Wilton Professionals Find Optimism and “Make it Work” Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Rick Tomasetti is able to continue his architecture practice by working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 arrived quickly. Within days, its economic impact has been swift and severe.

But unlike the sudden closures of restaurants and shops, business continues for many Wilton professionals, albeit with adjustments. GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to a number of Wilton pros–lawyers, accountants, architects, realtors, heads of non-profits, financial advisors, sales professionals–for their assessment of the pandemic’s impact.

While no one understates the gravity of the situation, most of the professionals to whom we spoke, like Doug Bayer, of Bayer & Black, a Wilton law firm, have been able to continue conducting business almost as usual. Law firms were deemed “essential” businesses under Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order.

“Our office may be quiet with people working remotely, but we are still busy,” said Bayer. “Real estate closings are still proceeding,” he cited as one example of ongoing activity.

That point was echoed by local Berkshire Hathaway realtor, Tracy Armstrong. “Inspections are still being conducted, sales contracts are being executed, lenders are issuing mortgages,” she said, also pointing out that interest rates are extremely attractive and helping sales.

Whether the pace of real estate activity seen before the arrival of COVID-19 can be maintained is difficult to predict. As Armstrong noted, “Deadlines are having to be more flexible to allow extra time to get the process completed.” In addition, Berkshire-Hathaway and other firms have issued directives not to hold open houses, typically an efficient way to conduct home showings and generate interest.

To adapt to the new rules and limit in-person contact, realtors like Armstrong are making virtual tours more widely available. Though not new, virtual tours have typically been reserved for unusual circumstances, such as clients relocating from abroad or other distant locations. Now, in addition to virtual tours posted online, realtors are offering “live” virtual tours via Skype or other platforms, enabling buyers and agents to discuss a property in real-time.

Schools are also adding virtual tours to their marketing strategies in response to the pandemic. Colleges and universities, in the final days of their admissions process for incoming freshmen, are scrambling to create virtual tours–as well as other video content and online communities–to substitute for on-campus, in-person events like accepted students days.

Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy, a private school in Wilton, is using the same strategy. While COVID-19 has forced the school to close during its annual enrollment drive, Principal Stanley Steele is offering live virtual tours to prospective families for the pre-K program as well as the K-8 school. “We are always proud to have people come in and see our school. We want to show them everything we have to offer.” Moving to virtual classrooms has also been extremely successful for the school.

Technology Helps

“Virtual” is indeed the word on everyone’s lips. Nearly all of the professionals mentioned in this article referred to Zoom conferences, Google Meet and other platforms being used in place of face-to-face meetings with co-workers or clients.

For Wilton’s Thom Healy, senior client advisor at Bessemer Trust, a wealth planning and investment management firm, adjusting to working remotely has been smoother than some in the organization expected. “What’s been eye-opening was how relatively seamless this transition has been. We are able to communicate with colleagues, approve transactions, trade in client portfolios, etc. We are also using Zoom for internal meetings–I’ve had several already this week. That transition has been very smooth.”

Well before COVID-19, Bayer & Black embraced leading edge technology in their workplace, but Bayer predicted that the current environment would spur more firms to follow suit. “This will push some law firms toward new technologies if they’ve been slow to adopt them” thus far.

He also believes the sudden increase in employees working remotely will become a new normal. “Right now, it’s proving to companies that people can work productively from home,” he said, and pointed out related legal matters that could potentially ensue, such as with commercial leases or employment policies, for example.

Sensitivity Needed

Of course, many professionals have been operating in virtual workplaces since well before COVID-19. Diane Kuczo, an independent sales consultant for Rodan & Fields, operates her business from her Wilton home. Alison Jacobson, CEO of First Candle, a non-profit committed to ending sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) such as SIDS, is also accustomed to working with colleagues in remote locations. “We’ve always been sort of virtual. We have a local office, but our staff is in Indiana, New Jersey, and elsewhere,” she said. “And our network of volunteers are everywhere.”

Both women spoke about the need for sensitivity in their roles during this pandemic. Kuczo’s approach has been to refrain from advertising and promotion for the time being, and be sensitive to what her clients may be experiencing. She explained, “People are stressed about what is happening, trying to homeschool kids, keep their jobs… it seems a little insensitive” to be too forward with a sales pitch. For now, she is satisfied to maintain her sales. “People are still ordering what they need. I just let them know I’m here if they need anything. In my opinion that will go a long way in improving my business in the long run.”

