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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]

Construction Special Coverage

Essential Work

Maple Elementary School, a Fontaine Brothers

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the Road

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Wealth Management

A Seeming Disconnect

By Jean M. Deliso

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

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

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

Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out and About

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

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

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

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not the only such beacon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

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

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

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

But state leaders turned that option down.

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

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

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

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

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical distancing

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

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

Shifting on the Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bradley’s restrooms

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

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

View from the Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Uncharted Waters

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loan Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here for the Long Haul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus

Volume Business

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Sherbo

James Sherbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooms for Improvement

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s the refi market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Deferrals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Borsari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts of the Whole

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

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

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

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

Vince Simonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Off the Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress Report

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

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

Mo Belliveau

Mo Belliveau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Delvecchio

Dave Delvecchio

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

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

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

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

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

New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Together

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus

Safe at Home

By Mark Morris

Keiter Homes’ ‘project of the month’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ger Ronan

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

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

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

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

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter

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

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

Security Blanket

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Cameron

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

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

Pros and Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicopee at a Glance

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

* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing the Situation

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Office

Small Steps for Big Wins

By Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

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

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

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

Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit

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

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

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

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

Healthy Perspective

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

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

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

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

Accounting and Tax Planning

A Primer on RMDs

By Bob Suprenant, CPA, MST

Bob Suprenant, CPA, MST

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

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

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

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

Who Must Take an RMD?

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

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

Did COVID-19 Change This?

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

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

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

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

Do I Take an RMD In 2020?

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

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

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

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

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

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

Course Corrections

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

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

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

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if students don’t comply?

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

Catalog of Options

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

Nicolle Cestero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

Critical Condition

Guy DiStefano

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

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

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

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

All area hospitals have taken a financial blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distance Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Solid Proof

Mike Quinlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Kozub

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

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

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

Case in Point

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

But there was also what he called simply the “fatigue factor.”

“My staff was just overworked, so we needed to cut back,” he explained, noting that, while things have settled down somewhat since then, with restaurants now open, many people are still wary about going to such eateries, and in the meantime, large numbers of people continue to entertain and, yes, work from home.

Which means they’re buying more at the liquor stores. And their buying habits are changing in all kinds of ways, said Barry and Quinlan, noting that in-person visits are still popular, but curbside is flourishing as an option, and delivery, offered by some but not all, has certainly gained significant traction as well.

And while business is up generally, there have been periods of especially heavy volume, including some holidays that have historically been dine-out occasions but are now, like most things, stay-at-home affairs.

“When Mother’s Day came, and Father’s Day … those are occasions where a lot of people go out to a brunch or something like that — but not this year,” Quinlan said. “And so we saw our business jump significantly during those weeks when people would be having meals at home instead.”

Barry noted that, while it’s logical to assume that the closing of the five colleges located near his store in the middle of the spring semester would certainly have impacted his bottom line, he said that’s not really the case.

That’s because the vast majority of students are underage, he noted, and also because his store, unlike some in that area, does not directly market to the college crowd.

But the crowd it does cater to is definitely buying more these days, adding that he’s seen several trends develop. One is that many people — meaning those who can — are buying in bulk, on the theory being that, as with trips to the supermarket, many are trying to make as few as possible.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit. People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles.”

So they’re coming less often, and they’re also buying in larger quantities, which is better for them than it is for the liquor-store owner.

“Sales are up, customer counts are pretty flat, and overall, net profit is slightly down,” Barry said. “That’s because everyone is buying bulk items and taking advantage of case discounts and all that stuff.”

Quinlan concurred, to a point. He noted that, while buying the large, economy sizes, or full cases of products, is less profitable for the store, Table & Vine — and other stores, he presumes — have been able to sell more in fewer hours, thus yielding greater overall productivity and profitability.

But while consumption of alcohol is increasing — statistics nationally confirm that — overall spending in individual households may not be. People are buying in bulk, as noted, but they’re also buying less-expensive items in some cases.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit,” Quinlan said. “People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles; the number of bottles we’re moving has increased significantly.”

Mixed Results

As for what people are buying … it’s generally across the board, said Barry, noting that wine and vodka probably represent the biggest increases.

Speaking of vodka, Kozub, while referencing the shifts in consumption and buying and some changes at his company as it expands nationally, said the pandemic has certainly helped his business in some ways — but definitely hurt it in others.

