Uncharted territory: The questions for businesses are many

Life and commerce might never be the same when the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

Tom Hoban

Tom Hoban

Businesses, private schools and property owners around the region are bracing for April, when mortgages, rents and bills are due in the middle of a mandated stay-in-place order.

Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill & Irish Pub in south Everett was directly affected by the COVID-19 shutdown order. He’s working on accessing federal support and thinking optimistically about opening back up, hopefully soon. “The order came the day before St Patrick’s Day, our biggest day of the year, so when we re-open we are probably going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every month for a while,” O’Donnell said.

Real estate owners are bracing for a potential impact, too. Protections offered to apartment renters from a statewide eviction moratorium do not exempt renters from paying eventually, and the order only applies to those directly affected by a government order. Most rental property owners are deploying strategies to help their tenants find resources so they don’t fall behind while they operate their management teams under new protocols.

Many office, industrial and retail property owners are dusting off their old playbook from the 2008-10 real estate crash and the post-9/11 economy to help support tenants, some of whom will also enjoy eviction protection from the moratorium. Retail is expected to be particularly hard hit, so shopping malls and other retail centers who were already struggling on thin margins are going to need a lot of help to get back to healthy operations again. Assisting them in getting funds to bridge the gap is also part of their strategic goodie bag.

For Everett’s Archbishop Murphy High School, these are unprecedented times, as well. As a private school, they are entirely supported by tuition. Conveniently for them, though, distance learning was already baked into the school that keeps students learning on snow days. “We are a college preparatory school,” explained Steve Schmutz, the school’s president, “so the academic rigor and pace our students and parents expect has required that we have a distance learning model in place for years.”

Schmutz feels for the students and families right now, especially seniors, who could experience their last months of high school at home. “We’re on schedule for students to complete their coursework on time, take their scheduled final exams and matriculate to the next grade level or to college, as planned,” Schmutz said. “While it might be unorthodox, our students are finding creative ways to engage with one another and still capture the high school experience at home. Students are even planning to have our spring talent show online.”

When we’re all allowed to return to school and work, new questions will arise about how much space we really need after we become practiced at distance learning and working from home. Office space, in particular, may be reconfigured or downsized if outcomes prove favorable. It may take people some time to re-socialize the same way, so will restaurants set aside new seating areas with a bit more space around them to coax them back in? Will food costs go up as new cleaning protocols are deployed to keep customers comfortable? How will entertainment events change? Will colleges and universities re-examine their delivery model and maybe find efficiencies that mercifully turn the tide on the high cost of tuition?

Lots of questions, very few answers in these unprecedented times. In the meantime, we hunker down, support our healthcare workers, protect our frail and look forward like never before to the day when we can reconnect at a human level with a random high five, a simple handshake or a hug.

Occasional contributor Tom Hoban is chairman and co-founder of Hoban Family Office, a real estate investment and services enterprise in Everett.

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