Greater New York Chambers Face the Virus
Six chamber CEOs from Greater New York, and one from the State of New York, were interviewed for this article about how they are coping with the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in the nation. Their stories tell us a lot about endurance, courage, and empathy. And about chambers of commerce.
“There’s absolute panic. There’s no doubt about it,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just really eerie.” Indiscriminately, Covid-19 has wrecked lives and commerce. And chambers of commerce have to deal with it.
Walker knows the virus very well. She probably had it. “I had some real symptoms. So I definitely stayed inside.” She had a fever that topped out at 102.
She didn’t try to go to the hospital. “There’s a lot of guidance,” she said. “You don’t go to the doctor unless you really, really do need to. I was counseled by my own friends who are in the health care field.” These were doctors and nurses who knew about the virus and about the crowded conditions in the hospitals.
She toughed it out and gradually got better. “It really was not fun, even for someone who’s relatively young,” she said. “I can only imagine what people are going through out there.” She was never tested.
Greater New York’s chamber executives have a delicate balance: keeping an eye on their own health and that of their families while also helping their member businesses through a catastrophe that makes Hurricane Sandy, the stock-market crash of 2008, and even 9-11 appear like distant memories.
As of this writing (Friday afternoon, April 3), the three states that incorporate Greater New York have had a combined 122,283 confirmed cases of Covid-19, or about 50 percent of the nation’s total of 244,348. New York has 92,869; New Jersey 25,590; and Connecticut 3,824. The region is the epicenter of the USA’s Covid-19 epidemic, a problem made clear by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pleas for another 30,000 ventilators and by the presence in New York City of refrigerated trucks to hold a burgeoning supply of corpses.
The virus, for all its faults, can also teach us and make us stronger. How chamber executives perform in this crisis can give us an idea of how useful they can be. In the worst-hit location of the worst American plague in 100 years, just how are chambers doing?
The Beachhead in New Rochelle
Marsha Gordon was unlucky enough to be close to the virus’s emergence on the East Coast. The city of New Rochelle, N.Y., where the first major Atlantic seaboard outbreak occurred, lies in Gordon’s county. Westchester County is just outside New York City and has nearly 1 million people. Gordon is the president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester County.
The Business Council wasn’t involved at the very beginning. The problem seemed to be confined to a small part of the county. “We know [New Rochelle] Mayor Branson very very well,” Gordon said. “We are very proud of how he handled the whole thing.” People were cooperative. “The community was graceful in terms of obeying the law and taking care of each other,” she said.
Within just a few weeks, things changed fast. The Business Council was a tenant in a very large building, formerly the headquarters of Philip Morris. The landlord distributed a note to tenants saying that someone in the building had tested positive for the virus. This was on March 9.
“By the next day most of the cars were out of the parking lot,” Gordon said. “This is ridiculous,” she thought. “We are going virtual.” By March 11 the staff was working at home. It’s amazing how fast you can move when you have to.
The staff quickly had a Zoom meeting. “We probably had our most effective meeting ever,” she said. “We immediately let our members know we were open for business but virtually. Open for business. We are available.”
Pain in the Streets
Covid-19’s spread has brought on severe restrictions of public gatherings, which in turn have devastated businesses that depend on face-to-face interaction. These include lots of chamber members: restaurants, retail stores, and hospitality businesses, among others.
Jim Kirkos is president and CEO of the Meadlowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce in Bergen County in northern New Jersey. He can’t help feeling what some of his members are going through.
“I went into a member’s restaurant, an Italian deli kind of operation, about a week and a half ago, and he was making fresh mozzarella from curd, as he does every day, and he was crying,” Kirkos said. “He had a what-the-heck-am-I-going-to-do-next kind of look on his face.”
“I’m a fairly emotional guy myself,” Kirkos said. During this crisis, he has had a few moments of self-doubt. Who hasn’t in such a wrenching period? Hearing the restauranteur, however, Kirkos decided he couldn’t give up on members like this one.
“There’s no way I’m laying down my weapons,” he said. He would encourage and help his restaurant members to do as much takeout business as possible. “We’re just going to fight hard every day to help those guys,” he said.
The Manhattan Chamber’s Walker has seen the strange quiet on the Harlem street where she lives and elsewhere on the island. “The sad thing is, many of the businesses were about to come into the good months,” she said. When spring comes, there’s more foot traffic. Restaurants almost double their capacity by adding tables outside.
Unfortunately, the virus hit right as the weather was beginning to warm. Businesses had been struggling through the winter, and suddenly Covid-19 arrived. The timing was disorienting. “It’s just very devastating mentally for a lot of business owners,” she said.