Indeed, while he’s done much better with liquor-store sales — in large part because the company is now working with a distributor, which has opened a number of new doors — he’s suffered greatly from not having bars, restaurants, and other gathering spots — from the Hadley American Legion to the South Deerfield Polish Club; from MGM Springfield to the Big E — open for business.

And there are other missed opportunities as well.

“We were going to be the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Kozub, noting the company’s current push into Ohio, where that shrine is located (in Canton). “And we were going to sell a lot at the induction ceremony and Hall of Fame Game, but that just got called off.”

As for his liquor-store business, he’s been helped by the work-from-home and stay-at-home trends, and also by ‘Zoom mixology’ sessions, as he called them, Zoom happy hours, and other vehicles to educate the public, bring them together (online, at least), and share experiences somewhat like being in their favorite bar.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distributor he’s hired has certainly reduced the profitability of each bottle he sells in his liquor store, but it has greatly increased volume.

“Without the change to a distributor, we would be down 40% overall for the year,” Kozub said, emphasizing, again, just how much he’s lost through restrictions on people gathering in large numbers or confined spaces.

And this ongoing trend — and even taking steps backward in some states, including Florida, Texas, and others — is slowing V-One’s efforts to go national.

“We’re going to do Ohio and Michigan next, but we’re going to wait a little bit for Florida, Texas, and California,” he said, adding that those states, among the current hot spots, are closing many of the bars and restaurants that were open just a few weeks ago. “The timing of us going national is good in some ways, but tough in others.”

Meanwhile, in the current climate, getting into new liquor stores and expanding that footprint, which is among Kozub’s many goals, is somewhat of a challenge.

“The liquor stores are so busy that they’re not necessarily excited about bringing in new products right now,” he explained. “Because they’re selling everything they have, they’re selling a lot of the staples — the brands people know.”

Beer with Us

This is yet another emerging trend at a time when there have been many changes when it comes to what people are buying, when, where, how, and in what quantities.

The pandemic has certainly changed the landscape in so many business sectors and aspects of society — and alcohol is just one of them.

For some businesses, this will be a vintage year — another industry term — while for others, like Kozub, it will be a mix of new opportunities and lost opportunities, with the former hopefully outweighing the latter.

And, as with those other sectors, it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

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

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pandemic Lessons

Rich Kump

Rich Kump says the pandemic has forced people who had been reluctant to bank remotely to give it a shot.

It’s the wave of the future, Rich Kump said — and the COVID-19 pandemic simply cast that wave in sharper relief.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch,” the president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union told BusinessWest. “We’ve been educating our members for three years, trying to move them out of the branch, and there’s still a percentage of America who just likes to everything in person. You need to take a thoughtful approach; you can’t force people into it … although COVID did that, to some extent.”

A widely held vision of the bank (or credit union) branch of the future — one shared, to some degree, by other local banking leaders we spoke with — does indeed promote robust online and mobile tools for routine business like deposits and withdrawals, leaving less traffic in branches, but a greater percentage of that traffic given over to more complex or consultative matters.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch.”

And many people who have long resisted online banking are singing a different tune, said Paul Scully, president of Country Bank.

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology,” he noted. “An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

In most cases, it’s just a matter of breaking old habits, Scully said — “and old habits are comfortable habits. But I think people are becoming better acclimated to technology and getting over their fears. There are still people who think, ‘I have to go into the bank to make that transaction because what if the money doesn’t get there?’ But as an industry and as a bank, we’ve been able to alleviate the concerns some people have.”

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed.

“Banking in general is going to change. The stuff you need to do is the same, but how you’re going to do it will change,” he said, noting that lobby traffic has been declining for years, and what was already a high adoption rate of mobile tools only accelerated over the past three months as banks closed lobbies to most routine business. “People are starting to realize it’s probably more secure, so they’re getting more comfortable. It’s also way more convenient.”

And gaining momentum in these shuttered times.

“Customers realized they really can do all their banking online,” Scully said. “We’re no different than Macy’s or Amazon. You realize you can sit down with your laptop or phone and purchase something from a retail outlet, and you can also do your banking that way. People are becoming more comfortable with it — so we need to keep upgrading and enhancing it.”

That’s not all they’re doing. Banks and credit unions, despite a much higher reliance on drive-up lanes and mobile platforms lately, never really closed during the pandemic, and while they continued to serve customers — in some cases, helping them navigate sudden financial hardships — they were also learning lessons and conducting internal conversations about where the industry is heading and what the bank of the future should look like.

