As COVID-19 cases recede in Wisconsin and rules about mask-wearing ease, banks are working to restore a feeling of pre-pandemic normality in their offices and branches. But it’s hard to say exactly when – or if – banks will again operate as they did back in 2019.
Following updated guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many businesses have dropped requirements for face coverings by employees and customers. Wisconsin banks, while remaining respectful toward the concerns of everyone who enters their indoor space, are among them.
Effective vaccines appear to be significantly reducing the number of new cases of COVID-19, making bankers — and the nation — hopeful the tide has turned. In Wisconsin, the seven-day average of new confirmed cases dropped from a high of more than 6,500 per day in mid-November to about 225 by the end of May.
“I would like to think at some point we would go back to the carefree days that we used to know,” said Sonja Bjerkos, senior vice president and human resources manager for Citizens First Bank in Viroqua. “But honestly, with what everyone went through, I think there will always be a little more social distance in just the way we interact with our customers. We’ve all realized things can be changed in an instant.”
In mid-May, the CDC revised its COVID-19 guidelines to state that fully vaccinated people can go back to activities they did prior to the pandemic.
“You can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” the CDC stated.
A sampling of Wisconsin banks showed they are eager to see the unmasked smiles of customers and fellow employees again, but they are being careful, realizing there are divergent opinions about masks and COVID-19 itself.
After the CDC offered its latest guidance, Denmark State Bank declared masks no longer were necessary if people were fully vaccinated.
“Obviously we are still cautious with our customers who come in,” said Scot Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the 110-employee bank. “If they are wearing a mask, we are asking our employees to wear a mask in front of them because their safety is one of the things that we want to make sure we’re cautious of.”
Rochelle Mitchell, vice president and public relations officer at PremierBank in Fort Atkinson, said if a customer comes in wearing a mask, employees ask whether the customer would be more comfortable if the employee wore one, too.
“We do have about half of our staff still wearing them,” Mitchell said. “But it’s their choice, and we’re just really promoting respect.”
PremierBank also has about 110 employees.
Lindsay Spitzer, chief operations officer for Bluff View Bank, said her Galesville-based financial institution dropped its mask mandate for employees back on May 10, when more than 70% of the staff had been vaccinated. That was about a week before the new CDC guidance was issued.
“But we were sensitive to our customers, so if someone did come in wearing a mask, we would put one on,” Spitzer said. “But generally, when our customers would come in the door they would see we weren’t wearing them and they would ask, ‘Do I have to wear a mask?’ And our response was ‘it’s up to you.’ And they would generally take it off.”
Like many banks, however, Bluff View Bank still has its Plexiglas shields up in its teller lines. If a customer is sitting down with a banker to open an account or apply for a loan, the banker will ask whether the customer prefers the employee wore a mask during the meeting.
At Citizens First, the bank is following CDC guidelines, Bjerkos said.
“We still have our Plexiglas screen at the teller lines, and likely will for the foreseeable future, anyway,” she said.
She estimated about half of employees still are wearing masks at work.
“We are not asking an employee who is not wearing a mask, ‘Have you had both your shots?’ We are not the vaccination police,” Bjerkos said. “Likewise...if a customer comes in without a mask, that’s their right."
The pandemic has changed customer behavior overall, and that already is affecting how banks and their clients interact. The number of customers coming into bank lobbies has dropped not just because of COVID-19 safety rules, but because many more have started using digital channels to do their banking during the pandemic.
“It’s increased the adoption of digital services for sure,” said Mitchell.
Thompson estimated that the use of apps and other banking technology probably advanced by three to five years during the pandemic. Banks found that more people of all ages have adopted financial technology.
Remote work by employees has increased — perhaps permanently for some. Although it was prompted by social distancing efforts, remote work has opened employers’ eyes to the fact that staffers working from home and collaborating via Zoom can be productive. It also has widened the list of potential candidates for certain types of bank positions.
“We’ve been able to branch out throughout the United States to have people work for us who we probably didn’t think about before,” said Thompson. “So we’ve actually had a couple of our mortgage underwriters — one’s in Florida and one’s in Georgia — work for us. That has opened up the door for the talent pool.”
Banking attorney John T. Reichert said remote work is a big topic among bankers.
“Literally for the last two months I haven’t had a conversation with a banker where they don’t say, hey, we’re trying to figure this out and find the right balance,” said Reichert, a shareholder in the Banking and Finance Practice of the Milwaukee firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren.
Precisely when people will be completely untroubled being part of indoor crowds or working conditions again can’t be known, but Reichert said that with guidelines loosening, he doesn’t think it’s far off.
“Clearly the people who know what’s going on are comfortable or they would never have let this happen,” Reichert said. “There’s going to be all kinds of cultural easing into it.”
Denmark State Bank’s Thompson is hopeful but still cautious.
“I think the worst is behind, but there’s still going to be issues and concerns going forward,” he said.
Paul Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years. Have a story idea? Contact him at email@example.com.