She recalled one business owner in particular. “A woman who owns three spas in the city is making zero income right now,” Walker said. This woman decided she wanted to donate her spa space for Covid-19 patients. When Walker heard about this, “I lost it,” she said. “It was such a selfless thing.” Here was “a real business owner who’s not thinking about themselves right now.”
Westchester County’s Marsha Gordon said that sometimes members call to say they’re going out of business. “The restaurants are very, very, very afraid,” she said. “The service businesses, very afraid.”
Across the border in Connecticut, Heather Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, remembered how just recently, “business was going so incredibly well.” The county was booming. “There was a crane on every corner.” Then came the virus. “To have this happen is a huge setback to this city and the county as a whole.” She said one of her members, a “very successful caterer” and “amazing human being” – has had to lay off 70 or more people, keeping just five or six. There are many stories like that, she said.
Reaching Out to Business
Chambers of commerce can’t save their members’ businesses singlehandedly. They can, however, provide moral or even emotional support. And they can and must give information.
Maria Nieves, president and CEO of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey, said, “I feel like a lot of information is flowing, and that is my job to help carve through it all.” The chamber sends out surveys, tells members about SBA funding, and sometimes deals with difficult issues such as closures.
“In the event they have shuttered, they’re trying to figure out their next step,” she said. “I think it’s going to just accelerate what we were seeing anyway – that is, a shift to online commerce. It’s a part of our job at the chamber to help them work through that.”
The Manhattan Chamber set up a business help desk two or three years ago. Twenty or 30 experts stood ready to answer members’ questions about all sorts of business topics. When Covid-19 arrived, the desk was opened up to nonmembers, too, and immediately was “inundated” with inquiries, Walker said: about 300 calls and emails in the first two weeks.
Webinars are popular. The Business Council of the State of New York has put on four human resources-related webinars. This is a confusing area because of recent changes in state and federal regulations on paid leave, sick leave, and other issues. “If you’re in HR in New York right now, your head is exploding,” said Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of the organization. The first webinar, on March 8, drew the maximum attendance of 1,000 on the chamber’s Zoom software; another 600 to 800 people saw it on Facebook.
Westchester County’s Marsha Gordon said she conducted her first webinar after Covid-19 arrived; before that, meetings were in person. There were 500 people on that webinar. Other local and regional chamber executives also reported webinars with hundreds of attendees.
Gordon is all in on electronic communications. In a single week, with a board meeting, executive committee meeting, other activities, and a large Zoom meeting with 582 people, the chamber touched 1,000 members. “We’ve had anywhere from 50 to 100 for other committee meetings,” she said.
Communicating this fast and doing it right is hard work. “I’m a little bit exhausted,” Gordon said. “We are working from morning till night. It is a frightening situation.”
“We’re working constantly, we’re constantly trying to figure out what message to get out,” she said. Gordon and her staff are trying “to understand new regulations, new resources for money, and to get out the right information.”
“It’s about staying in touch with the members,” she said. “It’s about being the one-stop center for important information that’s going to go to the bottom line.”
The Meadowlands Chamber, too, is trying to address the information needs of its members. “There’s just so much uncertainty among the small business people,” Jim Kirkos said. “I try to get them to think about their business plans.” He doesn’t mean a five-year business plan. He means a three-month plan. Covid-19 can kill off companies that don’t take the short term into account.
Kirkos also provides all sorts of electronic information to his members, including several Business Owners Roundtable Video Chat sessions, with 85 to 125 people on each chat. He is planning to add a Thursday virtual happy hour to the arsenal, complete with a restaurant “host.”
Thanks to the rules preventing large in-person gatherings, all of the Greater New York chambers have canceled their face-to-face events from sometime in March through June. This leaves a hole in chamber revenue but just as importantly, a hole in connectivity. Jim Coyle, president and CEO of the Gateway Regional Chamber in Elizabeth, N.J., said he asked his special projects director, Eric Nowoslawski, to find some convenient way to promote electronic networking that approximates face-to-face interactions, with people able to convene in small subgroups that are part of a bigger gathering.
Nowoslawski found a Hong Kong-based company, Remo (www.remo.co), which has such software. People are able to “sit” at electronic “tables” where they can meet a handful of other people, exchange information, and then move on to other tables if they wish. Coyle said the software seems to be working well.