Some were discussions that had begun years ago but, again, were suddenly cast in sharp relief as the wave known as COVID-19 came crashing down.

Staying Connected

People have been starved for human contact, Kump said. He knows that from UMassFive’s call center, as calls over the past three months are 25% longer, on average, than last year.

“A lot of it is, people just want to talk,” he noted. “Yes, they call for a reason, but then they want to talk. It’s a bit of a community.”

Bolstering the call center was one of the success stories of late March, which he recalls as a tough time.

“I don’t think anyone was ultimately prepared for this; we were scambling,” he said, explaining that many retail personnel in the branches began covering the phones, often from home. “Within two weeks, 70% of our staff was working from home. That’s when the chaos evolved into routine.”

Like the other institutions we spoke with, UMassFive didn’t close completely, staying open by appointment for services that couldn’t be done remotely, from notary signings to certain loan closings to instant-issue debit cards. The week Kump spoke with BusinessWest, the credit union was operating a soft opening of sorts before announcing a shift to walk-in business.

“Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

Day recalls a similar experience.

“In that first week, everything was shutting down, and people were saying, ‘you’re a bank. You can’t shut down,’” he said. But Florence transitioned to drive-up service where possible while witnessing an expansion of remote banking — as well as phone-call volume that was up 100% early on.

“We helped a lot of people transition to mobile and computer options. People have used the drive-ups. We opened the lobbies for people who needed to do something in person. We went out to cars in some cases,” he recalled. “You couldn’t come and go as you wanted, but we never really closed. If you called and the only way to do something was in person, we did it in person.”

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says shifting most employees to remote work was one of the smoother transitions necessitated by COVID-19.

Still, the sudden, in many ways forced expansion of remote banking is just an extension of where the industry was already headed, Day explained. “We had already seen trends toward online, mobile, people doing much more on their computers and phones. The pandemic just really accelerated that.”

Scully said the transition to employees working remotely was one of the easier shifts.

“It wasn’t that difficult for us. We had all the technology in place that allowed us to immediately have all our non-branch staff working remotely, literally overnight. So that fell into place nicely for us; we didn’t miss a beat. Business was never impacted.”

For example, he said Country processed about 450 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans remotely, while Zoom calls and Webex meetings became the order of the day. It has worked so well, in fact, that non-branch employees will continue to work from home until Aug. 31, even as branches begin opening up this week, which is a boon for parents still uneasy about — or unable to access — camps and day-care services.

“We closed a day or two before other banks, just recognizing what was happening, and moved people to drive-up or leveraging technology,” he said, noting that lines were sometimes long, but customers were able to access the services they needed, in some cases using interactive teller machines (ITMs) at two locations.

“We’ve walked a lot of people through the technology, and the customer care center reached out directly to help them. We had curbside service at some locations, and we also used that as an opportunity to talk about technology.”

Branch of the Future

All this enhanced technology goes hand in hand with what many banking leaders say is an evolving role for branches.

Branches are certainly needed, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is opening a new branch on the ground floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield this summer. Like every other area bank branch, it will stress pandemic safety, with a mask requirement, six-foot distancing, and glass partitions between customers and employees.

But it will also reflect a move toward a role for branches that emphasizes financial wellness and consultative services more than routine business.

“That’s going to be the bigger component of what a community bank does — trying to help people navigate a lot of things,” he explained, before adding that there will be plenty to navigate in the coming year, when more customers than usual will be struggling to achieve stability. “Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

The bank of the future will put greater emphasis on this consultative role, through personal interaction that can’t occur online.

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology. An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

Kump said UMassFive has eliminated tellers — or, more accurately, it has eliminated branch employees who handle only that role. Instead, employees are trained to be “universal agents,” able to tackle multiple roles, from traditional teller business to loans and other matters.

To achieve that, the credit union has tripled its training budget over the past few years, seeking to identify not only financial skills, but empathetic personalities with a real desire to help people.

“The face of banking is changing permanently. Branches in the future won’t be as critical, with fewer transactions coming in. But they will always be needed for key parts of financial life,” he explained, citing anything from home and auto loans to opening memberships to simply seeking financial advice.

“We won’t need the huge teller line anymore. We won’t need as many branches, and the services we’re providing in the branches are changing, he added, noting that customers are also discovering they can conduct routine business face to face — sort of — through ITMs. “Someone could be at the Northampton drive-thru, talking to someone working from home in Belchertown.”

