with 100% accuracy what the tax laws will be in the future, even beyond 2021, it is important to consider the options available. Taking action now will allow you (or your heirs) to save funds.

Hyman Darling

Hyman Darling

Before proceeding, a refresher on federal estate and gift taxes may be needed. The federal estate-tax and gift-tax exemption is what is known as a unified credit, which means the amount may be used to make gifts during one’s lifetime or at death, or a combination of both.

The amount currently is set at $11.58 million for 2020. If the law does not change, this amount is due to reduce to $5 million in 2026 (indexed for inflation as of 2010, so this amount will probably be $6 million). This means a person may gift up to $11.58 million during his or her lifetime or at death before any tax is due. If this amount is exceeded, a tax rate of 40% applies to the excess. Since the unified credit may be reduced, larger gifts may be considered prior to year-end before a new law is enacted next year that could be effective as of Jan. 1, 2021.

Many misconceptions apply to gifts, the most popular being the annual exclusion of $15,000 per recipient. Most people believe that, if the $15,000 amount is exceeded, the donor or the recipient must pay a tax. The law states that a person may gift up to $15,000 each year without reporting any gifts. If this amount is exceeded, then a gift-tax return is required to be filed by April 15 of the year following the gift.

But, again, no tax is due until the $11.58 million is exceeded. For example, if a person gifts to their child, there is a requirement to file a return, but the first $15,000 is ‘free,’ and the next $100,000 merely reduces the credit from $11.58 million to $11.48 million, which is still available to gift during the lifetime or at death. Thus, a person does not have to limit a gift to $15,000 as, in most cases, they will not be paying a tax. (Note that this rule is a tax rule, and does not have a relation to Medicaid planning, which treats all gifts as disqualifying for the five-year look-back period.)

If the estate credit is reduced after 2020, it is anticipated that the credit utilized this year will not adversely affect the amount a person will have available under a new law when he or she dies. So, if a person wishes to make significant gifts, they should make them before the end of the year to utilize as much of the credit as they may want.

For income-tax purposes, there are several options to consider. One easy one is the ‘above-the-line’ charitable deduction for up to $300 if given to a qualified charity. This is not for donations of clothing, as it must be a gift of cash, and it qualifies for everyone, even if a person is not itemizing.

Another significant option is that, in 2020, a minimum deduction is not required to be made from an IRA or other qualified plan. However, some people who have little to no other taxable income may still want to take a distribution as their tax bracket may be low enough to eliminate taxes this year.

“If the estate credit is reduced after 2020, it is anticipated that the credit utilized this year will not adversely affect the amount a person will have available under a new law when he or she dies. So, if a person wishes to make significant gifts, they should make them before the end of the year to utilize as much of the credit as they may want.”

In addition to this option, there is also the benefit for those age 70½ and older who may wish to make a donation to charity. Funds may be paid directly to a charity (or multiple charities) from the retirement account, and this donation will not be taxable income. The annual limit is $100,000, but the distribution does satisfy the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the taxpayer is going to make donations in any event, the IRA should be used to fund the donations.

The amount does not get added to taxable income, so the taxable amount will be less, Social Security payments may then not be taxable, and the Medicare premium will not be higher as the RMD does not get factored into the calculation.

If a taxpayer has losses to report, they may be taken and either reduce income up to $3,000 or perhaps offset gains of other assets. If a person has gains, they may wish to take the gain in 2020 with the anticipation that capital-gains rates could increase and/or income-tax rates may increase.

As with all tax and estate-planning considerations, there are many general rules with specific exceptions, so a qualified professional should be consulted prior to making any decisions. But be sure to get started soon, as decisions should be made and implemented prior the end of 2020.

 

Attorney Hyman G. Darling is a shareholder and the head of the probate/estates team at Bacon Wilson, P.C. He is a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and has been a frequent presenter for the Massachusetts Bar Assoc., MCLE, and many Springfield civic and professional groups. He is a member of the Special Needs Alliance and many local planned-giving committees, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the LLM Program at Western New England University School of Law and Bay Path University; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.

But the long-term impact may be more concerning.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.

But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.

That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.

It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.

Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.

There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.

And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.

What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.

COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.

Coronavirus Technology

Remote Connections

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]