SCHENECTADY — Voices from business, education, government and the community joined Thursday afternoon on Zoom to discuss lessons learned in three months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though billed as a business roundtable, the meeting sponsored by SUNY Schenectady County Community College moved beyond business to broader issues of community life and what changes the crisis may prompt.
Here are some of the questions posed to participants, and their answers:
What will the autumn semester look like at SUNY Schenectady?
Steady Moono, college president: A task force is looking at all options but has reached no conclusions. The only certainty is that the college will be conducting classes; how and where will depend on the status of the pandemic and directives of government.
What is Schenectady County doing to keep people safe?
Anthony Jasenski Sr., chairman of the County Legislature: More than 60 contact tracers are working to track down those who’ve had close contact with every confirmed COVID patient. The pandemic is likely to persist for a long time. “Contact tracing is going to be key to our success.”
What is ahead for Schenectady as the economy reopens?
Gary McCarthy, mayor of Schenectady: The details are largely up to state officials but the city is working with businesses and individuals to implement them. The goal is to create the confidence needed to return to normalcy while continuing the precautions that will prevent a full return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
What help is available to small businesses?
Mark Eagan, CEOm Capital Region Chamber: Federal loans are still available and the Chamber is seeking to launch a loan program of its own. The Chamber also can provide help other than money. “If you’re struggling and don’t know where to turn, turn to us.”
How have you met the challenges?
Kim Siciliano, executive director, YWCA of Northeastern New York: The organization kept its 80-plus employees on the payroll but pivoted them to new roles as some of their jobs temporarily disappeared. The organization is coming out of the pandemic stronger than it went in.
How can people support local businesses?
Jim Salengo, executive director, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp.: Keeping downtown business in the public eye is a big part of DSIC’s role; amid the shutdown, social media has become a major component of this. Communication is another key part of DSIC. “The nice thing is that none of us feels like we’re on an island.”
How has your business changed under New York on Pause?
Andy Guelcher, general manager of Mohawk Honda, dealer principal of Mohawk Chevrolet: The company was moving toward digital retail before the pandemic made it imperative. It was a challenging pivot but the pieces were in place. During the pandemic, some employees saw their traditional work duties suspended, and have made a successful transition to other roles.
How can people help during the pandemic?
Rayn Boncie, founder and vice president, Things of My Very Own: Resources, money, spreading the word. Simple things like soap, undergarments and mattresses are in high demand at the organization dedicated to helping children in crisis; monetary donations go further than material donations; and positive word-of-mouth is a powerful resource.
How have you been affected as owner of a new business?
Catherine Hover, founder of Palette, a Saratoga Springs cafe/coworking space: Extensive support will lessen the impact. The Saratoga location opened in November and a Schenectady location was announced in early March, shortly before the economic shutdown. A virtual open house drew six new members to the Schenectady site for a total of 12. “Being a startup you have to be able to pivot quickly. We’re moving forward, we’re invested in Schenectady.”
How are you holding up, and what should the public be doing?
James McPartlon, President, Mohawk Ambulance Service: Holding up well. After transporting thousands of suspected or positive COVID patients, just two Mohawk employees have tested positive for the virus. The public needs to take the situation more seriously and wear masks a lot more.
How did your launch of school bus routing software go at a time when school buses were not running?
Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder: The company pivoted and reached out on other things, such as school districts delivering food and sanitizing buses.
What impact has this had on your organization and employees?
Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors: Proctors laid off 115 of 150 employees and has gone from 3,020 events in 2019 to nothing now. “We are in an industry that is the exact opposite of social distancing.” Proctors needs 60% to 70% occupancy at live events to break even, and would have to keep 80 percent of the seats vacant to maintain social distance. The backstage environment is even harder to resolve. “We’re going to look different two years from now than we did a year ago.”
How has the pandemic affected the community?
Jamaica Miles, community activist: “Our level of poverty that was already critical including here in the city of Schenectady is now exploding … Problems that we had are being brought to life for a lot more people.” The wonderful support the community has shown for those suddenly in need is not the solution in the richest state in the richest nation; resources are misallocated.
What messages have you needed to convey?
Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and community service, Price Chopper/Market 32: It was critical early on to reassure the community that the food supply was not at risk. If people are respectful of each other, there’s plenty of everything to go around. The safety and sanitation protocols are challenging to communicate because they change often, and are sometimes different from state to state.
What policies are being considered to bridge the expected tax shortfall?
McCarthy: If the federal government doesn’t provide assistance, extensive cuts in services and personnel.
Jasenski: The loss of revenue is concurrent with the increased demand for county services mandated by the state; federal aid is critical.
Miles (interjecting): “Our state has an obligation to raise taxes too, on the wealthy who are not giving back the resources needed. It’s not just the federal government … it is essential for us to be able to move forward in a way that changes the way things were and gets us to a better place going forward.”