That raises the question of how many workers need to be on the premises, both while COVID-19 is still a threat and afterward, considering how effectively operations have continued during the pandemic.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person. If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

“From a back-office standpoint, about half are working remotely,” Day said. “Can they continue to do that long-term? Yes, but there’s still the human element, and people can feel isolated. Feeling part of a team is important to some people, while some people are loners. But technology is certainly giving us some options.”

And the bank, which recently broke ground on its third Hampden County branch, this one in Chicopee, has certainly been discussing those options.

“More transactions are going online, but when you want to talk to a person to problem solve, especially with more complex transactions, that can certainly be done over the phone — and has been during the pandemic — but the way we’ve designed our branch of the future, there’s more consulting. If you want to come in and consult, we’ll talk to you — a lot. So frontline people will still need to be there to handle questions and solve problems.”

Getting Through the Pain

In fact, banks and credit unions never stopped solving problems over the past few months. Scully said Country, like other banks, was able to accommodate deferrals of loan payments for individuals who has been furloughed or were generally dealing with greater financial stress.

“I felt like this was a watershed moment,” Day added, noting that more than 200 mortgage borrowers and 200 commercial borrowers took advantage of three-, six, or 12-month deferrals, the latter being the most popular option. “Having been through downturns in my career, I knew that we needed to give people some time. People are resilient, businesses are resilient, but they needed some time. So we worked with residential and business customers on deferred payments.”

Kump said UMassFive issued forebearance on nearly 1,000 loans for people who were “furloughed or just worred,” as well as launching a small-loan program for those who just needed a little cash. “If you were furloughed, that didn’t change the decision to make a loan for you.”

That was in addition to PPP loans, which the credit union approved for members and non-members in the community alike, 96% of those loans issued to employers of five workers or fewer. It also looked for other ways to support community needs, such as donations to food banks and organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, as well as donating meals to first responders.

Although those needs still exist, banks and credit unions are beginning to get back to normal operations, expanding branch operations under enhanced safety protocols — “it’s a great time to be in the plexiglass business,” Scully said — while considering the lessons learned during the months when most business was conducted remotely.

“Was there frustration at first? Absolutely,” he added. “At first, people were like, ‘what do you mean, a bank is closed?’ But as every industry started to close and people started working remotely, people began to understand.”

After all, a bank that saw a fire ravage its headquarters in 2008 and a tornado rumble through its home region in 2011 has no problem posting social-distancing reminders and directional arrows and getting back to branch business. “This is bigger than a tornado,” Scully said. “The lesson we’ve learned is to always be prepared and remain nimble.”

Even as it moved from a soft-opening week to broader branch service — where walk-in traffic is allowed but appointments are still advised to reduce the wait — Kump marveled at how the credit union’s members have adjusted to remote business. Especially new members, 90% of whom have been joining online, compared to 40% to 50% in a typical year.

“There’s a percentage of customers who will still be reluctant to walk into a business,” he added. “We’re seeing that with restaurants opening and people still not coming.”

It helps, of course, that many have discovered the power of digital banking.

“For a lot of folks, it’s generational; they’ve been intimidated by technology, of depositing a check with a picture on their phone,” Kump continued. “Now they’ve been forced to do it, and they’re asking, ‘why was I taking time out of my day to run over to the credit union to get cash or transfer money? I don’t have to do that.’”

Day also expects people to keep using those tools, but for those ready to return to the branch, even for matters as basic as depositing a check, they’ll do so protected by masks, shields, and any number of other precautions. “The pandemic isn’t over, and people are still going to get sick. We want to keep people safe.”

Bottom Line

Usually, when BusinessWest talks to local banks and credit unions, it’s about their own business outlook for the year ahead, but this is not a typical year, and talk of asset growth and loan portfolios has been pushed aside to some degree by the need to simply stay afloat — and keep customers afloat, as well.

“The outlook is generally positive, but it will not be without pain,” Day said, speaking for both Florence Bank and its customers. “We know it will get better. It’s just a matter of when.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

At This School, Pandemic Has Been a Real Learning Experience

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy was perhaps better prepared for the pandemic than some other institutions, but pivoting to online learning was still a stern challenge.

Brian Easler still recalls the name of the briefing staged by the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago: “The Impending Pandemic.”