Staying Close to Government Officials
The virus crisis prompted chambers of commerce in New York City to a step that was unprecedented, at least in recent memory: joining together as the Five-Borough Chamber Alliance and writing a joint open letter to public officials. The CEOs of the lead chambers in each of the five boroughs signed it: Jessica Walker, Manhattan; Lisa Soren, Bronx; Linda Baran, Staten Island; Randy Peers, Brooklyn; and Tom Grech, Queens. The letter included 10 items to relieve the pain of small business people, including everything from a temporary waiver on the ban on plastic bags to temporary tax relief. About half the items on the list were adopted, Walker said – a batting average any New York Yankee would envy.
Greater New York executives believed they were lucky to have state leaders who have acted early against the spread of the virus and who have pleaded with Uncle Sam for everything from masks and gowns to tests and ventilators. Business Council of New York State’s Heather Briccetti said she’s in touch with Governor Cuomo’s office several times a day. From state and local officials’ standpoint, chambers are a useful way to reach small businesses quickly. And from the point of view of the chambers, it’s great to be in the position to help their members and others learn how to respond to the virus, to comply with government regulations, and to apply for loans.
Small businesses’ demand for government help is almost insatiable. Heather Cavanaugh from the Stamford Chamber said that after the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development offered bridge loans at 0 percent interest, there were 5,000 applications within 24 hours. “They had to shut it down because they had to go through these 5,000 applications first before they got others,” she said.
As has often happened in previous disasters, many chambers with the capacity to help their community step up. In the case of Covid-19, some of the work has involved collecting supplies for local hospitals. An active chamber in the region in this work is northern New Jersey’s Gateway Regional Chamber of Commerce. President Jim Coyle said his chamber sent out an appeal to 35,000 area businesses, most of them nonmembers, asking for donations of supplies to hospitals. He estimates about half a million masks were donated, in quantities ranging from a couple of dozen to thousands. A number of companies had significant stockpiles they had collected during previous disasters, notably Hurricane Sandy and 9-11.
He said his hospital executives are having a difficult time coping with the influx of coronavirus patients. “These guys are really, really under strain,” Coyle said. “I do talk with senior management on a regular basis. These guys are totally exhausted. And it’s only just begun.”
Coyle has another economic cluster in his port area: logistics. There’s an enormous agglomeration of firms moving goods by sea, land, and air. These companies need workers. “Anyone in the fulfillment industry is just desperate,” he said. Companies such as Amazon and Federal Express are expanding their service as people do more ordering online while staying indoors (and out of most stores). “The labor force is absolutely booming.” Coyle is trying to get information about these logistics opportunities to people who have been laid off from other jobs.
He said one company in his area, Blue Apron, could double its production if it had more labor. It prepares meal kits and delivers them to homes. Consumers put the meals together and cook them. Their food is “phenomenal,” he said.
Like Coyle and others, Westchester County’s Marsha Gordon has been connecting people who have equipment with the requisite hospitals. Some of her members, moreover, are retooling for the health crisis. One has gone into making face masks. The convention center is being turned into a temporary hospital. “We been the clearinghouse for a lot” of information on medical needs and services within the county, she said.
And then there’s philanthropy. Fortuitously, the Hudson County Chamber started an online giving campaign last year, Hudson Gives. “It was incredibly successful,” the chamber’s Maria Nieves said. This was in part a way to provide a benefit to the 77 nonprofits that are members of the chamber. Of course, it also built goodwill. Some 1,207 unique donors gave a combined $127,097 on the day of the campaign.
This year, with everything in place, and needs that have skyrocketed, she predicted that things will go very well. The campaign will be in the second week of May. An Ithaca, N.Y. company, GiveGab, will provide the donation software.
Family, Friends, Staff
“On top of running the chamber and working with staff remotely through all of these challenging issues, we have our own family and friends and our members,” Maria Nieves said. “It’s hard when everyone’s at home.” Visits are virtual as often as not.
Nieves’s sister-in-law is a nurse at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J. She got sick with Covid-19 about a week ago. Her husband (Nieves’s brother) tested positive, too. Fortunately, both of them are feeling better.
Jessica Walker is better now. As we have seen, her friends in health care helped her to figure out how to deal with her illness.
There’s also mental health to be concerned about. Heather Briccetti has been “making sure my staff knows we have mental health services available.” The staff needs to know they can have access to counseling. She is fine with them approaching her but they may not want to get in her way. “If you’re in the thick of things, maybe people don’t want to bother you,” she said.
“We’ve never lived through this,” said Stamford’s Heather Cavanaugh. Her mother will be 90 years old this Wednesday. The family will be doing a “drive-by” birthday party at the woman’s home in Rhode Island. They will meet in front of Cavanaugh’s mother’s house, cook some things, and put the birthday cake on her steps.
Cavanaugh can’t even get that close to her mother. “I can’t go because I have to be quarantined for 14 days if I go there,” she said. Rhode Island has restrictions on people visiting from Greater New York.