Jacobson also referred to the anxiety people are feeling. “A real challenge I’m facing is how to inspire your people when they’re operating out of fear–fear for their health, their loved ones, economically–so they can keep going, and stay motivated.”

First Candle is an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Bereavement and support services for grieving families are ongoing needs that take on even greater urgency during a pandemic like COVID-19. To a far greater degree than most other organizations and businesses, emotional isolation is a significant risk First Candle must combat. Alison explained in heart-wrenching terms:  “Imagine losing a baby and not being able to have a funeral. You can’t have friends or even family support around you. You are isolated, and not having your emotional or even physical needs cared for.”

In the face of such agonizing challenges, Alison still looks for the silver linings in the pandemic. “There are clear skies in L.A., cleaner canals in Venice. We are slowing down, people are connecting again. Those connections are some of the memories we will have of this time.”

Challenges for Non-Profits

Still, in the midst of the pandemic, First Candle and other non-profits must also deal with the perennial challenge:  fundraising. While events everywhere are being cancelled or postponed in the near term, Alison is hopeful the pandemic will not interfere with First Candle’s primary fundraising efforts–namely, being a charity partner for the New York City Marathon, and applying for grants–which both take place in the fourth quarter of the year.

Other non-profits will lose significant fundraising opportunities entirely. Minks to Sinks, a major fundraising event in Wilton that had been scheduled for May 2-4 and benefitting Family & Children’s Agency, has been cancelled. In a statement to supporters, Rob Cashell, CEO of FCA, described it as a “difficult decision… but we know this was the right decision in order to protect our donors, volunteers and staff.” That includes over 150 Minks to Sinks volunteers from Wilton.

Greater collaboration among non-profits, or even small businesses, might be another one of those silver linings emerging from the pandemic. With less discretionary income and fewer charity dollars up for grabs this year, Jacobson believes more organizations will work together for greater “collective impact”. The reality, she says, is “the majority of non-profits are small. Many are realizing right now they need crisis management plans. How do you get through unprecedented times like this, to survive and keep your mission going?”

Silver Lining

Like Jacobson, Rick Tomasetti, of Tomasetti Architects, a residential and commercial architecture and interior design firm, sees the renewal of personal connections being part of the legacy of COVID-19. “People are realizing what’s most important.  Family and friends. Spending time together.”

With people spending more time at home–adults working from home, as well as children e-learning–homeowners will be re-examining the functionality of their spaces in more ways than ever.

But even beyond functional work/study spaces, Tomasetti believes, people will be seeking “a haven” in welcoming and beautiful spaces. “Life is short,” he observed. “This is a time to take stock.”

In a similar vein, he predicts landscapers and landscape architects will also see increased demand emerging from the pandemic, as people see their surroundings in a new light and seek to improve the places where they can gather with neighbors, friends and family.

In no way minimizing the uncertainty of COVID-19’s trajectory, Tomasetti (pictured above in the main image) is cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will not cause a slowdown in his business the way other economic downturns may have. “We’re still working. I had a couple inquiries yesterday, and received two signed agreements this week for new business.”

Also still working are Wilton’s accounting firms. GMW spoke with James Duff, CPA, a Wilton accounting firm specializing in tax services, about the pandemic during the busiest time of year:  tax season. A key development has been the U.S. Treasury Department’s decision to extend the federal tax deadline from April 15 to July 15, 2020. Taxpayers can defer tax payments without penalties and interest, and also do not need to file any additional forms; the extension is automatic.

Duff was particularly pleased with quick decisions by Connecticut, and subsequently New York (where many of his clients work), to offer the same extension on state taxes.

This gives everyone some “breathing room,” Duff said, but it doesn’t necessarily lighten the accountant’s workload in the near term. “Clients who are expecting a refund are moving at full speed to file. There is a fear the government will slow down and those refunds will be delayed.”

Like the other professionals in this article, Duff referred to digital tools and the ability to conduct meetings online as a lifeline. “I’m not sure how anyone would have done this 30 years ago.”