Actually, what he remembers even more was the subtitle to the program: “It’s Not a Matter of If, It’s a Matter of When.”

He took the content to heart, and because of that, he believes Wilbraham Monson Academy (WMA), which he serves as head of school, was in some ways better able to handle the arrival of COVID-19 in mid-March.

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually,” he told BusinessWest. “That was a three-day workshop I attended in Washington led by some of the country’s leading epidemiologists. I came back to the school with a lot of good information on how to prepare.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of that warning, the school was well-stocked with what everyone knows now as PPE, and there were plans already in writing for several different scenarios depending on when in the school year the pandemic actually hit.

Such preparation certainly didn’t make the closing of the campus to all but a few international students who simply couldn’t get home, or the transition to remote learning, easy. But it probably made it easier, said Easler, comparing what has transpired over the past several months to a military operation — and he should know, having served in the Army Airborne Rangers.

“You’re getting swept up in something bigger than yourself, where there’s risk involved and a degree of planning,” he explained. “And the decision making — the emergency decision-making process — is much different. During normal times, a decision might be very difficult to make; during an emergency, that decision becomes very easy. We wouldn’t normally turn our school meeting space into a second dining hall — that would be a big decision during normal times. But under these conditions, it was an easy decision to make.”

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually.”

Flashing back to March — and then further back to what he heard all those years ago — Easler said the pandemic did not hit quite like those experts projected it would.

“What tripped up us a little bit is that the CDC was anticipating a pandemic that would be fast-moving,” he explained. “We were prepared for three weeks; that was fine when it came to PPE because all the students went home. But it didn’t help us with transition to an online education program; we had to literally make that up on the fly during spring break.

“In the end, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a fast-moving pandemic, because fast-moving also means really deadly,” he went on. “We were planning for a three- or four-week event, as opposed to a 12-month event, which is more like what we’re looking at. But as a school we saw the signs early, and we paid attention to the right things and the right information. When the students were getting ready for spring break, we told them to bring their laptops and books home with them and to be prepared in case we were not able to return for classes.”

Overall, that transition to remote learning went smoothly, he went on, because of the tight, close-knit nature of the WMA community and the hard work and dedication of staff and students. And these elements are also facilitating efforts to plan for the fall semester, which will start at its traditional time in early September and feature a hybrid model that mixes in-class and remote learning.

“We can simultaneously run classes on campus for the faculty and students who can be on campus, while students and faculty and who cannot be on campus can still synchronistically participate in the same program,” he explained. “It’s fluid, it’s very flexible, and, quite honestly, it’s the future of education anyway. We wish it didn’t take an event like this to move us in this direction, but we’re happy to be moving in this direction — it’s good teaching.”

Looking ahead to the fall, Easler said enrollment, which is traditionally roughly 400 students, remains steady, and, overall, the school may see its numbers rise due to uncertainty among parents about just what the public-school environment might look like come late August or September.

“We’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in local interest,” Easler noted. “I’m speculating, but I think the public-school systems are going to face some significant challenges, and they don’t necessarily have the space resources that we do — we’re structured much like a small college campus with multiple buildings, lots of outdoor space, and a number of spaces that, even though they’re not used as classrooms, can be used as socially distanced classrooms; we have a lot of advantages over public schools.”

Whether this interest locally translates into a bump in enrollment remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that early and effective planning has paid off for this venerable institution.

And it was necessary because the planners of that program in Washington all those years ago were right; it was a question of when, not if, a pandemic would arrive.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Chicopee-based Company Is Still Trying to Get Out of First Gear

Dennis King

Dennis King says the pandemic brought bus travel to a near standstill, impacting every type of customer in the company’s portfolio.

Dennis King says he’s experienced a number of subtle, but mostly not-so-subtle, cruelties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting with those low gas prices from a few months back and the fact that no one could really take advantage of them.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go,” said King, president of Chicopee-based King Ward Bus Lines, who used that statement in reference to individuals and families — and just about every one of his customers.

Indeed, ‘nowhere to go’ applied — and still applies — to college and high-school sports teams, an important client base in the company’s portfolio. And to people seeking to visit one of the region’s casinos. And to groups heading to Red Sox games. And to people looking to go to a show in the Big Apple. And to classes going on school field trips.

All those sources of revenue dried up, seemingly overnight, for this family-owned business, said King, adding that the last bus left King Ward’s garages on March 14, and the company’s busiest time of the year was essentially wiped off the calendar.

