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A Year In the Pandemic

A novel virus, a global shutdown, and a drastic lifestyle change — the pandemic has continued for more than a year, and it can feel as though it has been a part of life for so much longer. Looking back at the components of this event, WBA spoke with bankers to discuss the industry’s year in the pandemic, what the effects have been, and what life might look like once it’s over. 

March 13, 2020 — Trump Declares COVID-19 a National Emergency 

Looking Back At the Start 

Take a moment to try and recall where you were on Friday, March 13 of 2020. This day for many has become the defining line between an old reality and the current one. When places shut down, it was hard to accept that this situation was actually happening. 

“I can remember specifically that when this hit, the immediate feeling was disbelief,” said Dan Peterson, president and CEO of Stephenson National Bank and Trust, Marinette. “We were thinking there was no way a virus could do this to the entire world. Then reality set in, and you realize that this is shutting things down. And I remember having such a certain feeling that it would pass in the next month or two, never believing it would last for a full year and now longer.” 

Scott Rockwell, president and CEO of Bank of Wisconsin Dells, had the same reaction at first. This shock was followed by an attempt to understand what the next step would be to assure things didn’t collapse under pressure. 

“It became a matter of figuring out how we were going to operate,” Rockwell said. “We got the senior management team together to address day-to-day operations and shutting down lobbies while making sure all tasks were taken care of, employees were safe, and customers were helped.” 

Peterson and Rockwell both had the benefit of being home in Wisconsin when the shutdown began. Others had to determine how to make sense of this situation while on a different side of the world. 

“I remember when things shut down,” said Paul Hoffmann, president and CEO of Monona Bank, “because I was over in Europe when the announcement came that they were locking down the borders.” 

Although Hoffmann was eventually informed that American citizens would be allowed back in the country, it was not initially communicated this way. Instead, he woke up to a phone call at 3 in the morning from his daughter. She was telling him and his wife that they had to leave now, because the U.S. borders were going to close.  

“We were able to reschedule our flight and we headed back,” said Hoffmann. “Thankfully, while this was going on, our CFO Tim Ryan and COO Julie Redfern already started working on a disaster recovery plan. By the time I got back and reconnected, we were already underway with closing our lobbies and ordering more equipment. It was very bizarre to have been gone during that moment, but I’m grateful to have such a prepared team.” 

“It was a lot to go through in such a short amount of time,” Rockwell admitted, “but we were all safe, we were all prepared, and we’re still moving forward.”  

March 26, 2020 — Senate Passes the CARES Act 

The Defining Moments 

With the passing of the CARES Act, the banker’s word (or words) of the year, became known across the country: Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 

“The defining moment for me came when we had to scramble to get ready for the onslaught of PPP applications from the first round,” said Hoffmann. “Not knowing the volume of applications and making sure we got everyone processed on time was a huge challenge…It was really an all-hands-on-deck effort by almost the entire bank – exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.” 

The feeling toward PPP seems to be mutual across the industry: it was a lot to fully understand and distribute due to the constant changes, but the amount of people and businesses it continues to help far outweighs the complications. Outside of the many stories that are accompanied by the mention of PPP, the defining moments of the pandemic extend beyond the program. For many, these moments had everything to do with how members of their team reacted to things like PPP rather than the challenges of the program itself. 

“With PPP, we were thrust into this new program, and it’s all rolling out at different times of the night, so people were taking on extra hours to make sure the community was taken care of,” said Rockwell. “It was crazy, but we all came together on these issues quite often and we became a better team because of it.” 

Still, the question of ‘what moments defined this past year?’ has not been an easy one to answer. The only thing we have been able to expect is the unexpected, and through PPP, team development, and everything in between, each step felt like something new was being learned.  

“With all the different things we went through, they all feel like defining moments,” said Peterson. “The realization that the pandemic was here and it wasn’t going be easy – that was a defining moment. The fact that our entire industry stepped up was a defining moment. The understanding that each step during the process was a brand new one – that made every single update a defining moment.” 

July 2 — Many States Reverse Plans to Reopen by July 4 

The Setbacks and Challenges 

The hope that people could gather to celebrate the Fourth of July was strung on for a while and then quickly cut as a possibility. The concern surrounding health and safety was a priority. Much like states were making these choices quickly and decisively, banks were forced to do the same.  

“We were making big decisions on a daily basis,” said Peterson. “This certainly wasn’t something we conquered on the first day. It took a few months to really understand it.” 

Having people work from home, whether it was only for the shutdown or continuing still, was one of many major decisions being handled differently at each bank. When July came around, this became more pressing as some businesses were returning to the office. Deciding when and how to bring employees back into branches was complicated for several reasons. 

“I think working from home was initially fine, but it became a different question for so many banks once their remote workforce had to be out of the office for longer than anyone expected,” said Hoffmann. “This was mostly about new technology, but it’s also about trying to be fair and establishing that process.” 

For example, customers still needed some form of access to the bank. With everyone dealing with various circumstances, this meant some employees would have to stay home to take care of their kids. Others experienced early symptoms of sickness and feared spreading anything to coworkers or customers. Meanwhile, some people were coming into work every day, and managing that flexibility became a new task.  

“It was all about trusting each other and knowing that we’re being as fair as we possibly can to everyone,” Hoffmann continued. “It’s been a challenge, but I believe we’ve been successful.” 

September 16, 2020 — Trump Administration Releases Vaccine Distribution Plan 

What Has Been Missed the Most 

In the moment a vaccine distribution plan was announced, it was not uncommon for people to take a step back from this new reality and realize how much has truly been absent in our lives. In the financial services industry, being a banker means being an active part in a community. This breaking news made many reminiscent on how prevalent the term ‘community’ is in banking. 