Strange New World
Sometimes it’s a particular image that drives home the new world we live in. Cavanaugh knew things were different two weeks ago when the City of Stamford opened a Covid-19 testing station. She went there. A policeman told her, “Keep your window up!” There were makeshift tents and people in hazmat suits. “It was very upsetting to me. It was just eerie,” she said. “It became very real for me. Never in my life had I ever seen anything like that.”
These chamber executives already are wondering what the business world will look like after this tsunami recedes. “I’m really concerned about our members and how they’re going to recover after this,” Heather Briccetti said.
“The landscape is not going to be the same when we come back,” said Maria Nieves. New York has seen a lot: 9-11, Sandy, the stock market crash, and now this. “And then various terrorist scares.” She believes the virus may accelerate the destruction we’ve seen in the retail space because of online businesses such as Amazon.
On the other hand, the retail apocalypse has not meant total destruction. “I wonder if it’s going to change our concept of what community means,” she said. “I am in touch with people more now.”
“I am also, Chris, inspired by what’s beginning to happen,” said the Meadowlands’ Jim Kirkos. Disasters, of which the New York area has had its share, “tend to bring out the best in people. You’re finding a certain sense of camaraderie.” One of his board members talked about a silver lining to the Covid-19 crisis: his family got together again. “They’ve had a meal together every day for 10 days,” Kirkos said. With college and other activities, the family hasn’t done that for two or three years. “That brings out a certain humanity.”
What Happens to Chambers?
Jessica Walker took over the Manhattan Chamber just over four years ago and has doubled its budget. (Of course, the virus’s arrival may set her chamber back for 2020.) This year marks the chamber’s 100th anniversary. It’s not the celebration she might have hoped for. On the other hand, the century mark does provide some perspective on where chambers have been and where they are going.
She believes that chambers’ work to help their members in these dark times will lead to a brighter future. “I think we’ll be stronger because the one thing we’re doing [helping businesses] is really going to matter.” “If our members don’t survive, where are we?”
Walker hopes the chamber’s enhanced ability to work with government and with area chambers will continue after the crisis fades. And she thinks her organization’s much improved communications capabilities will help as well. “It’s been interesting to see the transition to webinars,” she said. The chamber turned its board meeting into a webinar and held a virtual town hall for 600 people. “We’ll probably do that for a long time,” she said.
With the anniversary, “We are rethinking what we’re going to be focused on. There’s opportunity in that,” Walker said. “This is going to be with us for a while.”
Marsha Gordon, also, believes there’s a future for chambers of commerce after the virus crisis subsides. “I think we’ll be stronger,” she said. “We’re being seen as a leader.”
The Gateway Regional Chamber’s Jim Coyle said that the organization’s outreach to thousands of nonmember businesses, while providing no financial return right now, could lead to something later. “Once they know us and what we do, recruiting them in the future will be easier.” Many companies in the pre-Covid-19 days “wouldn’t give the chamber the time of day.” Now a lot of them will.
Sadly, just as there have been companies that are becoming casualties of the virus, there are chambers of commerce that will suffer, too. On March 26, citing Covid-19 as a factor, the chair of the Fairfield County Business Council announced that the board had decided to dissolve the chamber. Its last day was March 31. The chamber had brought in a new CEO from Oregon, Erin Flynn, as recently as January.
The Fairfield County Business Council was based in Stamford but covered the entire county, one of the wealthiest in the nation, and with about 945,000 people. Stamford continues to have its local chamber, headed by Heather Cavanaugh. In her 3 ½ years there, nearly two of them as CEO, the chamber has grown to 800 members. Her last face-to-face event, the Taste of Stamford on February 27, had 500 people. Yet she has only a half-time staff person to help her with the organization.
One could argue that the Stamford example – one regional chamber dissolved, the local chamber with a skeleton staff – portends poorly for the future of chambers in the United States, or at least in some states, or in Fairfield County itself.
Cavanaugh is not acting that way. She’s not even thinking much about herself or about where chambers are headed in the future. “My first priority is taking care of businesses. Without our businesses, there is no chamber.”
Chamber executives all over North America will watch how their peers in Greater New York fare in this crisis. So far, it looks as if those interviewed for this article are going to make it to the other side. And the chances are that while no doubt taking some financial hits, they will have enhanced standing with their members and the public.
That alone has to be an encouragement to anyone who wonders what will happen to chambers in the future. If the New York area business groups can survive Covid-19, then other chambers can, too. And if chambers as a whole can handle the plague of the century, and emerge stronger, then what’s to stop them from other great achievements, too?
– Chris Mead