“And our July is kind of on hold, because we don’t have any trips booked, unless something happens with the casinos,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while the Connecticut gaming palaces are open, they are currently not accepting bus groups. The Bay State’s casinos are set to open early this month, but it isn’t known if they will accept bus groups.

As for the future … it is a giant question mark, he said, noting that, while the Red Sox may start playing again, it’s not known if there will be any fans in the stands. Meanwhile, Saratoga Raceway in New York and countless other venues that people travel to by bus are closed for the summer or the rest of the year. Meanwhile, no one really knows if there will be any high-school and college athletics this coming fall, or any school field trips.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go.”

And then, there’s the Big E, another important source of revenue for the company. It’s been canceled for 2020, leaving another huge hole in the budget that will be difficult to fill .

Faced with idle buses, King said he laid off or furloughed all but a few of his employees back in the spring. He’s looking to bring some office staff and mechanics back on Aug. 1 and hopes things get busier come September.

“We’re banking on college athletics coming back,” he noted. “If there is a light at the end of the tunnel — and that’s if — it would be schools getting back in session.”

As for the casinos, and especially MGM, King Ward was given what was at the time (the summer of 2018) thought to be a game-changing contract to bring people to the casino from various destinations across the region. To say things haven’t worked out as planned would be an understatement, said King, noting that the service — subsidized by MGM at the start — was scaled back only six months after the casino opened in August 2018, and it eventually evolved into a door-to-door service using vans rather than buses, with those choosing this option getting credits for the gaming floor and lunch — what amounted to what King called “a free ride to the casino.”

“But it never really took off,” he said, adding quickly that the service does have the potential to grow, and, like many others, he’s watching and waiting to see if and when the casino will reopen.

There will be a lot of watching and waiting for this company, which, like so many others, is dependent on other businesses and institutions for its livelihood. The pandemic has impacted all of them, and, as noted earlier, the trickle-down, in this specific case, was much more like a torrent.

So much so that King was one of many within the bus industry who ventured to Washington, D.C. several weeks ago to lobby elected leaders for financial assistance for a sector he said is often overlooked within the larger transportation industry.

“I don’t expect to be busy again until Labor Day, unless something happens and the casinos start accepting buses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that ‘busy’ is certainly a relative term in 2020, and there are myriad factors that will determine when, and to what extent, the buses start rolling again.

Still optimistic, despite a gloomy year to date, King said people are calling and asking about service to the casinos.

“People are ready to get out — they’ve been cooped up for a long time,” he said, adding that he hopes there will soon be places to take people.

Gas certainly won’t be as cheap as it was back in March, but all things considered, that’s certainly one of the more subtle cruelties stemming from the pandemic.

—George O’Brien

Insurance Special Coverage

Sticker Shock

Business-interruption insurance should be a simple idea to explain. But in the era of COVID-19, it has become a thorny topic.

“It is coverage that most businesses have as part of their insurance program; basically, it’s one of the key components to an insurance portfolio for a business,” said John Dowd Jr., president and CEO of the Dowd Agencies. “A covered loss is defined as physical damage to your property or on your property.”

He noted, as one example, a fire that causes a shutdown until repairs are made, with the insurance payout allowing the business owner to pay rent, taxes, and in some cases wages and benefits. “It also covers loss of property, which is a very important coverage.”

But not every event is covered, he noted, and that’s the rub lately among business owners who would like business-interruption insurance to cover losses from the pandemic-related economic shutdown — and lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are pushing to enshrine such losses in the coverage.

“Obviously COVID isn’t covered — the loss that triggers business interruption has to be the result of physical damage to the property,” Dowd reiterated. “The problem with COVID is that’s not physical damage; it’s a virus. It’s specifically excluded, like other transmittable diseases. The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

That didn’t stop 39 Massachusetts legislators from co-sponsoring a bill earlier this spring titled “An Act Concerning Business Interruption Insurance,” calling for business-interruption coverage for losses due to “directly or indirectly resulting from the global pandemic known as COVID-19, including all mutated forms of the COVID-19 virus.”

Moreover, the bill asserts, “no insurer in the Commonwealth may deny a claim for the loss of use and occupancy and business interruption on account of COVID-19 being a virus (even if the relevant insurance policy excludes losses resulting from viruses), or there being no physical damage to the property of the insured or to any other relevant property.”