“Meeting with customers face-to-face is what I’ve missed the most,” Hoffmann said. “The interaction with employees, catching up with people in the hallways, and those side conversations are hard to do without.” 

It’s not surprising that this theme continues throughout. Rockwell noted that he hears too often that Hoffmann’s point is felt throughout the industry. After a year of the pandemic, it’s the little things that begin to feel especially distant. 

“As community bankers, we’re all about the people,” Rockwell agreed. “You'll probably hear over and over that we miss the handshakes and the interactions that you have with your customers and community members. You can’t even really see a smile right now.” 

Though there has been a successful transition toward making these encounters virtual to accommodate for social distancing, Peterson added it’s not quite the same as the feeling of being in person. 

“The inability to network and connect with everyone has been difficult,” said Peterson. “Whether it’s conferences or interactions with customers, that networking just went away overnight.” 

Peterson noted that while the instructional part of virtual conferences has been every bit as effective, it’s the after-hours part that has not been the same. He reminisced on going out to dinner with fellow bankers, talking shop, and strengthening those relationships. 

“The fellowship that’s so present at events like Bank Execs – it’s tough to replace that,” he said. 

January 11, 2021 – A New Round of PPP Loans Begins Distribution 

The Strengths of the Industry 

The process of PPP unknowingly tried to determine the best word to describe bankers, and it did so successfully. Whichever synonym you decide to use (and each banker managed to use their own) the notable strength of the industry during this constant change was the same: adaptability.   

“Banks were able to pivot very quickly in a lot of different ways,” Hoffmann said. “We pivoted with PPP loans and worked through different systems. We had to pivot to figure out what kind of loan modifications had to be done and how to do certain loan deferrals. We had to pivot to new technology that needed to be rolled out quickly, whether it was with working from home or e-signatures. I felt like we were really able to respond to the crisis well, and overall our industry was prepared for disaster and prepared to serve our customers.” 

“Flexibility. That is what community banks are built on,” said Rockwell. “Seeing what customers need and how you can play a role in that. Last year was one of those wild rides that you go on with something new at every turn. That flexibility not only helps your community, but it helps your staff. A lot of your staff are working, teaching, and being caretakers, all at the same time. You’re trying to help them navigate through that and get the job done.” 

“We were able to be nimble,” Peterson said. “I can say for the whole industry, customers have been saying that banks were great about transitioning to the virtual world.” 

March 12, 2021 – Every Wisconsinite 16 & Older is Eligible for Vaccination Starting May 1 

What’s Going To Stay? 

When Gov. Tony Evers announced that May 1 would be the day all Wisconsinites aged 16 and older could receive their first vaccination dose, the light at the end of the tunnel was growing brighter by the second. With the news that the list of those eligible to receive their first dose of the vaccine was growing significantly, many began to wonder what life would like after a return to normalcy. Through all this forced change, what implementations would stay as a result of a global pandemic? 

“The technology that we’ve adopted for integrating e-signatures, increased online loan applications, and everything else really pushed us to not only be more efficient for the future, but to provide a better customer experience as well,” Hoffmann said. “We’re also going to allow a hybrid work-from-home model that allows more flexibility. The pandemic has shown us that we are more than capable of doing work at home.” 

Rockwell agreed that the adoption of new technologies has been a significant part of growing his team’s growth and development. The biggest question they now have is to what extend these changes will take form in daily routines. 

“That’s the next thing we have to figure out,” said Rockwell. “When further implementing these changes, the key thing we have to wonder about is the culture. If you go all the way virtual in some cases, then that culture of socialization becomes rethought and reshaped as well. These are all things that we’ll continue to use moving forward, but the question is, at what level?” 

The internal factor of the technology shift has also been most notable for Peterson. Especially for larger groups and individuals who are regularly in and out of meetings, that ability to stay in one place rather than running back and forth is a positive outcome now that it’s a more feasible option. 

“Virtual meetings will definitely be something we continue to do for the board of directors and senior management, and all levels of the bank,” he said. “It’s such an efficient way to meet as a team.”  

March 13, 2021 – An Official Year in the Pandemic 

Moving Forward 

A lot has changed over the course of a year. Although it has been challenging, there has been noteworthy action taken to assure everyone survives this crisis. Bankers have especially noticed the amount of generosity that has helped so many during these difficult times. 

“People really stepped up,” said Peterson. “They wanted to help, whether it was a friend or their family or a customer or a coworker. That’s what made all the difference.” 

The financial support provided by banks especially helped so many struggling individuals keep moving forward, but as Rockwell put it, it was by no means the only thing banks offered.  

“All the community banks were a place of stability,” added Rockwell. “It was where your customers could go, whether through appointment or drive-thru, where they could manage financial affairs, get advice, and sometimes just talk to that familiar person you’ve come to know as your banker. Financial needs, modifying payment structures, PPP, EIDL; we’ve been there through it all, and that stability factor is the role banks truly played through this year and each one to come.”  

Despite all of the challenges, there is much to be grateful for, proud of, and optimistic toward. One of the most unexpected outcomes of the pandemic is it emphasized that the future of the industry is in excellent hands. 

“We had a large number of younger associates step up and take a leadership role through all of this,” said Hoffmann. “It was such an impressive thing to witness, and it reminded me how fortunate we are that the newer people in our organization are so qualified and ready to show leadership. It’s great to know our industry’s future is going to be bright with the vast amount of talent we have at our banks.”  

By, Alex Paniagua