The legislation applies to policies issued to businesses with 150 or fewer full-time employees, and insurance companies can apply to the commissioner of the Division of Insurance for relief and reimbursement of amounts paid on claims through a fund created by the act, subject to eligibility and reimbursement procedures to be established by the commissioner.

John Dowd Jr.

John Dowd Jr.

“The way it’s worded, it’s not a coverage situation. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry cannot cover something like that because they can’t estimate the catastrophic potential of such a situation.”

Such relief would be needed, as Dowd demonstrated with a little math. He noted that, if business-interruption insurance was triggered by COVID-19 for all businesses with fewer than 100 employees, the cost would be between $280 billion and $350 billion — per month. “Our collective surplus of all insurance companies is somewhere between $800 billion and $900 billion. In three months, the industry would be insolvent.”

Having said that, he noted that pandemic coverage is already available — a development that emerged over the past decade following SARS and other global threats. For example, the organization that operates the Wimbledon tennis tournament bought such a policy, which costs more than $1 million a year, but when this year’s event was canceled, the policy paid out $15 million.

Impossible Costs

State legislation is a different matter, of course, aiming to reshape the very nature of business-interruption insurance. New Jersey lawmakers proposed and defeated such a bill this spring, “presumably because they looked into the potential insolvency of insurance carriers,” Dowd said. “And if people can’t buy insurance, what happens to our economy?”

Carl Bloomfield, managing director at the Graham Co., a Philadelphia-based insurance brokerage, recently told Insurance Business America that, while more than a half-dozen states that have proposed this type of legislation, he doesn’t expect the bills to pass.

“Doing it through state legislation would be very detrimental to the country on a go-forward basis from the aspect of overturning centuries of contract law,” he noted. “If you start upsetting the precedent of contract law that’s been established for centuries, that creates a very dangerous environment for all businesses because there’ll be no certainty around something that’s in the contract today, but could be overturned in court.”

If the Massachusetts bill becomes law, constitutional challenges are certain, writes Owen Gallagher, publisher of Agency Checklists, a news source for the Massachusetts insurance industry.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill.”

The rewriting of existing insurance contracts, as proposed by this legislation, he notes, would raise constitutional questions under the U.S. Constitution’s contract clause.

“As members of a regulated industry, insurance companies have not fared well in contesting state legislative or regulatory action claiming a constitutional violation of the contracts clause. The United States Supreme Court has upheld laws impairing contracts based on a state promoting public welfare. However, this legislation may be one of the very few laws that fails that minimal test based on its blatant revision of existing insurance contracts for a limited class of insureds.”

The second constitutional challenge arises under the Constitution’s takings clause, which states that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation.

“Insurers have had some success contesting laws where a state’s regulatory mandates go too far and amount to a confiscation of property,” Gallagher notes. “In this case, the proposed law creates new obligations that take money from insurance companies and transfers it to small businesses that have suffered economic loss because of state action. It is difficult to see how these insurers would not have had their property taken for a public purpose in violation of the Constitution.”

Dowd sees the U.S. government eventually negotiating a coverage cap for pandemic events much like it did with terrorism in the years following 9/11. “The insurance industry is saying, ‘OK, in the future, we’re willing to participate, but we need a cap, like $250 million, which is the most the insurance industry can absorb for a pandemic, and everything over that, the federal government has to pay.’

“So they’re in the throes of negotiating that,” he said, adding that carrier involvement would likely be voluntary. “That makes sense, as a lot of the smaller mutual insurance companies don’t have nearly the surplus that the Travelers and Liberty Mutuals have. But a lot has to be sorted out.”

A Better Plan?

Dowd, who serves on the board of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Insurance Agents, said that organization backs an idea that would cast insurers in more of a support role to the government on pandemic claims as they relate to business interruption.

“Carriers would basically take the claims, get documentation that there was actually loss of income or profit, determine if there are covered claims or not, and then the federal government would pay the bill,” he explained. “We think that’s a good idea, rather than throw out stimulus money to companies that may not need it, that may not experience a loss of income. Instead, we’d have people file, have their experience validated, and get paid based on need — not an assumption that every small business needs it.”

Such a plan is being considered in the fifth stimulus bill being kicked around in Congress, he added, which makes more sense than forcing insurers to cover for losses they never considered.

“We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay that financial bill. We’d be out of business,” Dowd said. “But if we can offer services at an agency level and carrier level, review the claims, and validate the claims, we think that has some merit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]